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Reading Lessons by Carol Atherton review – breathing new life into old texts

Reading Lessons by Carol Atherton review – breathing new life into old texts

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the books you studied at school are the ones that stick with you for ever. In my case it was Pride and Prejudice, but for you it might have been Macbeth or Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses. These are the texts you know by heart because, once upon a time, you spent two years annotating them using different coloured pens and consigning chunks to memory.

But what broader, deeper kinds of learning might be available to teenagers studying English literature at school, asks Carol Atherton. For the past 25 years she has taught both GCSE and A-level in state secondary schools in Lincolnshire. Now, in a dozen carefully prepared “reading lessons”, she demonstrates how a generous and attentive teacher is able to wrestle meaning and relevance from old warhorses such as An Inspector Calls and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

It doesn’t always start off well for students. A discussion on Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess might even provoke a few barely stifled yawns. What possible contemporary resonance could there be in a Victorian poet’s retelling of the story of the 16th-century Duke of Ferrara, who turns his much younger wife into a pet, a captive and finally a murder victim? Yet with guidance from Atherton – “You can imagine him as the master gaslighter” – the classroom discussion turns to more familiar kinds of control. Perhaps someone’s dad won’t let their mum attend an evening class or a sister isn’t allowed to go out “dressed like that”. From here the conversation moves on to cyberstalking, and the sluggish atmosphere has turned positively electric.

Similarly, To Kill a Mockingbird is a way for Atherton to get her class to consider how economic inequalities intersect with racial prejudice. The labour practices of the 1930s American south resonate with present day conditions in which migrant workers from eastern Europe toil in the fields a few miles from the school, picking the potatoes, sugar beet and daffodils on which the local economy depends. What must it have felt like to these women and men in early summer 2016, Atherton wonders, when, sweating among the polytunnels, they looked up to see billboards exhorting citizens to Vote Leave? In the end a huge majority in the Fens decided that it wanted its foreigners gone.

At the beginning of her career, says Atherton, there would have been time to get pupils to do more than simply read the text and discuss it. She might have asked them to write the story of one of the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird – wrongly accused rapist Tom Robinson, perhaps, or Calpurnia the cook. Or they could have imagined themselves into the backstory of Magwitch in Great Expectations: what was it exactly that made the elderly convict obsessed with turning Pip the blacksmith’s boy into a “gentleman”? These days the curriculum doesn’t allow time for this sort of exploration: “All these interesting avenues to explore, and we have to stick to the main road, our eyes fixed straight ahead.”

Throughout Reading Lessons, Atherton weaves incidents from her own young life to explain why a career in teaching remains, for her, the highest good. From a northern working-class family, she got into Oxford and did PhD research on the development of English literature as an academic subject. All of which might make her seem overqualified for her present position. That, at least, is how it seems to her pupils who, heads full of which jobs pay best, ask wonderingly: “Miss, why are you just a teacher?”

The question is entirely reasonable coming from a generation that has been told that education is a purely transactional business. Atherton’s broader response is simply that nothing is more valuable than teaching a subject that encourages young minds to push beyond the confines created by the algorithms of social media, which is where her pupils live when they are not underlining bits of text in coloured Biro. Unlike any Stem subject, “doing English” requires young readers to enter imaginatively into the lives of others. And that, for “Miss”, remains the greatest transferable skill of all.

Source: theguardian.com