Shapiro at the Sam Wanamaker: 2nd October 2015

I wrote last year about the first Shapiro lecture I attended at the Sam Wanamaker theatre, when I was terribly excited to hear his next book would be on 1606, Jacobean London. Shapiro’s latest talk accompanied the launch of said book, and to open his talk he humorously positioned the book on the stage behind him ‘in case I forget anything.’

As before, Shapiro did not have a pre-prepared speech; he simply took questions from the audience. The first: why 1606? Shapiro said that academics tended to ‘divide up Shakespeare’ within their department to ‘before Hamlet and after Hamlet. Because no one wants to give up Hamlet.’ Having taught ‘before Hamlet’ for many years, he humbly protested: ‘I needed to know more about that time.’

Asked about a Freudian interpretation of King Lear, he replied: ‘I live back then;’ he expanded this to say that a contemporary audience member didn’t see Lear in this way, and though Freud and others provided interesting interpretations, that wasn’t where his interest was. He pointed out that the 1600 version (‘Leir’) ended happily, and so for Shakespeare to change the ending so dramatically was akin to a theatre-goer now turning up to Pride and Prejudice and seeing Darcy and Elizabeth hit by a truck during their final embrace.

On Shakespeare the man, Shapiro argued we can never know, because far too much is lost. Any scholars who do begin to assume what he was like, he noted, were merely giving their own autobiography, and their versions of Shakespeare tell us far more about themselves than about him.

The most interesting utterance to me as a teacher was to hear that Shapiro ‘hated Shakespeare’ at school. The reason for this? ‘I didn’t get it. I didn’t get Romeo and Juliet. I didn’t even get the dirty bits.’ Although Shapiro does focus on context in his work, and in placing the plays and the playwright in their time, the other focus he drew out in his talk was understanding: if we can understand the words, and take our students to brilliant productions where they understand the words, that will hook them into Shakespeare. Shapiro works with a prison theatre group on Rikers island in Chicago, and they put on Shakespeare productions in original language. He mentioned talking briefly to the audience of inmates before each production and being asked the same two questions – ‘how many plays did Shakespeare write?’ and ‘is he still alive?’ This latter question contextualises the literary awareness of the inmates, and yet he notes that they engage with the plays vibrantly, citing a moment when Hero in Much Ado faints and an inmate yelling out: ‘she’s down!’

Such an anecdote is inspiring and comforting. We don’t need to ‘dumb down’ Shakespeare for our classes – we just need to understand every word ourselves (no easy feat) so we can lead our students through it and ensure they too can react and enjoy the plays as they have been enjoyed for hundreds of years.

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Stanley Wells at the Globe

Every English graduate in the world has heard of Stanley Wells, if only for his “Complete Oxford Shakespeare” we were all encouraged to purchase prior to first year. Having been blown away by James Shapiro months earlier, I was keen to enjoy another of the Globe’s “Shakespeare at 450” lectures.

Introduced by the Globe’s education director, Patrick Spottiswoode, as a man who has chosen to “dedicate his life to serving Shakespeare” as well, hyperbolically perhaps but no less entertainingly, as “Shakespeare’s ambassador on earth,” Wells shirked all aplomb with a pithy: “you’re so plosive,” in response.

The topic of the lecture was a run through of the greatest Shakespearean actors (“from Burbage to Brannagh,” as the trailed book will be named). The joy of a great academic is that, though I hadn’t initially thought this was of interest, Wells made it of interest; his talk encompassed so much more than this.

Quoting Laurence Olivier, who as you might expect made a number of appearances in the talk, Wells explained he had limited his exploration to stage actors, rather than film as: “film is the director’s medium, television the writer’s, and stage the actor’s.”

On “colourblind” and “gender blind” productions, of which there is a long theatrical history, Wells posited that the heightened style of Shakespeare’s poetic drama allows greater diversity of interpretation: if the audience is prepared to accept actors talking in verse, they are more likely to accept other differences.

According to Wells, great Shakespearean actors manipulate their bodies and their voices. Olivier was especially noted for seeking to allow the external presentation to reveal the inner, such as his “false face” when playing Macbeth (we were told his wife, Vivien Leigh, had commented of the intensely thick make-up: “first you hear Macbeth’s line, then Larry’s make-up comes on, then Banquo comes on, then Larry comes on”). They also allow for an emotional distance while playing – they need to inhabit the character, but also be half-aware of the responses of the audience to ensure they do not speak over laughter or applause, for example. He cited plentiful examples in Shakespeare of actors giving acting advice; Hamlet most notably, but also Coriolanus (when overcome with passion he cries: “like a dull actor now, I have forgot my part”). Great actors can project their understanding and inhabitance of the inner life of the character with every expression and every articulation.

The chief take-away point in my view was that, although the playwright provides the material, the actors “achieve a different reality” with every performance. They recreate Shakespeare nightly, each time rebuilding an intricate and original representation.

More and more, I worry I am not qualified to teach my year 13 students. As a sixth former myself, I remember being moved in English lessons by the enormity of ideas discussed; I remember knowing that literature was without doubt the centre of the world; I remember being exposed to new words and new ideas daily. Years of practice training students to pass (often poorly created, unchallenging) exams has not made me a great teacher of the A-level. I wonder if I am alone in considering that if only more such academic lectures were available for English teachers to attend, we could re-engage with the critical community, and find our joy, passion and all-fulfilling reason in literature again.

Shapiro at the Sam Wanamaker

Having reflected last week at Wellington Festival on my lack of departmental emphasis on subject knowledge, a visit to one of the Globe’s Shakespeare at 450 lectures was well-timed to put my mind at ease. I think we are blessed in English departments across the land to be able to expand our subject knowledge at leisure; certainly, all the English teachers I have met read plentifully, visit theatres and yes – attend lectures.

Arriving, as is my wont, incredibly early, I realized too late that I was standing next to the man himself – a Brooklyn accent caught my ear, and before I knew it he was being whisked into the room. A fellow nerd looked over to me, and I saw my own ridiculous grin reflected in his. “He was right there!” we murmured to each other, in a life-affirming exchange that should warm the hearts of Shakespeare geeks everywhere.

And for the non-Shakespeare geeks, who is Shapiro? Well, he’s fast becoming the celebrity literary critic du jour. Shakespeare will always be in fashion, and Shapiro has maximized his influence through some blockbuster tomes (1599; Contested Will) as well as notable television appearances. Having seen Shapiro’s recent BBC documentary on The Duchess of Malfi, I was especially excited to view the inside of the Globe’s relatively new indoor theatre, the Sam Wanamaker.

Neither disappointed, though the seats were about as comfortable as you would expect from a theatre created by the Globe. James Shapiro came onto the stage to silence an excited applause with a single hand, before explaining how the evening would go: he had, he said, a lecture prepared; he didn’t want to give that to us. He said he fed off such audiences; he wanted to know what we were interested in and that would drive his scholarship. We could ask him any question, on the condition that we stood to ask it, and it “was actually a question, and not a statement with an inflection at the end.”

And there began an evening of audience members asking any random Shakespeare question, and Shapiro answering it. The audience contained a large American contingent, which is still perplexing me but for which I imagine there is an excellent reason. One questioner asked about the reception of history plays in the US as opposed to the UK; Shapiro notes that only Richard III had been staged with success in the USA. The reason? For the UK, the history plays “are never about the past” – they are about now. They tell us as much about the politics of today as they do the politics of the Jacobeans, or indeed of Bosworth Field. Shapiro went on to advocate the importance of relevant Shakespeare, noting he would like to see a production of King Lear referencing the segmenting of Iraq.

On considering alternative “Globe theatres” (apparently they are all over the world), he noted that in an “increasingly godless age”, these outdoor theatres provide a space for us to “celebrate communally.” He also remarked that we’ve probably got the spec wrong for the current Globe – rather than 100 feet, it was probably 75 feet in width; however, as “we’re all fatter now” he still believed it was an authentic experience.

Exploring the theatre-going audience, Shapiro did some magic maths (London: 200,000 people; capacity of theatre being 1,000 people; number of plays a day/week; discounting for elderly and infants) to show that everybody went to the theatre all the time. He described the Jacobeans as “the most educated theatrical audience ever.” Later stories of interest include Ulysses S. Grant’s being cast as Desdemona in an 1840s Texan production of Othello. Despite not going on to play the part, Shapiro mused over the question of his having so directly explored the “mixed” marriage prior to the civil war.

The central message of Shapiro was that “all of Shakespeare’s plays are infused with the politics of the time”, and that we do him most justice when we also infuse him with our current concerns and politics. Asking the question: how did he walk the political line to not be punished for his representations, Shapiro noted that Shakespeare’s preservation came from “asking questions and not giving answers.”

On the authorship controversy, Shapiro noted that for 99% of Shakespearean scholars it simply does not exist. He noted that his own book on it was actually about “why smart people think dumb things,” and shared his joy at rhetorically beating to a pulp the director of Anonymous at its premiere; also delighting in its box office disaster. Shapiro closed this conversation saying he had written this book to “take one for the team”, writing it so that Shakespeare scholars “don’t have to waste another minute” considering it.

Looking forward to his next book, 1606, he mentioned he had felt uneasy about the “Elizabethanisation” of the age – half of Shakespeare’s output is Jacobean, and yet there are not even any critically acclaimed biographies of this king – we know too little about him and his reign.

A final question pivoted him back to the night’s major issue: how did he feel about “modern vs period Shakespeare”? Shapiro warned against the “fetishization” of Shakespeare – concern with doublets and sword-fighting detracts from what we should be concerned with, which is the lines: “the plays speak not only to the distant past but also to Shakespeare’s moment and also to the moment being staged.” He ended with a call to arms to directors everywhere to be always expanding the number of people interested in Shakespeare and who accept him as a part of their lives.

After this tour de force, the audience left buzzing with enthusiasm about the conversation that had just occurred, for with an audience packed with scholars bowing to a great one, the humility of the speaker had been empowering. I noted as I left the theatre, unaccustomed as I am to venture forth on a weeknight, that Shapiro had moved to the foyer to continue the conversation with individuals who were still milling around. A living critical legend.

The American Greats

It was with a heavy heart that I saw exam boards wave goodbye to American literature last week. Oh, I know, it’s “literature from other cultures,” but, to be frank, I’ve only ever taught the American contingent of that qualifier, and oh – how great it was.

The government has strenuously denied having “banned” American favourites, such as Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, from our teaching; yet it cannot be escaped that the new categories for study required from students do not admit for these great texts to be taught. For all the hand-wringing and outcry at exam boards, wondering why they hadn’t been included in surplus, we must also consider: the exams will be harder. They will require different skills, such as navigating in a closed-text scenario. The exam board to direct teachers to teach more texts would not be one chosen by schools with one eye on their standing in the new, and again more rigorous, league tables.

So here we are. And as all the beautiful blogs I have read on this topic have expressed the views I would tend to share in (see below for links), I’ve decided to simply give the American Greats the airing they deserve, never to be taught in an American Literature GCSE coming to no school near you.

Arthur Miller

Is Miller the American genius? This was the question running through my mind as I watched the Young Vic’s astonishing interpretation of A View from the Bridge last Saturday. For a play described by many as “Greek” in its core themes, it resonated effortlessly. Only an American playwright, though, could so skillfully tap into ideas of identity and acceptance in the era of mass emigration; the wistfulness and disgust at the homeland; the rational and irrational behind romantic love. Miller’s Greek can be seen from his exploration of such taboos as incest and rape. And what of The Crucible? A play so crowded with lust and hysteria, it seems to pelt at the pace of Shakespeare’s best comedies, whilst including high drama, human sacrifice and, indeed, deepest, most touching tragedy.

J.D. Salinger

The first time I read Catcher in the Rye was also the first time I heard an authentic voice in a novel I could really relate to. Holden Caulfield expressed everything I felt, and it is with sadness that I can no longer find that teenage connection when I re-read this slim tome of surprise suffering. Franny and Zooey, on the other hand, continues to endure for me; existential questions, literary questions, psychological and religious questions abound, and all drawn with a realist’s best hand.

Sylvia Plath

Does a young nation inspire youthful literature which attracts young readers? Plath’s obsession with her father and her inner, troubled psychosis are eminently relatable for many a young person. Reading poems such as “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy”, one can hardly doubt her poetic genius, her ability to clinch an argument on a half-rhyme, and to surprise and delight while disgusting her reader.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The original party-boy writer, whose life-long personal struggles precluded a Hemingway-sized output, but whose approach to writing could never have yielded results if dealt with in so mercenary a fashion. Fitzgerald’s ability to draw what he saw renders his prose so current it can’t ever quite feel historical to me. The 1920s are now; his characters are timeless; his prose like water – flowing, fluid; endlessly quotable.

Philip Roth

If ever an author took up every key theme in American literature and made it his business to beat them all into word-shapes, it is the masterly Roth. Each book heaves with the weight of a displaced people, with families torn apart, with humour and despair. His characters dance, and groan as they dance, and yet are never as memorable as the themes.

William Faulkner

I have often wondered if I would be more amenable to Faulkner were he a poet. His works require intense concentration and repetitious reading, but that effort can be paid off for the reader. His experimental style can occasionally obscure his message; at times style triumphs over all. And yet… The pathos evoked by Jewel and his horse in As I Lay Dying is, for me, unparalleled in any other novel.

I could go on, of course; and of course most of these authors were never likely to make it onto any syllabus, let alone within the strict confines now laid out by central government. I have already blogged on Of Mice and Men here, and how this text can provide a ready gateway for high achieving students. Looking at my year 12 class’s understanding of Gatsby, I do wonder if they would have had a similar reaction without any grounding in the literature of the USA. After all, this nation pervades our own; it takes over much of the television watched (both by teachers and the young people we educate), and its history draws on our own in very many ways. Our scholars do need to understand the literature of other cultures, and what more fertile ground for understanding than America? So like, and so unlike us; the literature of America can take on melodrama, history, taboo, suffering and humour… And win us to reading.

You should definitely look at these views on the new English curricula:

http://learningfrommymistakesenglish.blogspot.co.uk/

http://blog.geoffbarton.co.uk/site/Blog/Entries/2014/5/25_Get_him%2C_Lennie.html

http://www.networkedblogs.com/XcCRe

http://www.huntingenglish.com/2014/05/27/whose-canon-anyway/

Give me that patience, patience I need (or: exams, exams, exams)

Having been the beneficiary of kind timetabling heretofore, the exam season has never affected me in any way greater than my singular class and my worries about those 25-or-so children. Being at the helm of a department with exams across two key stages and three subjects has opened my eyes to the reality of exams – never before in my life have so many forms had to be filled in, in so little time, to so little purpose. My life is coursework administration and exam preparation.

I think I’m one of the last people I know to have seen the much-acclaimed production of King Lear at the National Theatre. Certainly, in the early days of the production, numerous friends were lauding it. I nodded noncommittally, and half-heartedly tried to acquire tickets. It was only when a friend actually had tickets that I decided to go.

Why the lack of Shakespeare excitement? It’s just that I don’t particularly like King Lear. Of all the tragedies, it is my least favourite. It is very far down the list of all of Shakespeare’s plays. I’d never say I hated it, as it is Shakespeare and the language is beautiful; but I studied King Lear for my own A-level English, and was fairly unmoved by it; buying fully into A.C. Bradley’s criticisms that “the number of essential characters is so large, their actions and movements are so complicated, and events towards the close crowd on one another so thickly, that the reader’s attention, rapidly transferred from one centre of interest to another, is overstrained.” Indeed, my first experience of Lear was before attempting even a cursory first reading, finding myself with my A-level classmates in a theatre wondering why in some scenes the white-haired man was blind, and in other scenes he wasn’t.

The production at the National Theatre has altered my perceptions of the play, as the best productions invariably do. Seeing this play invigorated me; half-asleep on entering the theatre on Friday, by the interval I was bouncing around in excitement at the genius of it all. The casting: perfection; the staging: ingenious. Those small details, such as the crew of half-lit beggars roaming around the edges of the stage as Edgar proclaims his intention to become one of their fold, before slipping seamlessly into them. The raised platform on which Lear makes both his most wise pronouncements, and his true descent into madness.

At 17, I knew too little and argued too much, and believed the ending of Lear to be incurably flawed by Edgar’s (partial) assumption of the crown. Here was a character we knew too little of; his meek and unassuming nature was whipped past our eyes at the very beginning, and we are given but few snatches of it in asides through the play. For the majority of the play, he is “Poor Tom,” a mad beggar, and behaves as such. To lend part of the rule of the land to him and to a character we also know little of (apart from poor choice in brides), Albany, seemed to suggest a hopelessness, and complete lack of redemption.

Indeed, in the National’s production, Edgar is foppish and careless in the early scenes, before enormously naïve; he has seemingly few redeeming qualities. Yet it is his very descent into poverty and madness which transforms his nature; like Lear, through misfortune he becomes thoughtful of others; caring; a worthy human of society. The message of this play finally rang out clearly: riches and power will corrupt us, and they may only lead who have understood, and indeed lived, a life of suffering; who may empathise with that suffering.

Moreover, this seemed to me a play about duty: Lear wishes to “shake all cares” of his age and “unburdened crawl toward death”; such abrogation of his duty is duly punished, and mere power without duty is seen to lead to utter chaos and cruelty.

Of all the tragedies, this was revealed to me anew as the one most to do with life and death, good and evil, serving and leading, suffering and healing. The play echoes with calls to nature and the gods, who are both embraced and chastised at differing points. It is monumentally huge.

Why am I writing about this play? It reminded me of why I do what I do. One production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream converted me to a fan of Shakespeare; without it, I might not have been an English teacher. And my life is not exam preparation and coursework administration. I am in it to inspire, and to change minds, and to open up texts to the personal interpretation and joy therein. I want my students to come to the door of my room excited that they will think something new about a text. I need to remember what it is all about.

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Shakespeare Biographies

I didn’t fully appreciate a good biography until after my History masters. During my undergraduate degree studying English Literature, I had leaned towards a “Practical Criticism” approach. All that other stuff was frankly a distraction for 18-22 year old me.

Indeed, the issue of “did-Shakespeare-write-those-plays-or-was-it-some-richer-bloke?” still galls me. I wrote an essay in my second year essentially screaming “DOES IT MATTER?”

And to a certain extent, I stand by that exclamation. After all, we have no uncorrupted copies of any of Shakespeare’s plays, and the extent to which they were even penned by one person is arguable.

The real benefit of biographies is really about context: a biography showing us Shakespeare’s life and the theatre scenes in the London of the 1600s is invaluable for adding that something extra, something contextual, to our reading of the plays. Also, if you’re a teacher, you probably have to teach something about who Shakespeare was. Here are some biographies of Shakespeare I have read and found useful.

Shakespeare: the biography by Peter Ackroyd

ackroydAckroyd’s is my favourite biography, so I’d like to start here. His style is clear and his ideas concise. This biography is especially strong at linking the plays to the life; bringing us to see the precise links between an Elizabethan man and the drama he was likely to produce.

Early on, for example, Ackroyd brings to us the somewhat surprising truth of the decline of the “old values” and the feudal system of patronage, and the rise of a new, specifically secular, economy: this is by no means a world devoid of the Church, but we need to recognise how in flux the institution was; Ackroyd remarks: “what happens when old concepts of faith and authority are usurped, when old ties of patronage and obligation are sundered? It is the transition from Lear to Goneril and Regan, from Duncan to Macbeth.”

While acknowledging prior theatrical history, Ackroyd argues that Shakespeare also “transcended” it: he speaks of “the Vice” character, a stock medieval “anybody” being newly realised in Richard III; and indeed we can see this figure evolve to the Edgar and Iago of later brilliance. Though Ackroyd also contends that: “in the most sublime reaches of Shakespeare’s art there is no morality at all. There is only the soaring human will in consort with the imagination.”

The chapters in this tome are pleasingly brief, which, like all uses of short chapters, aids understanding and can allow this book to be read over a longer period of time.

Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt

Greenblatt is famous among critics as being foundational in the idea of New Historicism: the greenblattnotion that the text is not only affected by its historical context, but that the text also creates and has an impact on that historical context. It has been noted that the theatre was seen as secondary, unimportant, when Shakespeare began writing; only with his career was it seen as something worthy of being printed and esteemed: a clear example of a writer’s impact on his time.

Greenblatt writes in a warm and welcoming style; he is far from the idea many of us have of an esteemed critic. His book takes a thematic, rather than strictly chronological, look at the life and work of his subject. Greenblatt is also rather more willing to include hearsay and unsubstantiated truths, all with massive caveats, which makes for fun reading. In these nuggets there is always a coral of truth: these legends tell us something about what people wanted to believe of their bard. In addition, this biography is the stronger for its assumptions: we know so very little we can be sure of about Shakespeare, there is some necessity to look at the evidence and make a very good guess: for example, taking a truth from an absence, Greenblatt muses: “from this supremely eloquent man, there have been found no love letters to Anne [Hathaway, his wife], no signs of shared joy or grief, no words of advice, not even any financial transactions.”

This freedom allows Greenblatt to imagine many tenuous considerations: how much did Shakespeare revise his work? Did he in fact hate his wife? Did he have a physical affair with the man to whom the sonnets are addressed? Greenblatt’s long affiliation with the Renaissance allows this freedom; he almost inhabits the world himself, and the result is convincing.

The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate

bateI believe that this is the most widely read biography of Shakespeare, so perhaps it goes without exploration. Bate opens his text with an assurance that we can know nothing certainly, as well as reassuring us that, even if we did, “an Elizabethan play was a collaborative work that belonged to the theatrical company which performed it every bit as much as to the dramatist who wrote it.”

This text is especially strong in referencing other Shakespearean critics, from his contemporaries up to today, giving a marvelous overview of what “the book people” have thought about him through the ages. This is particularly strong in the chapter regarding the authorship of “Shakespeare”, where we receive a concise survey of that which scholars have posited.

Bate’s major approach is as a pragmatist: he refuses to romaticise Shakespeare, and instead explores the economic and situational prerogatives which drove him to create.

Shakespeare: the invention of the human by Harold Bloom

Is this, or is this not, the best title of a book ever? Ok – I’m cheating, it’s not a biography. I’m bloomsitting here with three remaining Shakespeare biographies thinking… Hm. I’m not sure how great these are. This, on the other hand, I am willing to recommend.

Harold Bloom, if you aren’t in the know, is a monumentally prolific literary critic. He write books on vast swathes of literature, seemingly refusing to specialise, if you go by his printed output. He writes about almost everything. You’ve probably heard of “the anxiety of influence” – that was Bloom’s baby.

This text is superlative among Shakespeare criticism for its ease of reading and its enormous scope. Bloom takes every single play and writes about it, linking each to Shakespeare’s presumed life and known context. Teachers: this is one book which will serve you all your days.

This is very much, though, Bloom’s book; he doesn’t like to reference other critics. Part of its charm comes from the bombast with which he writes, although I can see how readers might love or hate it.

And so I round up my little trip around some Shakespeare biographies, having enjoyed feeling like a student again, if only for a brief moment.

The hierarchy of literature

I’m at the start of a dawning realisation: that what I thought was my subject is not my subject; and where I thought my subject, which is not my subject, sat in the hierarchy of subjects is also incorrect.

This may sound garbled, but that’s because this realisation is only beginning to take shape in my misinformed mind.

As a teacher of English at GCSE, I have been complacently used to being at the top of the pecking order when it comes to subjects at GCSE: no, English boosters are that night – sorry other subjects, bow down to the mighty English. That enrichment activity supports English? Here are plentiful funds to ensure it takes place. Let’s give year 11 a massive weekend of revision, and let it be only English (and some Maths).

All of this assured me that children reading books was at the very heart of what our schools are all about (tied only with Maths).

But that’s not it at all.

Reading books, studying great literature, isn’t in fact anywhere on the pecking order. It’s a sideshow; an optional extra. We pretend English is at the core of the curriculum, but what we really mean is being able to read and write. These are the necessary gateway tools to accessing all written material ever – with the exception of troublesome novels, plays and poetry – and this basic literacy is of the utmost importance until students are 16.

It’s not that I disagree with the above at all. I just feel that the reading of fiction is the crucial way in which we make sense of the world, and that the above can in fact be taught most effectively with books, and not Guardian articles.

Speaking of which, my world came crushing down with this Orwellian vision of a literature-less future from Polly Toynbee here. With the new KS4 curriculum, about which I had been so optimistic, Toynbee points out that, as literature has been removed from the language component, while not being made a compulsory second GCSE, children all over the country will be deprived of reading great books.

In my own North London bubble, I know my children will always do literature. Our lucky year 10 and 11 students have 6 lessons of English a week, and are split into tiny classes (7 sets where there could easily be 5) specifically to enable them to study both GCSEs.

But what of those thousands of other children in other schools?

Similarly, having all my life assumed English Literature A-level is top dog in the A-level pecking order, in a natural inheritance from GCSE, my assumptions were cruelly crushed by an esteemed colleague (of Science background) who assured students that, in fact, the number one Arts subject they could study was History.

Where’s History coming from? Why all of a sudden does History get a look in? And if it is the most impressive Arts A-level and most respected by universities, why don’t all students have to take History GCSE with the same fervour we ascribe to English and Maths?

So I’m getting used to my new position in the world of education. Not as imparter of great literature, but as teacher of grammar and spelling, as well as decoding words to make sense of those words.

This new Literature GCSE, wide-spanning and demanding as it is, can and should be taught to all students. Yes, some will need more time and more resources to succeed. But would you send your child to a school that didn’t teach it?

Autumn 1: Literature Central

I’m writing a retrospective on Autumn 1, and I’ll open by saying it has been a surprisingly good term. I’ll resist the temptation to elaborate, lest the ones who have held me up for 7 weeks and listened to my many woes read such a reflection and have to have words with me. Starting a new school, especially in a new role, was always going to be a challenge. Luckily, I am in the enviable position of my predecessor not only supporting me as line manager, with all the inside knowledge that can be offered from such a vantage, but also having set up an incredible curriculum – which is the subject of this blog.

I will admit, the prospect of Dickens for an entire term was enough to make me run flailing the other way in June. However, I found my own personal joy in Dickens (explored here and here) over the summer, which helped a little.

The other thing that has helped is my year 7 class. One of the “make-or-break” aspects of accepting a Head of Department role, for me, was teaching every key stage – at least in my first year. I wanted to have first-hand experience of the curriculum offer, and also to see what mixed ability teaching looks like in the department (we, like the vast majority, set at KS4) and to be assured it was working well for the students.

Year 7 has always been a mixed experience for me. They are undeniably adorable little humans, so full of excitement and energy. They can also be exhausting, with all the unformed emotional intelligence and neediness that comes of the giant leap from primary to secondary. I have found much more of the former and much less of the latter (in fact, almost none) in my current year 7 class. I do believe a strong head of year has helped them to settle quickly into the school. But I also believe they are tiny geniuses in the making, at least in English.

The scheme for this term has taken students on a Dickens journey, exploring excerpts from his poetry as well as novels such as: Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. I had my reservations about beginning the year by not teaching full texts, however I can’t deny the positive impact this scheme has had on my little ones. (And rest assured: we are doing full texts for the rest of the year.) What this scheme is, in effect, is a run through the key reading and writing skills students need, but using Dickens as a prompt. So, students explored writing a compelling opening using antithesis inspired by “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times” (and the rest).

There have been too many highlights of teaching this particular year 7 class to explore them all, but seeing students of a very wide range of ability access Dickens, empathise with his characters, and enjoy his writing has really changed my mind on the idea of a “depth” curriculum. I will also add that three students have professed to be reading Great Expectations; one even showed me the sweetest page of notes she had taken on the book. Absolutely no-one has said “we’re still doing Dickens?” at any point this term. When I told them we were studying “A Christmas Carol” after half term, the only emotion shown was elation. When students read the description of Miss Havisham and were instructed to highlight anything they found effective, one student piped up: “can’t I just highlight it all?”

The year 10 curriculum has been similarly literary. In fact, in ample time for the new KS3/4 curriculums, my line manager put in place some extremely inspiring schemes of work to prepare students for the rigours of a literature-heavy GCSE, and of couse A-level – our end-goal.

The iGCSE has its drawbacks, however for the scope of the coursework it is a winner for me. This term has been focused on iGCSE coursework tasks, which are in turn descriptive, argumentative and reading-based; however, in contrast to AQA’s “write about something which makes you angry” and other such generia, we have been teaching students about women in nineteenth century literature, and using this as a springboard for their creative and critical writing.

The scheme began with Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”, which my students were undeniably fazed by. It is a tough text, worthy of longer study. Yet their understanding of the implicit ideas in the poem has rendered some powerful pieces of description, as they wrote about the journey she took.

We moved onto Jane Eyre, worthy of a term itself. Students have the book and are, I hope against hope, ploughing through it still as I write. We explored key chapters together and wrote a number of pieces inspired by Bronte’s characters and settings.

Then onto Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which was a true joy to teach. I will never forget the faces of the students when they reached the end of the story – not quite wanting to believe what they were reading, and knowing something had happened which challenged their ideas of what the nineteenth century female writer might be exploring. Another descriptive piece followed.

Finally, we explored the idea of women’s suffrage, linking up with their study of it in year 9 History, and wrote speeches arguing against articles and letters from the time.

What students have gained, I feel, is a healthy overview of some great writing and some central concerns of the nineteenth century. The coursework did not take over, and we did not teach to the task. The coursework was almost incidental. As you can redraft it as many times as needed, there wasn’t the pressure to drill it in and get it perfect. I just wanted my students to be creative and to understand the wider concepts of the time period.

All of which sets them up nicely for their Literature Controlled Assessment next term – although I’m not sure how they or I are going to cope with a more task-driven term.

I can’t by any stretch of the imagination take any modicum of credit for what these children are studying; I can only advocate this approach. Our visiting “mock-Ofsted” inspector described the curriculum throughout KS3 and KS4 as “inspiring.” I have certainly found it to be so as a teacher.

More than ever, I feel like I am certain of what I want my students to have when they leave me, and the only way I am sure they can attain this is through study of challenging and literary texts. I am delighted to be in an environment which has fostered this.

The power of the theatre

An amazing thing happened a few weeks ago for one of my year 12 English Literature students. She visited the theatre for the first time.

Let’s take a moment to really think about this: a student goes nearly 17 years of her life loving English and excelling in it, acing her GCSE English exams and opting to take English A-level. And all without ever having sat in a plush red seat, experienced the lights dimming and watched real humans saying words written by playwrights to each other.

Clearly, something is going wrong here.

This student wasn’t the only one to benefit from this theatre experience, however. I had been frustrated at how difficult my year 12s were finding Much Ado About Nothing, a product I think of the GCSE Literature course: only one Shakespeare play, and if you opt to do this for the Controlled Assessment instead of the exam, well then you may not have studied any Shakespeare since year 10.

In hindsight, it was a mistake to begin with Shakespeare. But we plough on.

The production, at the Old Vic Theatre, was certainly not a “straight” production. Liberties had been taken with setting, costume and, most obviously, casting. Even better, in a way, for displaying how versatile Shakespeare’s works are, and how open to reinterpretation by successive generations of directors and actors.

Seeing the entire play all the way through is nowhere near as soporific as showing the (brilliantly uncut Globe version) DVD all the way through. There’s something different about seeing it in a theatre, without a desk and your notepad in front of you, and without the hard plastic chairs. (Adorably, almost all of my year 12s insisted on bringing their copies of the text to the theatre, and valiantly attempted to follow it through while watching.) Also, I’m not sure how Ofsted or any other inspector would feel about me showing a film for 2 hours.

Watching the play the whole way through has led to increased confidence, increased awareness and increased understanding of the text. It will undoubtedly improve the resulting coursework, and I am forever grateful that my school actually paid for every child’s ticket in full.

Yet the theatre is about more than coursework and understanding. It is a rich cultural experience that should not be withheld from any member of society. I would argue that it is our responsibility as English teachers to ensure that every child has seen a play the whole way through by the time they leave us. This is regardless of it fitting in with their course: any experience of theatre enriches a student’s understanding of the vast body of literature, and, moreover, the different realms of literature: for some students, we must concede, literature means novels and poetry. It means words on a page. We need to change this.

I was told by a colleague of a headteacher of an outstanding primary school who used their entire pupil premium for the year to take every child to a West End show. I know some critics might deride this as a casual waste of money. But I applaud the bravery of that headteacher. He recognized that there was something so worthwhile in the enterprise of theatre, something so empowering for students, that it was worth that money.

And when it comes down to money, which it does, it seems unfortunate. As a head of department, I consider the most vital resource to be books: there always should be money in the budget for books. Yet after that, we need to consider these ephemeral “books in action,” which give so much to our students.

As a result of our year 12 theatre trip, the English department will be taking selected students to a theatre show once a term. The numbers, for money and staffing, will have to be small; no more than 20 at a time. The students will need to be chosen carefully: we want to take students who deserve a treat, and students who will benefit from this cultural experience. Perhaps we can build this momentum to bring an entire year group every year. The play, of course, will also need to be chosen carefully: I don’t think I want to take year 7 to Chekhov. Rafe Esquith also notably emphasizes the importance of educating students about the play before the visit, so they can squeeze the most out of the experience.

The theatre should not be an optional extra. It should not be cast aside as too expensive, or a waste of valuable resources. And we should not have 17-year-old budding literary critics who have never been there.

In praise of Dickens

I recently wrote about my surprisingly wondrous experience with “David Copperfield” (book, not person) here, and this prompted me to write a longer post about Dickens.

I alluded to my chequered history with Dickens in the above post. We didn’t get on at all. My expectations were overly high, I think, after watching the movie musical “Oliver!” a hundred and twenty four times, and on reading “Oliver Twist” I was scared by its complexity, desparately searching for characters who were the spit of the film. I was also, clearly, missing the singing and dancing.

The Artful Dodger of the musical is unrecognisable in the book. In the musical, he is affable, exciting and cute – but most of all he is not at all threatening. In the book, he is like a grotesque of a street child – terrifyingly wise beyond his years, an adult in an adult world, despite his childish appearance. In my younger years, I was unable to reconcile this difference. Similarly, the underworld of Victorian London, when not singing and dancing in unison, seemed remarkably unattractive.

Shortly after “Oliver Twist” came “A Christmas Carol.” This was a book I could get along with. A lovely clear moral, nothing overly nasty to deal with, and much simpler language. This was until the story was forever ruined by a subversive lecturer in university, who described the story as an advertisement for capitalist Britain (“Scrooge atones for his wrongs by buying his way into the favour of others”).

I trekked my way without joy through “Bleak House,” only to discover the BBC series (one of the best things I have ever, ever seen) and wish I had spent more effort in the reading. This lack of joy was topped by “Dombey and Son”, which I believed at the time of reading was one of the very worst books ever written.

Yet my recent breakthrough with “David Copperfield” has convinced me that my original beliefs were entirely misguided. Having previously warmed to “Great Expectations” and “The Old Curiosity Shop” (which went to convince me that the problem was not the text, but me – Dickens is Dickens, but in the midst of a crowded University or school term I race through and miss the point), it made me think again about the value of teaching Dickens.

I am beginning year 7 this year with an in-depth unit on Dickens, created before my arrival in my new school. Until this point, my teaching of Dickens was confined to a mere one lesson; one of writing descriptions for year 7, using the opening of “Bleak House” and focusing on the fog. My year 7 found the passage tough, but that only enhanced their enjoyment of it. The major outcome of this lesson related to vocabulary – there were many tricky words in the passage that I glossed for students. I might have even suggested they aim to include some of these words in their own description. Whatever I did, the thing I remember is that they went on using these words, even a week and a month later. For the children I was teaching, vocabulary was power. They loved it.

Every year, we teach a Shakespeare play, and we never think about arguing against this. Shakespeare is, after all, the greatest creator and user of language in the history of the world – undisputed. But why do we – or rather, to make it personal, why did I – think it was acceptable to say “I hate Dickens” for so long? Dickens is clearly the master of the novel; his work endures; its humour endures, its message endures. This reminded me of the David Lodge book where the characters, all university professors, play a game of saying books they haven’t read (it’s like a “never have I ever” for nerds). (There is shock a horror when one admits to having never read “Hamlet”, I recall.) I wonder how many of us are walking around, having never read a Dickens novel, without shame?

My year 7 are not tackling a lengthy Dickens novel. They are reading extensive passages from a variety of works, before moving onto a new scheme of work purely focused on “A Christmas Carol” after half term. I’m not sure what I make of this, but I wonder if it might be worth revisiting Dickens in year 8 or 9. In fact, I wonder about the value of studying only very short excerpts of a novel, and this is something I will quiz my students on.

Enjoying Dickens is so easy. Read it aloud, then read it slowly. Look up the words which are unfamiliar (this goes for me as well as my students). Every student should be taught to enjoy Dickens, lest they end up like me circa eight weeks ago.