I recently awarded an A grade to a piece of descriptive writing that opened with the following phrase:
Last week, in a galaxy not too far, far away from junction 7 of the A3…
This student shunned the drab opening sentences, replete with the terminology of the question, adopted by most of his peers and decided to kick-off with an allusion. A Star Wars allusion.
Now, this allusion to Star Wars tells me a lot about this kid:
- This kid cares about his audience. He knew that I, as an adult marker, would understand the cultural reference he was making and in making it, he allowed me access to an exclusive club that ‘gets it.’ And that made me feel good. This kid cares for his reader.
- This kid is intelligent; he has an awareness of culture that stretches beyond the world of what is taught in the classroom, which he can draw upon in order to manipulate people’s responses to the work he produces. This kid thinks.
- This kid knows how to exploit language for effect: there’s bathos in the way the sentence undercuts the sense of the epic, conveyed by the word ‘galaxy’, with the quotidian reference to a minor A-road in the South East of England. ‘Galaxies’ are beautiful and awe-inspiring; Junctions aren’t. There’s a level of self-deprecation here that is gripping in its maturity. This kid is clever.
Allusion is defined as ‘an expression designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly’ and it’s something we should be getting kids used to in Year 7. Many schools, whether they are aware of it or not, are actually preparing kids for allusion right now. The recent proliferation of ‘Myths and Legends’ schemes of work, popping up on Year 7 curriculums all over the land, are useful not only in their enjoyment factor, but also in providing students with points of reference to draw upon in their own work. Whether it’s making sense of Shakespeare (who uses classical allusion all the time) or creating interesting creative texts of ther own, allusions can help students to thrive in English.
I teach three different types of allusion: classical, cultural, and literary. A typical lesson might run thus:
- Ask kids to write down everything they can remember about myths and legends from primary school. I normally get something akin to the following:
Then, I get students to construct similes or metaphors using these. They can be very basic:
He was strong as Hercules
Slightly less basic:
One needed to be Hercules to lift him.
Or relatively complex:
If someone ever decided to chuck a 13th labour in Hercules’ direction, then passing this maths test was surely the thing to do.
Of course, I provide models of my own examples:
Even by Odysseus’ standards, this was a bad journey.
Cupid took one look at me and retired.
She was the sun and I Icarus. Doomed to fall and doomed to fail.
I had armpits wetter than Poseiodon’s beard.
Classical allusions are valuable, simply because of their cultural capital. Casual references to items of classical mythology reek of intellectual superiority. And anyone can do it, if taught well.
Literary allusions work very well too. Here’s a response I’ve written to an old GCSE language question that ask students to:
‘Describe a time you had to make a difficult decision and explain the consequences of your choice.’
There was no chance of not having to defecate that day. Last night’s vindaloo was my crime and this was my punishment. And now, like Raskilonov, I was plagued with an acute feeling of introspective torment. Why now? Here I was, 7 bags of shopping in hand, and with a Bertha Mason on my hands: something wanted out and it was impossible to keep it in. My eyes scanned the shopping mall, desperately searching for a public convenience-a name which was sounding increasingly ironic. The thing is, I was conflicted: Did I really even want to find a public toilet? Wasn’t every other alternative more attractive? You don’t need to be Holmes (hell, you don’t even need to be Watson) to realise the perils of public pooing: Public toilets are distinctly Orwellian; Unsavoury, nightmarish places where one constantly feels as though he or she is being watched. No chance. Not today.
Of course, I’ve overdone it here, for the sake of example and I wouldn’t advise anyone to cram their work with allusion as I have done here-it must be used sparingly for maximum effect. However, if any of the references above raised a knowing eyebrow, or provoked a wry smile, the allusion has worked! It’s captured you. It’s reached out to you. If that isn’t compelling, I don’t know what is.
So how do we get to a place where students are able to make the kind of literary allusions I’ve used above?
The answer, of course, is reading. The problem is, not many kids will read to themselves. In Doug Lemov’s excellent, ‘Reading Reconsidered’ the authors champion the art of reading aloud to students. However, too often, teachers won’t read aloud because there’s no immediate benefit in doing so. It’s the same reason kids don’t read themselves; reading can be slow in bearing its fruit. Allusion can change all that. Allusion is the perfect illustration of the symbiotic relationship between reading and writing.Spend an hour reading to kids. Read them novels with cultural capital; novels that will make them sound clever when they allude to them.Read them 1984, Jane Eyre, or Oliver Twist. Then, give them a creative writing task and ask them to allude to an aspect of the text you’ve read in the previous lesson. For example:
Write a description of a city and use the phrase ‘like Orwell’s Big Brother’ in your opening paragraph.
Write a description of a person and use the phrase, ‘like Jane Eyre on a bad day’ in your answer.
Write a description of how school makes you feel and use the phrase ”that Dickens would be proud of’ in your answer.
Allusion. It works. Try it!