I’ve been reading the debate in The Age about the proposed 2007 VCE English/ESL Study Design with much interest. Tony Thompson ("English Lite is a tragedy for students", The Age, 12th September, 2005) laments ‘dumbing down’ in the new Study Design. He also says he teaches in an ordinary suburban secondary college. I have a bit of insider knowledge here. Both my kids recently attended that ordinary college. I, too, teach in an ordinary suburban secondary college; a different one. Perhaps some colleges are more ordinary than others.
Thompson says “a few years ago, we pulled To Kill a Mockingbird from the year 10 reading list. The students have never stopped complaining and next year it is going back on.” Interesting. Personally, I loved To Kill a Mockingbird when I first read it in 1970. I’ve enjoyed teaching it over the years, too. The first time was back in 1979. The last time was in 2002. (Maybe if I’d applied the multimedia approach, as I did with Of Mice and Men, my year 10 kids might have enjoyed it more.) Unfortunately, many of them didn’t have the skills to read the text, so worthy classic or not, what’s the point if your kids can’t read it? (And there’s always the risk that the ‘well-meaning’ English teacher will read the whole thing aloud to the captive audience! One enterprising student carried a little pillow in his backpack so he at least knew he could sleep during this ‘well-meaning’ teacher’s English classes.)
We no longer booklist Mockingbird at our school. I’m unaware of any complaints from students or parents. No one has begged to return it to the booklist, not even the teachers. Nor do we force students to read Macbeth at Year 11. My focus is improving literacy. My aim is to booklist texts that most students are able to, and will want to read, even if they’re relatively ‘easy’ reads. (At year 10, we booklist Bernard Beckett’s Jolt. Worthy themes. Driving narrative. Most students and teachers love it.)
I don’t see the proposed English Study design as lacking intellectual rigour. If the course lacks rigour, that will probably be down to the people interpreting the course at school level. One can’t just rely on ‘doing’ a text each term, an issues SAC and the craft of writing then a bit of a run up to the exam with a few practice Writing Tasks and analytical text responses. One might have to be a bit more inventive. For me, the present Study Design has almost become a bit of a comfort zone. (I still remember all the freaking out that was happening when VCE was introduced in 1991. That was a fun year. The year of English as political football. I digress.)
Perhaps we should be encouraging those students more inclined to enjoy reading and analysing books to take English Lit Units 1 to 4.
I’m pleased the ‘old warhorse’ (Thompson's term) issues unit is still there. When I’m teaching issues, I tell my students that this is the most important part of the course. I accept that many of my students will never read another book after they leave school. (Of course I tell them they don’t know what they’re missing when they tell me they can’t understand how I could possibly enjoy reading.) But they will certainly be deluged by the media and they need to be able to recognise how easily they can be manipulated. (Outfoxed was a text we included in our Year 12 course this year. Worth watching.)
At present, we teach three VCAA listed texts at VCE, as do many schools. The other text is decided at school level. So, in 2007, we’ll teach two from the VCAA list, and no doubt, several others.
In my ordinary school, there’s no way I’d ever teach Hamlet at Year 12, even though I love it. It’s not about me.