How Inclusive is your English Literature syllabus?

Sir, when are we going to study a book that is not about a sulky teenage boy on a beach – year 9 Girl

How inclusive is your English literature curriculum? What authors are you studying and who are the key characters?

This short video made during the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival could be a useful starting pint for a discussion on the decisions schools and teachers make about the literature selected for study.

In the video, children’s authors Kirsty Murray and Mike Bartlett suggest that our efforts over the past two decades to encourage boys to read has had the unintended effect of increasing the level of gender stereotyping in children’s literature.*

Murray reports that there are many schools where girls can go right through from year 7 to yr 12 without ever studying a single novel with a strong female protagonist. Is this because we are so fearful of putting the boys off? What is the impact of this on girls and on boys?

In an article in The Saturday Paper, Samantha Trenoweth talks as a parent about the accidental discovery about this issue at her daughter’s school

“…a week before the start of school … I logged on to the school intranet, printed the year 10 book list…

I ticked off the set English texts: Orwell, Steinbeck, Shakespeare. All important writers but, damn, no women again. I’d loved Harper Lee, Jane Austen and the Brontës when I was 15. I’d nicked off with my parents’ copy of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and, at the urging of a history teacher, read Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police. So I’d read eclectically but mostly they were books by women.

It occurred to me, that night, that there had been no books by women on last year’s school list either. Had there been any the year before?

I downloaded the 2014 lists for years 7 to 12. There was one book by a female author for year 7 (Red by Libby Gleeson). After that, students of Standard English at my daughter’s school weren’t set another book by a woman ever, all the way through high school. Students of Advanced and Extension English fared slightly better. Nothing until year 11, when they were plunged into the deep end with Virginia Woolf (forgive the terrible pun), followed by a bonanza of Dickinson, Plath and Modjeska in year 12.

I was perplexed. We’re talking about an enlightened, inclusive co-ed school here, and the school was certainly responsible. State government bodies set texts for the final years of high school (those studied for the VCE, the HSC and so on), but book choices from kindergarten to year 10 are left to individual schools.

So, was this an oversight? Had the school decided women’s writing was so complex that only advanced year 12 students could safely grapple with it? Or was it that old chestnut that tells us girls will read anything but boys will only read books by and about themselves?

I wasn’t the only mother who’d noticed. A bunch of us wrote a very polite and up-beat letter to the head of English …

The teacher responded by conceding that this topic was often discussed over the English staffroom urn. We were floored. Really? Women’s contribution to the literary canon is still up for discussion over a Bushells and a Scotch Finger in 2014? Enough with the preamble! Surely it’s time to just add the books.”

This issue goes beyond the English curriculum. As one woman writer, Robyn Black who constantly gets asked by men at book launches to sign books for their wives reflects:

“… I am [also] filled more with questions about the larger implications of men not reading fiction by women than about the causes. If you think that because I’m female what I have to say in my novel won’t interest you, what about the things I say when I am talking to you about the research project in which we’re both engaged? About the funding needed for the public school system? How about when I am arguing a case in court? Filing an insurance claim?

Is it credible that fiction occupies a unique place? Credible that men who dismiss what female storytellers have to say as irrelevant to them, aren’t also inclined to dismiss – albeit unconsciously – what females of every variety have to say? To think it somehow less relevant than what the other men say? Is it credible that this often unexamined aversion is a special case of some kind? A glitch?”

The Stella Schools Program is a new initiative designed to address this issue. Its goal is to change this culture and inspire students – girls and boys alike –to engage with quality literature that includes female authors and female characters and that engages the whole spectrum of human experience.

The Stella Program has a focus on Girls and Boys from Year 7 -12 and offers the following:
• School visits by notable Australian writers, educators and publishers;
• Hands-on writing workshops;
• Teaching notes on all Stella Prize shortlisted books (for Years 10–12);
• Resources for all secondary-school levels; and,
• PD for teachers and librarians.

You can find out more about their activities here.

This is a great start but isn’t waiting to year 7 a bit too late to address this issue?

*The video discussion is limited in that it examines the issues only from a gender perspective. So it needs to be seen as a starting point only.

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