Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

Shakespeare the Immortal: But is He Really God of English?

May 7, 2016

Shakespeare the Immortal: But is He Really God of English?

If you live in the English speaking world there are a couple of things you cannot escape at the moment – one is the US juggernaut that is Donald Trump, the other that it is 400 years since William Shakespeare popped his clogs. The differences are startling – one was the master of words, the other mangles them on most outings. One lives forever in the heart of poets and romantics, and perhaps one could venture that the Donald has an equally romantic impact on some Americans who long for some version of the US that isn’t the current one.

Today I will spend time with the Bard. The truth is I spent a great deal of my working life with the Bard – as a secondary English teacher you have no choice, especially in the UK. He is everywhere; he is God of English; the truth, the light and the way. Indeed I exaggerate dear reader, but despite all sorts of anguished cries from the young ones in schools across the world, it is impossible to deny his importance on language, on how we speak today and how we make sense of our world.

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Is he loved and enjoyed by the kinder in the classroom: well, on the whole not a lot. He seems rather to be endured that enjoyed and sadly that makes teaching any sort of Shakespeare a bit of a challenge. Over the years I have grown to hate, loathe and detest Romeo and Juliet. It is not a text for 13 and 14 year olds in year 9, yet persistently that is where they first encounter it.

Students notoriously cannot cope with the language; they lose the plot and story in the jungle of words that make no sense. Stopping to read the annotations and explain everything does take the pleasure out of reading the text. There are a couple of traps there – one is that you do not need to know the meaning of every word to understand what is going on and the other, most significant point is that Shakespeare’s plays should not be read by semi-illiterate, resistant students in freezing or stuffy classrooms. No, they should be watching a performance, seeing it live, experiencing the Bard that way.

Several years ago I had one of my many desperate bottom set year 9s – we were doing Macbeth, which was some relief from the tedium of R&J but still, as you can image, it was a trial. But my school was a stroll from the Globe Theatre on Southbank, so we took the whole of year 9 off to the theatre for a schools session. It was remarkable – the players were much more than merely players strutting and fretting their stuff upon the stage signifying nothing. They did their job: they brought the whole thing alive and on returning to the classroom we were able to have the sort of discussions about the play that helped them understand it and appreciate it. The significance of live performances, of action befitting words, of words made meaningful by actors who understand the nuance and wit of Shakespeare cannot be under-estimated.

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Today with the new changes to the curriculum the students are expected to read whole texts again, instead of the key scenes nonsense. And while I agree with the whole text being important, the point about drama is still missed and the opportunities to get students to performances is limited – mainly by schools constrained by budgets that cannot afford such luxuries, either to go out to the theatre or have troupes come in.

Students need live performances to get what’s going on: their unworldly vocabularies, coupled with their limited reading skills simply mangle Shakespeare and deny the magnificence of the writing and the action.

I thank the many and wonderful film makers who have done their best to bring the wonders of the Bard to the screen so we can at least give some feel for how the stories really do go along. You cannot go past either Lurhmann or Zeferrelli for Romeo and Juliet; Polanski’s Macbeth may be a bit dated but it remains one of the best; The Tempest with Helen Mirren is brilliant; A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Kevin Kline and Calista Flockhart is wonderful, as is Much Ado About Nothing with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. You can’t go past the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor version of Taming of the Shrew and you should compare that to the wonderful 10 Things I Hate About You, with the lovely late Heath Ledger.

This brings me neatly to my next point, about the enduring nature of Shakespeare. His plays are continuously produced and performed across the world; his stories are made into modern films, accessible to a younger audience; his stories are remade for modern times. Look up the different versions of Macbeth – Japanese, set in a kitchen, on a rubbish dump. And of course Romeo and Juliet is West Side Story. Jane Smiley’s One Thousand Acres is a reimagining of King Lear.

Why is this? His stories resonate because despite being mostly about noble people – or as my university lecturer famously said about Antony and Cleopatra; ‘it is a great play, about great people, doing great things, in great places’ (the 1963 film Cleopatra owes a great deal to the Shakespearean play A&C) – they are stories about human nature: greed, ambition, desire, pride, foolishness, deception, lust, love. We recognise these things when we see them on stage, we see ourselves or people we know. We watch with horror as characters cannot escape who they are. We watch with joy as problems are solved and everyone lives happily ever after.

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And the language is wonderful. He did have a wonderful ear and as we know was quite inventive. His words and phrases are part of our everyday speech, our idioms come from him; our expectations about romance come from him; Freud looked at his plays as a basis for his theories.

It is well to remember as we celebrate and laud this man, who has stood the test of time, that he was writing for the common man and woman. The theatre was the television of his day and he wrote the equivalent of dramas and soap operas – he catered to the masses. Perhaps that’s part of the secret of his immortality – he spoke to the ordinary man, he wrote the sorts of things that they were interested in. His sonnets are things of beauty and cover all manner of topics too.

So, is William Shakespeare God of English, should he hold such a prized place at the heart of English school curriculums?

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You cannot dispute his influence on theatre, on language, on literature. He is not the only immortal we have (Chaucer, Marlowe, etc), but he is one of the most significant. He should be taught in schools, but perhaps we need to reconsider when and why. This year I have finally enjoyed Romeo and Juliet. Why? – I hear you ask. Simple: it was with A level students who can talk about the text, interrogate it, appreciate it, read it with meaning and nuance, find new things in it. My girls weren’t just getting through it, or reading it for exams. Wonderfully and reassuringly they were enjoying it. And with their enjoyment so came new insights and a new appreciation of the text and of good old William himself.

Shakespeare is our Titan of literature but we do him and the hapless kiddies no good by forcing him down their throats before they are ready for him. Yes, it’s that old educational concept of ‘readiness’ – when the student is ready the learning is good, and easy and fun and lasting. My fear for Shakespeare is that too many are turned off him because they meet him too soon and never find the joy and magic in his considerable works. (Images from Private Collection)

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End of Term Blues: Why am I still teaching?

July 11, 2015

Why Am I Still Teaching?

It’s nearly the end of another teaching year – too many to count now! But I end this year sad and uncertain: what is my purpose, what am I actually doing as an English teacher in this country, under the latest changes?

Up until recently I have been confident about the importance and purpose of my subject and my job. English is central to the life opportunities of the young, as is Maths (yes, and other subjects are important too!). English is about the basics: reading and writing, but it is so much more than that – it is about communicating, thinking, creating, exploring, arguing; using the imagination. Well, it was, and maybe it still is at home, in Oz. But in the UK, with every change that is implemented English becomes an impoverished subject; ironically like most of the students whose life chances it purports to support.

In the reaction to the endemic cheating or gaming of the system through Course Work and then Controlled Assessments, key questions were not asked. No-one scratched their head and said: Hey, why are all these schools and teachers cheating to get better results? Why is this happening? Dots were not joined and so we have a subject that should be about nuance and thought, time and consideration, about planning and editing and drafting that is being wholly externally examined. My subject has been bastardised by people who have no idea about English and certainly not the first idea about young people. My subject has been hijacked by people who did not struggle at school, who have not listened to teachers or parents, who reside in some sort of alternative universe where education is stuck in the 1950s.

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Here are some questions that should have been asked before the latest changes were made.

1. What is the point of English in schools?

2. How can we make this subject relevant to non-readers, to those who don’t write, or see much of a future for themselves?

3. What skills and knowledge do we want them to have?

 

I used to think the point of English was to foster a love of reading, to encourage students to read for information, for pleasure, to develop their own language and ability to extract meaning from a text, to think about ideas and meaning and come to their own considered opinions. Fiction’s purpose was to start a dialogue, to tap into their experiences and move them beyond that, to consider other views, other world’s, other ways of being and seeing.

Reading lead to discussion, exploration, arguing, justifying an opinion. It led to accepting there were other points of view, other ways of seeing and understanding things; it also showed you were not alone, not the only one feeling the way you did. Reading lead to writing – personal responses, essays, critical analysis and creative responses, a story, a letter to a character, an extra chapter, and alternative ending, something original using an element from the text. Writing meant thinking, planning, writing, experimenting, crafting, drafting and editing before producing a final product worthy of ‘publication’ or assessment. Not a tick box exercise about triplets and wow words and as much punctuation as you can shove in to get an extra mark.

How many skills can you identify from that paragraph?

There is a large body of evidence that shows that reading fiction, especially good quality well written fiction, is good for us. It enhances empathy, our ability to connect to others, to understand people and how to work with them. Reading also develops our ability to concentrate, to sustain activities, as well as develop our vocabulary and understanding of how language works – the nuts and bolts of punctuation, sentence structure, vocabulary choices and effects. We learn how to be good writers from being good readers.

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But the new curriculum is not about love of anything – certainly not books or kids. There is nothing modern or particularly accessible on the new list for GCSE – a raft of Shakespeare, as to be expected, 19th century texts that many will never access – Great Expectations is a great story but too long; Pride and Prejudice a bit too much romance and marriage; Jekyll and Hyde may be short but its language is impenetrable. Most of the 20th century texts stop short of the 1960s. I’m not sure what these texts bring to a modern child, how they will find reading less of a chore, a king-size bore from the xenophobic list created by Michael Gove, the master educationalist.

I’m not sure what future the politicians see for young people, I’m not sure what they think they will achieve by a retro Sabre-tooth Tiger curriculum that takes no account of the modern world, of the impact of technology on language, on the way we create and receive information. I wonder what world these students are being ‘prepared’ for.

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I wonder how I will connect texts and tasks to their experiences, to make them see the relevance of what we do for 5 hours a week. I wonder how I can resist the pressure to make everything we do about exam skills and preparation, because that will be the push, the fear from above about exams now that we have nothing else to tell us how students are progressing.

I wonder how much longer I can do this job, dictated to by idiots and fools who have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager, to be at school, to be constantly tested, to prepare for a future from within an education system that is not fit for purpose. (Images from Private Collection)

Not My Finest Week…

September 27, 2014

In all honesty it’s been a shit of a week. I know bad things happen all the time and we’re all quite used to life not being sunshine and thorn-free roses, but some weeks are more full of shit than others. This is such a week.

I know there are, as ever, horrendous things happening, and there are a great many parts of the planet that you do not want to live in no matter what. But this week, this particular week I’d rather not be in my part of London, but in a cave somewhere, preferably by a beach, where I can be simply left alone.

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I have had worse weeks, and I know others have had a rough week too, and while that’s no real comfort, it is a reminder that life spends its time going up and down. If you follow the Tarot, or subscribe to Shakespeare you are familiar with the Wheel of Fortune. It is ever rolling on, and you’re always stuck to the wheel, either moving up, or moving down. It is that inevitability of the down that sucks. Oh, if only we could keep going up, or perhaps be on a small wheel, where the gaps between the apex and the pit are kinder, less extreme. Oh, for a kinder life!

So, following that line next week should see a movement upwards. But, dear reader, I am not holding my breath. Instead I am going to make some counter moves of my own and do a bit of shit-removing from my life.

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Try these on for size

1.Keep my own mouth shut more often – think it but don’t say it

2.Ignore the idiots and the fools that populate my life, knowing most of them are only temporary visitors in my soap-opera

3.Take some advice from someone who knows more about certain things than I do – yes, take professional advice when needed

4.Firm up my escape plans, ensure they will enable a stress free move to the next chapter – perhaps sooner than anticipated…

5.Be with people I love – and hopefully laugh, feel some joy and stop feeling sorry for myself!

6.Go for a walk, get some fresh air in my lungs and endorphins in my brain

7.Drink wine, because no matter what’s gone down, everything looks better once you’ve had a glass or two (all right bottle or two) of your favourite wine.

I’m sure you have your own solutions to add to my meager list. Just remember: shit happens, sometimes all at once, but perhaps that means we get it out of the way for a while? You can only hope… (Images courtesy Private Collection)

Valentine’s Day: famine or feast?

February 15, 2014

Valentine’s Day is a bit like Xmas for some, one of those days we just don’t want to know about, whether we’re single, sad, lonely or in a long term relationship where the romance just ain’t what it used to be. The truth is Valentine’s Day isn’t for all of us. It also has a mixed history.

The original St Valentine is said to have defied the order of Emperor Claudius and married couples so men wouldn’t have to go to war, which greatly inconvenienced the emperor as there was a shortage of soldiers at the time. Keeping the Roman empire going has its expenses. Another version has it that Valentine refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. With both stories he ended up in prison and was executed, leaving a note, signed: Your Valentine.

But before that there was the Feast of Lupercalia, February 13-14, where the ancient Romans had a good old time sacrificing goats, drinking and dancing naked in the hope of increasing their fertility. With the advent of Christianity, as was the way, the pagan festivals were taken over by the Christians, and Pope Gelasuis merged the Feast with St Valentine’s Day, which celebrated the matyrdom of the aforementioned St Valentine, to make the day less about lust and more about love.

During the Middle Ages it was believed that birds paired-bonded in mid-February, a romantic notion that attached itself to February 14. Our good friends Chaucer and Shakespeare did much to grow the romance of Valentine’s Day through their writing.

And then there was the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 where seven mob associates of Al Capone were gunned down during prohibition America.

One can agree that it’s a great day for flower sellers, chocolate makers, card manufacturers and restaurants. But for the rest of us it can be a day of deep disappointment, of feeling let down by your loved one, who just isn’t romantic, or not getting your hints. Like Christmas, it can make you feel worse about your partner, your relationship, your whole life! You’ll feel resentful because you want them to do something but if they don’t do it of their own accord all the flowers and chocolates in the world become utterly meaningless. So, don’t be disappointed – do something yourself, don’t wait for your partner to take the initiative. If you want something romantic to happen on the 14th February, then you do it!

So in my house, this year it’s been a day of success – new job for eldest daughter, passed driving theory for youngest, first day of half term pour moi and all round ‘life’s not too shabby’ for all of us. I decided we’d have a celebratory dinner, something low key, but where we chatted, laughed, enjoyed each other’s company and were happy in our bit of the world. I bought a couple of modest gifts for my household and prepared a lovely, but simple feast. Yes, there were bubbles, yes there was chocolate – but no flowers. And there was a meal to thrill the tastebuds and do easily for your next special occasion. Outside the world stormed and swirled but inside we feasted and then repaired to finish our season of Breaking Bad. We had a lovely evening and I might do the same next year.

Dinner

Appetizers: Olives, Strawberries, Doritos and tasty chicken bits – oven warmed. Served with long cool glass of Bacardi and Coke. Yes, dear Ozzie mates, not Bundy, because over here it is one of those lesser known brands. Indeed, how can this be????

Main course: steak with onions, bacon and mushroom ‘sauce’, French potatoes and peas.

French potatoes – adjusted from a recipe I read somewhere recently. 400-500 g of Charlotte or New potatoes, lardoons/bacon, chives or spring onion green bits. Boil potatoes until tender. Set aside til cool. Heat large pan, using oil and butter mixed, brown the potatoes, add the lardons and cook through but keep soft, not crispy. Add greenery and serve warm, make sure you spoon the oil and butter liquid over the spuds

Steak: choose a cut you like – rump, sirloin. Saute onions in pan first to give more flavour to the steak – cook on high heat to sear the outside. Turn only once, otherwise tenderness is lost. Keep your eye on the time, especially if you’re going for medium-rare, as we prefer. Serve sauted onions, bacon and mushrooms over the steak.

Desert: tonight it was chocolates, and mint ice-cream.

Ah, me, it was easy, simple, cost effective and very-very lovely.

Be happy, feel the love. Enjoy half term. (Images from Private Collection)