Remembering the unmemorable
During Subject Studies this week we have been encouraged to consider ‘what do you remember most about English lessons at school?’ As I ask myself this question, my fingers are poised in anticipation. I am staring thoughtfully into my past. My eyes blink willingly at the computer screen whilst I wait for enlightenment. But as I struggle to summon any distinct memories of English at school, I am brought to a disappointing conclusion: the way I was taught English at school was distinctly unmemorable. I love English, but I don’t accredit much of this love to my experience of English at school, particularly during my forgettable lower school years.
I used to groan at the thought of text analysis. Exciting, meaningful texts were lumped together into mass produced anthologies. Annotations were dictated to pupils and revised repeatedly until an exam came along. These exams were simple exercises in regurgitating annotations which had been taught to us as ‘correct’ interpretations. For the most part, creativity was only allowed in controlled doses. Sometimes, the most sophisticated task I was required to perform during Key Stage Three English lessons was deciding which colour highlighter I would be using to drearily copy the teacher’s tedious annotations into my anthology.
During my lower school years, suggesting alternative ideas or interpretations was something of a taboo, an underground activity which was only safe to do at home with the doors locked and the curtains shut. An exaggeration perhaps, but I find it makes me sound like more of a rebel when, in fact, I was just a bit of a geek.
It seemed that independent thought was strictly forbidden in English lessons until I finally reached Sixth Form. School felt a bit like a game in which you were required to work your way up the Key Stages, unlocking privileges as you went along; the ultimate being freedom to think for yourself. But Sixth Form was an exciting place where school uniform policies were a thing of the past and you were allowed to have actual meaningful discussions in English classes. This is where my experience of English was vastly improved and I felt more supported by my teachers.
One of my biggest teaching inspirations came not from school, but instead from the film Dead Poets Society. I am not ashamed to say that Robin Williams (or rather, the fictional English teacher Mr. Keating) had a profound effect on my desire to learn English. I wanted to be a member of The Dead Poets Society. I wanted a new perspective. I wanted to stand on tables and read literature in caves at midnight. There’s the geek getting involved again...
However, English at school was not all doom and gloom. I have one very vivid memory of the day I came across Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’, and, yes, I found it in one of those anthologies I seem to have such an aversion to. Since that fateful day, Frost’s poem has been something of a personal motto. It has affected my approach to learning, teaching and life. All grumblings aside, with regards to my experience of English at school, it is true that ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I- / I took the one less travelled by, / And that has made all the difference’.
On reflection, I need to moan less about my experience of English at school and turn my grumblings into a resolve to be better and do better. I want to be Mr. Keating (but perhaps without the sex change). It is not acceptable to provide pupils with a shoddy impression of a subject like English. Why? Because it is literature, it is language, it is heritage, it is culture, it is meaning, it is expression, it is empathy, it is creativity, it is writers, it is readers, it is speakers, it is listeners, it is communication, it is important, it is an entitlement.
For me, it is a RESPONSIBILITY.