The new National Curriculum for English is now under way and in the furnace of classroom practice there will be much hammering out of the shape English teachers think creativity, multimodality and the like should take. Although we still have a top-down curriculum, and although the National Curriculum orders still fall short of some ideals, and we have yet to see how the GCSE awarding bodies will interpret them, there is at least the prospect of an environment in which more interesting work in English might flourish.
To my mind, there are three particular areas of interest. First, there is the attention to creativity, at richer levels of specification than before. There is explicit reference to working with multimodal texts and although the sacred cow of English literature is inoculated from this, in practice most teachers routinely use some multimodal representations anyway--Luhrman or Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, say. There is also a heightened regard for speaking and listening, and in this I would agree with Joy Alexander's recent argument (Alexander 2008) that 'speakin'n'listnin' needs uncoupling as a curriculum entity, aesthetic listening valued, and the pedagogic case understood for re-coupling speaking with writing, and listening with reading. Given longstanding anxiety about teaching poetry, and the timely availability of the Poetry Archive's (free) creative, multimodal, aesthetic listening resource, this piece considers how pedagogic design might work with these dynamics.
The other perspective I want to bring to bear comes from Ben Rampton's ethnographic study of Key Stage 3 pupils in a working class London school (Rampton 2006). In this, pupils frequently brought song into classroom talk, including the all-too-recognisable example of Hanif bursting into a Bee Gees falsetto when another pupil wonders what might have happened had Romeo and Juliet stayed alive. Rampton contrasts the pupils' experience of 'expressively depleted' classroom talk with the semiotic richness of song, with its scope for interpretative freedom, youth-determined authority of judgement, personal significance, and varied modes of participation, including just listening (Rampton, 2006:120-1). The pedagogic design outlined below is thinking about expressive repletion.
Using the Poetry Archive: Teaching 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'
The Poetry Archive is keen that its recordings should be used in schools, and to that end it has commissioned teachers to produce classroom resources, including lesson plans on individual poems and more extended "resource bank" units. These are available in the 'For Teachers' section of the website. Invited to write some extended resources, I experimented with pedagogic design to see how far a multimodal approach to a literary text could extend beyond just the typewritten text with audio overlay, and into the kinds of semiotic richness students (and teachers) might find more engaging.
What follows is a discussion of the Poetry Archive's 'resource bank' item called 'Related or Contrasting Texts'. This can be downloaded from the site. (It will soon be reframed in relation to the new framework objectives). It aims to develop a textured, historically contextualised understanding of Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. This understanding is developed by working with several related texts and images from the time, in facsimile, multimodal and traditional forms. It uses an astonishing recording from the Poetry Archive website Tennyson's voice captured with early wax cylinder recording technology--and additional supporting notes available there.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori
The sequence starts with this image of the Crimean war, from the collection of Crimean War material available at http:/ / lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/pphome.html. (Enter 'The Fall of Sebastopol' in the search box on that page, which will take you straight to the image. …