One of my final ventures as an English teacher, and my task for today, is to plan an English Language unit of work, entitled ‘The English Language from Chaucer to Emoji’. As soon as I spotted this intriguing module, I put my name down to plan it. In one sense, this was a fit of enthusiasm I am now living to regret, as the final deadline looms and I attempt simultaneously to work my way through the seemingly endless barrage of ‘life admin’ which comes with imminent relocation and starting a new job; in another sense, however, this unit has immense potential to improve our children’s knowledge and appreciation of their linguistic and cultural heritage, and allows us to celebrate the brilliance and diversity of the English language.
Chaucer was very much a popular cultural icon of his day; the Canterbury Tales depict some of the various strata of medieval society in vivid and often obscene detail. This is exactly what modern TV dramas, soap operas and serials do every day on our screens, so why shouldn’t today’s school children approach Chaucer with the same enthusiasm as a soap opera? To my mind there are two key reasons why the classics of English literature (and, indeed, literature of other languages and from other cultures) are just not popular: the first of these is to do with the image of history, the other is a question of accessibility.
The history curriculum in schools is rich and varied, looking at the history of other cultures and focussing on major global events which have shaped the world we live in today – this is exactly what a history curriculum should do – so far so good. However, the problem with this selective approach to history is that we lose any sense of chronology and that young adults thus have no sense of what was happening in Britain at a particular point in time. This is a problem I have struggled with myself on many occasions – at school, I never really felt I had a clue about history; I would easily get involved in the topics I studied and felt I had a firm understanding of various ‘pockets’ of world history but I failed to see the bigger picture. Even today, I’m pretty good on Chairman Mao and what was happening in Tienanmen Square in the 1970s; what I’m not so good at is telling you who was on the throne in Britain at a particular time – I just don’t really know my Plantagenets from my Saxe-Coburgs. At a recent pub quiz, a friend and colleague of mine with a good English degree from a respected university suggested quite seriously that Queen Victoria might have been on the throne at the time Shakespeare was writing (!). When I had tactfully restored our chances of success in the quiz (I don’t lose graciously), I took time to reflect and realised that the sketchy historical knowledge of my generation is, at least in part, down to our education system.
So, in planning the ‘Chaucer to Emoji’ scheme of work, I now have a chance to explore literary and historical chronology for myself, to trace cultural trends and to share these with school children. I really hope that by allowing children to explore how our literary and linguistic heritage has evolved, they might appreciate it more deeply. If you understand the links between literary and historical movements, and between texts themselves, you can gain so much more from reading them. While, in many ways, I am a great traditionalist, I am also a lover of technology and modern cultural tends – I really love ‘cultural comfort food’ such as having a cup of tea in front of a soap opera after a long day, singing along to a catchy chart hit in the car or just flicking through a glossy magazine on a train. As a teacher, I think it is hugely important to have a foot in two cultural camps – clearly it’s essential to have sound and profound subject knowledge when working in a teaching context; however, it’s also important to be (dare I say it) ‘down with the kids.’
Perhaps the greatest cultural leveller, as far as I’m concerned is ‘Hollyoaks’, Channel 4’s long-running teen soap, set in Chester. In Hollyoaks Village, there seem to be a limited range of career paths, with most young people graduating to work either in the pub, shop or restaurant, or going into teaching. Hollyoaks Community College, or HCC, as it is known to residents and aficionados, seems to be staffed entirely by English teachers who, as long-serving members of cast, came good, following a rocky period discovering their sexuality, kicking the drug habit or recovering from anorexia / OCD.
Yes – it’s a hard life being a soap opera character and if there’s one thing Hollyoaks does well, it’s ‘issues’; yet despite an underlying didacticism, the show also seems to be a clever and well-thought out aesthetic project. The soundtrack is always carefully chosen to suit the occasion and the character, fusing classical music, with gritty grungy indie tracks an R&B hits. This musical diversity has long been recognised – I remember from my teenage years seeing the Hollyoaks soundtrack available for sale in HMV; nowadays, Channel 4 has a dedicated Hollyoaks playlist, featuring tracks from the programme, which is updated daily. As someone who regularly wants to ‘name that tune’, when watching television and films, I think this facility should be available for all TV programmes. I often think that life should come with a soundtrack and, for me, the beauty of the music on Hollyoaks is that it exposes viewers to the kind of musical experience you usually get on long car journeys (if, like me, you enjoy the eclecticism of flicking between Heart FM, Classic FM, Radio 2 and Radio 3!).
All those English teachers make for a pleasing mix of literary references, which, regrettably, are probably lost on the majority of Hollyoaks’ teenage audience. My suggestion is that these literary ‘Easter eggs’ – to borrow the gaming term – allow Hollyoaks scriptwriters to prove their mettle to those well-versed enough to appreciate this intertextuality. This raises an important question – how will viewers appreciate this dialogue between cultural media if they have no awareness of their literary and cultural heritage? Fundamentally, I think that an enjoyment of different literary genres is something that people must discover for themselves; our task as teachers, academics, broadcasters and cultural enthusiasts is to make this cross-referencing and intertextuality accessible to the next generation. And with that, it is time to plan that scheme of work…!