When the new 9-1 GCSEs arrived, teachers of English all over the country were outraged for a number a reasons. There was the fact that now long standing book stocks needed to be replaced during major funding cuts to schools, but a much bigger issue was the removal of texts from anywhere other than this little island (and its dominant cultural voice). Gone was the anthology of Poems from Other Cultures; the plight of people in Pakistan, the songs of the slaves and the Half-Caste were shut out. The lessons of tolerance and empathy espoused by Lee and Steinbeck, while they had been a great literary ally in not only teaching language, structure and form, but also how to be a more decent human being, were also shunned.
It seemed to me that my GCSE lessons would become a cage from which I would be forced to teach texts and ideas that only spoke to the history and experience of one ethnic and national group. Until I found a loophole.
The new GCSE language qualification requires students to develop a range of creative writing skills, transactional writing skills, and transactional reading, comparison and evaluative skills. Apart from 19th Century Fiction which has a predominant Victorian lean, the other skill sets provide teachers with an excellent opportunity to educate their students with historic and contemporary international issues.
One such example I used recently was a unit to teach Transactional Writing for the Edexcel English Language Paper 2. It was a conversation with a colleague named Lillian, who brought up the idea that the students at our academy seemed to present a notable level of ignorance about the Syrian Civil War and the ensuing Refugee Crisis. We discussed how a transactional writing unit could be a potential issue to rectify this. She was sad that she felt she didn’t have time to create such a unit, but I loved the idea so much I vowed to create it.
The premise was simple: the students would take on the role of becoming a teenager in Damascus. They would follow the journey of this young person writing to cousins in England, watching reports of protests on the news, then fleeing to the north of Syria and then to the Turkish border. They would inhabit journalists taking about conditions in the refugee camps and writing reviews for the films ‘Cries from Syria’ or ‘A Syrian Love Story’. The unit eventually saw their original character arrive in England, to then experience racism in the classroom and challenge it with a speech. Finally, they had the chance to create and deliver a survey to other students in their school across different year groups and put their findings into a report.
I have taught this unit to two different Year 10 groups at this point, and it has been shared with the department and delivered by colleagues. The goals of the unit (to ensure students understood the form, structural and language features of a wide range of transactional writing genres) was pretty easily met. I would argue that the students wrote some of their best work during this unit. However, the unexpected outcomes were far more interesting.
It’s a beautiful and tragic thing to send a group of 24 Year 10 students out to survey their peers with questions they have created like:
How well do you think you understand the Syrian Refugee Crisis?
Do you know which countries refugees from Syria are currently living in?
Would you like to know more about the Syrian Refugee Crisis?
Then, seeing those same young people come back defeated and angry when they have gone into classrooms and had 12 year olds say things like, “They’re all just terrorists!” and, “I don’t care where they go as long as they don’t come here.” One of my students came back and was genuinely upset, having challenged the ignorance he had seen and heard. Despite support from the classroom teacher and the reprimanding of one student who had made an ignorant remark, my student had said, “How could he be so cruel? These people are dying. We have to help; how can we ignore what’s happening?”
No one wants to watch their students see just how ugly the world can be, but this unit allowed me to empower my students to act on a global issue, educating and challenging ignorance and hatred in their own community. And isn’t that the ultimate goal of our profession? To lead away from ignorance? I felt truly blessed in this age of austerity and insular thinking to show the young people I teach that they can work within these constraints and yet still rise above it.
If you would like to teach this unit, you can find my resources below. Please be aware that they have been downloaded from Google Drive, so please forgive all formatting issues and if any of the video links are no longer active.
NOTE: The films ‘Cries from Syria’ and ‘A Syrian Love Story’ are both available on Netflix which is why they were chosen. Any film on the conflict that you think is valid could be used. Be aware that ‘Cries from Syria’ features some truly harrowing scenes and it was a very mature group that I watched it with, and they were warned of what things they would be shown and had permission to look aware if they felt overwhelmed.
Lesson 1: Introduction to the Syrian Civil War
Lesson 2: Informal Letters
Lesson 3: Formal Letters
Lesson 4: Articles
Lesson 5: Reviews
Lesson 6: Persuasive Devices
Lesson 7: Speeches
Lesson 8: Leaflets
Lesson 9: Reports
Please feel free to share your comments and thoughts below.