One of the joys of being semi-retired is the time for other activities. Since retiring I have helped co-ordinate the annual book festival in our town. One task delegated to me as a former English teacher was organising the festival’s Young Writers’ Competition.
After a first sift of the entries from S1 and S2 (12 and 13-year-olds) in our local secondaries, I pass a manageable number of the very best entries to the judges.
This year the young people’s task was simple, to write about their favourite book. They were given some advice on length and structure but only one instruction, to write about the book and not about themselves: of that, more anon.
The entries flooded in and the first delight was the superb range of fiction available to and appreciated by young adults (we undervalue and pare back our school libraries and librarians at our peril).
JK Rowling was inevitably among the most popular writers. Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses trilogy, set in a fictional racist dystopia, inspired countless entrants to a review of social and personal attitudes. John Green’s The Fault in our Stars, exploring issues of youth and terminal illness, struck a chord with many. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins hit both the dramatic adventure and the romantic needs of the age group but also posed big moral issues.
One student wrote superbly on Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and another on George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
What shone through, as well as the high standards of literacy, was that set of idealistic ethical imperatives common to young people: a hatred of hypocrisy, injustice, racism, and power wielded without responsibility, but also a constantly restated optimism, a belief that the world could be a better, kinder place.
(The competition also illustrated that quite lovable egotism of the adolescent mind-set. The instruction to write about the book and not about one’s self was entirely foreign to at least some of the competitors. “This was a book in which the main character was a horse-rider/ballet dancer/footballer. I love horse-riding/ballet/football so this was a wonderful book.” Critical objectivity does require a degree of maturity which some 12-year-olds have yet to attain.)
There was also apparent however the joy of exploring human relationships and experiences through literature.
Young people are hungry for experience. Books, whether novels, histories, biographies or academic tomes offer them rich experiences that they may labour long to find in their daily lives. The more such experiences the better for them and for us.
The one fear which this experience engendered related to how long contemporary schools and English departments can continue to feed this hunger.
As the pressure for exam successes becomes the single most powerful determinant of the content of school curricula, English departments at the top end of our secondary schools are increasingly geared to methods and approaches most likely to push the school up the exam league table.
The best way to achieve such measurable success? Restrict the input and drill the young people into the regurgitation of stock exam answers. One novel, three poems and a play (or even a film) are usually sufficient. Read them, re-read them, write about them and write more about them. Become exam perfect.
Such an approach may enhance the statistics but it will kill the joy in literature, the idealism and the perception that reading enhances emotional experience.
In such an educational culture, these bright-eyed 12-year-old readers will soon lose their enthusiasm for reading, and society as a whole will be the poorer.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.