Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Thou art a fawning, dizzy-eyed, codpiece

I'll spare you the Waynes World wibble wobbles this time, but we will be making a short journey into my past.

Pembroke Bush Comprehensive School

My Upper 6th English teacher for Shakespeare was Mr. O'Driscoll, or Mrs. O-D as she was affectionately known by her charges.  Our A-Level text was Anthony and Cleopatra and often I found it a dry, dull experience until Mrs. O-D helped me turn a corner.

Burton and Liz's 'Anthony and Cleopatra'

I'm going to assume you've all seen The Incredibles.  The teenage me was very much the daughter Miss. Invisible, mainly due to much relentless, cruel, and aggressive bullying by some girls in my year group. It was a blessing not to be noticed.  Juniour school me was an eager, hands up, 'I know the answer Sir!' to almost every question answered kind of pupil. Do that in my comprehensive school and it did one thing, make you a target. I learned to be quiet; I learned to get my head down and work; I learned to not bother speaking as my primary survival tactics. 

So what did Mrs. O-D manage to do?  She asked me to read some of Anthony and Cleopatra aloud to the class. I had knots in my stomach, sweaty palms and an urge to vomit, but I read. 

Mrs. O-D asked me a simple, but powerful question after I'd read a passage (I have NO recollection of which bit), she asked me, 'Have you done this before? You read it so naturally.' 
I looked up, blushing a bit and replied with, 'Erm, no, er, thanks Miss.'
Inside, oh inside it was a different matter, I was beaming. 

This was an astute lady.  

Later on when we were ploughing our way through Anthony and Cleopatra, we discussed and analysed some dialogue between the two main characters.  Mrs. O-D concentrated on the words, 'death' and the verb, 'to die'.  How morbid? You could assume...but no, how fruity and bawdy? Mrs. O-D revealed to us that they were talking about sex, about Cleopatra's orgasm which is what the verb, 'to die' referred to and there we learned that Shakespeare was a bit rude! Anthony and Cleopatra was no longer this dry, dusty old thing...we had become intrigued.

After the lesson, my friend Lynne and I made EVERY effort to use the 'to die' verb and all its double entendre possibilities at EVERY opportunity. (The irony being that neither of us had a scoobies what an orgasm actually was, other than a description in a dictionary, but still, we LOOKED like we knew). 

So, nearly *coughs* twenty years later I remember that morsel or bawdy information about our Mr. Shakespeare and an apparently, dry, dusty old text.  That and a bit of a soliloquy from the play: 'Age cannot wither her/Nor custom stale her infinite variety.' thanks to the audio tape I listened to ad infinitum before my exam. 

Shakespeare, thou art talking gibberish.

We are English teachers, we love Shakespeare, yes? Even if you do think it was De Vere and not the glove maker's son from the Midlands, we like the fella, we get it don't we? Then what is it that can make teaching it a tad scary? It is the language. 

For pupils, of all abilities, there is a barrier to the language which we can call 'the fear' the reasons for it are numerous.

Compare it to any contemporary text, and it looks alien (not quite as scary as Giger's Alien, but alien it is). It does not resemble texts that they normally read, it is all (I know it's not all, but lots of it is) in poetry for God's sake - who the heck speaks in poetry, that's just weird isn't it?  This is before we even get to the reading of it, or bathing in the richness of his language.  

So, how can we over-come 'the fear'? 

We can learn from the wise Mrs. O-D, by using an age old tac tic - don't blush now - get to the nub of the 'rude' bits and even, start off by showing them how to insult each other Shakespeare style. 

If you click on this link here: http://www.pangloss.com/seidel/shake_rule.html  you will find a Shakespeare insult generator. I have given you the link for the simplest one which can be printed off as it is, if needed.

What on earth can you do with it?

Start by giving the pupils a copy each of the sheet.  Before you've even finished handing it out and giving any form of instruction, they'll be reading them aloud to themselves or calling their neighbour an insult on the sheet. The cheekier ones will start insulting you with it with a, 'Miss, you are a bot-less, half-faced, baggage!' You of course, MUST insult them back, and there you are, an improvised argument - Shakespeare style. Your classroom is already awash with Shakespeare without a huge amount of effort in your part.

Some of your more curious beasts will point at an insult, or indeed call you it, and then ask you what it means.  Now, I don't tell them because, in all honesty, I have no idea what each of them means but also, this isn't about scrutinising meaning in the insults, it is really about the pupils making meaning from them.  It is important that meaning of the language is not fixed and not fixed by you, but by them.  This will pay huge dividends later when you are asking (note - NOT telling) them to find meaning in, 'Macbeth hath murdered sleep' or what, 'Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?' REALLY means. 

This activity does need some structuring, which is really rather simple. Get the pupils to generate 'X' number of insults (I usually go for 10) by putting 'Thou art' or 'You are' at the beginning and all they need to do is choose an insult from each column, put them together and job done.  It helps to model an example on the whiteboard for the 'I don't get its'.  Give them a set time to do it - deadlines are always useful, and then you can get onto the really fun bit, you are giving them licence to be rude in a lesson...just not THAT rude. 

Below is what I give the students to do.  It is usually done with a class I have not taught Shakespeare to before and it can work for KS3 or 4.  Use this how you wish:

Shakespeare insults: Creative/Drama task.

Challenge: In pairs use your Shakespeare insults to write a script for an argument.  Instead of using swear words you will use your very own Shakespeare insults YOU have just created!

Choose topic for your argument:

Bad food in restaurant       a messy bedroom      being late to a lesson  

Toothpaste lid always left off       smelly bathroom  

someone has kept something borrowed

the last chocolate muffin in the canteen.

An idea of your own!

Arguments have a simple structure:
  1. Polite/friendly conversation 
  2. Someone says or does something to upset the other
  3. The argument starts – fairly calmly
  4. The argument increase – getting louder
  5. The argument reaches a climax – even louder and more insults
  6. Someone wins….but who?

Make sure you follow the same structure:

Integrate your Shakespeare insults with Standard English from part 3:
AND use the format of a play-script when you write
BOTH of you MUST have the script in your book.

e.g. (From point 3)

Miss: So,  (pause) once again Kieran you are a goatish, idle-headed baggage for yet again having no reasonable excuse for being late to my lesson. (Sighs sarcastically)

Kieran: What did you just call me? (shocked) You can’t say that, you’re a teacher! (getting angry now). 

Miss: (staying calm, just)  When you are late THIS many times, jolthead, (pause)  I can pretty much say what I like.

As with any teaching resource or idea, there is no need to use it verbatim. Use as much or as little as you need and adapt it to suit your teaching group and lesson objectives. 

What next?

Now this will be dependent entirely on the nature of your group, their ability and the personality mix you have in the room with you.  

Years ago I was fortunate enough to have a very able top set in Year 9, most of whom were also doing Performing Arts GCSE. They made their insults, devised their own ideas for an argument, wrote their scripts, rehearsed it many, many times and they performed their sketches in front of each other in the classroom.  As an audience all were supportive, encouraging and polite. As performers they were confident, slick, and very, very funny.    

During the lesson there was lots of laughter, huge rounds of applause and cheering and thanks to one cheeky so and so, an improvised Shakespeare insults argument between myself and the cheeky so an so.  As Liam Gallagher nasally whined, 'You've got to roll with it' and so we did.  We argued until the bell tolled for break, received a huge round of applause and off they went down the corridor...insulting each other Shakespeare's way as they pootled off to the feeding frenzy of the school canteen.  I locked the classroom door totally elated. 

It is always handy to kill two birds with one stone in our job, so should you wish to, you can also get a Speaking and Listening assessment from this. Bonus. 

I have done this this year with my less able Year 9 group who began the year as the sort of group you lose sleep over and you notice new grey hairs and wrinkles every week.  To say they were not keen dramatists would be an understatement (trying to find what they were keen on was tricky to say the least) but they all engaged with the insults, using them verbally in the lesson; all had a go at writing their insult sketches and some chose to perform to me in the classroom after school.  

When it came to reading Macbeth with them, to my surprise, I had many volunteers to read. Shakespeare and his insults had helped us, teacher and class, turn a corner. 

What's the point of it?

This is so simple it is almost absurd: you get rid of 'the fear' and you have given them a pleasant, perhaps even fun, or even better, funny experience of our chap from the Midlands.  They find out for themselves that the language is versatile, funny and creative and they find that out about themselves too. As for the rude bits, well, there are PLENTY of those to choose from in most of his plays. 

Where do we go next?

So we waltz into another potential minefield of,  'What the heck do we do now?' and 'How do I get them intrigued by the story?' educational bombs which are quite entitled to their very own blog posts. *Noted down carefully in shiny new academic diary*

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The lad from Stratford (the Midlands one, not the London one)

It is always worthwhile to credit where it is due and in this case, it is @Xris32 who has helped me derive a direction for my blog, at least for a while, after reading his rather excellent blogging debut about how to approach teaching novels. Like @Xris32 I write with slightly newer teachers in mind but old hands may find it of passing interest. Not forgetting @pekabelo who prodded me, in the best possible way, to take the plunge with this topic. With that in mind, I've chosen to focus on my local playwright, Shakesepeare. NOT because I know it all, purely because I often get the MOST enjoyment from teaching his works. Simples. 

Wayne's World flashback: 'diddly do, diddly do, diddly do', screen wibbles and wobbles and I am, back, back to my interview for my PGCE/SCITT course at Northampton School For Boys (yes, a state school) whose most notable alumni is current Doctor Who Matt Smith.  I believe he was a pupil whilst I was there, I'd like to say I met him and taught him, reader, I just can't remember.  

I bet this makes some of you feel old.

I've digressed from my flashback. Re-boot: 'diddly do, diddly do, diddly do'. Screen wibbles and wobbles and we are back in that interview room:

I am asked many questions, not all of which I can remember, but one sticks out, it involves The Bard and goes as follows:

Teacher on panel: 'So, how would you teach Macbeth?'

There as an internal monologue that goes as follows: "Bollocks, what do I know? This person has been teaching for decades, how do I appear at least reasonably intelligent about this?"  

An answer formulates and it is not a long one, it is quite succinct, taciturn even, but it does the job. 

I respond with, 'I'd concentrate on the blood and the gore. It's full of horror, and I love horror.'  

The teachers smile in response and I manage a nervous smile back. 

Waynes World 'flashforward': 'diddly do, diddly do, diddly do', screen wibbles and wobbles and we are back in the present:

So why, after a decade (WHERE did that time go???) of teaching do I still remember this moment and why did the interview panel smile back at me? What follows are my reflections on that answer combined with important points to consider before you begin teaching The Bard. 

1. Focus hocus pocus

Given the vast coverage of the National Curriculum and the GCSE Specifications, you can't languish in teaching the whole text to the nth degree.  I say this but I have a colleague who has done this with Much Ado About Nothing at KS4.  The text was taught in its entirety (which begs the question, to what depth?) and I was harangued on Facebook to help her formulate the GCSE essay question, JUST BEFORE they were about to start writing it.  DON'T do that. You SHOULD zoom in on two or three scenes that provide you and the class with some really varied territory for you to explore together. 

2. Know your audience 

Shakespeare did, you must too.  My rather simple response had at least considered just that. What you may delight in as an adult, a Shakespeare uber-fan isn't necessarily what 'Johnny' has any real interest in.  What would a hormonal, potentially truculent teenager have some interest in? What can they easily grasp that allows you to hang the rest of your teaching from?  What have they already seen or watched in current media that they know that also connects with the text? What kind of images (remember it is a visual and aural medium) can you provide them with that THEY can relate to that helps them make sense of something SO old? 

3. 'Your first duty, an English teacher, is to make them love your subject' 

I'll spare you the Wayne's World wibble and wobble, but this was said to me by an AST in my NQT year and at the heart of what you do with a Shakesepeare text, OK, hands are aloft, English teaching MUST be this.  

I often think of this, but never more so, than with a Shakespeare texts.  You'll tell people that you're an English teacher....in a Secondary school and when the colour has returned to their faces, people will often tell you (once the taking the p*** out of your holidays has taken place) that, when it came to Shakespeare, they 'just didn't get it' or that, 'they can't see the point of it.' I still get this now and it reminds me to be determined to prove them wrong.

I'm even more determined with a very low ability GCSE group, who test your very teacher soul to the limit, that they CAN get it and it is NOT torture. A triumph is when they begin to thoroughly enjoy the analysis of his language - potentially the most intimidating part of what we do - due to the sense of accomplishment they get out of doing so and that you have provided them with the opportunity to become 'experts' in this field. 

4. Jumpers for goal-posts 

This will seem a little contradictory to the above but the nuts and bolts of this is Shakespeare is on the national curriculum and you will teach it for an assessment.  As @Xris32 and other Twitter tweacher luminaries have ably pointed out, you begin planning with your end goal in sight. For GCSE it is dictated by the focus of the Controlled Assessment.  You have to marry the requirement of the assessment with the MOST appropriate sections or sections from the text and the requirements of the mark scheme.   Think of this as the holy trinity of teaching and assessing the pupil's knowledge & understanding of the text.

For example, last year I taught a very able all girls group WJEC Language and Literature and the CA focus was on 'Male and Female relationships.' The scene that suited my group best was Act 3 Scene 5 - Juliet and Capulet's argument.  

It was a well tailored suit, because they could empathise with both Juliet's refusal to obey and Capulet's disappointment in her. They could form opinions about the violence in the scene and connect this with the language (pace, the crescendo of insults, the blunt rejection by her mother) and melodrama (never hurts to refer to soap opera slanging matches or Jeremy Kyle moments here) present in the scene.  

To merely repeat the scene, for the sake of expediency, would be akin to professional suicide this year. The group is less able,  more boy heavy, and includes a range of SEN, emotional and behavioural issues that dictate the need for change. As does the new focus (different GCSE course and exam board) of power. Will it even be the same Shakespeare text? 

5. Get thee to The Globe

If you've never been, go.  I first went, having completed and survived my PGCE year, in the summer before I began my NQT year to watch an all female cast perform The Taming of the Shrew.  I was a groundling, I'll not lie, my feet and back killed me, but I have an odd sense in pride in having done it.  The atmosphere is joyous and the interior is magnificent, a cathedral to Shakesepeare's plays.  It will remind you, in no uncertain terms, that 'the play's the thing' while at the same timing making you unpick what you thought you knew and re-sew a brand new patchwork of Shakespeare knowledge and understanding. 

I remember looking up and around me, gasping, mouth in a round 'O' and my brain began ticking over re-assessing the plays I'd read and studied.  

Why?  The space makes much more sense of the text and its wordiness. 

Show your class pictures, focus on what is missing (lighting rig, set design, sound effects) focus back on the language, ask them, 'Why are there too many words?' (I like to be be blunt, I like to acknowledge where their heads are at). 'Why is there so much use of imagery?' 'What MUST the audience do?' 'Where does the set-design take place?' 'Find the stage directions in the dialogue' are all questions and ideas that the space provokes and enables them to make sense of the very purpose of the language.   

I go back to The Globe next week, to see The Taming of the Shrew and am mildly perturbed that it's been a decade since I first went to see the very same play in the very same theatre. 

Cliche alert: This is merely the tip of an immense ice-berg.  There many other things to write about and the next one is likely to be about over-coming the inevitable language barrier with some ideas that did work, even with the 'I don't cares' and the 'I ain't bovvereds' in your class. 

Disclaimer: I've only been at this ten years, so cannot possibly have all the answers, but there are some, and some of them might even be useful.

Teaching Shakespeare's plays provide you with the very best of teaching challenges; they make you find the best of your pedagogy; it is when you can be at your most creative and playful. I often find they can be the glue the gels the class together, motoring them forwards with a new sense of accomplishment, purpose and self-belief. 

Oh yes, 'the play's the thing' and it will be 'a hit, a very palpable hit.'

A useful book for teachers new and old:
(More to be added)

Gibson, Rex. Teaching Shakespeare: A handbook for Teachers (Cambridge School Shakespeare) 1998