Why me? Why now? Why theatre?

Tristan Daws, English and Drama teacher at WHS, introduces the ‘New Views’ scriptwriting club and considers the value of writing for the stage.

New Views is a playwriting initiative run by the National Theatre. Over the course of the year, Year 11-13 students at WHS work towards writing their own one-act plays, meeting each week to read each other’s scenes, posing questions and sharing ideas as they refine their stories. Their ultimate goal is to enter a national competition, with the winning play staged at the Dorfman Theatre by a company of professional actors.

As the plays take shape, the National Theatre poses three questions to the students:

  • Why me? Or why should I be the one to tell this particular story?
  • Why now? What is it about this story that demands to be told now?
  • Why theatre? Why does this story belong on the stage, rather than in a short story or a TV sitcom?At the close of last term, prior to lockdown and school closures, I sat down with a group of WHS New Views writers to discuss these questions with them.

    Why me?

    When a playwright is asked ‘what makes me qualified to write this play?’ the immediate assumption can be that our work should be in some ways autobiographical in order to be ‘authentic’ and ‘truthful’. One of the most oft-quoted aphorisms in creative writing is a comment attributed to Mark Twain, “Write what you know.”

    Nathan Englander[1] remarks that this is “the most misunderstood, most mis-taught, most misinterpreted piece of advice that there is” and a host of great writers have lined up to support or to rebut this rule.

    Toni Morrison’s[2] pithy response is “you don’t know anything”, while Ursula Le Guin[3] suggests “I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things… All this rule needs is a good definition of ‘know.’”

    The pupils have an equally clear stance when I first mention this to them: “Don’t write what you know – that’s boring!” one of them comments. “Write what you want to get to know” another adds.

    One of the aims of New Views is to sharpen students’ approach to research, and it is through this process that the group are able to explore beyond what they know. By connecting empathetically with characters living far from their own experience, the pupils have found ways to share human stories that feel both personal and alien to them. In doing so, they have been surprised by what they have learned about themselves. Ultimately, the group conclude that there is no definitive maxim to live by in their writing: “making a play, you’re constructing this whole world from your own ideas, and a lot of the time that world is going to be informed by your existence and your experience. It is informed by so much personal stuff, even if the story isn’t personal to you, and it’s such a good way of interrogating those ideas.” Perhaps, as Raymond Carver[4] puts it, “a little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.”

    Why now?

    When New Views was established in 2011, its stated aim[5] was “to stimulate debate and discussion about key and challenging issues for contemporary society… to invite young people to explore how plays can challenge preconceptions and motivate more active participation in our communities.” The ‘nowness’ of the stories told in these plays was very much the priority, and the winning play that year was not performed at the National Theatre, but to an audience of parliamentarians and public at Westminster Hall.

    Since then, the political focus has relaxed, with the winning play moving to the Dorfman Theatre, and the pupils clearly revel in the lack of perceived constraints on their subject matter. “We’re so consumed with all the work we do that it’s just overwhelming. It’s nice to just have a place where you can explore things that don’t necessarily have to have a meaning and have to have a ‘why now?’”

    Perhaps the most meaningful ‘why now’ for the writers is not about why their plays are socially topical, but rather why they want to tell these stories at this time in their lives, when their writing is an escape from the structure of exam classes. One Year 11 participant appreciated the creative focus away from her GCSEs, while enjoying the chance to bond with other year groups; others valued being able to achieve something tangible in a fixed time period during the two years of their A Level course, particularly those that had given up ‘creative’ subjects after GCSE. Nowhere is this creative freedom more evident than in the range of stories the pupils have chosen to tell, from a metaphysical courtroom battle between God and Death to a farce about a group of office workers in pursuit of a missing Les Dennis mug.

    Les Dennis Mug

    Why theatre?

    One of the greatest challenges for the group has been to conceptualise works of drama that are distinctly theatrical, rather than cinematic. As one immediately responded when I first mentioned the three questions to them, “none of us ever know the answers to those! You ask me ‘why theatre’ and I’m like ‘I know it should be a screenplay, ok?’” Few of the group had considered writing a play before our first session together, even though many had entered short story and poetry competitions. “Writing a script wasn’t something that I thought you just did. I never thought about actually trying so it was new and exciting.”

    After initial drafts of their plays, often made up of several short scenes in myriad locations, as might be expected from a screen drama, the writers have learned to embrace dialogue, exploring human interaction in more depth. By envisaging a performance in three dimensions, the group think much more about physicalisation, pauses, and how characters can communicate in non-verbal ways. The most rewarding part of this process for them has been to experience their work being read by others in our weekly gatherings, and they speak animatedly about the experience of “having things performed by another human being, interpreting your words and making them their own.”

    At its core, what the pupils are responding to is the shared experience of the theatre. By making a connection with the visceral, physical aspect of watching a play, they are excited by the potential to reach their audience directly, “because it is live. You can’t pause a play, go on your phone for 15 minutes and then come back. You’re in that emotion and everyone is in the same room, feeling the same thing.” In these times of social isolation, it is easy to see why the most compelling response to ‘why theatre?’ is that communal human element, and the shared experience that theatre brings.


    References:

    1. Gots, J (2012), “Write what you know” – the most misunderstood piece of good advice, ever. Big Think, Available at: https://bigthink.com/think-tank/write-what-you-know-nil-the-most-misunderstood-piece-of-good-advice-ever

    2. Sutton, R (2014), Write, Erase, Do It Over, National Endowment for the Arts, Available at: https://www.arts.gov/NEARTS/2014v4-art-failure-importance-risk-and-experimentation/toni-morrison

    3. Le Guin, U (2003), When to bend, when to break, Los Angeles Times, Available at: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-jan-05-bk-leguin5-story.html

    4. Buzbee, L & Simpson, M (1983), Raymond Carver, The Art of Fiction No. 76, The Paris Review, Available at: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3059/the-art-of-fiction-no-76-raymond-carver

    5. Londesborough, M (2011), New Views, New Voices at the National, The Guardian, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2011/nov/07/national-theatre-new-views-programme

Writing and grammar myth-busting: what roles do writing and grammar skills play in the curriculum?

Ms Lucinda Gilchrist, Head of English, considers the roles of writing and grammar across subjects.

For English teachers, addressing writing and grammar skills is our bread-and-butter. However, in 2012, Ofqual introduced directive that in History, Geography, and Religious Studies, 5% of marks must be allocated to what is traditionally known as ‘SPaG’, or spelling, punctuation and grammar. Meanwhile, all other subjects with a significant written component must ‘make similar requirements for appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation and legibility’ (Ofqual, 2015: 4). And of course, even more importantly, we need to ensure that pupils understand what is going on around them and communicate clearly in the world outside school. Not only that, but literacy is a form of social and academic empowerment, ensuring that all of us are able to access and interact with texts in a range of academic fields and social situations.

In a recent survey of WHS teachers, 68% of respondents agreed that ‘writing is important in my subject’, and 64% agreed that ‘the crafting of writing has a place in my subject area’. But what is really interesting about this is that, despite clear agreement that writing and grammar skills are important, there isn’t really much consensus of what grammar actually is, how much time and energy teachers across subjects should dedicate to it, and why it is important. If writing and grammar are so universally agreed to be important, it’s even more crucial to unpack what we mean by these terms, and how therefore we should approach them in our teaching.

Defining grammar

So, what do we even mean by grammar? Even this is hotly contested. In the survey, what was particularly interesting was that there wasn’t much agreement of what grammar is, and therefore what role it should play, even within subjects, with even Maths teachers having different views on the importance of writing in their subject. Much of the literature suggests that this is also down to our own perceptions of our competence in writing and grammar (for more on this, see Wilson and Myhill, 2012). Of course, on the broadest level, there is the macro-level view of grammar as the ‘structure’ of a language, an idea which came up in 32% of responses to the survey. However, when it comes to teaching grammar for writing in academic contexts, there are essentially two main approaches to grammar, although, as there is with any debate in education, polarisation of these views is unhelpful.

Most common is the correction/accuracy model, which perceives language as a set of pre-determined rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar (or ‘SPaG’) to which writers must adhere for the sake of clarity and erudition. In a recent survey of WHS teachers, words and phrases associated with this model came up frequently, with 64% of responses referring to ‘accurate’, ‘correct’, ‘proper’ or ‘clear’ English as the aim of teaching grammar. Traditionally, this approach would result in grammar taught primarily through decontextualized practice questions, unflatteringly called the ‘drill and kill’ approach by Laura Micciche of the University of Cincinnati (Micciche, 2004). This has also led this approach to be characterised as a ‘traditional’ (Hudson, 2004) approach to teaching grammar, and although we have moved beyond yawn-inducing practice exercises in teaching English grammar, it is worth interrogating what this model assumes about language and how this informs the way we teach it.

English
Figure 1: should we mark to a ‘single version of English’?

The main assumption is that there is a single version of English which is universally agreed upon to be the ‘correct’ version of English. When we mark pupils’ work, of course we have to contend with the bug-bears of misused apostrophes, comma splices and ‘would ofs’ instead of ‘would haves’, but this could end up being a very reductive view of what language actually is. Linguistically speaking, what we are judging pupils’ work against is Standard English, which is essentially just another dialect of English, in the same way Scouse, Mancunian and Estuary English are all dialects – dialect here referring to the grammar and vocabulary as opposed to the pronunciation. However, unlike other dialects, Standard English has less to do with geography and more to do with class and social groupings; it is a prestigious form of language descended from 1950s BBC English, into which we have to induct pupils so that the writing they produce means they can be taken seriously as scholars.

However, Standard English is more complex than that. Compare the sentences below:

  • Father was exceedingly fatigued after his lengthy peregrination.
  • Dad was exhausted after his long journey.
  • Dad was well tired after his journey.
  • Father were very tired after his lengthy journey
  • My old man was knackered after his trip.

Evidently, the first is not Standard English; the register is absurd for most everyday language contexts, and many of us I’m sure would caution pupils who were writing like this against ‘over-writing’. And it would certainly not be fair, or even politically correct, to tell a Cornish or Welsh dialect speaker that the way they were speaking was ‘wrong’. The only one of those examples which most would agree is Standard English is the second, but it’s hardly eloquent prose.

More than just correcting errors

An added layer of complexity here in that we are asking pupils to actually develop a good understanding of different types of English within the dialect of Standard English; using phrases such as ‘CO2’ and ‘ox-bow lakes’ would sound very weird in a Philosophy essay. And this isn’t just at the level of vocabulary: in different subjects, there are different syntactical structures which are held to be more prestigious than others. For my MA research, I undertook some analysis of the indicative content in GCSE mark schemes in History, Geography and Religious Studies. You can see some of the key features in the table below, where you’ll notice that there are quite clear differences in the expectations of language usage for each subject area.

Figure 2: exam board mark schemes for History, Religious Studies and Geography, showing the differences in the expectations of language usage.

Evidently, it’s not as simple as being right and wrong when it comes to grammar – but that doesn’t mean that the other main model of grammar teaching is a case of throwing the rule-book out of the window in abandon, even if what is traditionally known as ‘SPaG’ isn’t explicitly part of the mark scheme in the English Literature iGCSE; the only reference to the quality of writing in the mark scheme is for AO4, worth 25%, which refers to a need to ‘communicate a sensitive and informed response’.

Figure 3: a sign at Victoria Station, London.

Before we throw our hands up in horror, let’s unpack the genre-based model of grammar first. This model essentially posits that different academic subjects have their own very specific rules and conventions, which pupils will need to confidently use to write convincingly within their subject areas. Thankfully, 92% of responses to the survey disagreed that grammar should only be taught in English; with the genre-based model, part of the requirement of all teachers, regardless of subject area, is to teach pupils how to successfully craft their language for the academic genre they are using, and many subjects have several academic genres: consider the difference between a case study and a discursive essay, for instance. We can see this from our everyday language too: examples of non-Standard English which would be acceptable in a text message or shopping list would not be acceptable in an email or formal school communication, but that doesn’t make them ‘wrong’ in the appropriate context. In this approach to teaching grammar and writing, teaching grammar is a case of making explicit the different ways of writing in different subjects and the appropriate generic conventions.

What next?

So, how do we do this? Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer here, and with increasingly challenging examination specifications and curricula, nearly 50% of us cited ‘curriculum pressure’ and ‘time’ being the main hindrances preventing us from tackling grammar as much as we would like.  Other major hindrances are our own confidence and knowledge of grammar; given that in the 1980s grammar teaching had all but disappeared from the curriculum, many teachers were either not explicitly taught any grammar, or taught by teachers who themselves were not explicitly taught any grammar, hardly an auspicious start for teaching an area which we so overwhelmingly agree to be important.

Figure 4: “it’s not as simple as being right and wrong when it comes to grammar”

However, I think there is also scope to be excited about this challenge, to help pupils see their writing within subjects less as ‘Is this right?’, and more as ‘How much do I sound like a trustworthy and intelligent scholar within this academic genre?’ In English, we regularly consider this through the lens of literature: how do modal verbs e.g. ‘shall’ convey the forcefulness of Old Major’s political speeches in Animal Farm, or how do reflexive verbs highlight Ralph’s self-control in Lord of the Flies? It’s a process which can work just as well applied to subject-specific writing, and to do that, we need to open up the dialogue about grammar, seeing it not as a closed and monolithic body of knowledge possessed by a prestigious few, but as something that within our own subject areas, we absolutely are experts in.


References

Trying not to PEE on your paragraphs…

Holly Beckwith, Teacher of History and Politics at WHS, explains how the History and English departments are using a small-scale action research project to try and rethink the way in which analytical writing is taught at Key Stage 3.

The age-old question for history teachers: how do we get our pupils to produce effective written analysis? It is a question we regularly grapple with as a department. Constructing and sustaining arguments is at the centre of what we do as Historians and analytical writing is thus at the core of our teaching of the discipline. But it has not always been an easy task for history practitioners to get pupils to achieve this, even over a whole key stage.

Through published discourse, history teachers have explored the ways in which we can teach pupils to produce argued causal explanations in writing (Laffin, 2000; Hammond, 2002; Chapman, 2003; Counsell, 2004; Pate and Evans, 2007; Fordham, 2007).  Extended writing has been seen as an important pedagogical tool in developing pupils’ causal reasoning as it necessitates thinking about the organisation, arrangement and relative importance of causes.

In 2003, History teacher Mary Bakalis theorised pupils’ difficulty with writing as a difficulty with history. She posited that writing is both a form of thinking and a tool for thinking and, therefore, that historical understanding is shaped and expressed by writing. Rather than viewing writing as a skill that one acquires through history, Bakalis saw writing as part of the process of historical reasoning and thinking. Through an analysis of her own Year 7 pupils’ essays, she noticed that pupils had often failed to see the relevance of a fact in relation to a question. She realised that pupils thought that history was merely an activity of stating facts rather than using facts to construct an argument.

As a solution to similar observations in pupils’ writing, history teachers have used various forms of scaffolding to help pupils construct arguments. This includes the well-known PEE tool, which was advocated by genre theorists and cross-curricular literary initiatives as put forward by, for example, Wray and Lewis (1994), and has since been used widely in History and English departments nationwide, including ours at Wimbledon High.  The concept of PEE (point, evidence, explanation) is simple and therefore a helpful tool for teaching paragraph structure. It gives pupils security in knowing how to organise their knowledge on a page.

Figure 1: PEE – Point, Evidence, Explanation

But while PEE in theory offers a sound approach to structuring extended writing in history, it has been criticised for unintentionally removing important steps in historical thinking. Fordham, for example, noticed that the use of such devices in his practice meant that there was too much ‘emphasis on structured exposition [which] had rendered the deeper historical thinking inaccessible’ (Fordham, 2007.) Pate and Evans similarly argued that ‘historical writing is about more than structure and style; the construction of history is about the individual’s reaction to the past’ (Pate and Evans, 2007).  Therefore, too much emphasis on the construction of the essay rather than the nuances of an argument or an engagement with other arguments, as Fordham argues, can create superficial success. Further problems were identified by Foster and Gadd (2013), who theorised that generic writing frame approaches such as the PEE tool was having a detrimental effect on pupils’ understanding and deployment of historical evidence in their history writing.

After reflecting on this research conducted by History teachers as a department, we started to consider that encouraging our pupils to use structural devices to help pupils’ historical writing may not be very purposeful if divorced from getting pupils to see the function and role of arguments in the discipline of history itself. Through discussions with the English department, who have also used the PEE tool in their teaching, we realised we shared similar concerns.

Not satisfied with simply holding these, we decided to do something about it and have since embarked on a piece of action research with the English department.  Action research is interested in finding solutions to problems to produce better outcomes in education and involves a continual cycle of planning, action, observation and reflection such as Figure 2 below illustrates.

We started our first cycle of our piece of small-scale research last term teaching analytical writing to classes using two different lesson sequences: one which teaches pupils PEE and one which omits this.

We then compared the writing produced by these classes to identify any noticeable differences and structured our reflections around four questions:

1.      How has the experience of teaching and learning been different to previous experience, and why?

2.      How have students responded to the new method?

3.      How far has the intervention resulted in a different approach to analytical writing so far?
4.      What are our next steps – what went well, and what needs adjusting?

Figure 2: The action research spiral (Wilson, 2017, p. 113)

Thus far, the comparisons have allowed us to make some tentative observations. Whilst these do not seem to show an established pattern yet, there does seem to be a greater sense of originality and creativity in some of the non-PEE responses. Pupils seemed to produce more free-flowing ideas and were making more spontaneous links between those ideas, showing a higher quality of thinking. In addition, a few of the participating teachers noticed that their questioning became more tailored to developing the ideas and thinking of the pupils they taught rather than getting them to write something particular. However, others noticed that pupils were already well versed in PEE and so the change in approach may have had less of an effect. Other pupils seemed to feel less secure with a freeform structure. In order to encourage the more positive effects, our next cycle of teaching will experiment with different ways of planning essays that provide pupils with a way of organising ideas more visually and focus on the development of our questioning to further develop the higher quality thinking we noticed with some classes.

The first research cycle has thus been a worthwhile collaborative reflection on our teaching practice in the pursuit of improving our pupils’ historical and literary analysis. It has given us some insights which we’re looking to develop further as we head into the second term of the academic year.

References

Bakalis, M. (2003). ‘Direct teaching of paragraph cohesion’ Teaching History 110.
Chapman, A. (2003). ‘Camels, diamonds and counterfactuals: a model for teaching causal reasoning’ Teaching History 112.
Counsell, C. (2004). History and Literacy in Year 7: Building the lesson around the text. Abingdon: Hodder Education.
Fordham, M. (2007). ‘Slaying dragons and sorcerers in Year 12: in search of historical argument’ Teaching History 129.
Foster, R. and Gadd, S. (2013). ‘“Let’s play Supermarket ‘Evidential’ Sweep”: developing students’ awareness of the need to select evidence’ Teaching History 152.
Hammond, K. (2002). ‘Getting year 10 to understand the value of precise factual knowledge’ Teaching History 109.
Laffin, D. (2000). ‘My essays could go on for ever: using Key Stage 3 to improve performance at GCSE’ Teaching History 99.
Pate, J. and Evans, G. (2007). ‘Does scaffolding make them fall? Reflecting on strategies for causal argument in Years 8 and 11’ Teaching History 128.
Wray, D. and Lewis, M. (1994). Working with Writing Frames: Developing Children’s Non-Fiction Writing Scholastic.

Glamour and Hedonism: Why the American Jazz Age Still Intrigues Us

Laura (Year 11) explores what makes the Jazz Age a significant time in America’s history and how it has been preserved through music and literature.

The American Jazz Age, or the “Roaring Twenties”, brings to mind many images of feathers, flapper dancers and flamboyance. As the 1920s were characterised by rapid stock market expansion, successful Americans spent more, and flaunted their wealth, throwing extravagant parties. Reminders of the era cannot be avoided, as it inspires fashion, films and music of today. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby captured the essence of the time and offers a paradigm of the jazz age. When Baz Luhrmann took on the challenge of adapting it for film, it made $353.6 million at the box office, as audiences were captivated by the romance of the period.

Whilst the 1920s saw people move away from the austere and unpromising life during the Great War, they also brought new changes and difficulties with them. This new America had lost faith in its organisation and structure, having become disillusioned by war and patriotism. The parties and indulgence reflected newfound individualism as traditional values were left behind. Many were critical of the more frivolous lifestyle in cities, as ideas of morality seemed to shift. Prohibition, the 1920 ban on alcohol, seemed to only encourage more drinking in the clandestine speakeasies, and organised crime and bribery were rife. But the era was also characterised by modernisation and greater liberation, especially for women. The 19th Amendment was changed in 1920, giving women the vote, and social changes followed as women in the workplace became more of a norm and gender roles were questioned. Even fashion became more liberating as short skirts and hair became popular.

The jazz music that fuelled the parties of the rich and powerful in 1920s America first came from the African-American communities of New Orleans and had its origins in blues. With a more free, improvisational style, it broke musical norms whilst social conventions were being dismantled in America. With better recording of music during the mid-1920s, this new style spread quickly, and radio broadcasting allowed more rapid popularisation of the genre, as it reached people of all ages and classes. Although the US was still a place of deep-rooted racism and xenophobia, and many conservatives feared the influence of “the devil’s music”, jazz’s popularity was a step towards better inclusion in American society. When Luhrmann made his adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the music was a key element of the film. Modern hip hop and traditional jazz were both a part of the soundtrack. It cleverly blended music that evoked the era with new music that allows the modern audience to experience what it was like to listen to something completely new and unheard. Luhrmann said that “the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop”. Check out the Jazz Spotify playlist on the Music Department Spotify here.

Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald are among the authors that have helped to preserve the excitement and intensity of the Jazz Age in their writing and are part of the “Lost Generation” writers, who came of age during the Great War. Main themes in their writing included the opulence and wealth of the 1920s, but also the damaging effects of hedonism and disillusionment. Idealised versions of the past are often seen in writing of the era, reflecting on how the indulgence and enjoyment was overwhelming and even put individuals out of touch with reality. Fitzgerald describes one of Jay Gatsby’s parties:

“The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word.”

The giddy description shows an uncomfortable confusion of the senses, as the narrator, Nick Carraway, discovers the exciting city life. However, Fitzgerald also reveals a world damaged by war, as the “valley of ashes” in the novel represents the effects of industrialisation and modernisation on the less wealthy, and the social inequality of the time. Carraway, having served in the First World War, notes that Jordan Baker had an “erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet”, his vision is clouded by experiences of war. The literature of the jazz age endures because it shows not only the glamour and thrill of the period, but also offers sobering reflections on the price of the new lifestyle.

The sparks of wealth and excitement of the Roaring Twenties were stamped on by the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and were extinguished abruptly. As the terrible poverty of the Great Depression began, Fitzgerald wrote “Echoes of the Jazz Age”, recalling the earlier, more prosperous times.

“It bore him up, flattered him and gave him more money than he had dreamed of, simply for telling people that he felt as they did, that something had to be done with all the nervous energy stored up and unexpended in the War.”

It is no surprise that the Jazz Age has aged so well. The excitement and romance of the period has captivated readers and audiences, and this formative period of American history is not forgotten.

How can I get her to read more?

Charlotte Moon, who teaches English here at WHS, looks to investigate issues around how we can encourage children to continue reading, increasing their independence.

When do we stop reading with our children?

As babies and toddlers, we read to our children to stimulate and satisfy their curiosity, to promote language acquisition, and as a way of bonding. Of course, they can’t even recognise the alphabet at this stage, so the actual reading bit naturally devolves on us. By kindergarten and reception, children begin learning to read for themselves, most likely with the structured support of a reading scheme followed by their school. At this stage, there is an understanding between parent and school that developing your child’s reading ability is a shared responsibility; your child will read with support at school, learning phonics and so forth, and will have books and reading logs sent home with the expectation that parents will initiate and supervise ‘reading homework’ most days of the week.

So what changes as our children progress through primary education?

By the time they’ve moved up to Year 7, what proportion of parents are still actually reading with or to their kids on a regular basis? As an English teacher, the impression I get is that there is a definite shift which correlates with children being able to read independently. Why read to or with your child when they can read to themselves, right? There don’t seem to be enough hours in the day for parents to satisfy the demands placed upon us, so no longer having to supervise reading homework may come as a welcome relief.

The problem is, without supervision, encouragement and the bonding that comes through shared reading, children face the danger of entering a reading wasteland at this age (and I don’t mean that their new found reading independence miraculously enables them to read T.S. Eliot). Do we really know how often or how much they are reading? Do we even know what they’re reading? At Key Stage 3 (Years 7-9), students at WHS read a book they have chosen independently for 10 minutes at the beginning of each double lesson, but in some cases the level of challenge in these books varies greatly: in the same class, one student might be reading Pride and Prejudice while another reads Jacqueline Wilson. It is here, too, that the shared responsibility between school and parent can seem less distinct. While schools offer reading lists and take an interest in which books their students bring to lessons, we no longer have the time to sit and read with students individually, or to take remedial groups out of lessons for extra reading support. And when it comes to the co-curricular provision on offer for English, it tends to be the way that the keenest readers and writers are the ones who attend, and the students who shy away from reading keep their distance.

 

 

 

Jacqueline Wilson and Jane Austen: The variation in level of challenge in reading can be very apparent in KS3 lessons.

How do I get her to read?

As students approach the age of having to sit public exams, the common question at parents’ evening is ‘how do I get her to read?’. Parents can seem at a loss as to how to influence or encourage their daughter’s reading once she has entered adolescence. My guess is that very few parents are reading with their daughters by this stage, but are also, understandably, keen for their daughters to be making good progress and keeping up with their cohort in terms of attainment. So why not read with your child? It could improve her confidence, develop her understanding of texts and aid her continuing language acquisition. Not to mention, at any age, reading is still a fantastic way to bond with your child. So, what’s stopping us? Is it still the restraints on our time, or is it the fear of incurring a teenage meltdown that would impress even Harry Enfield’s ‘Kevin’? Can we build a meaningful relationship based on reading once our children enter their teens? Can we bridge the gap that has been created by years of leaving them to read independently?

Every parent-child dynamic is different. But why not try reading with your teenager? It really will help develop their skills and understanding as readers and writers, and it will enable you to connect, or even reconnect with them, on a level other pastimes cannot necessarily replicate. Model the reading you want to see in your child and you will both reap the benefits.

Cross gender casting in Shakespeare’s plays: Does it solve the problem of gender inequality?

Cecelia (Year 12) investigates the modern and historical practice of cross gender casting in Shakespeare’s plays.

From Tamsin Grieg’s Malvolia to Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, cross gendered casting is becoming increasingly popular in British theatre, never more so than in Shakespeare’s plays. New adaptations wanting to put a spin on the 400-year-old productions now look to casting female actresses in the typically male roles of Lear, Macbeth and Othello. Whilst this allows the play to be seen through a different feminine perspective and offers a completely new interpretation of the character, cross gendered casting gives women the opportunities to embody some of theatre’s most complex and popular roles.

However, this seemingly ‘modern’ twist on Shakespeare’s work is not as revolutionary as we may think. When Shakespeare wrote the majority of his work, women were not allowed to perform on stage and so his female characters were always played by young boys or men. As much as gender blind casting can provide a wider range of roles for female actresses, is it always effective and when should the line be drawn?

It is no wonder that Shakespeare’s work is constantly being revisited and adapted, his original text is so complex and diverse that something new can be gleaned from it with every new actor. Hamlet is the most frequently adapted Shakespearian play and has one of the longest histories of women playing the title role. The character of Hamlet is uncertain, passive and lacks resolve – qualities that are typically seen as feminine. Hamlet’s effeminate side has led to the character often being portrayed by women, with some believing that they can inhabit the role with more ease as they are able to fully connect with the feminine side to his personality.

Some of the most famous Victorian Hamlets were women, Sarah Bernhardt and Alice Marriot’s Hamlets were highly regarded by most critics with the part said to have benefitted from their “injection of femininity” (Catherine Belsey). Despite this, some critics argued that it was impossible for an actress to truly comprehend and identify with the thoughts and emotions of a man – a line of argument that is still present today. With this in mind some productions choose to play the character of Hamlet as a woman as demonstrated in Asta Nielsen’s portrayal of Princess Hamlet in the 1920 silent film. Nielsen played Hamlet as a woman masquerading as a man, possessing all the masculine skills and lacking only the instinct to kill. But regardless of the past success of actresses playing the Dane, there is still a public reluctance to accept this change; a 2014 YouGov poll found that 48% of Britons were not happy with the idea of a female Hamlet.

Many argue that by changing the gender of the actor, the gender of the character is effectively altered as well; as such, must the text itself be adjusted and if so, to what extent?

Whilst Vanessa Redgrave played the male role of Prospero, Helen Mirren’s Prospera was a female rewrite of the original. For most of Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest, the change to Prospera worked but because her daughter, Miranda, stayed female, the relationship between the magician and the child became complicated. The dynamics between a father and a daughter are vastly different to that of a mother and a daughter, and the Tempest is inherently a complex dissection of the fraught bond between a father and his daughter. The removal of this crucial theme dramatically altered the message of the entire piece and as such did not sit well with many audience members.

Whilst cross gender casting did occur in the 18th and 19th century, it has gained huge popularity in the last 20 years. As gender is beginning to be seen less as a biological definition and more as a social construct, the idea of a woman playing a man or vice versa has become far more acceptable. Our intrinsic understanding of male and female characteristics have changed, along with the ways in which we wish to see them portrayed on stage.

Of course, the opportunity for great female actresses to play great Shakespearian roles is positive. As well as giving women the chance to play classic and multifaceted roles, it allows for directors to create something new out of a play that has been around for hundreds of years.

Despite this, as we move forward, the dramatic community must place more of an emphasis on the creation of original female roles which share the same complexity and breadth of emotion as that of their male counterparts. Juliet Stevenson summarised the debate neatly with her statement on the red carpet that she “want[s] great parts for women, not women playing great parts for men”.

Twitter: @English_WHS

Taking the register

James Courtenay Clack considers the way we use language in the classroom.

It started with a pupil in my Year 9 class dismissing Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting as ‘flanter’. Whilst inwardly I shared her sniffiness about their saccharine shared sonnet, there seemed to be a clear challenge coming from this pupil. Would I, as a teacher, and an English teacher no less, allow her to use slang to talk about one of the most famous scenes in all of literature? This got me thinking about the way we use language in the classroom.

With morning and afternoon registration and seven lessons, most pupils can expect to answer the register nine times a day. As important as this rite is in keeping track of pupils, far more interesting is the other type of register pupils flit between. If anyone with a half-keen ear were to follow a pupil around the school for a day, they would notice that the way pupils speak and write changes as they move from home to school, from WhatsApp groups to essays. Rare is the pupil, for example, who answers the question of what they want for breakfast in the same formal and detailed manner in which they would a question about the bleak landscapes of TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.

Register, as coined by Thomas Bertram Reid and developed by Martin Joos, is the sociolinguistic term for the use of language as defined by social situation. Broadly speaking, register is about the level of formality of language and it incorporates elements as disparate as:

  • Vocabulary
  • Tone
  • Dialect
  • Slang
  • Abbreviation
  • Use of full sentences

It is worth thinking about why we use language differently in different contexts. In certain social situations, the answer is obvious. We adopt a more formal register with managers/bosses at work, for example, both as a sign of respect and out of a desire to impress. Similarly, our use of a more informal register with friends belies a level of comfort and intimacy that we do not share with our employers.

For the most part the ability to move between these registers – or at least the knowledge that you speak differently with Mrs Lunnon than you do with your BFFL – is picked up when young. As our social skills develop, our ability to move between registers becomes almost unthinking. When I applied for a job at WHS, for example, I did not have to remind myself not to greet Mrs Lunnon with an ‘alreet pal’ at the start of my interview.

That we use language differently in different social contexts is hardly a ground-breaking observation, but it does have several implications for teachers. Once pupils enter the classroom they are introduced to a new range of registers and in English, there are two main areas of interest, or areas of clash: the way we talk in class discussions and the way we write essays.

Although essays are the main form of assessment, the primary skill being assessed – interpretation of a literary text – is developed in class discussion and debate.

The question of how we speak in class is deeply political. The fact that the ability to use language in certain ways is a form of social currency in this country has moved schools such as Michaela Community School and Harris Academy Upper Norwood to ban the use of certain registers in the classroom.

The desire to equip pupils with the verbal skills required for social mobility is undoubtedly a noble one, but I would argue that such a hard-line approach to register is dangerous. Firstly, the fact that WHS’ A-Level curriculum includes writers as diverse as Chaucer and Tennessee Williams is proof enough that there isn’t one ‘correct’ form of English. Secondly and more importantly, however, is the entire point of class discussions. The reason we discuss and weigh up ideas and not just dictate, Mr Gradgrind style, from the front is that we want to encourage pupils to develop their own voices and their own thoughts.

If pupils are going to develop ideas and formulate opinions through discussion, as they will have to do at university, they will need to feel a sense of ownership over the curriculum. It is for this reason that I encourage my class to voice opinions about texts in their own way and it was for this reason that I whole-heartedly agreed with my Year 9 pupil about Romeo and his ‘holy shrine’. Similarly, if my Year 12 class want to refer to the author of Mrs Dalloway as Ginny Bae, or if my Year 8s want to describe Shylock’s insistence on his pound of flesh as ‘a bit extra’, then why should they not?

It is possible to create an enjoyable learning environment in which pupils feel confident voicing ideas and opinions in their own language whilst at the same time modelling the more rigorous language of academia. So I agreed that yes, Shylock ‘was a bit extra’, but then questioned them as to whether his desire for revenge along with Antonio’s overt anti-Semitism made Shylock a tragic hero in the eyes of a modern audience or whether he was a mere comic foil about whose suffering a contemporary audience would not have cared a jot. That he is both, and more, is testament to the genius of Shakespeare, a man who knew more than most about the power of mixing the language of the court with that of the street YEAH.

Twitter: @English_WHS

Chaucerian Challenges: Studying The Merchant’s Tale at English A Level

Studying Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale from The Canterbury Tales as part of A Level English is, undoubtedly, a daunting prospect for any Year 12 or 13 student. It is intimidating reading unfamiliar Middle English aloud in class (e.g. ‘fetisly’ – elegantly; ‘chidestere’ – nagging woman). However, despite initially seeming inaccessible, Chaucer is anything but elitist. In fact, the challenges of studying his work is what makes it continually surprising and rewarding. Stephanie Gartrell, Second in English KS4 at Wimbledon High School, explores the challenges and delights of studying Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ in Sixth Form…

English students face the challenge of identifying a clear moral from the competing narrative voices throughout The Canterbury Tales. The frame narrative establishes the central plot: a socially diverse group of pilgrims travelling from Southwark to the tomb of Thomas Becket. En route, they initiate a rather profane tale-telling competition to liven up what is, ostensibly, a journey of spiritual reflection and penitence. The prize for the best story? A free meal at the Tabard Inn, Southwark, on their return. Thus, from the outset, a conservative framework of Catholic ritual is subverted by a much more anarchic series of interrupted tales. Many tales are replete with ribald vulgarity typical of the fabliau genre; others use Estates Satire to expose institutional corruption; several puncture courtly pretensions of more high-status literary genres or forms (fin amor, chanson de geste, sermons…).

Our text falls in the so-called ‘Marriage Group’ in which the Wife of Bath, Clerk, Merchant and Franklin share tales that directly rebut and challenge one another’s views on marriage. This further destabilises a clear moral message about what constitutes the ideal marriage or marital partner. Some critics, such as George Lyman Kittredge, perceive the Franklin’s final message of mutual love and respect to be closest to Chaucer’s own views (‘We need not hesitate, therefore, to accept the solution that the Franklin offers as that which Geoffrey Chaucer the man accepted for his own part…’). However, there is a residual sense of irresolution on the matter. There is no authorial intrusion or omniscient narrator to clarify our ‘take-away’ message before the Tales move on.

Chaucer also builds a tantalising pattern of parallels and contradictions within The Merchant’s Tale itself. For instance, the Merchant’s Prologue reveals the Merchant to be unhappily married for ‘Thise monthes two’, describing marriage as ‘the snare’ and yearning to be ‘unbounden’. Nevertheless, his tale begins with a disconcerting eulogy lasting 135 lines in praise of marriage. This eulogy is generally perceived as a ‘mock encomium’, satirising the foolish naivety of the aged knight January whose idealised and blinkered view of matrimony as a ‘hooly boond’, echoes the Merchant’s earlier image of wedlock as a binding ‘snare’ or trap, transforming it into a sacred tie. Similarly, January’s vision of a wife as his ‘paradis terrestre’ (earthly paradise) ironically subverts the Merchant’s description of his ‘wyves cursednesse!’ The fact that large sections of the mock encomium are neither direct nor reported speech further blurs to what extent we are reading a filtered version of January’s beliefs, or whether the ironically inappropriate Old Testament examples of female virtue (Eve, Judith, Abigail…) are supposed to express the Merchant’s misogyny to the reader.

To summarise the plot of The Merchant’s Tale very roughly: after 60 years as a promiscuous bachelor, January finally decides to marry a teenage bride named May. Whilst his concerns are partly economic (to beget an heir), his primary motive is to legitimise his lustful desires and protect himself from sin. January is comically specific in his ideal bride: ‘She shal nat passe twenty yeer’ and he refuses to marry any ‘woman thritty [thirty] yeer of age’, who he dismisses as ‘bene-straw’ [dried bean-stalks]. Chaucer swiftly debunks any notion of January embodying chivalric values of spiritual refinement, repeatedly applying the ironic epithets ‘gentil’ [refined] and ‘noble’ to his protagonist, highlighting the absence of these stereotypical knightly qualities. Might this partly reflect some of the Merchant’s own social anxiety – a nameless member of the trading classes aggrandising his fictional self to the status of a knight? Or is the Merchant attempting to expose the fiction of aristocratic nobility to comfort his own wounded pride? Again, it could be neither or both!

In any case, January’s young bride May quickly establishes an affair with their servant Damyan. When January is unexpectedly struck blind, they capitalise on this opportunity to consummate their affair in a pear-tree in January’s private garden, at which point January miraculously regains his sight. With a bit of female ingenuity, May explains that his sight is still impaired and not to be trusted. The gullible knight accepts her explanation and continues to live in a state of prelapsarian Edenic bliss with his ‘paradis terrestre’ – remaining blind figuratively, if not literally…

One of the main pleasures of teaching and studying The Merchant’s Tale is because it is difficult. Ambiguities abound. For instance, who is in the ‘snare’ of marriage by the end of The Merchant’s Tale: May, who is largely voiceless and objectified, or January, the architect of his own trap, likely to raise an illegitimate son as his heir? Why would the Merchant present January as such a contemptible lecher if his main moral were to vilify wives? And are we imposing 21st values onto a 14th century text by casting May as a proto-feminist figure struggling for sexual autonomy?

And if that weren’t enough of a challenge, students compare The Merchant’s Tale to Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband – a divergent text in form and context. An Ideal Husband was first performed on stage in 1895 for the Victorian elite at the Haymarket Theatre, whilst The Canterbury Tales is a narrative poem from the 1390s. However, despite the 500 year gap, both texts share a prescient (and hopefully timeless) interest in exposing individual folly and abuses of institutional power – whether religious or political. They mock moral hypocrisy and the false ideals perpetuated by those guilty of self-deception or duped by sentimental dogma.

Since all of these concerns are as pertinent today as they were for Chaucer and Wilde, it seems vital that students continue to engage with the delightful, troubling complexities of Chaucer’s work.

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Decolonising the Canon of English Literature

By Ava Vakil, Year 12.

If the purpose of literature is to represent the culture and tradition of a language or a people, can we really profess ourselves to be true students of literature when seemingly only focusing on a single culture and its peoples?

Such has been the question of a group of students from Cambridge University these past few weeks; there has been a cry from undergraduates to “decolonise” their English Literature syllabus by taking in more black and minority ethnic writers, and bringing more expansive post-colonial thought into the curriculum.

A kindred instance occurred at Yale University in May of last year, where there was widespread criticism of the requirements to graduate as a Yale English major. As it stands, a student is able to fulfil the requirements of the revered course without studying the literature of a single woman or minority writer.

However, as always after a plea for diversity, there comes the inevitable “But…(insert the name of any women/minority)!”.

And whilst this may be true – and the likes of Austen and the Brontës have themselves a fairly fixed place within the Canon of English Literature – it is simply not good enough; not only are women and minorities few and far between, but they tend to offer what I consider ‘one-step diversity’. This being white women, or gay men, or anyone who represents only one shift away from the ‘norm’ of the straight, white cis-gender men. Where are the black female trans writers, and why aren’t they a key part of our education?

There is an urgent need to address the homogeny of the curriculum within many universities and schools, along with the canon itself. The reason for this is not just diversity for diversity’s sake (though this has many benefits in itself), but because we are narrowing and constricting our understanding of literature and context by ignoring writers simply because they don’t have a place in the literary canon.

This does not mean refusing to study Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Frost etc. but simply broadening our conceptualisation of what English Literature is.

As Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a teaching fellow at Churchill College (Cambridge) puts it:

“It is not just about adding texts but about rethinking the whole question of Britishness, Englishness and what they mean in relation to the empire and the post-imperial world… questions of race, gender, sexuality and so on.”

We are hampering and inhibiting our own knowledge under the colonial guise of the canon. Surely it should be impossible to study Othello or Jane Eyre without considering the post-colonial context? Or Twelfth Night without a wider multidisciplinary study of gender and sex?

Though it is against the nature of universities to want to politicise their curriculum, this happens by default when the syllabus simply reflects the age-old and continuing social, literary (and political) repression of anyone classified as “other”. Hence, cries from Twitter trolls about this being a ‘patrolling’ of the curriculum to suit and accord to the views of particular women and minority groups are intrinsically hypocritical.

The canon of literature has forever accorded to the politics of the majority, and appeals to change this are no more political than the sexist, racist and colonialist nature of the canon in the first place.

The need to change this system of subtle repression of writers within education must come from both professors/teachers and students alike. Though there are concrete changes which need to be made in terms of legislation of the actual syllabus, as students we have a large part to play.

Read widely and read critically; consider racial and gender context; rewrite and reclaim what you consider “classic”. Most importantly, investigate the hidden under-belly of the canon of English literature – the texts that are excluded have just as big a part to play in the shaping of our society as the texts which sit smugly on the exclusive list.

“Let’s make our bookshelves reflect the diversity of our streets.” – Phil Earle