Why English teachers love teaching tragedy

The inspiration for this blog post came from a running joke in our English faculty, about how bleak our literature offerings were to our young key stage three students. We joked about how we couldn’t select a new Year 9 class text without checking first whether a distraught-filled collection of war short stories, or some nightmarish dystopian novel had been released in paperback that was obviously more appropriate! I began to think about the texts we teach, our choices and the values we instil through our teaching.

Class readers we choose, at KS3 and above, are selected over time, often through different teachers requesting to teach a new book, a syllabus shift, or at the suggestion of another, looking for a new avenue to refresh their teaching, or to tailor the text to a specific group. All too often our own pleasures and prejudices shine through in our selections. Quite rightly I may add: if we aren’t passionate about the books we read, how could we ever instil passion into the young minds of our students? Yet, when these choices are accumulated and analysed a distinct pattern emerges. It does appear like we are over-doing it with death! We are creating a generation of students who expect impending social breakdown, each hunkering in their bedroom fearing death and social decay! We didn’t mean to do this – honest! I than began to reflect on the ‘why’.

When I consider my personal book choices the pattern is clear, and I think many other English teachers are right there with me – tragedy dominates – not consciously, but perhaps necessarily. First on the culpable list is bloody Michael Morpurgo! More than any other writer for young children, he captures the horror of war, but at the same time he manages to summon the beauty of people and their relationships, managing to salvage meaning from the chaos of battle. Any English teacher who has not taught ‘Private Peaceful’ to impressionable Y9s is in for a treat. The narrative structure delicately builds the family life of the central characters, before unleashing a devastating but uplifting conclusion. I defy any English teacher not to read the ending without at least a trembling lip! I shamelessly go beyond that – I struggle to read the darn thing to its end! ‘Warhorse’ too, although lacking the emotional complexity of ‘Peaceful’, in my humble opinion, presents a unique and equally haunting view on World War One that goes deeper than any succession of images or series of facts.

I also happen to powerfully believe in teaching the horrors of the Holocaust. From teaching Anne Frank’s ‘Diary’ in my PGCE year this has been the case, to ‘Boy In the Striped Pyjamas’ more recently. The entire subject is inevitably challenging and almost incomprehensible for young children – yet Boyne manages to humanise the near-incomprehensible scale of the events with delicacy and beauty in BITSP. He crafts the innocent narrative perspective of Bruno with a subtle depth of language and meaning that students love. Despite more common knowledge of the delayed revelation ending, due to the release of the film, the punch of emotion at the end still has tremendous power.

Perhaps it is my passion for the writing of Philip Larkin and Thomas Hardy that makes me see the “skull beneath the skin” so prominently in the books I choose? My favourite novel is ‘The Great Gatsy’, play ‘Death of a Salesman’. The IB course I constructed is admittedly a litany of tragedy – from Greek incest to teacher molestation (the inimitable ‘History Boys’)! It is a wonder I do not hang around graveyards! But, no matter how often the students complain, “everything we read has death in Sir!”, their attention is never more powerful than when we read these works of artful grief. The concentration when the brother is in the waiting room in Heaney’s ‘Mid-Term Break’ is palpable beyond any examination hour. They write little better than when they empathise with Ben Jonson when he mourns the loss of his son, his “best piece of poetry”, in ‘On My First Sonne’. All the barriers of Shakespearean language, and their typical attendant complaints about “bloody Shakespeare”, fall away when they await Juliet waking to warn Romeo, or when she then bears the dagger and takes her life. These stories reach easily through time to hold their attention beyond any lecture or worksheet ever could.

When I was taught ‘Death of A Salesman’ at school, or Jonson’s sonnet, a chord was stuck that has lasted deeply within me, something I am not sure I understood fully at the time. Perhaps I was laughing nervously to appear insouciant to my friends, perhaps I complained about the relentlessly bleak nature of our reading material – all likely in my desperation to appear impressively careless! But, without a shadow of a doubt, those books have stayed with me – when I have faced the grief of losing family and friends those fragments of characters and scenes have given me strength, succour and understanding. The catharsis they can bring is perhaps the most valuable gift I will ever give the students under my care, whether they understand it fully at the time or not. Knowing that keeps me focused when buffered by the political nonsense we encounter as teachers. When students threaten to become subsumed by numbers and data, an inevitable aspect of our job, I remember that the most important values cannot be counted, that each of my students deserve the tremendous gift of literature. I remember that teaching English is a great privilege – that their grades may hopefully take them many bright and new places, but these books, and mere fragments of books, will be rooted somewhere deeper, providing sustenance in their times of greatest need. For every report I have to write, or lesson plan I have to devise, it is good to remember that privilege I have in imparting these words of others.

In the more esteemed words of Leo:

“While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.” Leonardo da Vinci

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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

4 responses to “Why English teachers love teaching tragedy”

  1. mrtheo says :

    Great read and all of this rings true with my experiences teaching English.

    In Nietzsche’s ‘The Birth of Tragedy’, he points to a line in Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’ which sums up our fascination with tragedy:

    “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.”

    The fact that tragedy is always survived (by someone – the narrator? the reader?) is what makes it compelling.

  2. Bad to Verse says :

    Completely agree with you! I only sat my A Level four years ago but I don’t think the tragedy of Willy Loman will ever leave me. As important as it is to understand the theory and the technical aspects of writing, students write the best responses to literature when something triggers a genuine and unexpected emotion in them, and this is often most powerful when the subject is one of sadness or fear. The key to fully understanding a piece of literature is to throw yourself unselfconsciously, and unreservedly, into it.

    Alice x

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