English teachers are a resilient lot. Firstly, we face infinite reams of marking with (very little!) complaint. Secondly, we face being subjected to the occasional outburst of 'Why? What's the point?' when discussing the finer aspects of Shakespeare's sonnets or Jane Austen's irony and wit. The problem is that not all pupils can make the link between English and the wider world. For them English is isolated, peopled in their eyes by floaty skirt and shirt wearers who are never happier than when they have ink stains on their fingers and Beethoven's Fifth playing in the background. Take for example the conversation I had with one of my Year 11 pupils a year or * so ago. We had been reading Wordsworth's poem Daffodils, one of my personal favourites. We had discussed nature's effect on humanity and I was secretly priding myself on my pertinent commentary and enthusiastic reading of stanza four in particular. Oh how easily I was brought down to earth with a bump by the aforementioned pupil!
'How can a man be so excited by a bunch of daffodils?'
'Well it's more than a bunch isn't it? And don't you think it's wonderful to be so moved by nature? After all nature is free and accessible to everyone.'
'Yeah well I think he's weird. And this isn't really useful is it? Shouldn't we be learning about how to write letters or something?'
Considered in isolation, English and the study of literature in particular can be judged as irrelevant by the 2010 student, surrounded as they are by iPods, iPhones, laptops and 3D cinema. They fail to see the relevance of studying the words of a writer living hundreds of years ago when they can gain far more instant gratification from the internet for example, or from playing and watching the sport that for so many defines them as teenagers. This is exactly why, over the past year or so, our English department has tried to reinforce the relevance of English by taking it out of isolation and linking it in particular with those subjects that have what the pupils describe as 'pulling power'. Put more precisely, many of our pupils feel more relaxed when on a rugby pitch or with a paintbrush in their hand. In order for them to enjoy English more therefore, we felt it was important for them to see the link between English and other subjects.
Rugby fans reading books
Our initiative began with Scott Quinnell and for those who remain uninitiated into the world of Welsh rugby, Scott is a past Welsh captain and scorer of many tries. He has fought a well publicized battle with dyslexia and fortunately it is a battle he has won. There were two reasons why Scott's visit was important. Firstly, it would be wonderful for the pupils to be talked to by a bona fide sports star who could also wax lyrical about the delights of literature. Secondly, Scott could become a living link between English and the PE department, giving the pupils the opportunity to see that such diverse subjects are not completely independent of each other. Needless to say his visit was highly successful. He presented all the pupils with a signed copy of his book The Hardest Test and spoke movingly about the challenges he faced learning to read as an adult and the way his life has been enriched by his new found love of literature.
However, it is the legacy Scott's visit has left that remains the most important aspect of his visit. It does an English teacher's heart proud to see the six-foot Head of PE stopping pupils in the corridor and asking them what book they are reading and recommending his own to them. You see Scott had admitted that learning to read was a far greater achievement than anything he had done on the rugby pitch. One English teacher told me;
'Scott's visit was a real blessing. I used it as a tool to turn around the culture of a difficult group of Year 9 boys. …