23. Feb, 2017

BRUSH UP YOUR SHAKESPEARE

It is often said that teaching is a compensation for the riches one would otherwise have had.

TEACHING AND RICHES.
I pause for a halt in the cynical laughter. BUT…after 35 years at the chalk-face do not expect me to join in. It is still the most important job on earth and I would like to share three of my compensations with you.
The first two were communications from two ex-students received in the last three months. They came from two very able young women for whom I have the greatest respect. Thank you E and L…you know who you are, and thank you.
DECEMBER 1962
For the third I must take you back 54 years to my final college teaching practise in west London. I was on the preliminary visit to look over the boys’ Secondary Modern, to pick up my timetable and see what parts of the curriculum I was to cover. My main subject was history and what I had been given was no problem. My subsidiary subject, however, was a problem. I had been given class 3D-referred to as “the no-hopers” by their regular teacher.
SCHOOL-SPEAK TRANSLATION
For those of you who do not do school speak, let me explain the significance of the “D.” Like most schools at the time, this one was split into 5 streams. The A and E streams got the best of teaching, albeit for different reasons; the B stream could manage a slightly modified A stream syllabus and the C stream a modified B stream syllabus. This left the D stream - judged to be incapable of a cut down C syllabus but too bright for the E stream and identified as the source of most disciplinary problems in the school. (I wonder why?)
Having absorbed the teacher’s condemnation, I asked what I should be doing with them. Bt way of reply, he threw me a book.
“That,” he said. It was copy of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”!
HAROLD ROSEN
I was neither a happy nor an impressed bunny. As luck had it, I had a seminar that evening with my supervisor - the most intelligent and inspiring teacher I have met…the late Harold Rosen and father of the later Children’s Poet Laureate, Michael.
I poured out my tale of grief. “Macbeth, eh? You are lucky!” Then by a series of carefully posed questions he drew a line of action out of me and had the good grace to compliment me on the originality of my idea…
THEORY INTO PRACTISE.
JANUARY 1963, and one of the coldest winters on record. The school, a Victorian building looked bleak deep in snow, the students pinched and cold-none more so than 2D on our first encounter. Fagin would have been proud of them.
I soon discovered most of them to be fans of horror films and almost on speaking terms with Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. They accordinglyalso knew more about witchcraft than was good for them so when I asked if they would like to do something involving it, they proved highly receptive.
The next stage was to dish out the following…
MACBETH
ACT I SCENE I A desert place.
[Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches]
First Witch When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.
Third Witch That will be ere the set of sun. 5
First Witch Where the place?
Second Witch Upon the heath.
Third Witch There to meet with Macbeth.
First Witch I come, graymalkin!
Second Witch Paddock calls. 10
Third Witch Anon!
ALL Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
[Exeunt]
I went through the language with them, leaving aside the character Macbeth.
Then came the turning point. I split them into groups of four- three of the lads to be the witches and the fourth as the director. With little hope I gave them a homework (homework? They looked at me incredulously) to learn their lines.
Next time I saw them I was amazed…they had all done it. I had secured a distant prefab classroom and let them get on with it. The noise was deafening. Half way through I called a truce and we discussed all the different ways the witches could be characterised…old and threatening? young and smooth? What sort of voices? What sort of clothes? Next homework.. How did they see the witches, the “desert place,” their clothing, their familiars. The “directors” went into overdrive
By the next double lesson we had six mini productions of the Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1. While one group performed, the others were theatre critics offering positive criticism.
At the end of the lesson came THE questions…”Ere sir, who was this geezer Macbeth? What did he do? What else happens?” I had got a foothold.
We then had some really good discussions in later lessons…did Macbeth really see the ghost of Banquo at the feast or did he only think he did? What did they make of Lady Macbeth? (Bit like my Aunty Flo, sir! Holy terror she is!)
They spent a lot of time mulling over Shakesperian similes and metaphors. I remember we spent half a lesson on just one…the description of Macbeth…”His borrowed titles hang about him as a giant’s robes upon a dwarfish thief.”
THE THEATRE
So far so good, then it was time for inner quaking. One of the lads came in with the local paper. An am-dram group was giving a matinee performance of The Scottish Play and “could we all go sir?” I mentioned it to the head who I thought was about to have a seizure. “That Lot. In a theatre?
As luck would have it, his deputy offered to go with me to ride shot gun.
In the event he was not needed. The lads all turned up clean and well dressed for what was their first ever visit to see a live play. They were quiet and uniformly attentive. At the final bow, they all stood up and applauded the cast.
Next lesson they were all critics, not just of the play but the players. They all wrote astute critiques of the performance-especially of Act 1 Scene 1 that they considered to be “their” scene.
By this stage my teaching practise was nearing its end so I planned a near final lesson to discuss what Macbeth was really all about. Knock on the classroom door and in came Harold Rosen, my supervisor.
END OF THE PRACTISE
Having seen my lesson plans he asked me if I would not like a cup of coffee in the staffroom, while he took over-out of interest. Why not?
I made my way back just as the bell rang for the end of the lesson. The boys streamed out and I found Harold laughing. I asked why.
“I was asking them if they had found the play hard going. One of the boys stuck his hand up“.
“No sir. We all understand a bloke with a pushy wife!” Bang on!
EVALUATION
Every teaching practise had to end with an evaluation.
First, the students. What had they got out of the experience? How would you rate the following?
-An introduction to critical awareness
-A brush with one of the world’s great poets
-Drama and vicarious experience
-Exploring metaphor and simile
-Discussing adult themes “pushy wives”
-Enjoyment
-Visiting a live performance in a theatre for the first time
-Breaking down barriers between “populist” and “elitist” culture. (Bearing in mind that Shakespeare had to do this to get bums on seats!)
-Oh yes, over the 18 lessons I had with 3D, there was no discipline problem!
-Any you would like to add?

As a 21 year old student teacher who obviously knew it all, my first inclination was to warmly congratulate myself. My second was to think back to the way Harold Rosen had squeezed the idea out of me in the first place. This was teaching of the highest order. His influence stayed with me for the next 35 years at the chalk face.

Please do look up the obituary of this remarkable teacher….
https://www.theguardian.com/education/2008/aug/04/teaching.schools

I will expand on his influence in my next blog entry, “A letter to my younger self.”