Last week, Chair of the NZ Book Awards Trust Nicola Legat called for more New Zealand titles to be taught in schools. We asked writer, father and high school teacher Bernard Beckett for his reaction to the call.
Which books ‘make the grade’, when it comes to teaching, and why? The New Zealand Book Council is currently surveying schools to get a clearer picture.
To be a school teacher is to serve many masters. From the needs of the students, to the hopes of their parents, constraints of assessment regimes, demands of bureaucracies and marketing ambitions of nervous communities: it’s a rare day when we please everybody.
You will forgive our lack of celebratory jig, then, when on the news we are also the nominated custodians of our cultural heritage, and special guardians of the nation’s publishing industry. It’s not that I’m against the idea of New Zealand literature in our schools. In fact I think it a splendid idea, especially so when any of the books are mine. And I think the arguments in favour of putting local stories in the hands of our kids are mostly sound: if literature does indeed happen in that moment where we realise we are not alone, then the connection is both more likely and more vital when the depicted world is at its most recognisable. But for a teacher, the question is not so much whether this argument is valid, but rather whether it has sufficient force to overwhelm the daily chalkface imperatives.
The teacher’s first hope is that they will find texts to enliven their students. They want to see students engaging with books with the sort of enthusiasm that extends well beyond the school’s boundaries. Their priority is to find the books that will inspire a passion for reading. If that book also happens to be local, that’s a bonus, but it can’t be the primary goal. My parental impulse is exactly the same. We are current reading our boys the first books in the Harry Potter series, and the story has set their imagination on fire. Add in the very real bonus of a sequence of quality films and the cultural currency of a series that has achieved 450 million in sales (they love it, their friends love it, and so they love it all the more) and you’ve got an experience that no local offering can compete with. We’re not about to deprive them of the joy of Potter because the books weren’t written in Taihape, any more than we were ever going to keep them from watching Toy Story because it’s not indigenous, or tell them they can’t listen to Ezra Furman because he didn’t grow up in Dunedin.
As it is in homes, so it is in the classroom. Teachers have the best of the world to choose from. In the YA realm, we’re up against the Melvin Burgesses and M T Andersons of this world, the Neil Gaimans, David Almonds and Philip Pullmans (yes, I’m a boy). A good teacher sees every choice of title as an opportunity to hook their students on reading for life, and they take that role very seriously. They’re not looking for a good book, but rather the very best book they know of, at that particular time, for that particular student or class. Sometimes that will be a book by a New Zealand author (I’m delighted to report that Sydney Bridge Upside Down is taught in our school, and what an inspired selection that is) but most of the time it won’t be. That’s not a sleight on us as New Zealand writers, it’s just an inevitable function of the fact that there are an awful lot of excellent writers out there in the big wide world, and a lot of the time, their work is going to be the best option for the teacher.
In the YA field this challenge has been compounded by the recent Hollywood trend of adapting bestsellers to the big screen. The Twilight, Hunger Games, Fault in Our Stars juggernaut has turned the fortunate few into superstars, and these are the books pre-teens flock to of their own volition. And as you move on to the senior secondary years, a different factor comes into play, and makes it even more difficult for the local title to find a place to breathe. Not only are we competing with the classics (Shakespeare’s not about to be replaced by an Aotearoa bard any time soon) and the daunting body of contemporary fiction on offer from Cormac McCarthy, Tim Winton, Zadie Smith et al., but we’re trying to get on the lists of a subject where students are rewarded for engaging with established criticism. And there isn’t as much criticism of New Zealand literature available, and that creates a bias against the use of local work.
There are other forces at play, of course. One is undoubtedly the inertia that results when you put too much administrative pressure on a workforce. Cut out the time to read for pleasure, discover and discuss, and you end up with teachers who, through no fault of their own, default to the texts they’re taught before. Another is the ongoing internationalisation of youth. Whether we should be thanking or blaming the internet for this outcome is controversial, but a great many of our students can name more American basketball players than they can provincial rugby stars. So, when they go looking for writing they can relate to, it’s no sure thing that the answer will come wrapped in a black singlet and wearing gumboots.
None of this is to say we shouldn’t be trying to get more New Zealand literature into New Zealand schools. Rather, understanding the nature of the problem can help re-direct our solutions. It’s not helpful to repeat the ‘our writing is as good as anywhere in the world’ mantra, because when it comes to selecting the one or two texts a year will be built about, teachers are just not going to believe it. Rather than going head to head on quality alone, the answer has got to involve levering the advantages of local work as much as possible. Clearly programmes like Writers in Schools work on exactly this principle. Study a local book and you can discuss it with the author, in person. Okay, you’ll have to battle the ‘author is dead’ stalwarts, but lunatics are a problem everywhere. And I’m yet to attend a writers’ festival anywhere in the world that cracks the problem of involving school students anywhere near as well as Auckland does. So building on those successes is a grand first step.
An easily accessed and widely publicised resource pointing senior students to relevant criticisms of local work would probably help. Sponsoring book clubs for teachers, and seeing if it can be sold under the professional development umbrella (the one place in schools where there’s more money than quality spending options) might just work a treat.
And finally, I’d suggest, given the impediments to access, it’s probably a good time to recalibrate our expectations, and celebrate the successes we are having in the classroom more - if only because gratitude and enthusiasm sell way better than entitlement.