Magazine article NATE Classroom

'The Road Less Travelled'

Magazine article NATE Classroom

'The Road Less Travelled'

Article excerpt

DAVID COPPERFIELD

by Charles Dickens

First published in serial form 1849-1850

Key Stage 3/4 'Texts from the English literary heritage, including work by specified pre-20th-century writers'

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Within the curious world of Heritage-Theme-Park Britain, Dickens has a very special place. From star-studded BBC adaptations to local street festivals, from am-dram to West End musical, the bristling bustles and pixie-faced urchins are everywhere. And for those who like a nice family outing, there are four Dickens heritage attractions in places associated with the man--in London, Portsmouth, Broadstairs and Rochester --as well as 'Dickens World' in Chatham with its 'Great Expectations Boat Ride' with Magwitch and its 'Fagin's Den' children's soft play area. You think I'm kidding? Go google and weep ... But whilst the mugs and mini quill pen biros attest to his status as cultural icon, first hand experience with the range and variety of his novels is not something much supported in school English classrooms. Yes, Great Expectations is something of a classic for GCSE, A Christmas Carol gets a pretty regular outing and sometimes also Oliver Twist. Hard Times might get a look-in at A Level because it's quite short. But what about the poor neglected David Copperfield?

Why teach it?

Because this is a tale of nasty fathers, abuse at home and school, bullying, imprisonment, financial precariousness, bailiffs and pawnbrokers, being ripped off and attacked while sleeping rough, exploitation, child labour, disastrous love-at-first-sight, and also the redemptive power of simple kindness and unconditional love. It doesn't take a 'credit crunch' for these things to be meaningful to many of our young people, given appropriate contextualisation, but for the most vulnerable, being able to identify in fiction with a character who takes more than his fair share of life's punches, and still thrives, offers a glimmer of hope.

Because the characters are so memorable. Oh I know there 'isn't time' to spend 34 hours reading all 716 pages in class, but so much more's the pity. Time and time again, in reports and news articles and documentaries, we hear young people, and especially those at the bottom of the pile, talking of their dreary experience of testing and drilling. Why? The National Curriculum is daring you to give them Mr Micawber instead!

Because its language and style are challenging. That may sound counter-intuitive but we teach Shakespeare, so why not Dickens? Indeed, if students were given experience of a range of texts working back from the present time to the Elizabethan, it would not only help meet Key Stage 4 criterion 3.4.e about the development of English, but also better equip students for tackling the bard.

The 30-second guide

David Copperfield's father dies before he is born. He has a happy trip to Yarmouth to visit his nurse Peggotty's family--Mr Peggotty, his nephew Ham, and Ham's cousin Little Em'ly--after which he has to endure his mother's remarriage to the cruel Mr Murdstone, who drives his new wife to an early grave and Copperfield into a life of poverty and misery in London. Initially he is sent to school, where he is viciously bullied but makes friends with the flamboyant Steerforth and the solid Traddles. He is soon taken out of school and sent to work in a blacking factory, an experience only made tolerable by his friendship with the exuberant but bankrupt Mr Micawber and his family. When Micawber leaves the city, Copperfield is friendless and alone, so he tries his luck with his estranged and eccentric aunt in Dover. Cheated out of his last money, he has to walk to Dover, sleeping rough, starving and trying to avoid other vagrants. His aunt treats him with great kindness, sending him to school in Canterbury and providing him with lodgings with her solicitor Mr Wickfield and his daughter Agnes, and later, articles with Spenlow and Jenkins. …

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