Perry or Plath: teaching teenage angst

Occasionally it is tempting for EFL teachers and materials writers to turn to popular "culture" to find stuff that might be more motivating for students to work with. This is not always a good idea. Here's one example.

Let's take a look at the opening words of a Katy Perry song (I think the title is "Firework").

Do you ever feel
Like a plastic bag
Blowing in the wind
Wanting to start again

Since hearing that song for the first time I have often wondered how the project began. Did Katy come down for breakfast one morning, all bleary eyed, and say to Russell: "God, Russell, I feel terrible." And Russell replied: "How do you mean?" And she thought for a moment, then said: "I feel like a plastic bag blowing in the wind." Then suddenly, while Russell was dreamily spreading butter on the hot toast, all the bleariness disappeared from Katy's eyes. She snapped wide awake. Sat bolt upright on the kitchen stool, and said: "Fuck, Russell, there's an idea for a hit song."

I imagine Russell laughed, but Katy ignored him.

Now Katy managed to build on those unpromising beginnings and she made a hit song. But would it be a good choice of material to introduce and discuss in the EFL classroom? It might be a popular choice, and the students (if they like Katy Perry stuff - and, of course - all the death metal fans in the classroom will absolutely hate it) might warm to working with something that is already familiar, and something that has nothing to do with education, but with glamour, fame, success and the wealth that attends them.

Pop, though, is often pap, and the conscientious English teacher will balk at the idea of serving up pap.

What's the alternative? Do we just press on with the course book and watch the eyelids of the kids on the back row growing heavier and heavier?

Let's look for an alternative text that deals with the same theme. The Katy Perry song is about young people finding it difficult to fit in, to live up to the role model, to be what they are dreaming of being and what they feel incapable of becoming. There is a hell of a lot here that is worth discussing, but wouldn't it be better to begin with a text that does the topic a little more justice?

Here's a suggestion: A few select snippets from "The Bell Jar" by Syliva Plath. The book tells the story of Esther (largely based on Sylvia's own troubled background), who has an unbearable sense of not quite being. Esther has been a good student and has just won a writing competition. She sees the straight and narrow path to academic success laid out in front of her. But she hesitates. She meets Doreen, who knows how to play the bad girl and play it well. Esther feels the attraction of doing likewise. But she hesitates there too. (If you don't know the story, has quite a good plot summary). Here are a couple of quotes.

After Doreen left, I wondered why I couldn't go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn't go the whole way doing what I shouldn't, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired.

Then later in the book...

If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell. I'll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.

Sylvia was writing at a time when society was still actively promoting social ideals - the ideal of the good wife and mother, for instance. Even before getting a chance to experience them, Esther is already weighed down by a sense of disillusion.

So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.

But my favourite snippet is the one about the fig tree.

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Sitting in the crotch of Esther's fig tree - I find that a much more powerful image than Perry's plastic bag.

The teacher who wants to bring Plath into the classroom has her work cut out. For one thing, she has to find a way to begin - how, for instance, to make an initial connection with the worlds of the young students - students who have never heard of Plath and who have no initial interest in finding out about her. How about this for an idea? There is a woman collecting photos of tattoos with Plath quotes, posting them on her Sylvia Plath Ink blog. Immediately there's the question: Why would anyone want to put themself under the needle to do such a thing? What is it about Plath's writing that has inspired people to painfully etch it into their skin? Let's find out, shall we?

About Fullspate: - Fullspate is actually one man with a PhD and a laptop who grew tired of the bland contents of EFL coursebooks, decided to write slightly more engaging stuff for his English students, and then thought it might be nice to share them online. Then subsequently packed it in.





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