By Lleucu Siencyn
When it comes to our children getting a rounded education we should make time for imagination and our own literary heritage, says the Literature Wales boss.
Children should be encouraged to read beyond what’s on the curriculum, says Lleucu.
One of my favorite passages of poetry comes from Coleridge’s “The Frost at Midnight”.
The poet recalls dreaming “with unclosed lids” during a school lesson, thinking fondly of home and playtime, until he wakes to the sound of the classroom door opening. He looks up, and — for a brief second — imagines that somebody from his family is at the door, and has come to fetch him early from school.
We can all relate to this brief, but unfulfilled, moment of excitement and of expectation:
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!
Ironically (or appropriately), when I first heard this poem, I too was gazing out of the window — in a trance — and completely ignoring my teacher—a million miles from anywhere.
What you read at school can be very influential.
What you don’t read at school, however, can be essential.
In-between the structured learning, the soft grey areas of daydreaming and imagination can shape our futures.
A school curriculum is vital to set out the parameters of what should be learnt—when and how and with whom.
Literature, however, requires something else.
Extra-curricular reading and learning is arguably more important, and helps us to develop a rounded view of understanding and of creativity.
If we only stick to what we officially learn at school, then our education never evolves, and we fail to connect meanings and messages.
Two widely read exam texts in English and Welsh are the novels To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and Un Nos Ola Leuad (1961).
I studied them more than 20 years ago, as they had been studied for almost 20 years previously—and their popularity has not waned.
There is nothing wrong with these books.
In fact they’re groundbreaking novels, dealing with vital issues, and — at the time of their publication — they were considered subversive. It’s just that, sometimes, it feels like our reading habits and literary tastes have been frozen in time.
Introducing students to new voices in literature — particularly those that sound familiar to them — can inspire a new appetite for reading.
As well as the classics from the canon, young people should be encouraged to discover contemporary Welsh writers such as Cynan Jones, Rachel Trezise, Dewi Prysor, Rhian Edwards and Llwyd Owen—to name but a few.
How many of our brilliant English and Welsh teachers are authorized to recommend these books to their students?
We need our teachers to be given the confidence and encouragement to help their students break from the cycle of traditional reading.
It’s not just contemporary fiction from Wales that’s being passed over in favor of the classics.
It’s quite possible to go through English-medium education in Wales without ever being taught anything by a Welsh author.
I’ve met many former students — my age and younger – who never studied R.S. Thomas, Alun Lewis, Brenda Chamberlain…or even Dylan Thomas.
If there’s a legacy therefore for this year’s Dylan Thomas centenary, it should be the realization that we have our own literary heritage to celebrate, in both languages and — more important — that our literature is alive and kicking.
Through the celebrity of Dylan, we can shine a light on the wealth of other literature we have. We can make positive changes in the way that we teach literature to young people in Wales, and –- in so doing — to instill a sense of pride and of nationhood, and a love of reading, which should last a lifetime.