This year is the first year I’ve taught literature chronologically. It’s astonishing how much I love it. Here’s why.
1. It just makes so much sense to start at the beginning.
When I was at school I had no idea of chronology: was it the Greeks first or the Romans? Were the Victorians before or after Shakespeare? Learning chronologically not only gives a clear sense of the what and the when; it also lets students build on prior knowledge far more logically. It provides children with more of those coat hangers of structural knowledge from which to hang future learning off. It just makes sense.
2. Starting at the beginning means starting with the BEST.
Beowulf is just fantastic. Move over John Boyne and David Almond: Beowulf truly feels as if It was written for 11 year olds. It has the recognisable tropes of legend and fairy tale (dragons, quests, treasure…) punctuated by healthy doses of violence. And Seamus Heaney’s translation is a complete work of art. What’s not to love?
3. That beautiful chain of influence.
This year I’ve noticed that students are already able to make pretty impressive connections between time periods and are interested (really!) to see ideas shift through time. A few year 7s were discussing how love seems to be experienced completely differently in Medieval literature to Anglo-Saxon, and this macro view of literary development bodes so well for future study. What’s more, it’s exciting to consider these huge ideas of what makes us human and trace them through time. And as modern literature and culture stems from these original influences, starting from the beginning can only be enriching.
Did I have slight concerns about teaching literature chronologically? Oh yes. A part of me was worried that it would narrow the huge range of experience that literature can explore, and that it could alienate some learners by making everything about people long dead and gone. A part of me expected to miss teaching The Outsiders (still a great class reader). A part of me was worried it would be a fool’s errand, that it would be impossible to really get the broad sweep of literature covered when it would mean missing so much out. I still have these concerns (I am, after all, only one term in) but the richness of understanding gained is pretty damn exciting.