The Shakespeare Teacher’s Lot …

‘You REALLY don’t know about The Garden of Eden?’

university-challenge-young-ones-800x500

Your starter for ten – which long running TV quiz programme is parodied here?

Bonus questions: 5 points each (answers at the bottom of the post):

1 – name the actor on the far left

2 – name the character played by Rick Mayall (second left) who appeared in Blackadder (have you been paying attention to my blog?)

3 – finally, and ‘come on, I’ll have to hurry you’, can you name the title of this episode of The Young Ones, also an affectionate nickname for the question master of the quiz show at the time (1984)?

Considering I am infamously ‘the one with no TV‘ at school, I know a suspicious number of shows; this is a favourite (although not to the extent that I watch it online, or anything – there are simply too many books to read).  Visiting my parents invariably involves squirming in one of their leather recliners, always too hot or too cold, and pitting myself against the callow youngsters lined up in front of me.  Once upon a time, they appeared ancient – now they are like policemen, and I wouldn’t trust them with a bag of sweets.

What’s the point? 

General knowledge.  THAT is the point.

students companion I fondly remember childhood evenings – before the arrival of computers, let alone smartphones – leafing through Wilfred D Best‘s ‘Students’ Companion‘, agog at how wide and wonderful the world was (I still am), at the knowledge that was out there simply waiting to be soaked up.  I was the proverbial sponge.

All that was required was intellectual curiosity.  Right?

Let’s continue a little longer with the antediluvian tone of this piece: we live in a world where for many of us, information, general knowledge, has never been easier to get hold of.  But what that seems to have bred is a collective intellectual disinterest.  It’s not just laziness – it’s more insidious and harmful.

I came here for Shakespeare?  Remember him?

You’ve forgotten that I seldom get straight to the point, haven’t you?  Of course I remember him.

Literature is an intertextual subject, built on the fossilised bones of previous fiction and non-fiction texts.  Studying literature without a thorough and broad general knowledge of contextual ‘bones’ is like watching, say, ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2‘, without having seen or read anything that precedes it.  You’ll probably understand what is happening, but not why.  You need back story.

Set aside 21st century attitudes to ‘dead white males‘ and WASPs* for a moment. I’m going to suggest Shakespeare is built on a few MAIN foundations:

  • Christian values, attitudes, and a knowledge of the Bible;
  • a knowledge of or interest in English history;
  • ditto ancient Greece and Rome; and
  • an awareness of current  (Elizabethan / Jacobean) affairs

I’m not saying Shakespeare was an expert in these things.  Only that he drew extensively from them.  The less we know about them, the less nuanced, the more one-dimensional our experience of Shakespeare’s works is.  It’s all ‘words, words, words‘; in-jokes for a club we are not members of.

This is part of what makes some English teachers dislike teaching Shakespeare.  And this is a large component of what makes the plays ‘boring’ for our students.  And that’s before you consider that at GCSE, 20% of your Shakespeare mark is based on ‘context’ (AQA Spec).

Can we do anything about it?

Well, here’s the thing.  Whilst in isolation, I’ve been tasked with revamping our Shakespeare curriculum.  And with time on my hands – and a perfectionist streak – I want to rip it up and start again.  I suspect some, at least, of that process will be documented here.

The halcyon days of my upbringing being long since superseded by Tik-Tok, I need to work on the basis that students don’t have a copy of ‘The Students’ Companion‘ at home.  Hardly anyone is religious anymore.  Practically speaking, outside of school scarcely any student is getting any grounding in the four foundations I described above.  The exception is that they all know who Medusa is, having seen Percy Jackson.  Ask them about the Garden of Eden, though, and you’ll be met by blank stares.

Where else can we look to for help, then?  Schools?  I spent an evening looking at various National Curriculum documents, and fired a tweet into cyberspace which, despite having been viewed well into four figures, hasn’t elicited any response at the time of writing (erm, thanks, guys).  Via the wonders of remote access, I went on a fishing expedition in our Staff Drive.  I really wanted to see what was taught at KS3, but I looked at GCSE, too, where I could.  This is what I found:

icon JESUS

BPE (Beliefs, Philosophy and Ethics)

A little bit of Judaism (Moses, Noah) is taught in Year 7.  Aside from that there is no content relevant to Shakespeare taught students until they hit GCSE.  At that stage, the few who have chosen the subject as an option work on ‘Christian Beliefs and Attitudes’.

Dramaicon THEATRE

Again, the closest thing we get to something relevant is in Year 7.  Students do a little work on ‘Greek Theatre’.  That aside – and bearing in mind I currently teach Year 8 Drama – I couldn’t find anything relevant to Shakespeare in KS3.  Which leaves …

icon HISTORY

History

And if anyone was going to help, you’d expect it to be them, right?  It did look a little healthier.  Year 7 do a mini-unit on the ‘Tudor Monarchs’, followed in Year 8 by a similarly bite-sized chunk on the Stuarts.  And that’s it.  You need to get to GCSE, like BPE, before you get into the nitty gritty of ‘Elizabethan England’.

Conclusions

The picture is pretty stark.

For all kinds of reasons, we can’t rely on students having the kind of general knowledge – I’m going to say, it: cultural capital – that we might have acquired at home when growing up.

Further, there seem to be relatively few opportunities for the kind of cross-curricular fertilisation that has all teachers and (especially) senior management nodding excitedly … and then rarely happens.

It’s down to us, then, teachers of English; teachers of Shakespeare.  Seeing the gaps, we need, somehow, to fill them.  It’s been a bit of a dispiriting exercise, but knowledge is power, and it’s going to inform the decisions I make in my project.

What’s YOUR experience of gaps in student knowledge defying your assumptions about what they know about the world?  Or have you got a more joined-up approach at your place?

ANSWERS to quiz:  University Challenge (10); Adrian Edmondson (5); Lord Flashheart (5); ‘Bambi’ (after Bamber Gascoigne) (5)

* White, Anglo-Saxon male Protestant authors …

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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