What follows is a conversation between me and two year 11 students at school. It happened during a weekly lunchtime intervention session, where we feed the students tea, toast, and sandwiches. We also talk about their progress and help them plan their revision and study time.
This conversation was about the ‘point’ of English. I’ve repeated the convesartion below, as best as I can remember it. I’ve been reluctant to write it for several reasons. Mostly, for fear. Fear of sounding egotistical and self-indulgent, arrogant even. It’s probably the first time that I’ve ever properly been able to answer that question though, the one we might get asked all the time: What is the point of English?
One: No offence sir, but I don’t really like English.
Two: No, me neither, sorry!
Sir: That’s ok. I know you can’t like everything. More importantly, how do you think you’re getting on in English?
One: It’s O.K. But it’s like, you think of something to say, or you spot a really good word to talk about and explain and everything, but when it gets marked you realise you didn’t do it that well.
Two: Yeah I know right! At least in Maths you know whether you’ve got the answer right or not!
Sir: Yeah, I know some people can find that frustrating. It’s quite satisfying solving a Maths problem isn’t it?
One: Yeah and I get it with Maths because you need to be able to work stuff out. But when am I going to need English?
Two: Yeah! When am I going to need to know all this poetry stuff? I get it for, like, application letters and language, but what about poems?
Sir: Well, I understand where you’re coming from. But I do have a couple of answers for you. Can I try and explain?
One: Yeah sir go on.
Sir: Well. Firstly I think English is a really important topic, but I don’t think it’s important just because it helps you get into college or to do A Levels, though I know those things are important too. Have a think about all the best and most amazing, inspiring ideas that anyone has ever had in history. Or the best and most inspiring books anyone has ever written. How are these ideas expressed? Well, with language. And some of that language might be really tough or challenging. But I really want my students, well all students really, to be able to leave school in a position to access those ideas, to read them and decide how they feel about them. English is really important to help you do this – even poems!
And, my second idea – and I wish I said this more often in lessons – is that I think English is good to know for its own sake. Take yesterday. I wasn’t encouraging you to learn sections of London off be heart just for your exam, though I think it’s useful for your exam too. I think it’s just a really great thing to learn. And once you know it, I mean, really know it, you’ll never forget it. Sometimes pieces of knowledge like that will stay with you forever and they will change you as a person, even in a small way. You never know when in the future you might need that piece of knowledge, when it might open up a discussion you wouldn’t have had otherwise, or make you realise something interesting you might not have realised. It’s just useful, you know. Just for you. It’s useful by itself.
Two: We never really get told it like that.
Sir: Yes, I know. And this is quite a personal belief so other people might disagree. You might too! I know that we probably always tell you that subjects are just important because they get you to the next step. But I think they are important just because they are important!
I have one example of what I’m talking about. Promise I’ll be quiet after. Today in my year 7 lesson, just before break, one of the students, a little boy, came up to me at the start of the lesson. He seemed really excited. Normally I might tell him to sit down and start reading, because I was setting up the lesson, but this time I didn’t. Well, we’d been studying The Tempest, which is another Shakespeare play and we’d looked at this famous painting called ‘Miranda’, which is an artist’s impression of one of the characters. Well this boy, who finds English quite difficult, told me a little story about what had happened at the weekend. He was with his uncle, or at his uncle’s and with some family and he noticed a picture. I don’t know if it was on the wall, or if they were out and they saw it. It could have even been in a book. But he saw this picture and said in front of his uncle, ‘That’s Miranda, isn’t it?’ And his uncle was amazed he knew who it was! And this little boy felt great, he’d kept the story to tell me next lesson, days after it had happened. Wow! I thought, that tiny piece of knowledge has made him feel fantastic. To be honest, it made me feel pretty good too. Maybe he’ll always know who ‘Miranda’ is and that she’s this character, or in this painting looking out to sea. Does that make sense?
One: Yeah, yeah it does kind of.
Sir: Well. Good. OK.
Sir: Would either of you like a cup of tea?