One of the new units I’m looking at for September is war poetry. In this post, I’m going to discuss my thoughts-in-progress about why that theme, and how I’m going about choosing the texts. I’m not at the stage of sequencing yet – and definitely not lesson planning! – but I think the way we choose texts is critically important, but perhaps not always given enough explicit discussion. There’s been some commentary on twitter recently suggesting that curriculum planning shouldn’t be politicised, but I think that the English Literature curriculum is political, in the broadest sense, in exploring, understanding and critiquing our society and those that have gone before. I don’t think party politics have a role to play, but I don’t see that as being the same thing at all.
Choosing texts is hard. We have a limited time with our students over five years, and 2/5 of that is largely dictated by the GCSE spec. Years 7-9 have an important role to play in developing students’ broad understanding of literature, as well as preparing them to encounter those exam texts.
The discussion about ‘politicising’ curriculum design has come from requests like, “I’m creating a unit on social activism – what are good texts to teach?” “What texts would people recommend for a unit on civil rights?” and “Putting together an animal-themed SOW – what would you include?” It’s a question, I think, of whether the theme or the text should come first, and it’s particularly problematic with extract or anthology-based units. A unit on ‘Frankenstein’ is straight forward – the text comes first, then the themes. But there are still always choices to be made: do you focus on the sci-fi and gothic genre? The role of the creator/father? The conflict of science and religion? You can’t do everything so choices must be made. With an anthology unit, the themes often come first instead. For me, those themes and ideas have to come from one of a few places:
- Does it develop a key era, genre or form?
- Does it develop disciplinary knowledge? E.g. a unit on allusion or metaphor, or one on rhetoric and speechmaking.
- Does it develop a particular theme? And then, why this theme? Usually, it would be something underpinning literature as a whole, such as love, death, place, heroes and villains etc.
- Does it enable coherence? These themes, for example are big enough in themselves that I’d probably also want some other parameters such as time period – otherwise text choices become a bit like pin the tail on the donkey, and lessons become jumping around from one seemingly-random choice to another. That is perhaps where the twitter requests can appear to be random but I think it’s actually a part of knowing our own limitations and seeking advice on what the high-quality texts are in that area if it’s not our specialism.
Why war poetry?
War poetry is about as canonical as it gets (if we consider it to be WW1 – Sassoon, Owen et al. And more of this later!). We should, as Literature specialists, be introducing our students to major periods, forms, and themes of literature as far as possible – and WW1 poetry absolutely does this. It supports cultural capital, again in the broadest sense of developing a shared understanding and a shared literary history. The names of poets from this era are those dropped into news and culture as widely-understood references, and there are a handful of poems with lines that are used the same way, which resonate in any discussion about the lived experience of war. I also don’t think anyone could argue with the quality of many of the typical war poems. It’s a unit going into our Year 8 long-term plan, which also means it builds nicely towards a study of ‘Henry V’, which I also intend to develop a little by adding some journalistic writing and comparing the St Crispin Day speech with Colonel Tim Collin’s speech on the eve of the Iraq War.
What about diversity?
I’m very aware of the need to diversify our curriculum; there’s a brief section on auditing the curriculum in The Lost Girls, (resource here), focused on gender, but in my department we also need to look at heritage and background as a point of diversification. Again this might be considered ‘politicising’ the curriculum – but that’s no bad thing, especially when it comes to war poetry which is traditionally pretty much middle/upper class white men writing from the trenches. There’s also a risk with war poetry from this narrow perspective that we end up with a very one-sided view of war in general. While understanding WW1 is socially and culturally important, part of the promise here is exploring multiple perspectives and comparing.
Which is where research comes into my curriculum planning! I love the summer term for the extra space I get (my recpetion teacher mum is always a bit jealous of this!) for curriculum development. Sadly, that didn’t really happen with the difficulties of online teaching etc but I’m doing bits and pieces on it over the summer, and bought this text as my main resource:
This book is BRILLIANT. It covers war poetry from WW1 to the present, including the Troubles, the Irqai and Afghan wars, Yugoslavian and Vietnam, from a range of poets on different sides. The inside blurb reads:
“A moving testament to humanity caught up in war after war for the past hundred years.” That sounds like a good basis for a literature unit to me.
So – I’m working my way through this text, flagging poems I find interesting or moving, and want to come back to. I’ve got an eye on patterns that are developing, and thinking about the provenance (which war, which side, heritage, gender, etc.)
Questions I need to ask
Here’s where the parameters of the unit need to come into play. To stop it feeling like quite a disparate collection, I need to identify some core boundaries or philosophies that help me decide which poems to include. To be clear – all of them could go in. Every single poet is well-respected, thought to be ‘important’ (however that works!) and are all interesting in terms of what they have to say about war. But unless i want to study this for three years, I need to be very selective indeed. So, the questions I have to think about are:
- Where are the poems coming from?
I want a range of wars, heritages and backgrounds, to explore different perspectives. That means making sure I look at the helpful bios of the poets. I’ve also – for now, at least – decided we’re going to look at active participants. So, rather than looking at, say, Owen Sheers’ Pink Mist or Simon Armitage’s Manhunt, written through interviews with soldiers, or work by those who’ve never been in war, I want these poems to be by soldiers, sailors, nurses, ambulance drivers. I will probably include some war reporters/photographers as well, to enable discussion of how war reporting has changed.
I also want to make sure there’s a range of nationalities being represented – and not just the allies – as well as genders. That will create some limitations in some time periods, but also create space for interesting discussions about social change and expectation (and social misconceptions many of our female students have about women’s roles in the army).
- What about poetry in translation?
Usually I’m not keen especially with poetry – I prefer studying works in their original language because I think translation can be a bit problematic when doing analysis of writer’s methods, which is part of the way we study literature. BUT because I want a variety of voices and to avoid what could become jingoistic, I need to accept translated works. I will make sure there is some discussion of this with students, though.
- What contextual knowledge is needed? What are our contextual gaps?
This book has a section on the Israeli/Palestinian conflicts, for example. I know virtually nothing about them. So, I need to consider whether I include poetry from that conflict, in which case I need to ensure I know enough to be able to discuss it from as non-biased a perspective as possible and, preferably, to be able to challenge some of the misconceptions / biases that I am pretty sure (from previous conversations) will occur. If I’m not able to do that research, is it better to not cover that particular conflict? With war poetry in particular, I feel a strong contextual basis is really important and it needs to be done justice.
- How is context delivered?
Do we use non-fiction or break it down for them? Articles give a richer experience but are more time-demanding, whereas breaking it down is quicker, but introduces a slimmed down perspective. The time period introductions in the book above are very useful and thorough, but quite dense, so this is a consideration. Plus, we’re not teaching history just enough to understand the poems.
- How many poems can I reasonably cover?
This also includes: in the time we have; in reasonable depth; to give a good overview; to get interesting comparisons; to provoke good discussion; to enable plenty of writing practice alongside
- Do we incorporate creative writing here?
Next year, we’re trying to incorporate more creative writing in general across several units – our focus has unbalanced towards analysis, and I want to pull this back. But with war poetry, it feels different (especially because of the combatants-only restriction above!). I don’t want to ask them to write war poetry. So would we ask that they use the same form? An image as a springboard? Their own ‘conflict’ poetry? Or, do we go another way and look for some kind of journalistic writing instead?
- Do we work chronologically or break into some kind of theme?
I think at the moment this is likely to be chronological, but there are some interesting nods back and forth in the poetry – some modern poets using WW1 lines for example – which I do want to tease out. It’s probably best, though, to revisit those specific lines when we get to the modern poetry. Breaking it up also risks losing some of the coherence.
- Which poems are absolute non-negotiables?
There are some canonical poems that are probably ‘must haves’ but because I like to be more challenging (!) we can approach some differently: Anthem for Doomed Youth, for example, has the potential to explore the power of word choices because his drafts, edited by Owen himself and Sassoon, are available. (There’s also a fab bit in ‘Regeneration’ which has a scene based on this moment, which would work either as wider reading or perhaps a discussion of memorialising the war, as Barker’s spoken extensively on this too in terms of historical distance). This probably comes down to thinking about those lines I mentioned at the start that resonate through popular understanding.
So, I’ve been through the book and have a shortlist of poems. Too many, I think, which is where the questions now come in to slim this down further and create a coherent, tight and focused unit.