Monday, 21 May 2012

Putting pen to paper...

With Ollie's legacy still in the back of my mind I decided that now (the first sunny-ish day of my post-degree life) is as good a time as any to start tackling my first assignment for my PGCE. Despite my pre-course booklet's best efforts, I can't help but feel a little intimidated by an assignment entitled ‘What contribution does English make to the education of young people?’. How do you even begin to answer a question like that? The rather large part of me that would rather be sat in the garden sipping a gin was tempted to scrawl It shows kids how to read and write and stuff and to simply leave it there. Despite this being accurate in its own way, it certainly isn't the impression I want to make in my first venture into the world of educational academia. So I sat for a while with a notepad and a hobnob and these are the answers I came up with...

Firstly, what were my own experiences of English at school? Did I observe a particular phenomenon or process that gave me an angle from which to approach this essay? Well, kind of. There's no doubt that my experience of English at school is what inspired me to become a teacher, all three of my A-level English and Media teachers were incredible at firstly making the subject bearable, then making it interesting, and finally making it inspirational. But what was it they were actually teaching me whilst all this bearably, interestingly, inspirationally stuff was going on? Yes I was learning how to read and write more effectively, but I'm now realising that it was in fact so much more than that. English as a subject trains you in the art of thought. The processes that students undertake in order to complete their GCSEs and A-levels are designed to stretch their capacity to consider facts and opinions in relation to context, and to explore perspectives and intentions of people from different times and places, but also those closer to home, and to reflect upon the impact we as people have on the world around us. That is, for me, the essence of English as a subject. It is an opportunity to become a skilled thinker, one who has an informed perspective on the world, alongside the tools with which to comment on it. 

Secondly, what had I observed from the other side of the desk? How have my voluntary experiences in schools informed my knowledge of what English as a subject is trying to do? I think the biggest contribution this question can make to my essay is that the impact of English is dramatically limited by the frameworks of examining bodies and and the pressures of 'targets' and 'residuals'. Although I'll be the first to acknowledge the importance of data when it comes to planning and implementing schemes of work, I do feel that schools are under an enormous pressure to tick boxes and to be seen to be doing the right thing. It will be so disappointing to come up with an amazing idea for a lesson or for a particular topic, only to find I haven't the time nor resources to make it happen in light of the intense schemes of work schools now have to plough through. Good schools are schools that reflect and build upon their success with innovative approaches to teaching and learning, however one of my concerns is that in order to be seen as innovative, I may find myself losing sight of the aforementioned essence of English in order to pursue the structural touchstones of modern education. This is, of course, a view I hope to change in the coming weeks and months. I would never suggest that T & L should be anything other than forward-thinking and cutting-edge, but I am as yet unconvinced that wee baby-teachers such as myself will have time to establish my own style and perspective on teaching English before the pressures of exams and controlled assessments move in to stifle my creativity. Therefore I would suggest that despite the potential for English's contribution to education to be huge, it will inevitably be measured by whether students merely meet their targets, or are inspired to push themselves further.

I then began to think about some of the controversies that sit within the study of English at both school and in everyday life. I feel that at this exact moment in time, the attitudes to towards English are somewhere near where they should be, bang in the middle of an immense pendulum swing that has dictated attitudes to language for the last few decades. We're all familiar with the Pathe newsreels from 60 years ago that feature the purest variety of standard British English, Received Pronunciation. We are also familiar with our friend from the north who, for the last ten years has narrated the channel four series of Big Brother. These diametrically opposed varieties of English highlight just how dramatically our attitudes to language have changed in the last 60 years, and I believe that we are now in a better position that ever before to observe language objectively and critically. For me, the contribution of English to the education of young people should be to create an environment in which they can form their own ideas about what is or is not the correct language to use and to see how they, as the younger generation (I feel VERY old now), choose to utilise language to create particular effects. Our role as teachers has to be to facilitate this linguistic independence, and not to prescribe what is correct or incorrect, but to shape and guide our students in the formulation of their own ideas and reward the flair and insight they will undoubtedly bring to the table.

I do of course have a long way to go before I can safely say I've cracked what contribution English makes to the education of young people. I am however now confident in approaching this most basic of questions with my eyes on both the practical and theoretical foundations of English education. I will also utilise my carefully concealed third and fourth eyes (currently sprouting from the back of my head, a vital tool when writing on the board) to reflect upon my experiences so far, and to develop my perspective as clearly as I am able, but with an open enough mind to change it as my PGCE progresses.

AND I have a gazillion books to read. Someone bring me the gin!

Mr James

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