Thursday afternoon. We are at the end of a lesson; it has been a good one. I’ve shared a poem, explored meaning, modelled analysis. They have nodded and dutifully taken notes for an hour. My final question, “now that we know the poem, what is the significance of the first line: My son aged three fell in the nettle bed?”
I pick on someone. “What do you think, Michael?”
“I’m not sure, Miss. Miss, what is a nettle?”
Me, incredulous, “What do you mean?”
Michael, “what is a nettle? We don’t have them in Congo.”
This is an extreme example, but one which neatly explains the challenge of cultural poverty. Cultural poverty describes a relative lack of wider knowledge and understanding of the things you should know (or, rather, what someone has decided you should). This is important, because students who are culturally poor find it far more difficult to access parts of the curriculum which rely on that knowledge as a way in. Levels of cultural poverty lie on a broad scale. At the extreme end, my Y10 class (all of whom were born outside the UK), have a distinct lack of knowledge of basic concepts and elements of life which children who were born here take for granted. Less dramatic examples, though, affect many of our students, for example:
Students who don’t know the Genesis story from the Bible. This means that, unless it is explicitly taught to them, the idea of original sin, the status of women, imagery of snakes, trees, gardens, paradise and forbidden fruit is all lost on them. These symbols are ubiquitous in Literature – knowing your Bible stories is an important advantage which many do not possess.
Students who don’t know about the history of conflict in Northern Ireland. This bloody history is part of the fabric of these islands and has influenced many writers and the way we see violence, terror, religion and intolerance. Knowing your political history (or any history) is a way in to a shared national consciousness which influences our language and literature.
Students who have a narrow vocabulary will find it more difficult to understand what they read. Even a handful of unfamiliar words can obscure the meaning of a new text.
Students who have never been to the theatre struggle to grasp the physical dimensions of the stage and the experience of an audience when they are studying a play.
Students who don’t know traditional British folklore and legend lack some appreciation of national identity; our sense of ‘Britishness’ is wrapped up in ideas of chivalry, romance, King Arthur, Robin Hood etc. This identity is evident in a huge range of writing – I would defy you to read any national newspaper without finding some evidence of this sense of ‘Britishness’ played out in its pages.
Students who don’t understand the symbolism of colours will miss out on a wealth of literary clues in all texts, e.g. a person with ‘yellow’ skin is one who is unwell, ‘white’ is a symbol of purity and innocence, ‘green’ is a colour of envy.
Without realising it, I made a massive assumption when I taught ‘Nettles’ to my Y10s. On a less extreme level, we are in danger of making similar, smaller assumptions all the time. My students allowed me to teach an entire lesson where the central symbol in the poem, representing pain and childhood, was lost on them; this meant that they didn’t benefit from most of what we covered. If we imagine that a lesson is like a train journey and our job is to get everyone to board the train and get them from point A to point B, these assumptions act as little bumps on the track.
The key bits of cultural knowledge students need are the moments when we must slow the train down, teach explicitly, and navigate those moments so that everyone stays on the train. If we simply assume, and move on at full pelt, then each of these bumps on the track are liable to throw some students off. If we consider the impact of this in the long term, then every time students don’t fully understand content because of gaps in their cultural knowledge, they suffer marginal losses in your subject. These losses are often more frequent and damaging for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Every moment of confusion or lack of understanding makes students feel that they are missing out on some secret body of knowledge, something which is beyond them, something which is part of an elite world.
Cultural poverty is a symptom of an unequal society which values a body of knowledge which is largely the domain of the privileged. The recent curriculum changes have moved us even further into this realm and, though I relish the increase in challenge of the new GCSE, I have huge concerns about the potential for working class students to be left further behind than ever before.
Teachers can’t change society in the short term, but we can do things in our classrooms today which may benefit our young people in the long term:
1. Assume NOTHING. Think carefully about your content and make sure you go over the key information students will need in order to stay on board.
2. Check for understanding and prior knowledge. Ensure that you regularly check that students are on the train. Find out what they already know, where their gaps are, and whether they are following mid-journey.
3. Open communication. Make it the norm in your classrooms for young people to speak up when they hear something with which they are unfamiliar. You are not a mind-reader, so make sure they feel comfortable enough to tell you when they are stuck.
4. Be unapologetically aspirational. Plan to teach beyond the curriculum and expose your students to the most challenging content you can. If you can enhance their reading of a newspaper article with a lecture on some important historical point, then do it. If you can spend fifteen minutes talking about the Latin root of a word, then do it. If you can take time to show students that the ‘secret’ knowledge they see as elite is actually just information like all the rest, perhaps the fear will subside and our students will feel empowered to learn, read, discuss and explore for themselves.
5. Value THEIR culture. Often, our students bring things to the table which we never have the chance to appreciate. The exam board might have made a value judgement on what is ‘high culture’ but, beyond that, our students’ own culture and experiences must be given weight, or we risk committing the worst kind of snobbery, and contribute to the social divide. My students are encouraged to write about their experiences and the things they value; watching a younger sister in Irish dancing competitions, attending Evangelical church services every week, singing at football matches, sewing dresses for a cousin’s wedding, learning dance moves with their friends on YouTube, learning to sing the azaan.
These traditions and cultural practices may not be the foundations of Michael Gove’s idea of great Literature, but they are human and sophisticated and beautiful all the same.
Jennifer Webb is Assistant Principal for Teaching, Learning and Staff Development at a Secondary in West Yorkshire. She tweets @funkypedagogy, blogs at www.funkypedagogy.wordpress.com and her wonderful book, How to Teach English Literature; Overcoming Cultural Poverty is out now.