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http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/may/25/mockingbird-mice-and-men-axed-michael-gove-gcse

 

In the last week, 3 people have mentioned to me just how much they despise Michael Gove and what he is doing to education. Then this big furore erupted today. As usual, I think 'Thank heaven he has nothing to do with Scottish Education...' but then after a wee bit of thought we don't do much different up here. Scottish texts are favoured, a narrow selection of certain texts are habitually studied in secondary schools and this year, more than any other year, I sat with pupils doing exams looking for the question that best suited their chosen text explicitly and not considering others. Single text, single poem.

 

Time in the curriculum doesn't allow for a broader look or study at novels and poems. It doesn't allow for autonomy, for the pupils' choice.

 

It's a crying shame.

 

Is Gove actually saying 'let's look at other books?' Is he so wrong? Don't get me wrong, I think he's a tosspot but about this? I don't know.

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He's an intelligent man and I'm sure his choice of books will be good.

But for me the danger is politicians should not be deciding what children read.

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http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/may/25/mockingbird-mice-and-men-axed-michael-gove-gcse

  

Time in the curriculum doesn't allow for a broader look or study at novels and poems. It doesn't allow for autonomy, for the pupils' choice.

 

It's a crying shame.

 

Is Gove actually saying 'let's look at other books?' Is he so wrong? Don't get me wrong, I think he's a tosspot but about this? I don't know.

Sadly, as Hazel says, there really isn’t much time to include any wider reading. It has long been a balancing act to fit two (or sometimes three) GCSEs [English Language, English Literature (Media Studies) into the English timetable. Science departments have a similar problem, now that their disciplines are often taught together.

 

One way round this used to be that those pupils who found English difficult just took English Language, but Heads wanted more GCSEs so pushed departments to teach Media Studies instead of Literature. More recently the curriculum didn’t allow pupils to take just Language. If they dropped Literature they took a paper that was part Language and part Literature, so that all could experience reading and hopefully grow to like it. However it can take much longer to get through a book with some of these classes, for all sorts of reasons. Please don’t get me wrong, one doesn’t have to be in a top set to enjoy reading, but there are still pupils who find it difficult to get through a book and need help.

 

That’s where ‘Of Mice and Men’ came in useful. It was short enough to read but gave a great deal of wisdom to be teased out in those few pages. I have seen year after year of lower set pupils enthralled by it and thrilled when they worked out something new themselves. It may not have been new to us, although sometimes it was, because of using a different perspective. Its value per page was immense.

 

It is time for a change though and time to look at other books. It got to the point where examiners were so fed up of marking the similar essays that they were recommending that teachers chose another text. In a way this was sad, because it was new to the pupils and ideally they had their own ideas. Hopefully the marking didn’t reflect examiner boredom, but it did seem as if a fresh essay about a little used text might benefit pupils. That’s not as easy as it sounds though. There have been many recent changes and buying a few sets of new books takes money that has already been spent.

 

Most things Mr Gove does still try to recreate his own educational experience. He seems to forget that all pupils now take the same exams. It isn’t just the top few percent taking GCEs like it was in grammar schools. GCSEs need to be accessible to all abilities and I just hope he is not going to dictate, some unrealistic tomes for all. That will do more harm than good.

 

But for me the danger is politicians should not be deciding what children read.

Yes, we know who did that and where it can lead.

My mother was a child in Nazi Germany and my grandmother refused to let her children go to school. This was no easy decision with arrests and disappearances all around, but, schools had to stick to a curriculum of indoctrination that concentrated on Germany’s glory and taught lies about other cultures - Jews, Christians, Communists. My grandmother was none of these, but she knew it was all lies! Many didn't see the situation coming and most of those who did were silenced.

 

My mother’s teacher used to teach her lesson, then say, ‘This is what I am told to teach you, but there is another way of looking at it.’ A small rebellion, but all she could do if she was to carry on influencing children . . . or even living. Mum always hoped that it had kept some young minds open.

 

I agree with you Clavain. History should have taught us. I don’t trust any politician dabbling in the curriculum and experience, so far, is that Mr Gove has ignored educationalists’ views.

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I agree with you Clavain. History should have taught us. I don’t trust any politician dabbling in the curriculum and experience, so far, is that Mr Gove has ignored educationalists’ views.

 

Angel, your grandmother and that teacher were admirably brave. It is not just in UK that politicians are dabbling in the curriculum, there is a biased school curriculum review happening here as well.

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To a great extent, I share Mr Gove’s frustration that kids are not reading widely enough. It seems ridiculous that you can get a GCSE in English Literature based on a year’s reading of two novels, two plays and a handful of poems (at least, that was the requirement when I did O Levels). I think my A Level, studied over two years, didn’t impose anything much more onerous apart from a chapter of Chaucer. Oh how we bleated about Grapes Of Wrath because it was so long.

 

I sat the special paper for the Literature A Level (I failed – to date the only exam I have ever failed) because I couldn’t believe my teachers’ advice that I should read more widely than the syllabus. In the event, I did read some extra Shakespeare plays but I don’t recall reading any extra novels or poetry.

 

Having lived in the Celtic fringes and now Australia, I do think that pupils should read some local material. I think this would help show kids that literature can be immediately relevant rather than only relating to ancient people attending hunt balls in cravats and top hats. At the same time, kids need to read classics that have universal human messages and show that people were not far different from us, despite living in different times and places. However, if you are only going to read two novels, you don’t have a lot of scope to cover all the bases.    

 

I do think it is a waste of everyone’s time to study books that are entirely issue based when the writing is leaden (Destroying Avalon, I mean you…). Literature is first and foremost about language, secondarily about people and issues should come a distant third. That doesn’t mean you can’t throw in a couple of YA, issues led books if you are including a program of background reading. Gove’s 50 books a year is optimistic, but I would have thought at least 20 would be manageable and desirable. This would let kids compare as well as just analyse/explain. It would let kids study local or recent works alongside older and foreign, material. Not all these books would be studied in depth, but there should be an assumption that they have all been read.

 

Incidentally, I don’t think pollies should be dictating the details of a curriculum but I do think that they – and the communities they represent – should have some say in the general direction they follow. The focus should be on what should be included rather than on what should be excluded and care should be taken that the direction does not include so much that there is no room for discretion. In that way, education would be something we all feel part of rather than something that is “done to us and our kids”.

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One way round this used to be that those pupils who found English difficult just took English Language, but Heads wanted more GCSEs so pushed departments to teach Media Studies instead of Literature.

That was me. I was lucky and only had to study English Language.

 

One the matter of Gove's views. Well, he might have a point. The narrow selection of work that has been studied for the last 30 years needed changing. But not necessarily for the reason's given. American literature of the mid 20th Century might offer better works (for study) than British literature. There are however other periods that could and should be studied. I would think that late 20th Century literature should have a higher prominence. If we accept that literature shouldn't be studied in isolation and that the student needs to be aware of the climate (political, social, cultural, economic) in which the work was written; then the works need to be of interest and relevance to the audience.

 

Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Death of a Salesman, etc. don't have the relevance that they once had.

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It's difficult though because while I in part agree with what Gove has said, I just don't see it working. Dickens? Austen? They certainly don't or won't engage pupils in the way that Of Mice and Men does. I have seen boys well up at that in a way that no other book studied at school has. Can we really see boys engaging with Austen? We have to look at books that pupils will want to study. Wanting to is half the battle. I recently scribed for a boy for his Higher English and he picked essays on a book (Death of a Salesman) and a poem (Blackberry Picking by Heaney) that he had done essays about in his Standard Grade and his Higher Prelim - how on earth is that an education?!

 

However the problem with autonomy, say letting your pupils have the pick of 5 books on the theme of loss/betrayal/lve/American dream/ etc and leaving it to them to read and answer an essay question...is that if they don't do their reading, they are screwed. And teachers and schools don't get the attainment figures. But that surely is a true reflection of the pupil's efforts rather than the teacher doing 80% of the work and pushing a kid through an exam.

 

I feel I am waffling now. I have this ideal of kids learning, gaining knowledge, and not just reading to get through an exam. I do agree with tag though - what's wrong with more contemporary, 'cool' books entering the curriculum?

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I also despair at the idea of anyone making me teach Austen or Hardy to my kids.

 

What is so sacred about the 19thC novel, anyway? It was written for a narrow audience of "gentlefolk" and largely reflected their concerns and perspectives. Readers should discover it in their own time. Reading at school should be about engaging kids in stuff that they can relate to. That doesn't mean reading books about teenagers and "issues" - kids get Of Mice And Men, or The Crucible. Which are hardly contemporary.

 

Unfortunately, though, it's often about getting them through an exam, or getting by with whatever is left in the stock cupboard. Oh for a better budget!

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I also despair at the idea of anyone making me teach Austen or Hardy to my kids.

 

Then if you must teach them 19th century novels, teach them Uncle Silas. They will love you for ever. 

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Then if you must teach them 19th century novels, teach them Uncle Silas. They will love you for ever.

 

Well, I love Uncle Silas. But I reserve judgement on whether my 4th yr bears would share the love.

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Another example today. I scribed for a boy for the Higher Geography. In paper 2 he had 6 complex questions and had to choose 2 to answer. I began to read Q1 and he stopped me and said "I've to do questions 1 and 6". I said "But I haven't read them all yet, how do you know?" He replied "My teacher said I've to do 1 and 6."

 

I went and asked his teacher and his faculty head and they both said "We always tell them to do 1 and 6 - it's the same type of question each year and we teach those particular topics fully."

 

Education?

 

Ironically, the boy in S6, this was his last exam and he said to me "I hated school...it's just a big test of memory."

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I can't comment on Higher Geography, but isn't it possible that qus 1 and 6 covered the only two topics they had time to teach? I remember Higher History, in my day, covering lots of topics, only a few of which you would actually have done.

 

I agree about exams, though. I was lucky enough to be involved in the design process for our new English qualification. At the start, we honestly had lots of blue sky thinking about how to measure a pupil's English skills - but we have ended up with an exam and a folio, barely different to what went before (except for an element designed to get round the political interference that insisted each pupil is examined on a Scottish text.)

There was a healthy debate on the subject in my senior class this year, led by a very articulate and knowledgeable (and lazy) young man who is terrible in exams, partly because of nerves as well as not bothering to learn lots of stuff. We decided that exams tell kids that the most important things in life are being quiet for long periods and writing fast.

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As far as I can tell, Gove must have hated school so much that he wants to impose his misery on everybody else. Either that, or in his eyes the perfect year to be at school was 1954.

 

His approach seems to be not let's consider teaching other books, but let's teach books from a smaller selection. I fundamentally disagree, the English novel is but a small part of the rich tapestry of literature. 

 

I have in my time been a student of American literature, so I think it is a great shame that the Education Secretary is recommending removing 20th century American literature in favour of the kind of Victorian (or earlier) book that the teenage Grammath found either intimidating, boring or both. To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men show the value of justice and respect, among their many other qualities, so dropping them from the school syllabus would be a great shame, although I don't doubt it gets tiresome to teach them year after year.  

 

Good books, worthy of study, should be universal, it shouldn't matter where they originated from. Indeed, overseas writing should be core to the curriculum, opening up students' eyes to our globalized world, rather than the parochial viewpoint Mr Gove espouses.    

 

I number Japanese, Israeli and South African writers among my very favourites, and a brief scan of my shelves reveals Chilean, Colombian, Canadian and Chinese writers, and that just the C's.

 

I see this as a politically motivated policy pandering to those Little Englander voters the Tories fear are deserting them for them for UKIP, nothing more, nothing less. Remember, politicians don't necessarily make the right decisions, they make the ones most likely to ensure them re-election.  

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I was very moved by something a teacher friend of mine posted on her Facebook page, writing about Of Mice and Men:

 

One of my favourite groups could only manage to get through it if I read aloud and they followed the text. Sylvia was one of the few girls in this group, and she sat at the front and used a ruler to follow the lines. When we reached the dramatic death of Curley's wife, Sylvia stopped following and fixed her eyes on my face in horror. As I read the bit about flopping like a fish Sylvia said, Shit! Then she blinked her huge eyes at me and said, "Sorry Miss, I thought it was the television. "

I rest my case.

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I was very moved by something a teacher friend of mine posted on her Facebook page, writing about Of Mice and Men:

 

One of my favourite groups could only manage to get through it if I read aloud and they followed the text. Sylvia was one of the few girls in this group, and she sat at the front and used a ruler to follow the lines. When we reached the dramatic death of Curley's wife, Sylvia stopped following and fixed her eyes on my face in horror. As I read the bit about flopping like a fish Sylvia said, Shit! Then she blinked her huge eyes at me and said, "Sorry Miss, I thought it was the television. "

I rest my case.

 

That gave me goosebumps, brightphoebus.  Very powerful. Stunning image.

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Bp, that was brilliant.

I love teaching OMAM, because of how kids of all abilities respond to it. I never get tired of it.

 

Here in Scotland, our curriculum is being further narrowed by the insistance that kids are examined on a Scottish text. In addition, there is a cross-curricular award in Scottish Studies which could mean that virtually all the reading done will be in a "Scottish context" in order to get this extra award, which schools want to boost their statistics. All this just when kids are ready for texts which are about more than the narrow and the parochial.

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