It struck me, whilst reflecting on my most and least favourite texts to teach, that both the texts I have chosen I taught first in my NQT year in 2007/8 to A level students: my favourite, Hamlet, to year 13; my least favourite, Wise Children, to year 12. Perhaps the combined intensity of the NQT year and A level teaching has meant they have stuck in my mind. It was a memorable year.
Before teaching Hamlet that first time, I had never read it before. I believe the text was chosen for me by my co-teacher before I took up the post in September. I am forever grateful to him for introducing me to a text that I am now unashamedly passionate about. It also further cemented my love for Kenneth Branagh thanks to his 1996 bleached blonde performance of the Danish prince. Since 2007 I have seen the play on stage many times including seeing David Tenant and Jude Law take on the role (I am very much looking forward to seeing Cumberbatch’s efforts in September). Enough of my own Hamlet love, though, this is meant to be about why it is my favourite text to teach…
I taught Hamlet only twice before the specification changes meant that it disappeared from my A level classroom. However, it remains my favourite because of how much I enjoyed it and how much my year 13 students enjoyed it too.
As it was a closed book exam text, I encouraged students to commit quotations to memory from the moment we began studying it. There’s something powerful, I think, in ‘owning’ some Shakespeare and I would regularly be greeted in the corridor by my students delivering lines with gusto: ‘Miss, Miss! This above all: to thine own self be true!’ I gave students their own quotation book (I still have my copy) in which we’d select and analyse quotations as we went along and memorise as many as we good. I say ‘we’ because I joined in. It was fun. Although I wouldn’t have used the term at the time, I used lots of regular ‘low stakes’ testing to ensure that students not only knew key quotations but also had good knowledge and understanding of the plot, characters and themes. We had a bit of a league table going and my year 13s were surprisingly keen to win.
Of course these methods could be applied to any text and they’re probably not the reason that I loved teaching Hamlet but my overriding memory is that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Perhaps it is as simple as the pleasure of teaching a text I fell in love with? Maybe it is because circumstances meant that I had to teach a text I’d never read before and so I was on a learning journey just one step ahead of my students? Maybe it is my favourite text to teach because it gives me an excuse to moon over Kenneth Branagh…I don’t know. All I know is that thanks to the most recent specification changes I will be teaching Hamlet at A level again from September and I cannot wait.
Having studied The Bloody Chamber during my own A level course, I chose Wise Children from the available options merely because it was written by Angela Carter. That was mistake number one. Mistake number two was that I chose the text before having read it for myself. If I’d read it first, I would never have chosen it. Not only did I not like the text – that is an understatement – but the complexity, literary allusions and, frankly, oddness of it all made it particularly challenging to teach.
If you haven’t read Wise Children, and clearly I wouldn’t recommend that you do, the plot centres around identical twins Dora and Nora Chance on their 75th birthday. Their birthday just so happens to be on the same day as their father’s (also, coincidentally, a twin) which just so happens to be the same day as Shakespeare’s birthday. Over the course of the day, people thought dead turn out to be alive, at his 100th birthday party the twins’ father, Melchior Hazard, finally acknowledges them as his children and the twins are presented with their own set of twins to care for which encourages them not to die for another twenty years… This plot is interwoven with the memories of Dora who I found to be a singularly irritating narrative voice.
Having struggled with the text myself, I then had to teach it to year 12. Whilst internally bemoaning my choice of text, I determined not to share my dislike of the text with the students. When they complained about the confusing nature of it, we found ways to simplify and visualise it. When they missed a literary allusion (there were about a million) I guided them. I can still picture their puzzled faces when I introduced them to the ideas of carinavelesque and magical realism…
It was hard work. If I said they ended the year in love with Angela Carter I’d be lying but they wrestled with the text and ultimately managed to pin it down. I told them that if they could do that, they could tackle any text. I, however, was weary from my brawl with Wise Children and was thankful that the A Level specification changes meant that I no longer had to teach it. I vowed I would never teach Wise Children again.
What have been your favourite and least favourite texts to teach? Join in August’s #BlogSyncEnglish and share using the hash tag.