Reflections on decolonising the curriculum in A Level English

Following the introduction of a postcolonial literature unit in English Literature this year at A Level, Sarah Lindon writes up reflections from a discussion she had with fellow English teacher James Courtenay Clack and students in Year 13, to reflect on what has been valuable about it and what needs further thought

As part of an informal review of the English Department’s work so far on decolonising the curriculum at A Level, we met with Year 13 English Literature students to ask for their feedback before they went on study leave. Those who took part were from the first cohort to undertake the unit on postcolonial texts and theories, which culminated in a coursework task comparing Kiran Desai’s ‘An Inheritance of Loss’ and the poetry of Derek Walcott. We were keen to hear what they thought was of value academically and on a wider human level, and what some of the problems were.

Exploring human experiences

Students told us that while historical accounts gave them factual understanding of aspects of empire, what they valued about looking at Literature was gaining a sense of the plurality of human experiences under colonisation, and appreciating the imaginative depth involved in exploring individual lives through narrative and metaphor. When studying historical facts and following debates in the media, they felt it was easy to become distanced from the subject matter, particularly for those without their own experiences that might resonate with those of oppressed people.

Though they felt in some respects more ‘in touch’ with experiences of colonisation as represented in literature, through having them presented on a ‘narrative plane’, they were nonetheless alert to the danger of becoming ‘narrative tourists’. With Walcott’s poetry especially, metaphor was pinpointed as a powerful vehicle for conveying experiences and ideas. Desai’s use of narrative flashbacks as a tool for interrogating colonialism was highly effective in allowing exploration of the fracturing and evolution of identity. These were methods that they felt gave them deeper insight into the perspectives, thoughts and feelings relating to experiences of imperial domination.

These observations connect with debates about the role literature can play in developing empathy and altruism in readers. Ann Jurecic has suggested that while reading literature does not automatically produce empathy, ‘educators can encourage readers to take advantage of the invitation to dwell in uncertainty and to explore the difficulties of knowing, acknowledging, and responding to others’[i]. Building on this, Omri Cohen suggests the importance of exploring ‘the ways in which reading literature may curb or defeat empathic motivations’[ii]. Both writers engage with Raymond Williams’ view that ‘sympathy experienced [while] reading about…suffering…privatises a social emotion, counteracting the motivation for public action’, and the observations of Lauren Berlant that empathy can be a ‘civic-minded but passive ideal’ and a form of ‘false knowledge’ (cited in Jurecic), and that reading can even provide a ‘false transcendence’ through ‘passive empathy’ (cited in Cohen). Students didn’t seem to have reached a firm standpoint in this regard, but were indeed dwelling in uncertainty.

The importance of listening

Our Year 13s had learnt that the legacy of empire is very much present in the world around them now, which was new to them. All of them had reflected more deeply on their own identities. For those with mixed heritage, this brought increased interest in both areas of privilege and areas of difficulty that their identities entail for them, when considered through exploring figures in the poetry and the novel.

And yet, when the group reflected on whether they now felt more equipped to engage in discussions of empire and its ramifications, they were cautious. While they might have gained a stronger sense of its importance and meanings as a topic, they also felt that such discussions had become harder for them in some ways.

Rather than feeling more inclined to contribute to discussions on topics around empire, racial politics, social justice and inclusion, some students felt they would now have a strong preference for contributing less and listening more, to learn from others. They were aware of how they, like any other group, bring a very specific perspective to these conversations, as members of the majority culture. They had a new appreciation for the strong value of words and their unintended meanings. And they valued what they characterised as a new atmosphere in lessons, where they took more time to listen and connect, saying it wasn’t enough just to bring bubbly energy. They knew that they didn’t always have the answers, and that collaboration and taking in others’ views was essential.

They contrasted this with a kind of complacency they feel susceptible to in relation to the ‘Women in Literature’ component of the course, where their identification with female characters potentially blunts their critical attention and alertness to differences across texts, oeuvres, time periods and cultures. With new awareness of different kinds of oppression, they could now make connections and distinctions in relation to reading for ‘Women in Literature’. They were very engaged by finding new perspectives on more traditionally canonical texts such as Jane Eyre too. Overall, they felt a key legacy of this unit for them as readers was that they would be more aware of the benefits of reconsidering their first reading of a text and exploring other viewpoints.

Reading in the round

One of the most important areas for us to think about as teachers now is how the comparison aspect of the task often led students to read the poetry through their interpretations of Desai’s novel, which meant that the full richness of Walcott’s work and ideas was not brought out as much as we hoped. For practical reasons, students read the novel before turning to the poetry, and we would like to reconsider this for next year, especially since Desai arguably emphasises the traumatic aspect of postcolonial experience above all, while Walcott’s vision acknowledges this but also allows for a generative, creative, plural response to it, and looks to forms of identity that are not just constricted, defined or distorted by colonial legacies

In this vein, we are keen to think further about the dangers of looking at identity in reductive ways. Literature is by its nature multivocal, dialogic, intertextual and complex. The risk of ‘flattening’ texts with one-dimensional readings is one that we need to push against continually, and we will be thinking afresh about this after seeing how that tendency worked out sometimes in this unit to reduce Caribbean literature only to its representation of oppression and suffering , as it sometime does with ‘Women in Literature’ as well. This is diminishing of authors and texts, of what literary craft is about, and of our understanding of human diversity, creativity and identity. We will work further on bringing out more powerfully the communicative and recreative powers of literature, which allow it to ‘talk back’ to power, to social and cultural currents, and to difficult histories and experiences.

[i] Jurecic, Ann. “Empathy and the Critic.” College English, vol. 74, no. 1, 2011, pp. 10–27, Accessed 12 May 2022.

[ii] Omri Cohen (2021) Teaching self-critical empathy: lessons drawn from The Tortilla Curtain and Half of a Yellow Sun, English in Education, 55:2, 132-148, DOI: 10.1080/04250494.2019.1686953

Teaching and learning Gem #47 – Action Research: Pedagogies to Account for Racial Diversity in English

This is the second in of our special Friday Gems focussed on Action Research. Today’s is about Lucia’s brilliant Action Research over the last two terms, which links closely to our EDI priority.

Lucia was interested in exploring Year 9 students’ perceptions of the everyday language of the diverse speaker, and how we can change our teaching to redress any value judgements students might make. The expectations of exam boards for students to use ‘standard English’ means that judgements might unconsciously be perpetuated about the way individuals speak. By using pedagogies to allow students to be able to analyse AAV (African American Vernacular), she wanted to see whether our students were able to move beyond seeing ‘non-standard’ English as ‘slang’ or as ‘less rich’. In short, Lucia’s Action Research is all about anti-racist pedagogies.

To read more about her findings, please see attached Lucia’s brilliant write-up of her Action Research below:

Why studying English can help change the world

Miss Lucinda Gilchrist contests current political orthodoxies that devalue the study of Arts and Humanities subjects, and asserts the profound importance of English at A Level and beyond

Image Credit:

The national picture

The study of English Literature and Language at A Level and at university in the UK is in decline – there has been a 23% drop in pupils taking A Level English Literature since 2017[i]. While numbers of A Level English Literature students at Wimbledon High remains robust, nonetheless there are powerful currents shaping the national context, which need to be challenged.

The political trend of steering of students towards STEM subjects has had a significant impact on the perception and take-up of English Literature, while reductions in government funding to the Arts is scuppering the effective running of departments and courses, devaluing the Arts conceptually and monetarily. This is entirely at odds with our STEAM+ agenda at WHS, which celebrates the power of interdisciplinary learning and the equal value of all subjects in our curriculum.

However, the National Association of Teachers of English (NATE) argues that the decline can also partially be attributed to neglect of the ‘big picture’ of English teaching, due to a model of literary texts as ‘cultural capital’[ii], which reductively posits literary study as developing declarative knowledge of canonical texts.

But where are students going if they aren’t studying English? Geography entries at A Level in the UK have risen by 16%, something that the Geographical Association has attributed in part to increased concerns in young people about the environment[iii]. Subjects like the Sciences and Geography are perceived to equip students with the skills and qualities they need to make an active and positive change in the world, while English and other arts subjects have been unflatteringly described by the former Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, as ‘dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt’[iv].

What can we do to change this?

NATE recommends thinking about English as than ‘a means of pleasurable reflection on and participation in life’, through we can examine ourselves and the world around us. Diversifying the curriculum is one crucial example of how English can engage in and contribute to work of great cultural and social value. The English department are working hard to identify ways to decolonise the curriculum, with a new post-colonial literature unit at A Level, a new ‘Singing the Self’ Year 9 poetry unit, and the addition of texts by a diverse range of writers into the Year 8 Fiction Fest. This is not a fast process, and it’s important to avoid superficial measures, instead interrogating our own assumptions and contesting dominant narratives.

Furthermore, as Angus Fletcher argues in Wonderworks, literature is responsible for some of the greatest philosophical and psychological inventions in the history of mankind: ‘[it is] a narrative-emotional technology that helped our ancestors cope with the psychological challenges posed by human biology. It was an invention for overcoming the doubt and pain of just being us.’[v] Fletcher gives a compelling account of how writers have maximised neurological and psychological processes, using the language and structure of texts as ways into the human mind, enabling humanity to improve itself in the process.

The study of literature, therefore, is just as important a tool to make the world a better place as the Sciences and Geography. For example, as Ms Lindon has suggested, eco-poetry ‘can generate the imaginative power to help us dwell better, if we allow it to act upon us’[vi]. Fletcher comments on the power of poetic diction to help us look at the world anew: the inverted word order of ‘the flower blue’ rather than ‘the blue flower’ defamiliarizes us with something we might ignore as ‘boringly ordinary, and [inspires] us to see fresh details, fresh points of emphasis, fresh opportunities for discovery’.

What does this look like in English at WHS?

The texts explored in English at WHS offer many opportunities to examine or defamiliarize the world and summon up ‘imaginative power to help us dwell better’. For example, in studying Shakespeare, we deconstruct 16th century attitudes to issues such as gender, sexuality, wealth, race and colonialism, helping us contextualise the discourses and complexities of debates around the same topics today. At GCSE, you may read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go and explore the pressures of being ‘normal’ through the perspective of Kathy, a clone created for organ donations, desperately trying meet social expectations for human behaviour when that same society views her as less than human. As Fletcher argues, literary forms themselves are ‘inventions’ which unlock our empathy, defamiliarize and refamiliarize, and help us understand and interact with the world and each other better.

Thus, English lessons are likely to be in equal part inspiring and challenging, especially where we need to acknowledge our own blind spots and where we have been influenced by powerful social and cultural narratives. We need to have a flexible ‘growth’ mindset about tackling complex issues and encountering literature’s transformative power over our minds. The English Department’s new mission statement articulates our aims in tackling the ‘big picture’ of learning in English head on.

The study of language and literature is the study of the human condition: how we behave, think, feel, how we respond to political and social changes. As such, in English we can expect to come across issues and themes which are complex, challenging, troubling and exciting, and which speak to society and culture today as much as they did in a text’s original context. In exploring these texts we have an opportunity to interrogate the issues which affect us in society at large, and in English lessons we agree to sit in the discomfort, pull apart these topics, searching for ways of understanding and ways to engage with the world, and developing the language to speak about what affects us. We know that these debates resist easy answers and that everyone gets things wrong sometimes, so English lessons are a mutually respectful open space to explore, develop new ways of looking at our society and culture, and finally to create and enjoy those texts which inspire us.

English may often deal in hypotheticals, imaginary worlds, or historical contexts far removed from our own, making it seem detached from the immediate problems of our world. But in fact, this very quality is why the study of literature allows us to develop frameworks and language to engage more deeply in life, and to effect meaningful change in this world and in ourselves.





[v] Fletcher, A. (2021) Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature, New York: Simon and Schuster.


Cross-Curricular Education: fostering links between English and PE through cricket

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” – CLR James

“I understand cricket – what’s going on, the scoring – but I can’t understand why.” – Bill Bryson

Mr James Courtenay-Clack, English Teacher and Head of Year 9 at WHS, looks at the possible links between English and PE.

You may have noticed that the idea of ‘cross-curricular’ education is having a bit of a moment. Making links between disciplines and across subjects is undoubtedly rewarding and helps pupils to move beyond a straightjacketed approach that keeps everyone and everything in their own place. There are some subjects that fit together so naturally it hardly seems worthy of mention.

As an English teacher, it is rare to plan a unit of work that doesn’t in some way cross over with both the arts and humanities subjects. To pick one example, the current Year 13 students have been writing a coursework essay that compares Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with the poetry of TS Eliot. In this unit they studied the philosophy of Albert Camus and Soren Kierkegaard, post-WW1 European history and the climate emergencies of the 21st Century. They also explored the fragmented voices of Eliot’s poetry alongside Picasso and jazz. All of this I (and hopefully they) would argue, helped to enrich their experience of the literary texts they were studying.

There have also been links made with other subjects that are not usually seen as having much to do with literature. We have had a STEAM lesson that explored the science of nerve gas alongside Wilfred Owen’s poetry and I know that the Maths department produced some wonderful number-based poetry. What I would like to draw attention to in this article, however, is the links between English and another part of the curriculum that have for too long gone unnoticed.

Now, it might be thought that English and PE are not natural bedfellows. In the staff rooms of our cultural imagination, you could not ask for two more diametrically opposed tribes. The stereotype of the PE teacher, head to toe in school stash, whistle at the ready and exuding the aura of good health that comes only from breathing in the sweet, sweet fresh air of Nursery Road, does not fit well with that of the bookish, tweedy English teacher. Of course, all of this, as stereotypes so often are, is complete rubbish. Mr Daws seems to have run more marathons than had hot dinners and if I wanted a book recommendation I could do far worse than turn to Ms Cutteridge.  

Now this article is far too short to be able to tackle the many links between English and all of the sports played at WHS, so I am going to focus on just one, cricket.

WHS Cricket

You may roll your eyes at this, but I believe that cricket can tell us as much about the messy business of being a human being as any other cultural practice. This is something that has been explored by a surprising number of writers and so I would like to take a look at just four examples where cricket and literature combine in illuminating ways.

The Pickwick Papers – Charles Dickens

Whilst Dickens doesn’t actually appear to understand the laws of the game, the cricket match between All-Muggleton and Dingley Dell in his wonderful novel does reveal an important truth about cricket and life: friendship and conviviality are far more important than material success. Also, that exercise is more fun when followed by a substantial multi-course feast.

‘Vitai Lampada’ – Henry Newbolt

This almost impossibly Victorian poem begins in the final moments of a school cricket match – ‘ten to make and the match to win’ – before moving to a soldier dying on a battlefield in an unnamed part of the British Empire. Newbolt’s refrain ‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’ gives us insight to a worldview that is almost entirely alien in 2021, but that goes someway in helping us to understand our own history.

The Legend of Pradeep Mathew – Shehan Karunatilaka

I love this novel. Karunatilaka uses cricket – or a dying sports journalist’s futile attempts to track down the greatest bowler of all time – to explore the political and social history of postcolonial Sri Lanka. If that all sounds a bit dry, please don’t be put off. It is rambunctious, hilarious and well aware of both its own and cricket’s ridiculousness.

Beyond a Boundary – CLR James

This is widely argued to be the best book about sport ever written. James, a Marxist intellectual, traces his own interest in the game alongside Trinidad’s journey towards independence. He reflects on how both cricket and English literature were introduced to the Caribbean as ways of enforcing British supremacy and sees in both the potential for anti-colonial rebellion.

I hope this whistle stop tour goes some way to showing that the cultural practices of cricket and literature both help to illuminate what it means to be a human being and that the symbiotic benefits that arise from studying English and playing cricket together are just as valid as those that arise from any other subject.

The two epigraphs I have chosen sum this up beautifully. I deliberately misread Bill Bryon’s puzzlement as to the point of cricket and imagine that he too wants to know all about its cultural value. More seriously, CLR James paraphrases Kipling by asking ‘what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ and urges us to look beyond the boundary at the world around us. This is the best metaphor for cross-curricular education that I can think of and for that reason I am proposing a mighty union between the English and PE departments. Perhaps we could even build our own version of the STEAM Tower…

To what extent is the global spread of the English language a positive development for the world?

Malin in Year 13 looks at the internationalisation of the English language, and the impacts this has had on the global community.

1.5 billion of the world’s population of 7.5 billion are able to speak English, albeit that only 380 million of these people speak it as their first language. The remaining 1.12 billion have learnt English as a second or third language, and this number is growing all the time given that English is the most commonly studied foreign language in the world. In my talk today, I will be exploring the extent to which the global expansion of the English language is a positive development for the world.


I will touch upon the pros and cons of the development of a dominant global language but also focus on some of the opportunities a greater ease of global communication can provide.

One of the most obvious pros of the increasing influence (and dominance) of English is that it provides a common language to make communication in a globalised age less difficult. This facilitates the transmission of world knowledge and increases understanding and interconnectedness, helping to draw unity from diversity. People from different countries and cultures around the world; Bermuda, Fiji, Ireland, Singapore, Guyana, America, can all come together and communicate with a shared language despite their apparent differences. A common language also extremely beneficial in the world of business as effective communication is key within many fields, such as international trade, banking and finance, as well as diplomacy, research and media. Through having people from different backgrounds work as a collective, numerous new opportunities for collaboration can arise.

Furthermore, in comparison to other widely spoken, international languages such as Spanish and Chinese, the English language is seen as a less redundant language due to its simple alphabet and the lack of a need to assign genders to nouns. This can make it easier for non-native speakers to learn, especially at a conversational level which in turn can explain the positive spread of the language due to its ‘face-surface simplicity’.

English speakers by % country population. Source


On the other hand, there is an acknowledged risk that the predominance of English as a common global language may result in the marginalisation of other less popular languages, whilst also encouraging a degree of cultural ignorance. With the success of English, particularly in international business, minority languages can be perceived as ‘unnecessary’ as they do not appear as useful in a number of scenarios – whether that is in an economic sense or in popular media. This creates a potentially hazardous situation where languages may die out, often resulting in the loss of valuable traditions, knowledge of certain cultural heritage, and life perspectives. For example, in Indonesia, where the national language is Bahasa Indonesia, due to the increasing global use of English, a mastery of Indonesian has become increasingly proportional to the social hierarchy, with the result that people who are fluent in English are considered to be of a higher class and more intellectually capable. As a result, Bahasa Indonesia has been demoted to a second-class status, where in some more extreme cases, Indonesians may take pride in speaking it poorly. There is a risk that this loss in popularity of minority languages could result in even greater ‘Westernisation’ of the world and a lack of interest in learning the culture of less dominant societies.

Furthermore, whilst communication barriers are being broken down between people from different countries, new generational barriers are developing between people living in the same country. Younger generations more comfortable in English will struggle to communicate with older generations who are less well equipped to learn English and newer ways of communicating (a multi-faceted problem not just of language), which again may inhibit the generational transmission of cultures and heritage.

Nevertheless, while it is likely that the use of less popular languages will decrease as the growth in the use of English spreads, it is always possible for people to learn English whilst still retaining their ability to speak their local language, hopefully ensuring that their heritage and culture is not completely lost.

Despite the global spread of English having potentially negative consequences for less popular languages and less dominant cultures, overall, it can be argued that the positives outweigh the negatives and the spread of English offers potentially significant opportunities through greater global communication, increased international understanding and economic well-being.

Recursive Creative Improvisation: STEAM+ in action

Rebecca Owens (Head of Art), Lucinda Gilchrist (Head of English) and Richard Bristow (Director of Music & SMT Secondee) reflect on recent work completed by WHS pupils combining three art forms; writing poetry, painting and performing music. This event formed part of the recent STEAM Tower opening.

Rebecca Owens – the view from the artist

The Golden Ratio (picture – Wikipedia)
Above: The Golden Ratio (picture – Wikipedia)

The links between art, poetry and music are many and varied, exemplified in the shared language around the disciplines such as composition, rhythm, tone, accent, vibrancy, dynamism. In an effort to create an emotional response in their audiences, visual artists, architects, composers and authors often use underlying mathematical concepts such as the Golden Section in their works. For example, Mozart made use of the Golden Section proportions in many of his piano sonatas. As we are all familiar with seeing the Golden Section sequence in nature, the use of these proportions and divisions in Art and Music is something the artist or composer hopes will help induce a natural affinity towards the composition, enhancing the sense of harmony in the piece of Music or Art.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a music lover and first realised the emotional power of music when listening to Wagner’s opera ‘Lohengrin’ in 1880. He then became friends with Schönberg, whose 12-tone method of composition was a turning point in 20th century music. As Kandinsky’s work developed, he came to believe that painting, as with music, should inspire emotions without having to necessarily be a visual representation of a particular thing, place or person. Arguably the first abstract artist, he transformed the course of Art using his synaesthesia to inspire his painting. Colours in his mind were linked to sound, shapes and emotions. Kandinsky said ‘The sound of colours is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble’.

Kandinsky ‘Color Study. Squares with Concentric Circles’
Above: Kandinsky ‘Color Study. Squares with Concentric Circles’

Schonberg’s ‘5 Klavierstücke, Op. 23 No. 5’ bars 1-4 where all twelve tones of the chromatic scale are used with equality, creating atonality which breaks free from tonal hierarchies established in previously tonal music.
Schonberg’s ‘5 Klavierstücke, Op. 23 No. 5’ bars 1-4 where all twelve tones of the chromatic scale are used with equality, creating atonality which breaks free from tonal hierarchies established in previously tonal music.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) who created rhythmical paintings, in which he almost danced over the large-scale canvas which he laid out on the floor. He was obsessed with Jazz music listening to Jazz records for days on end and the controlled elegant movements with which he poured, dripped and threw the paint onto the canvasses, conveyed the dynamism and freedom of Jazz music.

Pollock ‘Convergence’
Pollock ‘Convergence’

Agnes Martin (1912-2004) often discussed the interest in the emotions that music created in her work, and for her there was a powerful link between music and her form of minimalist abstract art. She said ‘Our response to line and tone and colour is the same as our response to sounds. And like music, abstract art is thematic. It holds meaning beyond the power of words’.

Martin ‘Summer’
Martin ‘Summer’

These were some of the starting points for the art scholars, when exploring the connections between music and art, which was initially planned for our Cadogan Hall concert in March 2020. Sadly, owing to the pandemic, this event was cancelled, but the work and ideas were instead put towards the opening of our STEAM Tower in November 2020, with the addition of poets composing alongside the artists and musicians.

The artists responded to the rhythms, the tones and the emotions the music inspires as we work. As with all Art, there will be no correct answer, and in this experiment the process of creating the work will be as important as the outcomes. The speed with which one works undoubtedly affects the marks one makes. With timed drawings, which is something we often use in Life drawing classes, the fluidity and spontaneity of the marks created often more that makes up for the less accurate proportions. With less than 10 minutes to work on these pieces it will be interesting to see how each person responds differently to the music and how the canvasses develop during the time.

Kandinsky ‘Composition, VII’
Kandinsky ‘Composition, VII’

Alex in Year 13 reflects on the creation of her artwork: “Exploring links between different forms of creativity was fascinating. In this process I was able to respond to the music I heard and the poetry I read with a variety of colours, mark-making, and compositions. I was most influenced by replicating bow movements with brush strokes, which gave energy and flow to my artwork. This activity developed my skills as an artist as I was more aware of each creative decision I made.”

View some of the art created during the STEAM opening below.


Lucinda Gilchrist – the view from the poet

 We know proverbially that ‘two heads are better than one’, but collaboration is more than just combined brain power. Educational theory highlights that words and language solidify and consolidate thought, meaning that sharing and communicating with others is essential for learning. In collaborating across subject disciplines, we can make the most of others’ expertise in a way which serves to enhance and enrich our understanding in countless ways.

From the perspective of English, in looking at a poem, for instance, we can benefit from a wider contextual understanding that History can bring us, the deeper understanding of rhythm and tone from Music, attention to detail and imagery from Art, global artistic movements from History of Art, forensic attention to detail from Science, and grammatical understanding from Languages. But it is not just about what individual subjects can gain from using different disciplinary perspectives, but how the meeting of different disciplines then serves to open up horizons which would have been unthinkable without the combination of perspectives.

Jess in Year 13 writes: “Usually I would start writing about a preconceived subject matter, whereas responding in real time to music and visual art meant it took longer to establish a topic or a narrative. Therefore I think the influence over the structure of the poems is most pronounced- there’s the dislocation of short or non-sequiturial lines that correspond to staccato parts of the music; but on the other hand, there’s a lot of enjambement, since I think the timbre of the strings might have evoked a watery quality for the writers and painters.”

If lightning could be gradual
If it could be a majorette ribbon
If it could be a suturing needle
If it could be a hairline fracture
If it could be the persistent tautness of a diaphragm
If it could be the searing blaring flaring scarlet that stays in the back of your eyes
If it could cut
If it could be a vaulted ceiling
If it could be sweet, and if it could ache
If it could be the ridge of a mountain
Protruding through snow
Snow packed on scars
When figure skaters turn
And the air takes their necks
In its hands
Suddenly, very afraid of heights
Is lightning catching?
Can it reverberate down vertebrae?
Electrify the nervous system?
Pluck out spinal chords?
The spine a rose between
the lightning’s jagged teeth

Lauren in Year 13 writes: “I found writing to music and live art extremely helpful as each piece created a different atmosphere and led to me writing a range of poetry. I think I may even use music when writing poetry again in the future.”

Sky city suspended between storm clouds
Golden rain and bare feet
Feathers outlined in molten metal
Twisting as they fall
Like sycamore leaves
Laughter thrown at the sun
With the wild abandon of Icarus
In his final moments
Before reality came up to meet him.
Cradled by Zephyr as they spiral down
Either ignorant of the danger
Or too immersed in music to care.
The ground is far too restrictive for dancing
When falling allows them to fly.

Richard Bristow – the view from the musician

I still vividly remember the first time I experienced the music combined with art and spoken word. It was 1990, I was 5 years old, and Disney’s Fantasia had just been released on VHS. The whole school watched it in one afternoon and it introduced me to music that I had never heard before in such a powerful way that the memory still lives on, some thirty years later.

The film Fantasia was made in 1940, featuring Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra with animations by Disney. I still recall seeing Mickey Mouse battling against brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas, the strange abstract shapes to Bach’s iconic Toccata and Fugue and of course the petrifying mountain demon pictured to Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain. If you haven’t seen it, please add it to your Christmas list. It is simply brilliant viewing.

Fast forward to more recent times; it’s now the summer of 2019 and I’m busy planning the WHS Symphony Orchestra repertoire for the next Cadogan Hall concert, scheduled for March 2020. We have a large brass section this year and also a harp – a first for our orchestra – and as such Mussorgsky’s epic Symphonic Poem is something that provides challenge but is also accessible to all our players – from our new Year 7s right up to our Year 13s who will shortly be heading to University. The pupils take to it well, so much so that the simplifications I’d anticipated needing were quickly discarded in favour of the real authentic score.

Rehearsing the piece brought back memories of watching Fantasia for the first time and it is from here that we started to explore the idea of live painting to live music, essentially recreating Fantasia in Cadogan Hall in 2020. Combining these art forms, utilising some nifty camera technology, would allow us to see links between the disciplines in real time. Exciting stuff.

Sadly, the pandemic meant the concert couldn’t happen in March 2020, and obviously this was a huge disappointment to us given we had been working towards this for 7 months. However, with the opening of the new STEAM Tower, we had another opportunity to explore the combination of different art forms, showing inter-disciplinary learning in an improvisatory way and putting our previous learning to work. Current coronavirus restrictions meant the Symphony Orchestra was replaced by our wonderful socially-distanced String Quartet A and we expanded our thinking to include two Sixth Form poets to add another dimension to our exploration. Combining these art forms together facilitates wider conversations about art and creativity, and enables pupils to make connections and to think about things in more advanced ways.

Sophie in Year 11 writes: “It was really interesting to see how the poets, musicians and artists responded to each other, as all of us are artists. I loved how it allowed us to really explore our creativity and it has helped us to think of the pieces we are playing as an ensemble in new ways.”

It was fascinating to see the pupils work out how the inner bars of music evoked a sense of water with this being picked up in both the poetry and the art in various different ways. This prompted conversations about whether this was intentional by the composer or if it was more subtle in nature, perhaps influenced by our previous learning. Exploring the arts through different artistic lenses allows us to explore art in a larger, freer way, inter-connecting our learning and enhancing our understanding.

Final thoughts

Making connections between subjects, filling in the gaps and tinkering with new ideas are central to our educational provision at WHS. We relish the chance to investigate things we are expert in through lenses in which we are less accomplished, feeding into the kaleidoscope that is limitless learning in the modern day. This is STEAM+ in action.

We are all lucky to work and learn in a school where collaboration, exploration and adventure are inherent qualities that are highly valued.

Who knows what we’ll discover next…

Why me? Why now? Why theatre?

Tristan Daws, English and Drama teacher at WHS, introduces the ‘New Views’ scriptwriting club and considers the value of writing for the stage.

New Views is a playwriting initiative run by the National Theatre. Over the course of the year, Year 11-13 students at WHS work towards writing their own one-act plays, meeting each week to read each other’s scenes, posing questions and sharing ideas as they refine their stories. Their ultimate goal is to enter a national competition, with the winning play staged at the Dorfman Theatre by a company of professional actors.

As the plays take shape, the National Theatre poses three questions to the students:

  • Why me? Or why should I be the one to tell this particular story?
  • Why now? What is it about this story that demands to be told now?
  • Why theatre? Why does this story belong on the stage, rather than in a short story or a TV sitcom?At the close of last term, prior to lockdown and school closures, I sat down with a group of WHS New Views writers to discuss these questions with them.

    Why me?

    When a playwright is asked ‘what makes me qualified to write this play?’ the immediate assumption can be that our work should be in some ways autobiographical in order to be ‘authentic’ and ‘truthful’. One of the most oft-quoted aphorisms in creative writing is a comment attributed to Mark Twain, “Write what you know.”

    Nathan Englander[1] remarks that this is “the most misunderstood, most mis-taught, most misinterpreted piece of advice that there is” and a host of great writers have lined up to support or to rebut this rule.

    Toni Morrison’s[2] pithy response is “you don’t know anything”, while Ursula Le Guin[3] suggests “I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things… All this rule needs is a good definition of ‘know.’”

    The pupils have an equally clear stance when I first mention this to them: “Don’t write what you know – that’s boring!” one of them comments. “Write what you want to get to know” another adds.

    One of the aims of New Views is to sharpen students’ approach to research, and it is through this process that the group are able to explore beyond what they know. By connecting empathetically with characters living far from their own experience, the pupils have found ways to share human stories that feel both personal and alien to them. In doing so, they have been surprised by what they have learned about themselves. Ultimately, the group conclude that there is no definitive maxim to live by in their writing: “making a play, you’re constructing this whole world from your own ideas, and a lot of the time that world is going to be informed by your existence and your experience. It is informed by so much personal stuff, even if the story isn’t personal to you, and it’s such a good way of interrogating those ideas.” Perhaps, as Raymond Carver[4] puts it, “a little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.”

    Why now?

    When New Views was established in 2011, its stated aim[5] was “to stimulate debate and discussion about key and challenging issues for contemporary society… to invite young people to explore how plays can challenge preconceptions and motivate more active participation in our communities.” The ‘nowness’ of the stories told in these plays was very much the priority, and the winning play that year was not performed at the National Theatre, but to an audience of parliamentarians and public at Westminster Hall.

    Since then, the political focus has relaxed, with the winning play moving to the Dorfman Theatre, and the pupils clearly revel in the lack of perceived constraints on their subject matter. “We’re so consumed with all the work we do that it’s just overwhelming. It’s nice to just have a place where you can explore things that don’t necessarily have to have a meaning and have to have a ‘why now?’”

    Perhaps the most meaningful ‘why now’ for the writers is not about why their plays are socially topical, but rather why they want to tell these stories at this time in their lives, when their writing is an escape from the structure of exam classes. One Year 11 participant appreciated the creative focus away from her GCSEs, while enjoying the chance to bond with other year groups; others valued being able to achieve something tangible in a fixed time period during the two years of their A Level course, particularly those that had given up ‘creative’ subjects after GCSE. Nowhere is this creative freedom more evident than in the range of stories the pupils have chosen to tell, from a metaphysical courtroom battle between God and Death to a farce about a group of office workers in pursuit of a missing Les Dennis mug.

    Les Dennis Mug

    Why theatre?

    One of the greatest challenges for the group has been to conceptualise works of drama that are distinctly theatrical, rather than cinematic. As one immediately responded when I first mentioned the three questions to them, “none of us ever know the answers to those! You ask me ‘why theatre’ and I’m like ‘I know it should be a screenplay, ok?’” Few of the group had considered writing a play before our first session together, even though many had entered short story and poetry competitions. “Writing a script wasn’t something that I thought you just did. I never thought about actually trying so it was new and exciting.”

    After initial drafts of their plays, often made up of several short scenes in myriad locations, as might be expected from a screen drama, the writers have learned to embrace dialogue, exploring human interaction in more depth. By envisaging a performance in three dimensions, the group think much more about physicalisation, pauses, and how characters can communicate in non-verbal ways. The most rewarding part of this process for them has been to experience their work being read by others in our weekly gatherings, and they speak animatedly about the experience of “having things performed by another human being, interpreting your words and making them their own.”

    At its core, what the pupils are responding to is the shared experience of the theatre. By making a connection with the visceral, physical aspect of watching a play, they are excited by the potential to reach their audience directly, “because it is live. You can’t pause a play, go on your phone for 15 minutes and then come back. You’re in that emotion and everyone is in the same room, feeling the same thing.” In these times of social isolation, it is easy to see why the most compelling response to ‘why theatre?’ is that communal human element, and the shared experience that theatre brings.


    1. Gots, J (2012), “Write what you know” – the most misunderstood piece of good advice, ever. Big Think, Available at:

    2. Sutton, R (2014), Write, Erase, Do It Over, National Endowment for the Arts, Available at:

    3. Le Guin, U (2003), When to bend, when to break, Los Angeles Times, Available at:

    4. Buzbee, L & Simpson, M (1983), Raymond Carver, The Art of Fiction No. 76, The Paris Review, Available at:

    5. Londesborough, M (2011), New Views, New Voices at the National, The Guardian, Available at:

Writing and grammar myth-busting: what roles do writing and grammar skills play in the curriculum?

Ms Lucinda Gilchrist, Head of English, considers the roles of writing and grammar across subjects.

For English teachers, addressing writing and grammar skills is our bread-and-butter. However, in 2012, Ofqual introduced directive that in History, Geography, and Religious Studies, 5% of marks must be allocated to what is traditionally known as ‘SPaG’, or spelling, punctuation and grammar. Meanwhile, all other subjects with a significant written component must ‘make similar requirements for appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation and legibility’ (Ofqual, 2015: 4). And of course, even more importantly, we need to ensure that pupils understand what is going on around them and communicate clearly in the world outside school. Not only that, but literacy is a form of social and academic empowerment, ensuring that all of us are able to access and interact with texts in a range of academic fields and social situations.

In a recent survey of WHS teachers, 68% of respondents agreed that ‘writing is important in my subject’, and 64% agreed that ‘the crafting of writing has a place in my subject area’. But what is really interesting about this is that, despite clear agreement that writing and grammar skills are important, there isn’t really much consensus of what grammar actually is, how much time and energy teachers across subjects should dedicate to it, and why it is important. If writing and grammar are so universally agreed to be important, it’s even more crucial to unpack what we mean by these terms, and how therefore we should approach them in our teaching.

Defining grammar

So, what do we even mean by grammar? Even this is hotly contested. In the survey, what was particularly interesting was that there wasn’t much agreement of what grammar is, and therefore what role it should play, even within subjects, with even Maths teachers having different views on the importance of writing in their subject. Much of the literature suggests that this is also down to our own perceptions of our competence in writing and grammar (for more on this, see Wilson and Myhill, 2012). Of course, on the broadest level, there is the macro-level view of grammar as the ‘structure’ of a language, an idea which came up in 32% of responses to the survey. However, when it comes to teaching grammar for writing in academic contexts, there are essentially two main approaches to grammar, although, as there is with any debate in education, polarisation of these views is unhelpful.

Most common is the correction/accuracy model, which perceives language as a set of pre-determined rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar (or ‘SPaG’) to which writers must adhere for the sake of clarity and erudition. In a recent survey of WHS teachers, words and phrases associated with this model came up frequently, with 64% of responses referring to ‘accurate’, ‘correct’, ‘proper’ or ‘clear’ English as the aim of teaching grammar. Traditionally, this approach would result in grammar taught primarily through decontextualized practice questions, unflatteringly called the ‘drill and kill’ approach by Laura Micciche of the University of Cincinnati (Micciche, 2004). This has also led this approach to be characterised as a ‘traditional’ (Hudson, 2004) approach to teaching grammar, and although we have moved beyond yawn-inducing practice exercises in teaching English grammar, it is worth interrogating what this model assumes about language and how this informs the way we teach it.

Figure 1: should we mark to a ‘single version of English’?

The main assumption is that there is a single version of English which is universally agreed upon to be the ‘correct’ version of English. When we mark pupils’ work, of course we have to contend with the bug-bears of misused apostrophes, comma splices and ‘would ofs’ instead of ‘would haves’, but this could end up being a very reductive view of what language actually is. Linguistically speaking, what we are judging pupils’ work against is Standard English, which is essentially just another dialect of English, in the same way Scouse, Mancunian and Estuary English are all dialects – dialect here referring to the grammar and vocabulary as opposed to the pronunciation. However, unlike other dialects, Standard English has less to do with geography and more to do with class and social groupings; it is a prestigious form of language descended from 1950s BBC English, into which we have to induct pupils so that the writing they produce means they can be taken seriously as scholars.

However, Standard English is more complex than that. Compare the sentences below:

  • Father was exceedingly fatigued after his lengthy peregrination.
  • Dad was exhausted after his long journey.
  • Dad was well tired after his journey.
  • Father were very tired after his lengthy journey
  • My old man was knackered after his trip.

Evidently, the first is not Standard English; the register is absurd for most everyday language contexts, and many of us I’m sure would caution pupils who were writing like this against ‘over-writing’. And it would certainly not be fair, or even politically correct, to tell a Cornish or Welsh dialect speaker that the way they were speaking was ‘wrong’. The only one of those examples which most would agree is Standard English is the second, but it’s hardly eloquent prose.

More than just correcting errors

An added layer of complexity here in that we are asking pupils to actually develop a good understanding of different types of English within the dialect of Standard English; using phrases such as ‘CO2’ and ‘ox-bow lakes’ would sound very weird in a Philosophy essay. And this isn’t just at the level of vocabulary: in different subjects, there are different syntactical structures which are held to be more prestigious than others. For my MA research, I undertook some analysis of the indicative content in GCSE mark schemes in History, Geography and Religious Studies. You can see some of the key features in the table below, where you’ll notice that there are quite clear differences in the expectations of language usage for each subject area.

Figure 2: exam board mark schemes for History, Religious Studies and Geography, showing the differences in the expectations of language usage.

Evidently, it’s not as simple as being right and wrong when it comes to grammar – but that doesn’t mean that the other main model of grammar teaching is a case of throwing the rule-book out of the window in abandon, even if what is traditionally known as ‘SPaG’ isn’t explicitly part of the mark scheme in the English Literature iGCSE; the only reference to the quality of writing in the mark scheme is for AO4, worth 25%, which refers to a need to ‘communicate a sensitive and informed response’.

Figure 3: a sign at Victoria Station, London.

Before we throw our hands up in horror, let’s unpack the genre-based model of grammar first. This model essentially posits that different academic subjects have their own very specific rules and conventions, which pupils will need to confidently use to write convincingly within their subject areas. Thankfully, 92% of responses to the survey disagreed that grammar should only be taught in English; with the genre-based model, part of the requirement of all teachers, regardless of subject area, is to teach pupils how to successfully craft their language for the academic genre they are using, and many subjects have several academic genres: consider the difference between a case study and a discursive essay, for instance. We can see this from our everyday language too: examples of non-Standard English which would be acceptable in a text message or shopping list would not be acceptable in an email or formal school communication, but that doesn’t make them ‘wrong’ in the appropriate context. In this approach to teaching grammar and writing, teaching grammar is a case of making explicit the different ways of writing in different subjects and the appropriate generic conventions.

What next?

So, how do we do this? Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer here, and with increasingly challenging examination specifications and curricula, nearly 50% of us cited ‘curriculum pressure’ and ‘time’ being the main hindrances preventing us from tackling grammar as much as we would like.  Other major hindrances are our own confidence and knowledge of grammar; given that in the 1980s grammar teaching had all but disappeared from the curriculum, many teachers were either not explicitly taught any grammar, or taught by teachers who themselves were not explicitly taught any grammar, hardly an auspicious start for teaching an area which we so overwhelmingly agree to be important.

Figure 4: “it’s not as simple as being right and wrong when it comes to grammar”

However, I think there is also scope to be excited about this challenge, to help pupils see their writing within subjects less as ‘Is this right?’, and more as ‘How much do I sound like a trustworthy and intelligent scholar within this academic genre?’ In English, we regularly consider this through the lens of literature: how do modal verbs e.g. ‘shall’ convey the forcefulness of Old Major’s political speeches in Animal Farm, or how do reflexive verbs highlight Ralph’s self-control in Lord of the Flies? It’s a process which can work just as well applied to subject-specific writing, and to do that, we need to open up the dialogue about grammar, seeing it not as a closed and monolithic body of knowledge possessed by a prestigious few, but as something that within our own subject areas, we absolutely are experts in.


Trying not to PEE on your paragraphs…

Holly Beckwith, Teacher of History and Politics at WHS, explains how the History and English departments are using a small-scale action research project to try and rethink the way in which analytical writing is taught at Key Stage 3.

The age-old question for history teachers: how do we get our pupils to produce effective written analysis? It is a question we regularly grapple with as a department. Constructing and sustaining arguments is at the centre of what we do as Historians and analytical writing is thus at the core of our teaching of the discipline. But it has not always been an easy task for history practitioners to get pupils to achieve this, even over a whole key stage.

Through published discourse, history teachers have explored the ways in which we can teach pupils to produce argued causal explanations in writing (Laffin, 2000; Hammond, 2002; Chapman, 2003; Counsell, 2004; Pate and Evans, 2007; Fordham, 2007).  Extended writing has been seen as an important pedagogical tool in developing pupils’ causal reasoning as it necessitates thinking about the organisation, arrangement and relative importance of causes.

In 2003, History teacher Mary Bakalis theorised pupils’ difficulty with writing as a difficulty with history. She posited that writing is both a form of thinking and a tool for thinking and, therefore, that historical understanding is shaped and expressed by writing. Rather than viewing writing as a skill that one acquires through history, Bakalis saw writing as part of the process of historical reasoning and thinking. Through an analysis of her own Year 7 pupils’ essays, she noticed that pupils had often failed to see the relevance of a fact in relation to a question. She realised that pupils thought that history was merely an activity of stating facts rather than using facts to construct an argument.

As a solution to similar observations in pupils’ writing, history teachers have used various forms of scaffolding to help pupils construct arguments. This includes the well-known PEE tool, which was advocated by genre theorists and cross-curricular literary initiatives as put forward by, for example, Wray and Lewis (1994), and has since been used widely in History and English departments nationwide, including ours at Wimbledon High.  The concept of PEE (point, evidence, explanation) is simple and therefore a helpful tool for teaching paragraph structure. It gives pupils security in knowing how to organise their knowledge on a page.

Figure 1: PEE – Point, Evidence, Explanation

But while PEE in theory offers a sound approach to structuring extended writing in history, it has been criticised for unintentionally removing important steps in historical thinking. Fordham, for example, noticed that the use of such devices in his practice meant that there was too much ‘emphasis on structured exposition [which] had rendered the deeper historical thinking inaccessible’ (Fordham, 2007.) Pate and Evans similarly argued that ‘historical writing is about more than structure and style; the construction of history is about the individual’s reaction to the past’ (Pate and Evans, 2007).  Therefore, too much emphasis on the construction of the essay rather than the nuances of an argument or an engagement with other arguments, as Fordham argues, can create superficial success. Further problems were identified by Foster and Gadd (2013), who theorised that generic writing frame approaches such as the PEE tool was having a detrimental effect on pupils’ understanding and deployment of historical evidence in their history writing.

After reflecting on this research conducted by History teachers as a department, we started to consider that encouraging our pupils to use structural devices to help pupils’ historical writing may not be very purposeful if divorced from getting pupils to see the function and role of arguments in the discipline of history itself. Through discussions with the English department, who have also used the PEE tool in their teaching, we realised we shared similar concerns.

Not satisfied with simply holding these, we decided to do something about it and have since embarked on a piece of action research with the English department.  Action research is interested in finding solutions to problems to produce better outcomes in education and involves a continual cycle of planning, action, observation and reflection such as Figure 2 below illustrates.

We started our first cycle of our piece of small-scale research last term teaching analytical writing to classes using two different lesson sequences: one which teaches pupils PEE and one which omits this.

We then compared the writing produced by these classes to identify any noticeable differences and structured our reflections around four questions:

1.      How has the experience of teaching and learning been different to previous experience, and why?

2.      How have students responded to the new method?

3.      How far has the intervention resulted in a different approach to analytical writing so far?
4.      What are our next steps – what went well, and what needs adjusting?

Figure 2: The action research spiral (Wilson, 2017, p. 113)

Thus far, the comparisons have allowed us to make some tentative observations. Whilst these do not seem to show an established pattern yet, there does seem to be a greater sense of originality and creativity in some of the non-PEE responses. Pupils seemed to produce more free-flowing ideas and were making more spontaneous links between those ideas, showing a higher quality of thinking. In addition, a few of the participating teachers noticed that their questioning became more tailored to developing the ideas and thinking of the pupils they taught rather than getting them to write something particular. However, others noticed that pupils were already well versed in PEE and so the change in approach may have had less of an effect. Other pupils seemed to feel less secure with a freeform structure. In order to encourage the more positive effects, our next cycle of teaching will experiment with different ways of planning essays that provide pupils with a way of organising ideas more visually and focus on the development of our questioning to further develop the higher quality thinking we noticed with some classes.

The first research cycle has thus been a worthwhile collaborative reflection on our teaching practice in the pursuit of improving our pupils’ historical and literary analysis. It has given us some insights which we’re looking to develop further as we head into the second term of the academic year.


Bakalis, M. (2003). ‘Direct teaching of paragraph cohesion’ Teaching History 110.
Chapman, A. (2003). ‘Camels, diamonds and counterfactuals: a model for teaching causal reasoning’ Teaching History 112.
Counsell, C. (2004). History and Literacy in Year 7: Building the lesson around the text. Abingdon: Hodder Education.
Fordham, M. (2007). ‘Slaying dragons and sorcerers in Year 12: in search of historical argument’ Teaching History 129.
Foster, R. and Gadd, S. (2013). ‘“Let’s play Supermarket ‘Evidential’ Sweep”: developing students’ awareness of the need to select evidence’ Teaching History 152.
Hammond, K. (2002). ‘Getting year 10 to understand the value of precise factual knowledge’ Teaching History 109.
Laffin, D. (2000). ‘My essays could go on for ever: using Key Stage 3 to improve performance at GCSE’ Teaching History 99.
Pate, J. and Evans, G. (2007). ‘Does scaffolding make them fall? Reflecting on strategies for causal argument in Years 8 and 11’ Teaching History 128.
Wray, D. and Lewis, M. (1994). Working with Writing Frames: Developing Children’s Non-Fiction Writing Scholastic.

Glamour and Hedonism: Why the American Jazz Age Still Intrigues Us

Laura (Year 11) explores what makes the Jazz Age a significant time in America’s history and how it has been preserved through music and literature.

The American Jazz Age, or the “Roaring Twenties”, brings to mind many images of feathers, flapper dancers and flamboyance. As the 1920s were characterised by rapid stock market expansion, successful Americans spent more, and flaunted their wealth, throwing extravagant parties. Reminders of the era cannot be avoided, as it inspires fashion, films and music of today. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby captured the essence of the time and offers a paradigm of the jazz age. When Baz Luhrmann took on the challenge of adapting it for film, it made $353.6 million at the box office, as audiences were captivated by the romance of the period.

Whilst the 1920s saw people move away from the austere and unpromising life during the Great War, they also brought new changes and difficulties with them. This new America had lost faith in its organisation and structure, having become disillusioned by war and patriotism. The parties and indulgence reflected newfound individualism as traditional values were left behind. Many were critical of the more frivolous lifestyle in cities, as ideas of morality seemed to shift. Prohibition, the 1920 ban on alcohol, seemed to only encourage more drinking in the clandestine speakeasies, and organised crime and bribery were rife. But the era was also characterised by modernisation and greater liberation, especially for women. The 19th Amendment was changed in 1920, giving women the vote, and social changes followed as women in the workplace became more of a norm and gender roles were questioned. Even fashion became more liberating as short skirts and hair became popular.

The jazz music that fuelled the parties of the rich and powerful in 1920s America first came from the African-American communities of New Orleans and had its origins in blues. With a more free, improvisational style, it broke musical norms whilst social conventions were being dismantled in America. With better recording of music during the mid-1920s, this new style spread quickly, and radio broadcasting allowed more rapid popularisation of the genre, as it reached people of all ages and classes. Although the US was still a place of deep-rooted racism and xenophobia, and many conservatives feared the influence of “the devil’s music”, jazz’s popularity was a step towards better inclusion in American society. When Luhrmann made his adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the music was a key element of the film. Modern hip hop and traditional jazz were both a part of the soundtrack. It cleverly blended music that evoked the era with new music that allows the modern audience to experience what it was like to listen to something completely new and unheard. Luhrmann said that “the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop”. Check out the Jazz Spotify playlist on the Music Department Spotify here.

Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald are among the authors that have helped to preserve the excitement and intensity of the Jazz Age in their writing and are part of the “Lost Generation” writers, who came of age during the Great War. Main themes in their writing included the opulence and wealth of the 1920s, but also the damaging effects of hedonism and disillusionment. Idealised versions of the past are often seen in writing of the era, reflecting on how the indulgence and enjoyment was overwhelming and even put individuals out of touch with reality. Fitzgerald describes one of Jay Gatsby’s parties:

“The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word.”

The giddy description shows an uncomfortable confusion of the senses, as the narrator, Nick Carraway, discovers the exciting city life. However, Fitzgerald also reveals a world damaged by war, as the “valley of ashes” in the novel represents the effects of industrialisation and modernisation on the less wealthy, and the social inequality of the time. Carraway, having served in the First World War, notes that Jordan Baker had an “erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet”, his vision is clouded by experiences of war. The literature of the jazz age endures because it shows not only the glamour and thrill of the period, but also offers sobering reflections on the price of the new lifestyle.

The sparks of wealth and excitement of the Roaring Twenties were stamped on by the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and were extinguished abruptly. As the terrible poverty of the Great Depression began, Fitzgerald wrote “Echoes of the Jazz Age”, recalling the earlier, more prosperous times.

“It bore him up, flattered him and gave him more money than he had dreamed of, simply for telling people that he felt as they did, that something had to be done with all the nervous energy stored up and unexpended in the War.”

It is no surprise that the Jazz Age has aged so well. The excitement and romance of the period has captivated readers and audiences, and this formative period of American history is not forgotten.