Why are we learning this book?

Written by: Joy Mbakwe | Published:
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Diversifying your English literature curriculum is a crucial step for all schools – but it isn’t as hard or as onerous a task as you may think. Joy Mbakwe discusses diversity and inclusion in the classroom

When I joined my second ever school as a teacher, it was a very different place. The #BlackLivesMatter movement was yet to experience its second wave and TikTok was still a relatively new phenomenon.

As such, my school, at the time, existed as many did: unaware of the ways it upheld white supremacist ideals at the expense of the largely diverse community that it served. In turn, students, also unaware of issues such as systemic racism, passively consumed the diet handed to them in the name of success.

During my induction day, I was told that I would be teaching Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sign of the Four to my new year 10 class, and while I was unfamiliar with the text, I was keen to teach my first detective novel. Years later, I realised how at odds such a text was with the student population at the school.

If you have ever read the text, you know it is an incredibly complex tale. I spent the first year struggling alongside the students, trying to piece together the plot while still attempting to “stretch at the top”.

By the second year, my understanding of the plot had matured. I understood what was happening, but I was still unsure about the why. However, during this process of discovery, I was challenged by a student: “Miss, the only black character doesn’t speak and then is shot dead. Why are we learning this book?”

After a stunned moment of silence, I feebly pulled together my response which included aspects of the department’s rationale about how “well” we could do if we studied such a text, alongside some of the restrictions that exist for English teachers when designing their GCSE curriculum.

The specification, in line with governmental requirements, privileges plays by Shakespeare, 19th century novels, poetry since 1789 and fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards (Iffath, 2020).

However, classrooms around the UK are growing in both voice and diversity, empowered by the interconnectedness of our modern world and, as a consequence, an increasing number of our students feel alienated by choices being made at department level concerning what is taught.

With ever-increasing pressure and scrutiny, teachers may feel they have to sacrifice their personal beliefs about what English literature has the power to do in order to ensure students are successful at the final hurdle. But I do not believe these two things are at odds. I have spent the past two years seeking to build an anti-racist curriculum across all key stages that remains both rigorous and preparatory, while seeking to remain representative of the student body that it serves.

So, what can you do to diversify your English literature curriculum?

19th century texts

As a department, seek to choose a text that is not explicitly racist. For so many students, this can be such a disempowering experience in the English classroom – to be reminded that the world once saw people who looked like them as inferior. If this is not possible, ensure that the difficult conversations that the text raises foreground the teaching of the text; the issue of race is not an afterthought for millions around the world and should stop being so in the classroom.

Teaching in an anti-racist way

Use the texts as a springboard for pertinent discussion. When exploring Scrooge’s pursuit of wealth in A Christmas Carol, for example, give students an opportunity to discuss the wealth disparities in the UK.

For example, official poverty statistics show that 4.3 million children are growing up in poverty, and more than half of black children in the UK are now growing up in poverty (Sparrow, 2022).

Scrooge’s decision to erect money as an “idol” is a very real experience for many black children who are at least twice as likely to grow up poor as white children.

We need to avoid limiting conversations surrounding the key themes in our set texts by restricting them to the era in which they were written.

William Shakespeare

The study of Shakespeare can be alienating for young people, even British born natives who struggle to comprehend Shakespearian language. For students of colour, this alienation is often further compounded by the lack of representation in the texts. This does not have to be the case.

I have shown versions of Romeo & Juliet, for example, where the lead characters are people of colour (see the 2014 Broadway production) or sought out productions that prioritise a diverse case (such as Southwark Playhouse’s earlier this year). I have also explored the presence of black people in the Elizabethan era as part of our context lessons (see Wood, 2012).

Unseen poetry

Unseen poetry presents a unique and fantastic opportunity to include writers of colour in your curriculum. This year, we have prioritised such poets in our lessons and, for many of our students, it has been a subtle, validating nod, affirming their presence in the English classroom. Below are some of the poems I have enjoyed teaching (links in further information):

  • Fam by Caleb Femi.
  • A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson.
  • Whitey on the Moon by Gil Scott-Heron
  • I Too, America by Langston Hughes
  • On Aging by Maya Angelou

Final thoughts

The current education structures can appear to limit a truly decolonised curriculum, however we can seek to be inclusive and anti-racist in our teaching. When planning each lesson, we must ask ourselves: Who is being left out of this conversation? How can I find a way to include them? Even when it seems impossible, I can assure you that with just a little more thought, each teacher can change the experience of English by increasing the presence of different voices in their classroom. English literature is being called upon to answer new questions in the classroom. I hope that you join me in responding to them.

  • Joy Mbakwe is head of English at Lilian Baylis Technology College in south London. Lilian Baylis is part of Pearson’s Lit in Colour Pioneers Programme, receiving free GCSE set texts by a writer of colour to help diversify their curriculum. Visit http://go.pearson.com/litincolour

SecEd Summer Edition 2022

This article first appeared in SecEd's Summer Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every secondary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via www.sec-ed.co.uk/digital-editions/

Further information & resources

  • Iffath: ‘Miss, what’s colonialism?’: Confronting the English literary heritage in the classroom, Changing English (27:4), 2020:https://bit.ly/3F6SxIy
  • Sparrow: More than half of UK’s black children live in poverty, analysis shows, The Guardian, January 2022: https://bit.ly/3iytfso

References: Poems & Shakespeare


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