Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature in the Secondary Classroom: The MPhil through a High School Teacher’s Lens

Lindsay Burton is a former high school English teacher, a former educational consultant, and a former MPhil student at the Centre for Research on Children’s Literature at Cambridge. One day, far in the future, she will be a (hopefully successful) former PhD student.

My experience in the Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature (CACL) MPhil course has, as of this week, drawn to a close. After a (rather long) wait for my thesis result to be confirmed, I received notice a few days ago that I will be able to continue on to the PhD this fall. Starting the PhD is a turning point in my career, most of which has been in secondary English education. On the eve of what feels like a seismic shift, I’ve taken some time to reflect on the connection between the MPhil course I’m about to complete and the world of the secondary/middle/high school classroom. Pursuing the MPhil on its own has not precluded me from returning to that world, even if the PhD somewhat does, and in many ways, the MPhil course is an excellent program for those wishing to begin, or return to, a career teaching English literature and language to secondary school students.

The suitability of a children’s literature program for secondary education professional development may not be immediately obvious. After all, isn’t the CACL program focused on literature for children? As in, picturebooks and Disney movies? Those kinds of texts are considered by many to be far too ‘young’ for secondary students. Even the texts that are age-appropriate for secondary school students—the ever-popular YA genre—rarely appear on the syllabus.

Nor does the CACL MPhil itself profess to be designed for teachers. Unlike the PGCE program or the Secondary Education MPhil, this course is primarily intended to introduce students to research within the academy, not the secondary classroom. Despite being housed in the Faculty of Education, the connection of our research with that of the rest of the faculty is tangible, but not necessarily in a way that translates to classroom practice.

Despite these areas of mismatch, I’ve found the CACL MPhil to be of substantial value to anyone considering an entrance or return to secondary English teaching. The program’s utility for teachers arises specifically in the areas of research and student engagement. The MPhil is a research degree, and students are required to engage with robust research techniques and to produce outputs of significant effort and word count. When it comes time for you, the teacher, to assign a significant research project to GSCE/A-level/AP/IB students, it’s helpful to have had first-hand experience of doing one yourself. It allows you to calibrate your assignment accurately, and it lends a more authentic purpose to the reason behind the assignment. Students rarely fall for (or appreciate) the “You’re doing this because you have to” line of reasoning when it comes to difficult assignments (or any assignments, for that matter). Being able to explain in detail the trials, tribulations, and positive outcomes of a long research project is a far more convincing strategy to encourage student engagement than “because the exam board thinks it’s important”.

Case in point: while teaching a pre-IB course to secondary students over the summer, I was able to pull up my master’s thesis and highlight the title page, table of contents, and bibliography for them, in order to show them what a finished research product should look like. I even had them read some of the introduction (which, to my pleasant surprise, they were interested in through about page three). This process, more than any other rationale, legitimized the admittedly complicated and intimidating process of research to my students, who will have to complete a 4,000-word research paper of their own over the two years of their IB diploma program.

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The aforementioned pre-IB students. Cambridge, unsurprisingly, is itself an excellent environment for educating secondary students.

The content of CACL’s MPhil—the works of children’s literature themselves—are also relevant to the work of a secondary school English educator. Given enough latitude over curriculum design, you (the teacher) might find that the assignment of a picturebook research project functions similarly to that of a poetry research project, and can be an excellent introductory research task for middle-grade or GSCE students. Such a project allows students to wrap their heads around the mechanics of research without having to simultaneously focus on the dense or archaic language of longer and older novels. An A-level or AP Literature/Language teacher might equally use picturebooks or other texts for children as objects of more advanced research, finding them more compelling than the same old Shakespeare play (no offense, Will). Finally, using children’s literature allows the oldest secondary students to engage in hybrid critical/personal assignments that test their analytical skills while also allowing them to engage with their own childhood, much like the first essay assignment of the MPhil does. Such an exercise would have immense reflective value to a student on the precipice of legal adulthood.

When I started teaching, I never expected to end up studying for my doctorate in children’s literature. It therefore seems quite plausible to me that a student in the CACL MPhil may one day end up becoming a secondary or primary teacher. I believe that the content and skills learned in the CACL MPhil would benefit anyone who found themselves in front of a classroom full of fourteen-year-olds. At a bare minimum, telling kids that they too can grow up to read Harry Potter, watch Steven Universe, and play Pokémon Go as a legitimate career choice would be a ton of fun and would, I suspect, increase student engagement at least a little bit.

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