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  • Writer's pictureHannah Bury

South African Modernism Workshops for A-Level English

In February and March this year, Jade, Emma, and I delivered close reading workshops for Eduqas A-Level English students at Loreto College in Manchester and Carmel College in St Helens. These workshops aimed to enhance student learning, whilst encouraging students and staff to consider ways to decolonise English Literature curriculums. In the workshops, we undertook close readings of excerpts from Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm, encouraging students to make clear links between form, content and context.

Due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the team conducted the workshops online. Despite not having face-to-face interaction with the students, the sessions were productive and enjoyable. In my workshops, I recapped the main ideas and contexts of South African Modernism (students had listened to two one-hour lectures recorded by Jade prior to the workshops). I then guided the class through the opening passage of Schreiner’s novel, entitled ‘The Watch’, which introduces the character Waldo. We discussed his interaction with the ticking clock, and we talked about how Schreiner experiments with allegory through the clock as evidence of her modernist technique.

The students really enjoyed this close reading activity. They were able to discuss literary techniques and explain how Schreiner articulates modernist ideas through the text. For example, one student was able to connect features of the text to broader historical concerns: ‘the context surrounding imperial power [and] time was really interesting, specifically how this was shown through the anthropomorphism of the clock’. A different student commented that they ‘liked how the extract was broken down into sections for discussion’ because it enabled them to digest the text more easily, while another student felt it was productive ‘to focus on the key themes in the text such as colonialism and the idea that [the text] was [written] from a colonised perspective’. Students felt that the activity helped them to better understand issues of empire, modernism and South African literature, but they also enjoyed Schreiner’s novel because it was a new text that they had not come across before. For instance, one student stated that it was refreshing to analyse South African literature because they ‘learn about literary movements but never from an African perspective or any other perspective other than British’.

Students also told me that they felt more confident approaching new texts and close reading tasks in the future as a result of the workshops. In particular, one student claimed that ‘understanding the principles of literary modernism has helped [them to] identify them in further texts’. I tried to create a sense that the workshops were a safe and supportive space for everyone to voice their point of view. This seems to have been effective, as one student informed us that the workshops were ‘very welcoming and [they felt] comfortable to share [their] ideas’.

We were thrilled to learn from student and teacher feedback that our efforts had supported student learning on the Eduqas syllabus, and that our work had prompted teachers to reconsider the texts currently studied within the A-Level curriculum.

Through our workshops, the team encourages students to think beyond canonical texts and Eurocentric forms of literary modernism, and we endeavour to make visible South African writers who were experimenting with these forms and ideas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We are now looking to expand our workshops beyond the Eduqas curriculum.

We are very grateful to the University of Salford Research Impact Fund and the School of Arts, Media and Creative Technology for funding these activities, and to staff and students at Loreto College and Carmel College for hosting us.

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