My First Year in Teaching – Navigating Cultural Capital in the English Classroom
by Eli Baigel – Currently a second-year English teacher and Teacher First participant.
It’s Friday morning, period 1 with year 8. Once yawns and animation about weekend plans have softened, we continue with Of Mice and Men. We have just reached the part where there is a vicious attack by the cruel Curley against the sympathetic, harmless giant – Lennie. It’s one of my favourite parts in the novel and the students joke that they can tell I’m excited because I’ve started to sound a bit like Mickey mouse.
The students are gripped, eyes widening as the tension of the narrative reaches its peak.
Then comes Steinbeck’s piteous metaphor, ‘Lennie covered his face with huge paws and bleated with terror.’ I pause.
‘What do you notice about the way Lennie is described here?’
My aim is to gradually move my questioning towards the higher-level Blooms’ taxonomy probing questions. I aim to engage students in a rewarding discussion about the use of animal imagery, focussing on Steinbeck’s astonishing literary prowess whereby he compares Lennie to both predator and prey in order to create fully three dimensional characters that fly off the page and join us in the classroom. But these techniques drilled into us at the training sessions seem a mile off right now.
The students look up with puzzled expressions.
I think perhaps I have posed the question unclearly.
I rephrase. I pause and I cold-call one of the more confident students. Still no response.
‘Sir, what is bleating?’ He asks.
How silly of me, I should have pre-taught this obscure verb before I started questioning!
‘Great question, it’s the sound a sheep makes.’
More puzzled expressions.
‘A sheep.’ I pause again, waiting for that understanding to sink in. But I am not met with receptive faces and nods, rather with more puzzled faces. Even laughter now.
‘You know like BAAAAAA, a sheep.’
Sheep impressions have never been my forte (my expertise lies mainly within the field of cow noises). Nevertheless, even my best attempt at bleating does nothing to instil any further understanding within the students.
After displaying a short Youtube video of a farm and a follow up lesson where I printed out the quote alongside images of a sheep, these students could now tackle any metaphors about farm animals that came their way – dual coding saved the day! A small win but with big implications.
I think this is the moment that stands out for me most in my first year of teaching.
It taught me an extremely important lesson; never assume understanding based on the idea that something should be considered ‘essential knowledge’.
However, as much as the story had a happy ending, it is still a learning curve in the way in which I have come to understand this experience. I had originally come to understand this experience through the notion of cultural capital. A term, which I used to bandy about, a bit like ‘flattening the curve’ – pretending I knew what it really meant. I had only recently realised the vast and somewhat controversial implications that this edu-buzzword retains.
In 2013, Michael Gove had flung the term into contemporary common usage when he stated that ‘The accumulation of cultural capital… is the key to social mobility.’ Even more interestingly, the term has now become a significant aspect of Ofsted’s observation framework but its contemporary use in educational discourse requires further analysis. ‘Cultural capital’ stems from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who examined how the ruling classes have access to abstract cultural capital as well as physical capital that signifies their higher strata.
The Ofsted definition strays from this original Marxist thought and its ‘cultural capital’ has been defined as, ‘the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement’ (Enser, 2019; Ofsted, 2019). The Ofsted definition places an emphasis on human creativity within classroom practice and encourages a form of cultural literacy when discussing the arts.
My original way of explaining the sheep anecdote had therefore been that the students perhaps lacked cultural capital to understand imagery of rural life due to a mostly urban, inner-city upbringing. However, this sort of interpretation suggests a deficit of knowledge on behalf of these students. It almost sets up a binary opposition between culturally relevant knowledge that must be taught and knowledge which is deemed culturally irrelevant.
This is a very dangerous proposition that can resultantly undermine cultures that do not fit in with the canon of GCSE texts. The Ofsted definition therefore leaves teachers with an astonishingly vast unanswerable question. A question that I certainly did not feel capable of answering within my trainee year. The question of ‘what is considered essential knowledge?’
Shakespeare? Harry Potter? Benjamin Zephaniah? Priestley? Global Warming? Windrush? World War 1? World War 2? The lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody?
It is a question that is weighted, charged and infinitely vague. Akala, in his captivating biography provides astounding food for thought when he questions whether formal education, ‘should be a site of power, a place to reproduce the social, societal norms, or a place to be encouraged to question and thus attempt to transcend them and be an active participant in remaking them.’ I think his question could never be more relevant with the recent debates regarding decolonising the curriculum. This is a fascinating but theoretical conversation and can be difficult to transfer to classroom practice.
The ever-pragmatic Barbara Bleiman of the English and Media Centre presents a similar scepticism regarding the term’s cloudy unanswerable question of which culture is deemed essential but goes on to prompt a more practical classroom approach, arguing that teaching ‘cultural capital’ need not be ‘exhaustive but just enough to illuminate the text’ (Bleiman, 2019). She opts for a ‘when it’s needed, along the way, light touch’ approach’.
Bleiman draws upon the criteria needed at a Cambridge interview and notes that students should display ‘informed enthusiasm and an ability to think independently about your subject… They’re designed to encourage you to think for yourself and develop an argument or tackle a problem.’ (Bleiman, 2019) The essential knowledge needed for the most prestigious universities is more skill-based than knowledge-based.
It is not about whether you know or do not know a piece of culturally specific information but rather whether you can think critically about your chosen topic. In the English-related anecdote above, it is about teaching the skill of metaphor and how it can be applied in various contexts, rather than focussing solely on the context itself.
For me, there are two main takeaways here:
- Teach context only when and where it enriches and expands upon the literature in question.
- Teach criticality of that context (question the credibility source material, the wider socio-political factors at play etc.)
As I go into my NQT year, I hope to move my classroom practice away from being sheepish and bleating away existing societal structures and move it into a classroom that transcends these structures in order to explore multiple cultures through the teaching of critical thinking skills.