I teach British Literature to 10th grade honors, and recently, I have completely redesigned the curriculum. For three years I’ve taught the class chronologically, beginning with Beowulf and ending with the 20th century Modernists. Although this design gives the students an understanding of how texts respond to and flow out of intellectual movements and historical events, it doesn’t explicitly make a case for texts’ relevancy to the students’ lives now.
Although I love digging into history and seeing a culture through its literature, I realize that, during your teenage years, the concept of a past, personal or historical, is vague at best. Adolescents live much more in the present than adults do and respond easily and enthusiastically to texts that are about their lives now. Certain books that influenced me during those years come to mind: The Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Piece. (I went an all boys boarding school, can you tell?) Although I think it’s important to teach texts with immediate appeal, I think it’s a mistake to teach only texts with immediate appeal.
As teachers, we’re not just teaching students about who they are now, but who they will be. This means that we need to teach texts which may not seem relevant at first and then guide them to make the connection that has meaning for them, or will have meaning for them in the future. From my high school days, certain texts that fall into this category come to mind: Hamlet, The Color Purple, the poems of T. S. Eliot. Although I didn’t make the connections at first, these works eventually became more relevant to me. It’s if they burrowed deep inside of me and worked their way out as I grew up.
So, how do you go about creating a curriculum which provides both appeal (what students what) and historical context (what students need)? My good friend and colleague, Naa-Adei Kotey, suggested that I create a course which moves horizontally (historically) and vertically (connectively). I did this by keeping the basic chronological structure of the course and then inserting texts which allow the students to see the direct connection between past and present, or distant past and more recent past. Some of my favorite pairings are Richard III (1591) and Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951), a mystery which casts a different and contrasting light on the much maligned monarch. And Frankenstein (1831) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), both narratives about the subjugation of humanity in the wake of scientific advancement.
Since I’m a writer who has set both of my novels in the past (1920s and 1940s) as a way of showing the relevancy of the past to the present, this vertical and horizontal design for a course really excites me. I hope, of course, that my students will agree. I have an ever-growing anxiety that we, as a people, are blundering into the future without a deep understanding of our past. Without that understanding, we will be ill-prepared to meet the challenges already bearing down on us.