In this recent post for TES, Cynthia Murphy reminded teachers (as if we needed reminding), that modern children’s literature is excellent. Children’s authors manage to intertwine a challenging level of language with a gripping story and a dose of social issues that mean most children can see themselves represented in a main character.And this is a wonderful, wonderful thing. In order to really engage with literature, children – and young adults – need to feel like it means something. Like most of us, if it has some connection to them, children feel like it means something.
Which makes me wonder why GCSE syllabuses now only focus on pre-twentieth century literature, and what we can do to make these stories as relevant as possible to the children we teach.
First of all, retellings will be your friend if you’re trying to bring Shakespeare or Dickens to life. But there is only so much you can offer with an alternative version of the text. Sooner or later, students have to engage with the original, verbose, unwieldy – and, to some, incomprehensible – text.
But many of the issues addressed in these texts are universal. Once you have read through the text with students – and I would advise fully reading it through, no matter how long it takes – you can use many exercises to bring the text back to the twenty-first century.
Students can write agony aunt letters as the abandoned Miss Havisham, tweet about their exploits as one of Fagan’s gang or move the workhouse to a modern day children’s home.
And once they understand what the characters are experiencing, they can empathise. Not the same as seeing yourself on the page, not at all as valuable, but a good place to start.