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Every year, I have the same conversation with the students – particularly the younger ones. It goes something like this:
“We’re going to start Shakespeare.”
“How do you know?”
“It just is.”
“Have you read any?”
“How do you know?”
“It just is.”
Most English teachers will have heard this kind of thing. You expect it from ignorant kids. But not from adults.
I have a pretty wide taste in film and TV, and I particularly like sci-fi, fantasy and teen cult stuff. My slightly ‘weird’ taste in such things means I can communicate not only with my own children, but also with the students I teach, as I can hold conversations about the latest episode of Lost, who’s the best captain in Star Trek, or whether or not the actor playing Angel has put on weight. I accept the fact that my taste in entertainment is not mainstream or what ‘grown-ups’ usually watch.
I have no problem with this. Some of the best conversations, and the most enlightening, I have had in recent months have been with intelligent students about film and TV. This is not as superficial and irrelevant as it may sound. As I have found over many years, if a student finds that a teacher has knowledge of something they themselves find interesting, then that student is more likely to talk to the teacher about other things.
What is curious and rather sad is that some other teachers seem unable to allow themselves this freedom to think outside formal structures and are embarrassed to admit to liking anything that might make them seem anything other than intellectual. In the way of political correctness, there is a school of thought that rejects anything that is not ‘intellectually correct’. Whilst the certainty that this brings makes some feel good, it also removes powerful tools from them that they could use to communicate with today’s children.
The fact that I can quote from Buffy or Pratchett (another of my weaknesses) at will, and have great admiration for the writing skills of Joss Whedon has, at times, been criticised as immature and a sign of eccentricity (or even impending senility!) by other teachers who espouse a more traditional approach. I find this frustrating, not so much at a personal level (and it would be too easy to be insulted by such remarks), but by the blindness to their potential value in teaching English.
Anyone who understands classic storytelling and studies Buffy, Firefly or Angel must know that Whedon is a talented writer with, I feel, a wonderful grasp of language, theme and spectacle. Anyone who has read Pratchett will know that in a Discworld novel there is the kind of wit, intellectual brilliance and understanding of the human condition found in the best of the classic novels. I’m an English teacher. I know and love my Shakespeare, my Austen, my Dickens and my Chaucer. I have nothing to prove but do find it rather sad to find teachers dismissing anything that is not ‘intellectual’ as rubbish and pointless without ever having watched or read the offending articles. Surely it is the uninformed, image-conscious teenager who dismisses things out of ignorance, not mature, educated adults?
As a teacher, dealing with teenagers every day, I believe that anything that opens doors to the teenage psyche, whether that be the deathless verse of the Bard or the funny, linguistic gymnastics of Terry Pratchett, is a worthwhile addition to my toolbox, and that can surely only help me become a better teacher.
A former colleague died last week. She was the head of English at my present school when I first taught in England.
Kim was an old-fashioned English teacher who loved literature and Shakespeare. She told me once that one of her ambitions was to see every play the Bard wrote at the RSC in Stratford. At the time, she had apparently only King John left to see. Then, I didn’t really understand her passion. Now I do.
I spoke to a friend, a long-time learning assistant at the school who had worked with Kim over the years and she said how Kim had introduced her to Shakespeare and woken an unaccustomed passion in her. She had initially been rather frightened of her: Kim was efficient and sometimes brusque and certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly or otherwise. But once you got past that occasionally forbidding exterior, she was warm, friendly and understanding. Both staff and students who needed help, either emotional or academic found her generous to a fault.
However, Kim herself seemed unable to ask for help. I remember watching this strong woman eventually crumble under the weight of grief for her dying mother, a grief that she tried hard to ignore. She would not ask for what she herself would willingly give to others: patience, understanding and tolerance.
I liked and admired Kim. She knew her job and did it well. But more than this, she loved what she did. She had no qualms in showing emotion if she read a piece of literature that moved her. She believed that students should see that teachers are capable of emotional involvement in books, that some pieces of literature are so wonderful that they can touch your soul. I understand this and seeing that someone like Kim could be so open in her response to literature made me realise that I too could do the same thing. When Othello makes his last speech about the ‘base Indian’ or Ralph weeps for the loss of innocence and the fall through the air of a true wise friend called Piggy, I too allow my students to see genuine emotion. Kim made it permissible to openly express a love of words, and that made me realise that I could do it too. And that is part of her legacy to us in the department and in honour of her memory, I will continue to share my passion for books with my students and let them know that even teachers cry.
So, a new term begins.
My first class this year was year 11. The year 10s of last year, with Princess, now one year older. I have to admit that when I saw my timetable, my heart sank. Would this be last year all over again?
To add to my trepidation, I was planning to start Shakespeare with them.
I’ve said many times how much I enjoy teaching the Bard, but my experiences with Princess last year gave me pause. How would this group handle Shakespeare?
The play I’m teaching them is Romeo and Juliet, a play I know really well. So, I squashed all my qualms and went in.
When I first taught this play, I wasn’t particularly keen on it, as I’d only read it once and fallen into the usual trap of thinking that it’s just a love story. Of course, it isn’t. Shakespeare isn’t that obvious.
It’s a powerful story of the cruelty of fate, the destructive power of blind passion, the need for stability in marriage, the need for parents to talk to their children and the need for teenagers to think, -occasionally. There’s a lot more, but that’s enough to be going on with!
The class knew something of the story, mainly bits garnered from Baz Luhrmann’s superb film version of the play. They began reading with some trepidation, this was obviously going to be both hard and boring. So I dropped in a casual comment that Shakespeare, in an effort to engage the groundlings not only put in a lot of sword fights, but also rather a lot of dirty jokes…even in the first scene. I left it at that and let them carry on. Then, as they read, when they got to particular lines, I sniggered, which of course, got their attention. Why was I laughing? So I told them that the line being read was particularly suggestive. I gave them the meaning of particular words (seemingly innocuous words such as ‘thrust’ and ‘stand’ which in context are extremely iffy!)And all of a sudden, they were hooked! Even Princess was caught. She relished reading the role of Sampson when she got the gist of what crude jokes he was cracking. When the bell rang marking the end of the lesson, they were unwilling to stop! They wanted to carry on to see how crude Will could actually be, but I pointed out, with just the right note of regret, that there was no more time…
I’ve been told (not by present colleagues, I hasten to add) that I shouldn’t draw attention to the dirty jokes Shakespeare made, that this diminishes the Bard’s mystique. I actually believe that by pretending that Will didn’t ‘do’ blue jokes is to diminish him. Will knew what he was doing – he knew how to engage the intelligentsia and, more importantly, the groundlings. If dirty jokes caught the attention of his less educated audience, then I’m sure that it will do the same for my ‘groundlings’ too.
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I’ve just come back from holiday, a brilliant two and a half weeks, just me and my husband cruising around Europe in his Z3 (mid-life crisis car!), the first time on our own for 24 years. It gave us the chance to do some things that our children would possibly have found boring. Like visiting Verdun.
Verdun was the site of one of WW1’s longest and bloodiest battles and apparently, was one of the reasons the Brits went into the Somme – to take the pressure off the French soldiers (in hindsight, ironic or what?)
Verdun is a pretty, riverside town with an astonishingly powerful Rodin sculpture depicting an angel and a dead soldier. The older buildings are still pockmarked with shell holes from the First war. But the truly sobering sight is the Ossuary at Douamont, a huge bunker-shaped edifice housing the bones of some 130,000 unidentified soldiers, surrounded by 150,000 graves of the dead of Verdun. The sheer number is overwhelming. Walking around the uniform fawn graves, I was reduced to tears. Reading the dates on each stone I was forcibly reminded of how young all the men were, many of them little older than the kids I teach. This is what Wilfred Owen meant when he wrote about the ‘pity of war’.
We went on to the fort at Douamont, an eerie reminder of the War where I got a contemporary photo which I intend to show to the classes to whom I’m going to teach WW1 literature. I’m hoping it will show them some of the reality of the war and remind them that there was more to WW1 than Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon.
Being on holiday also meant that I had a chance to read loads of books (absolute bliss!) one of which was a brilliant teen book by Marcus Sedgwick called The Foreshadowing, a moving, spellbinding novel, modernising the story of the seer Cassandra and setting it in the years of WW1. I couldn’t put it down and rather than telling the story from the viewpoint of the soldier (like Private Peaceful –an equally brilliant novel), it is seen through the eyes of a girl, a member of the voluntary nursing organisations. Again, it will provide useful material for my war lessons. Typical! Even on holiday I’m finding stuff to do with my classes! You can take the teacher away from the school, but you can’t take the school out of the teacher….or something.
At the end of the summer term, my school has a couple of days at the end of term when we stop teaching and we have something called ‘enrichment’, when we do something else. There are lots of sports, games, dancing, and singing and, in the English department, this year, looking at how news works. This isn’t as boring as it sounds, as it involves giving the students experience of seeing how a newsroom works. The year 8 students were divided into three groups, one to prepare their own newspaper with the help of the IT department, another to make a radio broadcast and the other, the one I was working with, preparing to make their own TV news. It was actually a lot of fun and the students seemed to enjoy it.
It was during this morning’s session that today’s curious event happened.
My son, a seventeen year old sixth former, has just gone on a World Challenge expedition to Africa and one of my colleagues who was working on the newspaper asked if I would mind if he used this fact as a basis for a ‘breaking news’ story. The idea was that the story break that my son had gone ‘missing’ and that ‘journalists’ would be sent to interview me. I thought it was a good idea so I agreed.
Around about mid morning the ‘journalists’ arrived. The first two groups asked the obvious, sensible questions which I was happy to answer. Then the third group arrived. Two small year 8 boys, both of whom were twelve years old. Their first question took my breath away. “Is your son gay?” When I said that this was a wholly unacceptable and highly inappropriate question, the questioner said, “Write down that he’s gay.” He then went on to ask if my son had AIDS, when his first sexual encounter was and if he’d been raped. I’m not a prude, neither am I easily shocked, but I was gobsmacked. Not just by the inappropriateness and intrusiveness of the questions but also by the fact that the questioner was twelve years old. When did twelve year olds know about such things, let alone feel they have the right to talk to a teacher in such a manner?
I sent the boys away with a flea in their ears then rang through to the head of the English department to tell her of their behaviour and to ask her to check up on what they wrote. Unfortunately she wasn’t at the end of the line, but a colleague was. Whose only concern was whether or not the boys had come away with a ‘story’. I told her that my concern was the complete inappropriateness of the questions and how offensive I found them. To which she repeated, “So they didn’t get a story then?”
If I was gobsmacked before, I was speechless now. The complete lack of understanding of the situation or for the well-being of a colleague was astonishing. These boys were not real journalists, they were young lads who were obsessed with sex and violence and didn’t care who knew or who was offended by their crass behaviour. As teachers we have a duty to curb bad behaviour, not encourage it. By not condemning these boys’ behaviour, my colleague was, in effect condoning it. And that to me, is more disturbing than any crude behaviour by stupid little boys.
It’s been a long time since I started teaching. Sometimes it seems too long. However, one of the advantages of having taught for so many years, many of them at the sharp edge of special needs (i.e. dealing with ‘problem’ kids no one else could handle.) was the ability to recognise and to deal with bullies. It was recently suggested, following my revelation about my Chav princess’ latest attack, that I stop putting myself into the bully’s victim’s shoes and put myself into hers.
Over the years I have had to repair the damage done to the victims of innumerable bullies. I have watched as one child after another is destroyed by the deliberate malevolence of others. And I, along with my special needs colleagues have had to do the patching up afterwards. You might think that the choice of the word ‘malevolence’ is rather dramatic, but if you have any knowledge of language, you will know that the work is absolutely accurate. A bully is malevolent. It may not be the ‘motiveless malignity’ of a Iago, but it is malevolence. How else could you describe the deliberate harming of another, simply because you could?
I have heard all the suggestions made by those who feel that bullies are ‘misunderstood’ or ‘have problems’. To these people I say that I don’t really care. It’s not that I don’t care about the child, I do. What I don’t care about is the reasons for their behaviour. Many of us are ‘misunderstood’ or ‘have problems’, but do not resort to hurting others. And what about the victims? A victim does not choose to be bullied. I have heard colleagues of mine say that a certain child, the victim of a particularly unpleasant bully ‘brought it on themselves’. How? Did this child go up to the bully and say, “Excuse me, can you bully me?” No. Nobody chooses to be bullied. A bully, however, does make a deliberate choice. There is no such thing as an ‘accidental’ bully. A bully sees what they perceive as a ‘weakness’ and homes in.
So, what would I do to a bully? No I wouldn’t have them put in the stocks or publicly flogged, tempting as the idea might be at times. This kind of retributary justice might make us feel good for a brief moment, but it actually solves nothing. A wiser head than mine, after years of trying to deal with bullying issues, discovered that making the bully face up to his or her victim, publicly, and having the ‘audience’ discuss the bully’s behaviour in front of them, was a far more effective method. It’s more than public humiliation, it’s holding up a mirror to their actions and forcing them to look into it. Not a pleasant experience. This form of restorative justice has been tried with criminals, when perpetrators are made to face up to their previously faceless victims and see the damage that they have caused. It’s apparently a sobering and effective way of dealing with ‘minor’ crimes.
The victim of bullying does not need to put themselves into the shoes of the bully, as my ‘advisor’ recently suggested. The bully however, does need to walk a mile in the shoes of his or her victim. They need to know and to really understand the effect, long term, of their malicious behaviour.
And as for my ‘advisor’, I know why Princess tries to bully me, it’s because she wants her own way. Years of bullying have shown this person that if you are consistently vicious and unpleasant to someone, eventually they will give in, because they are afraid of what else the bully will do. I, however, unlike Princess’ other victims, have years of experience of dealing with unpleasant characters. I know exactly what inadequacies make her do what she is doing and consequently have no need to ‘walk in her shoes’. As my father used to say, “You know what a shipwreck is, why would you choose to experience it?” Princess is, in fact, a rather pathetic figure, with neither looks nor brains. So I have no particular desire to teach Princess a lesson, after all, with what she has NOT got going for her, life will do that soon enough.
I have long been a fan of cult fantasy TV series and particularly, as mentioned elsewhere, of Buffy. It’s a wonderful, iconic and very clever concept, deftly blending humour with a metaphor for teenage angst and problems. The writing is clever and surprisingly literate and I’ve used the programme to demonstrate many themes during my lessons.
But the other day, I heard of another use.
A close friend of mine, working as a home tutor to a school refuser, confronted by a particular problem, called on the Slayer for help.
Meeting her new charge for the first time, my friend found the student truculent, rude and completely closed off. With years of experience of special needs children at her back, my friend refused to be daunted by this troubled child who, apparently ‘ate home tutors for breakfast’. She discovered that this child had a passion for Buffy and realised that she had a way in. By the end of the first session, with my friend refusing to allow her charge’s extreme rudeness and unpleasantness to put her off, she found herself being offered a Buffy DVD to take home. Success indeed.
My friend took the Slayer home and did some studying.
The next day, returning to her charge, she told the child that she would be going out, but in the guise of someone else. The student, who refuses to go out at all and had, up to now, refused to leave the house, was intrigued. She asked who my friend was going as, and my friend replied that she was going as Buffy. She then opened her handbag and took out a stick, sharpened into a stake, “In case I meet vampires,” my friend confided. Her charge apparently stared at her open-mouthed but grinned when my friend added that she could accompany her if she came as Willow. Then she took out another stake from her bag. After all, a trip to the library could lead to conflict with vampires…
My friend’s charge was completely entranced and two vampire slayers made their way to the local library.
It’s a small step forward and many backward ones will probably follow, but it’s a start. What it shows is, that in order for a teacher to reach pupils, we sometimes have to get inside their heads and make a link, using whatever we can.
Like my friend, I have used unorthodox methods to reach a difficult student, but when it comes to reaching the truly lost, I too have found that calling on the Slayer seems to work.
We had student with us last week, someone wanting to observe lessons to help him decide whether teaching was the right career for him. My colleague, who was mentoring him, asked if he could observe one of my lessons. I agreed to let him sit in on the last lesson of a Friday afternoon, which is a lesson with my lovely year 9 group. I knew, that despite it being the last lesson of the week, the temperature being very high and the class room having a lot of windows but no air flow, I could count on that class getting it right.
I’m in the process of teaching them poems from other cultures and I decided to start on one called “Limbo”. It’s a complex piece and one that I think is quite difficult to teach as well as to understand. So I started the lesson by asking them for a definition of the word ‘limbo’. We collated a list of some five or six possible definitions then, having borrowed a measuring stick from the Maths department, I invited students who felt able, to try to actually perform the limbo ‘dance’ by manoeuvring themselves under a gradually lowered stick. Needless to say, this created great hilarity as several students tried their luck to the rapturous applause of their classmates.
I then asked them what they knew of the slave trade and between us, we created a picture of slavery in the time of Shakespeare and today. I told the class about the origin of the limbo stick and left them to imagine the rest.
Then, I read through the poem, paying very close attention to the very specific rhythm, then told the class that they had ten minutes to come up with an interpretation of the poem. When I asked for ideas, they were, initially, very slow in coming, but then, one of the boys suggested that the “darkness surrounding me” was a metaphor for the state of enslavement… and they were off. Each new idea triggering another. Students listened to the opinions of others then bounced off them, considering and reconsidering their own ideas, then developing them. It was loud, hot and absolutely brilliant. Their ideas were fantastic, so innovative, insightful and full of a comprehension way beyond their years.
I happened to glance at the observer and he was sitting on the edge of his seat, his eyes sparkling, as he, along with me, thoroughly enjoyed and wondered at this group’s amazing ability to reason.
When the bell rang for the end of the lesson, they were still arguing and offering opinions. I almost had to shoehorn them out of the door!
As the last student left, my observer said how much he’d enjoyed watching the group and listening to their fantastic interpretations and that that was the reason he wanted to go into teaching. He said that it was wonderful watching students engaging completely with their work and to see the light go on in their eyes as they ‘got it’. It all sounded terribly familiar.
I had to remind him that not all classes are like my year 9, that not every lesson goes as well as that one did. And sometimes the kids really don’t ‘get it’. But sometimes they do, and when that happens, I’m reminded again why I do this job. There are days, as all teachers know, when we feel that we’re in the wrong job and that we can do nothing right. But then there are those other days, when a mathematical measuring pole becomes a limbo stick and a hot sticky classroom becomes an arena for imagination and inspired thought. A day when we do get it right. And that’s the most fantastic feeling in the world.
My Chav princess reared her head again the other day. Of late, she’s been keeping her head down – I’d like to say she’s been working, but this isn’t fantasy, so I won’t! Anyway, I’ve just started reading Lord of the Flies with my year 10 class. Normally, with a high ability group, I would tell the class to read a few chapters for homework and we’d discuss it in the lesson. This group isn’t a high ability group and even though there are some very bright kids in it, there are a lot who really struggle. So I’ve had to turn this great novel into a class reader. This isn’t a problem as nearly all of my lessons with this group are the last period of the day (a brilliant piece of timetabling that!), so they really don’t feel like working – particularly over the last few days when the weather has been so hot. (No air conditioning, no fans and too much glass.) Reading the novel in class has actually worked quite well as all the kids have to do is listen, then argue with me about what certain events in the book mean. (We’re only five chapters in and they’re already having heated arguments about what the Beast is.)
Last week, we were reading the book and everyone was actually listening. Everyone except the Princess, who was doing her usual thing of putting on her makeup and chatting incessantly at the back of the class. So I told her that if she couldn’t stop her chatting which was stopping the others from enjoying the book, then she was free to leave. She sank into her usual sulk, so I carried on reading. But I happened to glance up and there was Princess, leaning over the metre wide gap between her desk and the next, attempting to draw on the face of the boy at that desk with a large, heavy duty, permanent black ink marker! I put down my book and asked her to leave. She stared at me in total disbelief then shouted at me, “But I wasn’t talking! You said I’d have to go out if I was talking!” I explained that drawing on someone was probably not a good idea and that she’d disturbed the lesson yet again…
The response was quite dramatic. She got to her feet, threw back her hair in a wonderfully dramatic gesture and yelled, “You’re mad you are!” There was a stunned silence from the rest of the class (who, according to my class room helper, were horrified at the girl’s rudeness) so I just replied, “Quite possibly. But you can leave anyway.” Her mouth dropped open and she flounced out. The moment the door slammed shut behind her, the rest of the students applauded, with one of the tougher boys giving me the thumbs up sign and saying, “Nice one, Miss.” I carried on reading.
Some ten minutes later, there was a knock on the door and Princess came in. She looked quite contrite and actually begged to be let back in… I decided to be magnanimous!
That was last week and so far, peace has reigned in the lessons. Princess may not listen, but she hasn’t stopped anyone else from doing so.
I know this bit of calm is only temporary, Princess will be back to her old tricks very soon, but while it lasts, I’m going to make the most of it, and enjoy it.