UKEdMag: Giving GCSE English Conflict Poetry a Modern Spin by @CazzWebbo

Offering a more balanced and less depressing perspective.

-“War! What is it good for? Absolutely, nothing!” Recognise the song lyrics? I’m sure you do. If not, search for it on YouTube.

This is an extract from the March 2015 Edition of UKEdMagazine. You can order your printed version of the UKEdMagazine by Clicking here, or freely read the Online Version by Clicking here.

I’m teaching GCSE English ELH conflict poetry this half term, focusing on the assessment question, ‘What do the poems you have studied tell you about the lives of soldiers?’ The specific poems we are focusing on include, ‘Charge of the Light Brigade,’ ‘Bayonet Charge’ and ‘Futility’.

They’re all great poems, of course. But after talking to a real soldier this week about this, it struck me how it’s too easy to have a depressing view of the life of a soldier if all we consider are these poems. We would have a view addled by death and misery and suffering. But not all soldiers die, do they? Not all battles are lost, are they? In fact, I’d go so far as to say that some soldiers have some amazing adventures: jungle survival training in Belize, Arctic and ski training in Norway, field training in Canada, and not forgetting P Company training for Para’s and the like.

So although these GCSE poems give students a tiny historical insight of what a few soldiers experienced in the past, and although we should give respect to those who lost their lives as a soldier, I don’t think we should be satisfied with leaving students with a jaundiced view of what the life of a soldier is like for all soldiers. We need to shed a tad more positivity on the matter than that, surely?

I teach GCSE English to Public Services students on Wednesday mornings (they are on entry to the armed forces type courses). They are the most lively bunch of kids you’ll ever meet, full of vitality and bursting with enthusiasm for getting into their chosen vocational area. How will I be helping them to engage with GCSE English poetry? I won’t be leaving them with a dark and dismal interpretation of the life of a soldier at all if I can possibly help it.

The soldier, from bomb disposal in Colchester, who I talked to earlier this week, said, “In modern times there is obviously no national service, so it’s an individuals choice to enlist. After you take the oath of allegiance you are officially sworn in as a soldier of HM Armed Forces, you are then given a start date for basic training, which is usually a few weeks away, so you have several weeks to prepare yourself physically and mentally for what lies ahead! This is a very important period for a soldier, during this time a soldier will say his first goodbyes to his family and friends, and as basic training draws closer the more nervous you become. Mixed emotions of excitement and sadness – the excitement of setting off on a new adventure and the sadness of leaving loved ones behind.”

I shared this with one of my classes last week after doing work on Charge of the Light Brigade. They were a group of Childhood Studies students. Their response? “Do they use sniffer dogs in bomb disposal? And how long is the training?” The soldier replied: “We do EOD dogs, and my basic training lasted 10 weeks followed by phase two trade training of 12 weeks”. We then watched a little YouTube video highlighting the P Company training the soldier had done.

My students were totally enthralled …

Click here to read the remainder of the article freely in the March 2015 Online Edition of UKEdMagazine

Carol Webb teaches GCSE English and HND Business & Management within FE. You can read her blog at Carol’s Learning Curve – and follow her on Twitter @CazzWebbo


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