Our guest walked down the aircraft steps onto the tarmac and was greeted by a small band and a few dancers dressed in traditional costume.  I wondered if I should tell him that we hadn’t arranged the reception and that it wasn't for him. I mumbled an explanation, but I don't think I was heard.

A little later, our guest, the writer Romesh Gunesekera, was welcomed again, but this time it was personal. He was sat down in a small theatre, then the lights were dimmed and a group of 15 and 16 year old students performed a play they had written, based on his short story, 'Carapace'.  I was expecting this, but Romesh wasn't and I detected a tear in the authorial eye as he sat, spellbound. I was impressed by the technical skills of the students in converting the play from the original story, which was largely a dreamy monologue in the first person, to a swift moving, three dimensional sequence that captured, beautifully, the indecision of the tale's narrator.  This had been the students' idea alone, and they had written it, rehearsed it and performed it without any interference from the teacher.  The word 'interference' was the teacher’s description.  When the short play ended, Romesh was able to discuss the performance with the young actors, who were starry eyes, but articulate. It was a very intense half an hour.

Later, Romesh visited the school down the hill. Anyone who knows Funchal, the capital of Madeira, will know that the city is built vertically on muscle-straining hills and it is always advisable to have your second appointment downhill from the first.  Downhill it might have been geographically but not in any other sense.  The students had been studying a wide range of Romesh’s output, including working on a theatrical adaptation of his novel, ‘Heaven’s Edge’.  The whole school had been involved in one way or another, not just those in English department. Romesh had been adopted as the 'Author of the Year', part of a tradition going back some twenty years, though Romesh was the second living author to be nominated and was the first author to visit the school.  Charles Dickens, for example, had been unavailable. 'Heaven's Edge ' deals with "a spoiled paradise" and is clearly modelled on Romesh's native Sri Lanka, extended to a dystopian future with tragic consequences.  It was the Sri Lanka of the present that enthralled the school, and teachers of art, music, history, geography, philosophy, Portuguese and English all became involved.  The school had immersed itself in what it could of Sri Lankan culture, and Romesh's vivid descriptions of the lush landscape were the inspiration for paintings which formed an impressive exhibition.  Concerts of Sri Lankan music were heard, Sri Lankan food prepared and eaten (Romesh describes food in his work with mouth watering results) and students studied references to the Portuguese as the first Europeans to land on Sri Lanka – as mentioned in the epic poem, 'Os Lusiadas' by the 16th century Portuguese poet, Luís Camões.

To say that Romesh was impressed by his visit to Madeira would be an understatement.  As soon as he arrived back home in London he started to explore for himself the connection between Portugal and Sri Lanka.  To his surprise he found a direct link between Funchal and Sri Lanka and managed to trace a number of seventeenth century cultural influences which can still be seen to this day.  As a result of his research, and spurred on by the memory of his inspirational visit to the schools, Romesh wrote a series of new short stories, tracing the real life adventures of a 17th century sea captain who retired to Funchal following his trips to the Spice Islands.  These stories were published in a bilingual edition, called 'The Spice Collector', to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the city of Funchal.

So what had brought about this extraordinary burst of activity and energy from teachers, students and author?  Let's look first at the school down the hill.  What could possibly have galvanised the teachers into embarking on such a remarkable and exhausting programme of work that was clearly far and beyond the normal demands of a school curriculum?

The answer was even more surprising:  it had been simply business as usual; a continuation of work that the school had been involved in year after year. In earlier years the school entrance had been turned into a giant space ship for the year when Sci Fi writer Ray Bradbury had been author of the year, and into a giant rabbit hole for Lewis Carol’s year, a dark place where students could dream their own wonderlands.  The maths department had been involved in the Lewis Carol year, of course, and science, in the form of alchemy, had featured for Geoffrey Chaucer.  And so the list goes on.

I asked how many students got involved in the project over the course of a year and the two organising teachers looked a little puzzled and then I realised the question should have been how many students at the school didn’t get involved.  I then came across evidence that the activities involved parents and other members of the local community, including ex-students and ex-teachers.  It was at this point I sighed, “I wish I’d been to a school like this,”  and both teachers nodded in agreement.  But the degree of motivation that had led to all this also led to a difficult question:

“What about the syllabus?”

The Head of Department flashed me a knowing look.
“It gets the attention it deserves,” says she. “All the requirements are met.”  It was quite clear that the syllabus was treated not exactly as an unwelcome intruder but rather like a rather tiresome elderly aunt who has to be placated and comforted while the family’s real life goes on regardless.

The amount of work involved in such a broadminded and holistic approach to teaching is daunting to anyone who sees teaching merely as job of work.  I pushed the two dynamos behind so much of the school's success on this point, trying to find places where support hadn’t been given, searching for cracks in the scheme of things, and I was told in a very matter-of-fact voice that “There are, and always will be, two kinds of teachers.”  The point was not elaborated.  It didn’t need to be.  Teaching should be seen as a vocation, not just a job, was what they were saying.

Back up the hill we had witnessed other examples of vocational teachers. In terms of class management what seemed to have happened here was a classic case of what we might refer to as non-linear teaching or, to be more precise, non-linear learning.  The opportunity had arisen to respond to a series of apparently casual circumstances – the introduction of a new story set in a new culture; the challenge of the language itself as well as the cultural overtones; the advent of the author visiting and the decision by both students and teachers that they would not be merely passive recipients for this event, but active participants, exchanging, rather than just receiving ideas. Here was an almost perfect example of the interaction of language acting as both catalyst and means of communication between teacher and students.  While the dramatic offering at the school down the hill might have been grander in scale and more daring in scope, what had happened at the school up the hill was more intensely driven by the students, more personal – and more ‘owned’: the students' sense of value of the project was enhanced by the manner of their participation.  In both schools this sense of ownership and partnership was what made the efforts stand out though the ways in which this energy was released were significantly different.  While the tremendous work done at the school down the hill took a vast commitment of time and resources – albeit time and resources that were available to every school in the country – the impressive offering from the school up the hill was available through the work of a few short weeks, using snatched hours and stolen moments. Naturally this meant that a considerable amount of work was done outside of regular class time; which brings us back to our vocational teachers.

The point of this story is simply one of hope.  Wonderful work is being done in schools all the time, young minds energised into sometimes extraordinary amounts of creativity.  At the same time it reminds us of the dark, ominous shadow that falls over educational establishments for far too much of the time: rigid timetables and the demands of exams.  At the two schools mentioned above, teaching had been reduced so that learning could take place; that's positive news.

By Fitch O'Connell

Find out more about BritLit, including work by Romesh Gunesekera.



Two schools, actually!  My point is that it - potentially - these could be any schools and that it is all to do with attitude, not resources.  Creative teachers make creative classrooms and encourage creative students.

In case you didn't receive my last message. I think the ideas are great here, but don't you think that one way of overcoming the split btween the demands of exams, and syllabi and the creative impulse associated with good literature work might be to define the scope of the literature work in terms of skills/ abilities acquired by learners and educators alike?

 What a lively, witty and involving piece of writing! I just loved reading it. Congrats! 

Indeed, Laurence, we have spent some time working with teachers to define the skills and abilities required to make this particular kind of engagement work but for that to mean anything beyond what the individual teacher can do, working hard and often in isolation, we need to focus the minds of those who construct the school curriculum.  This is a country by country process, of course, and while we can report some modicum of success here and there we are aware that those very skills and abilities - narrative dialogue, critical thinking and creativity - are amongst the least valued skills in our education  system (perhaps in our society) and thus it is a constant slog uphill!  I have to admit that for many teachers, the risks involved (following a non-linear course of action takes courage) are more than they want to contemplate.  Much easier to turn to page 64 and carry on with the course as dictated by the course book.  Besides, isn't that what the parent's of the students want?

Indeed, Fitch, you are right in saying that the skills associated with literary study can be regarded as 'the least valued' in any education system, irrespective of country. But don't you think there are ways of dressing them up in more pragmatic (from the policymaker's point of view) terms? For example, that doing creative works with literary texts - especially if they are inspired by visits of an actual writer - can help to develop speaking and/or commmunicative skills, which are eminently transferable across the curriculum? Or that doing creative work - especally if it involves some kind of dramatic or presentational activites - can help create the confidence among learners to actually improve their speaking and/or writing skills? You might call it dressing lamb as mutton, so to speak (hope the metaphor does not seem too laboured), but I do believe that intransigent policymakers can be convinced of the value of literature in the curriculum. At least, this is one of the reasons why I (we?) still do it. Don't you think the same kind of strategies could be adopted for convincing parents of the value of creative work?

I don't think we disagree on any major point here, Laurence.  My concern lies with how we get the message across for to do that we have to cross the Rubicon of exams - the sticking point of every activity dreamed up by imaginative teachers.  We aren't be going to impress policy makers unless we find a way of making a fit with linear assessment processes, something which is extraordinarily difficult to do with non-linear activities.  While exams remain the apparent gatekeepers of how we evaluate 'progress' then we are not going to get very far, I fear.  Convincing parents is even harder - anything that detracts from progressing through the course book at a steady rate of knots and gaining good grades is considered an obstacle, something that takes away from 'education'.  Sadly, this view is held by rather too many teachers - a point referred to by the Madeiran teachers above.  Does this leave us with just two choices?  The first would be finding a way to include the skills we mentioned within the assessment process.  The second would be tantamount to revolution, with a radically new approach to what we do in our schools as Ken Robinson and many others advocate. What would your checklist of action to take look like?  Anyone?

To answer your questions:
a) I think that some kind of rethink might be needed to try and elide the distinction between 'linear' and 'nonlinear' activites. If literature is cast in the 'non-linear' mould, then perhaps this is why it is approached so sceptically by examinera or those entrusted with the responsibility of planning curricula. I do believe that treating 'literature' as something special - i.e. different from other types of textual study - needs to be rethought somewhat.
b) The exam issue is something which needs also to be rethought. It depends what the aims, objectives and processes adopted for exams can be. The word 'gatekeeper' is a little ideological, don't you think? It presupposes that the exam is something used by policymakers and/or curriculum developers to prevent, or inhibit creativity. Is this the case? For example, are the coursework folders used as part of the GCSE English work in UK actually inhibiting or promoting creativity? And aren't there some contexts that actually promote creative writing as a way of developing language skills? The 'plan of action' here might involve some kind of rethinking to overcome the kind of binarist essentialism that I think sets 'literature' against 'language,' or 'creativity' against 'exams.'
Convincing parents is very much to do with the aims and objectives adopted by the school, or the department. If they are aware of the fact that the programme of work helps develop transferable skills, and some kind of measurable forms of assessment can be devised to evaluate such skills, then I don't quite see why there should be problems. Isn't the question here to develop an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum design, so as to remove 'literature' from its marginalized position (which I think lies at the heart of teachers' reluctance to introduce it into their classrooms)

@Laurence  That's a thoughtful programme for action  I wonder if I might raise one or two points from it.  ·         I'm not sure I would want to 'elide' the distinction between linear and non-linear activity with reference to creativity/literature in the classroom.  What I would rather see is a shift towards making the 'non-linear' more of the norm than the current dominance of the 'linear' in the planning and assessment practices.  You mention the example of the GCSE course work folders in the UK and you are right - these are good examples of progressive thinking by the assessors (and the new changes to Key Stages 3 and 4 in English underline the creativity elements - much applauded).  But they are hardly the experiences of most teachers and students in the world, who often find exams as gatekeepers, and perhaps we should see the UK experiment as an inspiring pathfinder.  The GCSE folders are an example of the shift towards accepting the non-linear approach and seems to go against your wish to 'elide' the distinction; rather it recognises the creative and even celebrates it.  For too long there has been a tendency towards forcing fluid thought into conveniently shaped boxes and, forgive me if I'm wrong, but it seemed to me that you were saying that the study of literature should fit the orthodoxy, to make it more acceptable to teachers.  I am suggesting that the orthodoxy needs to be challenged and that teachers need to re-examine their starting point as educators.  That was one of the points of the story from Funchal, I think.·         I wish to clarify the references to literature here.  I'm not advocating the study of literary texts as part of an ELT course but I am advocating the use of literary texts to teach language.  That in itself challenges some orthodoxies and makes nonsense of the artificial division between 'language' and 'literature (a division which, in my view, is encouraged by many universities rather than anyone else).  The use of literary texts is a means to an end - it could just as easily be music, or the visual arts, or astronomy ............ the challenge comes from moving away from multiple choice answers to a place where both questions and answers are volatile.

Just to clarify: I am advocating the idea that the orthodoxy should fit literary texts, not the other way round, which makes it clear, I think, that we are singing from the sam hymn-sheet. I also concur with the idea of using literary texts to teach language - all the skills, including reading, writing and speaking. This is what I have been tryng to do for many years with my trainee teachers. If you look, for instance, at the ESSE website (European Society for the Study of English), I think you will see why literature departments in universities adopt the 'gatekeeper' attitude towards their subject. If 'literature' is not protected, they feel that the subject will 'die' as a 'serious' subject for academic research. I think this is a reactionary attitude, and one which ultimately will lead to the demise of literature departments. In a world more and more obsessed with the ideas of skill-based learning, based on clear aims and objectives, the study of literature in itself will become more and more subject to scrutiny. This is where your proposals, Fitch, fit in; your example offers a model for using literature for more practical purposes which I believe will become more and more widespread. At least, this is what I hope for ....


Add new comment

Log in or register to post comments