An English curriculum that matters

One of the most common complaints about English from senior school students is that even though it’s compulsory (in Victoria), it doesn’t matter. Now, as an English teacher of over a decade, my knee-jerk reaction is of course it matters! English is the lifeblood of our society! It’s the most important skillset you could ever need! Insert stock English teacher response here!

But it’s important to review that knee-jerk and see it from the student’s perspective. Here in Victoria, English is compulsory right through to Year 12. Students completing the VCE must choose one of the English options, and those who undertake a VCAL course must complete Literacy. That’s all well and good, and I personally believe that a compulsory English curriculum does prepare students for life with important skills. Yet for many students, the way we deliver that compulsory course just doesn’t matter to them.

I’ve worked with many schools where the default mode of delivery for an English curriculum is to teach texts. The curriculum centres on this-or-that book; often novels chosen for their literary merit (or because they’re part of the proscribed text list). Certainly, the texts chosen by teachers, or set by the VCAA, have their merits. But should the English curriculum be designed around them? I think the answer is no.

Nor should a curriculum be designed around the supposed endpoint of the Year 12 examination. Many schools spend an inordinate amount of time preparing students for the VCE exam, when in reality the job is to prepare students for life. Education isn’t about some distant goal – something to be worked towards, achieved, and then discarded as soon as “real life” kicks in. Every moment of a student’s education should be relevant: every moment matters. Part of the anxiety around designing a relevant curriculum is that it means neglecting classics or more complex texts in favour of real-world application or texts which are labelled as “accessible”. But you can have it both ways: relevance and rigour.

For the past few years, I’ve focused on developing curriculum which doesn’t just “tick the boxes” of teaching English. We’ve removed arbitrary writing tasks, killed off TEEL, and replaced irrelevant novels with thematic and issues-based units that have meaning for the students. And it doesn’t suddenly stop when those students hit Year 11 and 12. For those who continue into VCE the methods we use in Years 7-10 still apply. We teach through a love of reading, an understanding of the place of English in the real world, and a desire for our students to engage and get excited.

The process of switching over from chalk-and-talk and death by comprehension has been slow, especially at the top-end where set texts can quickly devolve into a collection of key quotes and important exam themes. To illustrate the impact though, I’ll end on a story from our own Year 12 cohort.

Frankenstein’s creation, brought back to life

In 2017, we first introduced our Year 12 students to Frankenstein; a profound and worthwhile novel, but sometimes as enjoyable to teach as having your liver pecked out every night (and if you understand that reference, you’ve probably struggled through teaching the novel too). We taught it, as we were accustomed, through a collection of study guides, key quotes, themes, issues, and ideas. Essentially, we told the students what to think, not how. The essays they wrote were predictable, confused, and – through no fault of the students – shallow.

Fast forward 12 months, and we had started the shift towards a curriculum taught through skills, close reading, and a student-centred approach to English. Out on yard duty one day I heard yelling break out near the Year 12 study hall. Thinking I’d have to break something up, I walked over, only to hear what the yelling was about: Who was the real monster? Victor, or his creation? It was the first time in over a decade of teaching that I heard students arguing passionately outside of the classroom, and it proved that our changes were making a difference.

Introducing an English curriculum that really matters to students doesn’t mean modernising everything or gearing the curriculum around students’ day-to-day lives. There is a place for the classics, just as there is a place for critical media literacy, employable skills, and students’ own passions. The skills we use to teach Frankenstein are the same for Pride and Prejudice, or His Dark Materials, or an elective genre study in dystopia. The important thing is that when you create an English curriculum that matters to students, they invest themselves in the subject, and everyone wins.

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