Hey guys! As a writer, it’s a bit strange for me to diss the concept of reading, and I don’t particularly hate reading at all. In fact, when I get in the mood, I could read for a long time. We have a bookshelf full of books (not too big, we actually tend to be a tad picky), but it was school reading that didn’t allow me to flourish.
I’m going to preface with the fact that I got a D grade in my English Literature GCSE back in the day – compared to my C grade in English Language (okay, I wasn’t the best student), and compare it to the fact that five years later, I was told I should do A-Level English due to my high enrollment test score, which apprently was the highest they’ve had somehow. I love reading on my own terms, but there were so many issues with reading in school that concern me.
When I was in primary school (4-11), I was 11 years old and reading Lord of the Rings, which was way beyond my reading level. But I classified as reading at ‘Level 8’ instead of the ‘Level 13’ that I was already reading at. We had reading sessions, but the books didn’t inspire me at that age because I was already reading more advanced literature. The Level 8 books were boring, but I was never allowed to advance, despite others having already done so by reading the Harry Potter series, which I’d already been reading for a few years at that point. So I entered secondary school (11-16) having finished at Level 8, when even my teacher knew I was way more advanced than that.
I see that a lot of schools are using Noughts and Crosses as educational material, and that’s something we could have used as far back as 2005. It practically combines Romeo and Juliet and a world with racial segregation. Instead, the only piece of racism we got was in Of Mice and Men, which I’ll come to later.
I remember that we looked at Emma for about a week. I don’t remember us reading any passages from it, just a brief synopsis, and then we watched Clueless, which while it’s dated looking back, is still such a good film, and was more relatable to us as teenagers. We wanted to be Cher and Dionne, not Emma. We could see ourselves becoming like Cher and Dionne, and Paul Rudd was definitely a bit of eye candy even then!
I remember a lot of different books or plays that we read that our teacher pretty much half-assed, such as The Merchant of Venice or Hobson’s Choice, where we only read a small section of it. For Hobson’s Choice, the most memorable parts of it were the double entendres, but it was a case that we only read a few chapters of it and studied that. We never finished the entire book, and we never actually found out what happened at the end.
I mentioned Of Mice and Men earlier, and I’ll state that it was probably one of the better pieces that we studied throughout the GCSE years. It was a little more modern than what we were used to, and it covered the Great Depression in America, which was at least interesting to learn a bit about. The story was easy enough to follow, and I enjoyed the film adaptation, too. Would I read it in my own time? Probably. The racism in it does make me uncomfortable, but as it’s set in the Great Depression era, there was a lot of racism anyway. However, strangely enough we were just told to read it, and there was no allowance to learn the context of the time, just that it was there.
And then we have the usual Shakespeare, which I find that despite him being the best of his time and being the bard, holds no relevance today. I actually don’t know of anyone who reads Shakespeare for enjoyment, and is usually only used for educational purposes and stage performances. While other year groups before us studied MacBeth or Romeo and Juliet, we studied The Merchant of Venice. Yeah, I hadn’t heard of it either. I couldn’t even tell you the plot without Googling it, despite having studied it for my GCSE. I suppose if it was MacBeth, which we had read for non-GCSE purposes, it wouldn’t have been as bad, because I did enjoy the Scottish Play – and there was the Roman Polanski film adaptation, too. I feel like because it was one of the less popularised Shakespeare plays, we weren’t that interested!
In the GCSE exam, we were given an ‘unseen poem’, which was a poem that we hadn’t prepared for that we had to examine and deduce its meaning. I don’t remember the poem, nor do I care for poem that talks in riddles. If I can’t understand the poem without a cheat sheet, then it’s not a good poem. Half-Caste by John Agard is actually a really good example of a poem done right with its phrasing, and Agard does an amazing job capturing what it means to be called ‘half-caste’, and goes on to stretch that metaphor to other aspects of himself and famous art, and even the British weather. It’s one that while it looks complicated, you only need to know the definition of ‘half-caste’ to be able to understand it, and that’s what I’d look for in a poem.
I think my main problem is that when the teacher tries to force meanings into the descriptions of the story, or has us study materials that already need cheat sheets to understand, it fails to allow children to fully immerse themselves in literature. The teacher tries to get us to pick out subtext that the author never intended (hence the ‘curtains are blue’ meme below). I mean, sometimes there could be meaning if that’s what the author intended, and encapsulated the overall scene, perhaps. Sometimes, the curtains are blue because maybe that character likes the colour blue.
Even worse when you have the class read passages of the books, and some of them have issues such as dyslexia, which does more harm than good, especially when in front of a usually hateful class – and trust me, my year group was very hateful.
I read for enjoyment, on my own terms. At the time of writing, I sadly have too much writing and other work to do to want to read. However, being part of a writing community has helped spark passion into literature again, and I cannot thank the community enough for what doors they’ve opened up for me. I like to think that I wouldn’t add unecessary metaphors, and that the curtains are blue because the character likes blue curtains.
There are so many different ways that creativity can be encouraged with just the right good book, and I feel that it’s often stifled at school in exchange for the National Curriculum.