There’s a strange kind of camaraderie that exists between a teacher and his students.
Formed through cumulative months, and sometimes years, of time spent working together – if you’re lucky you’ll get to know each and every one of your class members as well as your own children.
If you’re really lucky, then the friendships formed between your students will help form strong memory bonds between the discussions you have in the classroom and the material that they are eventually tested on.
One of my earliest classes was a wonderful group of inner city London kids.
Their collective attention spans would struggle to match that of a group of children half their age, yet their energy and enthusiasm could beat the rowdiest of football hooligans (a trait they no doubt learnt from their passionate football obsessed parents).
Our subject material, that they would be tested on come the Summer exams, was The Great Gatsby. One of my favourite novels, Fitzgerald’s shimmering story of unrequited love had always been close to my heart. Little did I know that it was due to be summarily torn apart by a group of 30 cockney school kids, half of whom averaged 2 books a year – max.
Many teachers will tell you that asking your students for their honest to God opinion is a bad idea.
They’ll say that you’ll start off an endless discussion that leads nowhere, and you’ll only waste your time and that of your students. To those prudes, I respectfully beg to differ.
English is one of those fantastic subjects that lends itself to debate and discussion better than any others. There’s nothing more satisfying to witness than an entire class deeply engaged in discussion of the intentions of a legendary writer. It’s wonderful to see a book, that was written nearly 100 years ago, creating such dynamism and excitement in the classroom.
That a group of 30-strong semi-illiterate inner-city kids were so enthused with the luminous charm of Jay Gastby was to be expected. However, it was their fascination with Nick Carraway – the narrator of the novel – that surprised me the most.
Nick is a strange, unreliable narrator. A rank outsider amongst the Upper Classes of West Egg and evidently at odds with the exorbitant wealth that Gatsby aspires to and the Buchanans embody – he made for an ideal touchstone for the young readers.
Although they were pleasantly surprised with the revelation of Gatsby’s true identity – they still felt Nick’s plight more.
A Mid-Western veteran, not so much scarred by the war as indifferent to it – Nick’s story is told on the periphery of the novel. He’s more concerned with Gatsby’s journey and, worryingly, obsessed with the happiness of his cousin Daisy. His discomfort in social situations is something that is telegraphed many times in Fitgerald’s delicate writing and a quality of his character that my class of teenagers seemed to chime with.
Before you write off the attention spans of your inner city classroom, take a look at how you can present them with a different perspective of the characters in your subject material. Even though some of these texts may feel old and tired in your minds, there’s always a way of drawing them in a fresh light.