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Beyond blue curtains: Humanity reflected in literature

I realised my affinity and aptitude for science subjects in the early years of secondary school, while literary analysis felt like a foreign superpower only possessed by a select few. My eventual awakening came as I slowly became enthralled by the subject from the first time my teacher read us Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘In Mrs. Tilscher’s Class’. I went on to proudly contribute to our cohort achieving the best English IGCSE results our school witnessed. Equipped with moderate confidence and a lot more enthusiasm, I embraced the English A Language and Literature International Baccalaureate course from Year 12.  

Beginning with non-literary texts, such as advertisements, comic strips, and television shows, I was immediately greeted by the uniqueness of the language aspect of the course compared to past English lessons. Learning technical language associated with the most commonplace texts refreshed my appreciation of them – although my friends may not always appreciate me pointing out how the lighting and mise-en-scène are designed to create some effect while watching a film. I learnt to recognise the nuances of even the simplest advertisements in achieving their call to action. I have also become more impervious to the subtle manipulations attempted by advertising companies and biased articles. These texts are omnipresent in our lives, making the study of English more applicable and practical than ever.  

When we returned to the familiar territory of literary works, it was apparent that we could no longer make do with simply learning technical devices. With an entire oral component focusing on the global issues in these texts and exam questions looking at concepts such as the meaning of suffering, we had to consider factors including audience perception, context, and ethics. Not only were we developing as IB students, but it also enriched our own values as people. 

Teachers were engaging and initiated thought-provoking discussions with us. For example, when we studied Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, they prompted us to reflect on our growth towards independence compared with how the main female character has been trapped by her marriage and the wider patriarchal society. It was never just the course we were studying; my heartfelt gratitude goes to the English teachers I’ve had who make it so much more; bigger than the IB, bigger than school. It is exactly the openness and real-world relevance of the Language A courses that enable teachers and students to have those discussions. 

To truly exemplify the IB learner profile of being open-minded and knowledgeable, the course has given us more nuanced understandings of socio-political issues such as gender spheres, racism, identity, and lack of agency. This is where English demonstrably goes beyond the joke about overanalysing an author’s description of blue curtains – yes, sometimes we still agonise over why the curtains are blue, but more importantly, why is that pertinent to us in the real world? What does the setting reflect about society? The works translated from other languages, which are a mandatory part of the syllabus, also enhance our knowledge about other cultures, making us better global citizens. These culminate partially in the Individual Oral assessment, which we can use to explore important topics we personally care about. By analysing two texts in depth with the sole focus on an issue of global significance, this is our chance to actively engage with how to better this world that we share. 

Even with all the exam practice, whether it be preparing for the oral or writing essay plans, they ultimately frame a certain mindset. We begin to view issues more critically, read Instagram posts and watch TV with scrutiny, and see our humanity reflected in all forms of literature.  

Jessica Zhu recently graduated from Dulwich College Suzhou, China. She will be pursuing her Psychology BSc undergraduate degree at King’s College London. Jessica enjoys studying many of the natural and human sciences as well as literature. Outside of her subjects, she is also interested in criminology and aviation.