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I like teaching poetry. I love the precision and cleverness of it.
The other day, in the department staff room, we were discussing the ‘other cultures’ poetry we have to teach and comparing which poems we preferred to teach. I particularly like a poem called “Vultures”, which is a reflection on the nature of evil, and “What were they like?” which contemplates the effects of the Vietnam War. A couple of younger teachers said that they found these poems particularly difficult to teach, as they didn’t feel that they understood them.
You might think that the reason for this is their lack of years and experience, but I think there’s more to it than this.
Last year, I was supporting another teacher while she taught these poems and I was dismayed to see how little she understood or knew about both World War 2 and the Vietnam War (knowledge vital to the understanding of these poems). There are limited notes provided with these poems, enough to give the teacher a very basic knowledge of the wars, but not enough to really understand. In order to really get a handle on these two poems, you have to do your research – you have to understand what Napalm does (knowing about the famous picture of Kim Phuk, the little girl running with her back on fire, helps), what Agent Orange is…You have to know about the Biafran conflict and the Holocaust. You have to be able to answer the questions that the kids will inevitably ask. I’m no expert on wars, but I do make sure that I’ve done the research so that I can make the poems as alive as possible for my students.
I was teaching “What were they like?” to my lovely year 9s the other day and I spent a good twenty minutes explaining the reasons behind America’s involvement in the Vietnam war, what Napalm does to the human body and the effect of the fear of Communism on a country. It meant that when we read the poem, the kids understood the references. What really impressed me happened when we looked at the line “when the bombs smashed those mirrors.”
I was rabbiting on about the use of metaphor when one of my students suggested that an alternative reading of the metaphor was that the mirror possibly reflected America’s attitude to the war being violently changed. I don’t personally believe that this is the meaning of the line, but that doesn’t matter, as it’s a brilliantly imaginative response based on the knowledge she was given about the war. And that really is what is important in teaching poetry. We have to give the students the tools with which to work. And this means that we have to do ours, and do it properly.
At this time of year, the English department at my school all ‘do’ Shakespeare with the year 7 classes. We all do the ‘play within a play’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s always fun to do, as the kids get to design their costumes (– very imaginative when it comes to the part of the Wall!) and messing about. Reading the lines, however, is more of a problem as they get a bit self-conscious when trying to ham it up for Bottom’s part.
Last lesson I was watching a group working on the Pyramus speech that begins with “Oh grim looked night…”and watching them say the lines with as much expression as a doughnut. So I went to join them. They were performing outside in a covered area supported by pillars. I watched them for a bit longer then decided that they needed a bit of modelling. So taking on the role of Pyramus, I climbed onto the wall out of which the pillars protrude and, swinging round on the pillar, declaimed Pyramus’s lines as loudly and as hammily as possible. Needless to say, the kids were in hysterics. Which was the whole point.
I finished the lines, swung down from the pillar, took a bow and said, “Now you do it.”
I left them to it, but on going back inside, I took a peek out of the window to see the student playing the role of Pyramus, swinging round the pillar and declaiming as hammily as I had done! Success!
Later on, back in the English staff room, the youngest member of the team said that she was finding it difficult to get the children in her class to get into the spirit of the play. I suggested that she model it for them, to which she replied that she didn’t really feel that she could do it. She said that she’d seen me do it at the pillars and didn’t think she could be that silly…
I found this rather intriguing, as I have always believed that an important part of teaching is the ability to forget one’s dignity now and again. I can’t expect my classes to make fools of themselves if I’m not willing to do it myself.
Ernest Shackelton, on his journey South, expected to experience everything that his men did, – the fun and the suffering. He believed that one couldn’t lead well if one distanced oneself from one’s followers. He was a brilliant leader – after all, all his men survived. I’m not comparing myself to Shackelton, but I think that teachers can learn from good leaders. After all, teaching, in a way, is about leadership. We lead our students where we want them to go. And if getting my young year 7s to appreciate how much of a laugh they can have doing Shakespeare means I have to be silly with them and make a fool of myself, then I will happily do it.
I had the strange feeling today that I’ve lived into a time that I don’t particularly like.
This is an odd thing for me to say and I’m surprised at myself. However, my experiences today and yesterday make me think that I don’t like where I am today. To be strictly accurate, I don’t like the way kids seem to have changed. Perhaps I’m being over sensitive, but I don’t think I’m one of those sad souls who frequently moan about the fact that things aren’t like they used to be.
Of course they’re not. They’re not meant to be. Things have moved on and so they should. But when did it become acceptable for kids to be so damn rude?
A colleague of mine was furious after a lesson yesterday as a very pleasant year 10 student had, when my colleague asked him to behave, told him that he (my colleague) was “pissing him (the student) off.” My colleague is a nice guy. He’s straight as a die, but doesn’t suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. So what gave this charming fourteen-year-old the right to be so rude to him?
While my friend was “pissing off” this student, I, in another classroom, was being told by a twelve year old to “Calm down.” The reason for this was the fact that I’d suggested that throwing paper aeroplanes might be a bad idea and when he stared me straight in the eye and carried on regardless, I’d thrown him out of the classroom with a very large flea in his ear. Outside the room, he told me I was overreacting and that I should calm down. Needless to say, this did not have the effect the student wished. I don’t normally shout, but…the whole corridor heard every well- enunciated word of me “calming down.”
And if that wasn’t enough, I had a whole class being rude today. They were being prepared for their year 8 assessment. At least, that was what I was trying to do. They, on the other hand, were flicking bits of paper at each other and drawing all over their test papers. And answering back. And singing!
I’ve mentioned somewhere else that I worked for years with dysfunctional children who had real problems and not one of them was deliberately rude to me. Any sign of rudeness, a simple comment that what they were doing or saying was inappropriate, would be met with a genuine apology. This lot today is so busy knowing their rights, which are clearly much more important than mine, that they see absolutely nothing wrong with voicing their opinions. They have been brought up to believe that they have the right to say what they like about everyone and every thing, as if the whole world was interested in the views of spotty little oiks with no manners and even fewer brains.
I’m very aware that expressing views like this makes me sound like a serious old fogey, but I see no excuse for blatant rudeness and a total disregard for others. If I can put up with the tantrums of spoiled, over-indulged darlings, the least they can do is learn to respect others and shut up.
When I taught students with special needs I specialised in the older kids – the sixteen-year-olds that were disaffected and bored. I taught classes that were called “communication skills”. My lovely head of department (to whom I’ve dedicated an earlier blog) decided that, rather than tell me what to do, she’d let me do my own ‘thing’. This suited me down to the ground, as I reckoned that anything that enabled my ‘problem’ kids to communicate was valid.
One of the things I started to do with the older ones, just before they were due to leave, was teach lateral thinking. What this entailed was a series of lessons beginning with handing out: one Lego brick, one paper clip and one CD. The class was then asked to come up with a list of things they could do with each item. After the initial “You what?” reaction, they got into the spirit of the thing and began to think.
The obvious uses came first and the inevitable moans of, “You play the CD. That’s it.” They would be told that that idea was boring and to come up with something else. If that didn’t work, I’d pick up the CD and throw it, Frisbee style, across the classroom, and the penny would drop and the ideas would come: “Game. Mirror for make-up. Signalling device if you’re stranded on a desert island (though I don’t know why you’d have a CD on a desert island!) Etc. The ideas got more and more bizarre. But that’s the point of the exercise: to make the students think beyond the obvious – to climb up the walls of their boxes and look over the top.
The next lesson was a development of this. Using a team building exercise from the business and military world, I would give them a scenario: that they had been shipwrecked on a desert island. They had specific items (a list that I would then give them). In small groups, they would then have to decide which items were the most important and why. They would have to put them in order of importance then report back to the class, justifying their choices. The next stage was to argue it out with the rest of the class until there was a definitive list. Then the class would have to chose the ten most important (the original list was of about twenty items). Again they would have to justify each choice and persuade their classmates of the validity of their claims. When a list of ten had been agreed, the list had to be pared down to five. Then one.
After the exercise with the Lego brick and the CD, thinking ‘outside the box’ was becoming easier. The reasons for choices became imaginative. The Sainsbury’s carrier bag could be used draped over a hole in the sand to make a solar still, to collect condensation for drinking water. The insides of a mobile phone could be cannibalised to make small cutting tools for gutting the fish you could catch with the fishing net made from your tights, to cook over a fire made using the magnifying lens of a pair of binoculars, fuelled by the bottle of very expensive brandy you just happen to have with you…
By the time we got to watch Tom Hanks being “Castaway” on his own desert island, the kids were yelling at the screen, “Come on, that’s not going to work!” Poor old Tom couldn’t get anything right!
But the point is, they were right. They’d begun to learn to think differently and not to accept the obvious.
I’ve since used this series of lessons as an introduction to “Lord of the Flies” (there is a link honest!). It works well. And the more able the kids, the more bizarre their ideas. It’s a fun way to begin the work and it enables them to think more creatively when I tackle the more taxing ideas, like defining evil…
Oh yes, another highly entertaining variation on the desert island scenario is to get the kids to empty out their pockets (Yes, I know it’s disturbing, but its fun watching them try to hide their cigarettes!) You then tell them that they’ve been shipwrecked etc. etc. and that all that they have with them is the contents of their pockets. And they have to use that to help them survive…
It’s amazing how creative you can be with a tube of lip-gloss and an elastic band!
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I’ve just read an article in the Daily Mail purporting to be dismayed by what they see as the “dumbing down” of the Bard. It speaks shocked tones of versions of the texts where the Bard’s immortal verse is put into modern slang. These books are apparently aimed at KS3 and GCSE. The newspaper welcomes comments from its readers and of course, the comments are all pretty damning of this ‘corruption’ of Shakespeare. There are comments from people who think that Shakespeare should only be taught in its original form and if it was good enough for them, it should be good enough for today’s kids. And if they can’t handle it then they should be taught things like spelling and punctuation…
To which my response is “Get a life!”
I love Shakespeare. I love the way he manipulates language and audiences. I love his sense of humour. I love his humanity. But it’s taken me years to really understand. How can we expect thirteen-year-olds to have the same passion for Shakespeare as someone like me has? They can’t. But I make sure that by the time they leave my classes, they have some inkling of what the greatest creative mind was about. And I do it by making it relevant to them today. Shakespeare is relevant, and insisting on talking about him in hushed tones and revering the beauty of his verse and going on and on about how he should be taught in the way that I was taught (around about the time that Noah was a teenager) is a sure way to turn kids off. He wrote for the masses for God’s sake! He wrote to entertain! To make money!
This is not to demean him by any means. I’ve said more than once how much I adore Will. But he was a jobbing writer and actor with a mean talent. To get youngsters to understand how great he was you have to make him comprehensible. I often translate as I go along, turning the ‘deathless’ verse into modern idiom. When Lady Macbeth says to her husband, “Infirm of purpose!” What is wrong with telling the kids that what she’s actually saying is, “You total wuss!” But when the kids want to make a point or insult each other in Bard-speak, they don’t say “You wuss,” they shout “Infirm of purpose!” Because they now understand what it means.
“Dumbing down” as the Mail calls it, is a way of opening the door. It’s a way in to students who might possibly, without the initial modernisation, miss out on knowing something truly wonderful.
Shakespeare’s audience was not made up solely of aristocrats, there were also the groundlings, standing on their crushed hazelnut shells and laughing along with Bottom and yelling abuse at Tybalt.
If getting today’s ‘groundlings’ to eventually appreciate the power of Shakespeare means offering them slang versions as a way in, I have no problem with it.
I suspect that Will wouldn’t either.
As mentioned before, I’m in the process of teaching The Long and the Short and the Tall to my year 10 group. One of the problems with discussing war with today’s students is the fact that they all play computer games so they all see ‘death’ and ‘war’ every day on a computer monitor. So they think they know all about it.
They have this sanitised view of killing. Fortunately they aren’t familiar with the real thing. Obviously I’m grateful for this, but it means that when discussing the reality of having to kill someone in cold blood, violently, they tend to be a bit blasé.
So I used a secret weapon. We have a volunteer learning assistant, a retired management-type. He wears a pin stripe three piece suit and is a very straight, upright sort of chap. We use him to handle the more difficult older boys, as they seem to find him surprisingly approachable. He’s also ex- military.
He’s old enough to have seen active service in Cyprus in the 50s. So I asked him to talk to my class about his war time experiences. He was amazing. He began by asking them a question: “Do you know what a bullet does to the human body?” Then he told them. They were enthralled. Even my chav princess was impressed. They couldn’t get enough of his stories. For a whole hour he kept them totally absorbed and fascinated.
The next lesson I talked to them about what my colleague had told them and they were desperate to listen to more of his stories. But they also had a changed attitude to the events in the play. It was clear from their comments that they saw the violence in the play in a different light. It was no longer ‘fun’. They also seemed to be aware of the real horror of the final scenes of the play.
I still have to get a piece of coursework out of them and that’s going to be a challenge, but at least I know that they understand more about the real horror of war. And if listening to an ex soldier alters their attitude to killing, then that has to be a good thing.
The title of this little effort translates as “Gift of the Storyteller”. It’s a phrase I grew up with as my old Welsh teacher was a sterling example of a “cyfarwydd” which is the Welsh word for a Bard or a Storyteller. She coloured all her lessons with stories and anecdotes, so even the most boring grammar lessons were entertaining.
As mentioned before, my father too was a natural teller of tales, something that he got from his own grandfather, who, apparently, would, along with his partner in crime, an old work mate, terrify the gathered members of his extended family on a Saturday night, with his tales of ghosts and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. He would, of course, stop at the stroke of midnight, as this was a mining community and no one told scary tales (outside of the pulpit!) on a Sabbath!
As storytelling is part of the Welsh culture (just go into a pub after an international rugby match to hear real telling of tall tales!) it was second nature for me to use it in my lessons. I’m always spinning yarns and the kids often say (and not just the little ones in year 7) “Go on miss, tell us a story!”
But my stories always have a purpose. They are always used to illustrate a point or to make something more memorable or interesting. Try telling an older class that’s reading Edgar Allen Poe that he had syphilis and watch the interest level rise! Describe in detail how Christopher Marlowe met his end or that Dr John Dee (Elizabeth 1st’s alchemist) was the original 007… It’s amazing how a little colour can make a lesson fun. Sometimes students have difficulty in seeing exactly where Miss’s latest tale is going, but they get there eventually and they remember the story … and the lesson for a very long time. I still get students I haven’t taught for years mentioning the car on the roof story (oral tradition), the slipper full of dog drool (descriptive writing), Van Gogh’s suicide (literary criticism), and the crazy countess who bathed in the blood of young girls (background to Dracula).
The thing about storytelling is that it’s comforting. Most of us were lucky enough to be read to or to be told stories when we were little, so the majority of us associate stories with pleasure. Why else would Spielberg films be so popular? He’s an ace storyteller. We watch TV or go to the cinema to be told a story. Whether we’re sitting in the dark watching the latest movie or sharing in the exploits of Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett, or the most recent adventure of Jack Bauer (24), or Marvel comic’s Wolverine, we’re still indulging in that lovely warm feeling we remember of old. Being told a story. It’s relaxing and we remember the feeling and the experience for a long time.
And that’s my reasoning for telling stories. If a student feels relaxed they are more likely to enjoy and consequently, to remember what was taught.
In ancient times the Storyteller was employed by kings and princes to chronicle events, to re-tell history. To remind people of past glories. To make them remember. And if storytelling was good enough for the ancient Welsh princes, it’s good enough for me.
My beautiful Poppy is dead.
I’ve owned dogs for years. Poppy was our third Goldie. She was the funniest and sweetest dog you could imagine.
The vet took her for an MRI a few days ago as they couldn’t work out what on earth was wrong with her. When they showed me the images, it was horrific. The tumour in her neck was the size of a tennis ball. And malignant. I couldn’t believe that we could have missed anything that size for so long. But we did.
Up until the day I took her to the vet for what I believed was a ‘minor’ ailment (eczema), she was still running five miles a day and scaring the ducks on the local lake with her joyful jumping into the water with the doggy version of “Yahoo!” So finding out that she was terminally ill came as a heart wrenching shock.
We visited her in hospital and despite being so ill, she still came out into the garden with us and did her usual rolling onto her back, legs in the air and her “Please stroke my tummy” routine. She was so happy to see us and although the massive swelling in her neck had subsided a little, the tumour was even more visible and we knew then that her fate was sealed.
We spent the weekend saying goodbye as we guessed that she would never be coming home. When the vet rang this morning and confirmed that the chemotherapy was not really working and that her time was very limited, we knew what decision we had to make.
I’ve owned dogs for years. Poppy was our third Goldie…
It doesn’t get any easier.
Tomorrow I may be saying goodbye to one of my best friends. My beautiful retriever, Poppy.
Poppy is a wonderfully barmy working strain retriever, so she’s smaller than your average goldie, and an awful lot faster. And a hell of a lot smarter. She is our third Golden Retriever so I have some knowledge of the breed.
We got Poppy some five years ago, as a small, emaciated, ill-treated specimen that looked more like a whippet than a retriever. But once she settled in we discovered that not only did she have the most patient, long-suffering nature, but also a great sense of fun. She taught us specific games, and I do mean that she taught us. She also discovered that the way to wind us up was to steal shoes. She doesn’t chew them, she just ‘acquires’ them. If you kick off your shoes, she will very delicately pick one up, give you a sneaky look and saunter away, casting the occasional taunting glance over her shoulder at you.
When my daughter, a runner who thinks nothing of running five or six miles a day, came home from university, Poppy found a running mate. My daughter, despite her speed and considerable stamina, has not yet been able to wear Poppy out. (Our other dog, a big, butch Alsatian, reckons he’s faster, but Poppy leaves him standing every time).
Almost two weeks ago, I took Poppy to the vet for treatment for what seemed a minor ailment. Within 24 hours, she was unable to breathe owing to the massive swelling that suddenly erupted in her throat. Dozens of tests and two exploratory operations later, the prognosis is not good. The current diagnosis is probably a tumour, which, owing to its location, whether it’s malignant or not, is probably inoperable. So I have to come to terms with the likely death of my beautiful Poppy.
To make things worse, I can’t, as yet, tell my children as one is in the midst of his AS exams and the other completing her Master’s exams.
But my colleagues know, as the vet has been phoning me at school to update me on my dog’s condition. They have been brilliant. English departments are supposed to be empathic and this one certainly is. I told one of my colleagues about Poppy’s condition and he informed the others, who then spent the rest of the afternoon making me laugh. I’m very grateful to them for that.
Paradoxically, one of the difficult elements of teaching English is its empathic side. My lovely year nine group has developed real empathy through their study of poetry and Shakespeare. They are aware of the fact that my dog is ‘sick’. Tomorrow they will ask, as they have done every lesson for the last few days, how Poppy is. Do I tell them the truth? I probably will, as their concern is genuine, and I owe them an honest response.
I’ve mentioned somewhere before what a difficult year 10 group I have. Well they’re still difficult, but over the last few lessons, I’ve been fascinated by them. The reason for this is that I decided to read another ‘modern’ play. A couple of years ago, with my boy-heavy year 11 group (when they were year 10) I decided to have a go reading the Willis Hall play ‘The Long, the Short and the Tall’. Initially, I was a bit concerned, as the play was written in the 50s about World War 2, so I thought they’d think it was a bit ‘old hat’. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The only thing that’s dated about this play is the British slang. My class (the boys, anyway) loved it. They loved the violence and the brutality (and the swearing!)
So I thought I’d try again with this year’s class. And it’s worked. The ideas in the play are just as relevant today as they were fifty years ago, particularly if you point out the parallels with Iraq. The question of whether or not you can kill an unarmed prisoner in cold blood, even in the middle of a war, is just as valid, if not more so, as it was then. The boys, particularly one who is in the Air Cadets, are completely engrossed, even the most disaffected are willing to discuss the questions posed by the playwright.
What’s been a real eye opener though is the reaction of the ‘chav princess’ in my class. She’s the one who was so brutally rude to me some months ago. She’s been allowed back in (after much grovelling and abject apologies on her part). And she asked if she could read one of the parts. As this was a first for her, and owing to the fact that she’s a good reader, I gave her one of the wordier roles. It was a real revelation. She was brilliant. She lost herself completely in the part and read with true feeling. It was a pleasure to listen to her and the other students were carried along with her enthusiasm. The boy reading the part of the ‘barrack room lawyer’ Bamforth, was superb (though he was a bit insulted when I told him it was type casting!) and the gentle Richard made a moving Mitchem (the one who has to make the dreadful decision in the play).
No doubt that when the class has to write about the play, it’ll be a different matter. But for the moment, I’m enjoying seeing this difficult group responding (at long last!) to a piece of literature which to them, seems fresh and new. It’s great to see them getting involved with the themes of the play and being able to see their relevance even today.
At the moment, I’m enjoying seeing this class finally ‘getting it’. I don’t know how long it will last, but I intend to make the most of it while I can.