One of the roles of a school is to curate a sequences of encounters which students have a entitlement to experience before they leave. For many students, school may be the only time in their lives when they are given no choice but to navigate their way though events that are unfamiliar and intellectually demanding. Selecting a sequence of books which students will have read to them is a powerful way to force children to confront people, places and events way outside their narrow lives and ensure that they experience the expression of thoughts and ideas which would otherwise have remained unthinkable.
On what basis should we make these choices? That depends on why we decide it’s worth investing curriculum time into reading. If our purpose is something as ephemeral and nebulous as wanting children to ‘read for pleasure’ then clearly we should select books that are fun, accessible and provide lots of familiar reference points. If, however, we believe that, in the words of Frank Furedi, “serious reading is a culturally beneficially activity” that has the power not only to improve us all individually but collectively, then maybe we want to select the books we read to students with greater care.
One of the debates which regularly does the rounds is that some books are inappropriate at certain stages of children’s education. This is, of course, completely true; only an idiot (or a pervert) would ever choose to read Fifty Shades of Grey to Year 7. But is it equally inappropriate to read, say, The Handmaid’s Tale to Year 9? Maybe. I would certainly be uncomfortable reading some of the scenes aloud, but my youngest daughter decided she wanted to read it at age 13 and asked me to read it with her. Of course I agreed and, despite some tricky moments, we were both glad we persevered. Is it appropriate to read The Bloody Chamber to sixth formers? Well, A level specifications have decided that yes, it is, but when I studied it with a Year 13 class as a fairly inexperienced English teacher I found it mortifyingly difficult to discuss some of the stories. And is it ever appropriate to read Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream with KS3 students? All are wildly inappropriate and crammed with highly sensitive adult themes, but all are enduringly popular choices. So, how do teachers deal with bestiality when reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Year 7? The obvious answer is that they don’t! We gloss over those themes or ideas which we deem inappropriate for the class in front of us. Maybe the only meaningful guide as to whether a particular text is appropriate for a particular audience is how we as teachers feel about it; if it feels wrong then we should probably make a different choice.
The point is that when our purpose is ‘reading for betterment’ selecting a sequence of books for students to experience isn’t – and shouldn’t be – easy. If there’s no angst in our selections then we can be absolutely sure our selection is bland. With all that in mind, I’ve been privileged to oversee a massive order for the books which will make up the reading curriculum in many of the schools that belong to the Trust I work for. Here are the books we’ve selected:
Are all these books entirely appropriate for the year groups they’ve been selected for? No! Mythos, for instance, begins with a god having his penis chopped off! But how disastrously dull, how insultingly limiting if they were entirely appropriate. To acknowledge the fact that some of these texts contain difficult issues, I’ve produced a series of teacher guides which flag up potential landmines and offer some suggestions on how tackle the issues and themes that come up. Although there is the potential for students to be confronted with uncomfortable ideas, these experiences will be mediated by teachers who are prepared for them.
A curated reading curriculum is never going to please everyone. That is not the point. None of these books are the ‘right’ or ‘best’ choices, but they are choices. And they’ve been chosen with the intention of curating students’ experience of reading whilst in school. We clearly hope that most students will enjoy most of the books but it doesn’t matter all that much if they don’t. Enjoyment is secondary to the notion that serious reading is culturally beneficial and that students will be compelled to think about things which they would otherwise have remained ignorant. The process of curation is to make the inaccessible accessible and to make the inappropriate appropriate. This takes delicacy and experience but is absolutely worth the effort.
Think what might be possible for a cohort of students who have read all of these books. What thoughts might they be able to think? What connections would they be able to make? What might they be capable of?
If you want to get a sense of how to go about implement a reading programme similar to the one I’ve outlined, feel free to have a look at the toolkit I’ve put together. Feedback welcomed.