More tales from the schoolroom which shows teachers don't just have long holidays!
‘Right, today we are going to talk about witches, death, double dealing and chopping heads off.’ Oh good, that woke them up. This was the first week back after half term working on the garden continuing to quell the overgrowth whilst having bonfire-loving friends round for Firework night. I was back in harness again, being a sane teacher.
Until then, my bottom set year 9 had bickered about sitting where I wanted them to, like on the chairs rather than the tables; moaned about taking their coats off – ‘its freezing in here’; and announced that they had no pens or pencils, so could not do any writing.
I had the unenviable task of teaching this charming bunch The Scottish play – Macbeth. How to do this to a group who were more into the latest rap music, boyfriends and getting their eyebrows, noses and tongues pierced?
In my experience, the more gruesome the subject was, the better the kids enjoyed it. I had taught some Humanities in a previous incarnation and the only thing that grabbed them were the intricacies of the medieval toilets in castles. They didn’t want to know about Motte and Baileys or why they were built, all they were interested in were the perils of walking under the bottom of a toilet chute, or being disgusted by the idea that the people who personally deposited the ‘duck food’ in the moat ate the very same ducks!
Teaching English was a little more difficult – sure, I could go into the plumbing aspects of Dunsinane Castle, but then the SATS examiners would not want to know about elbows in guarderobe chutes stopping blowback. Mind, the students I had would not be able to spell guarderobe either, so that defeated the object of the exercise.
Being a little bit of an exhibitionist, I then went into the routine of ‘Macbeth in 30 seconds’, which was an overview of the main characters and action, all played by me at the front of the room, spoken in the vernacular, with a ruler acting as sword, dagger, and spear with head upon it. They all sat silently, with jaws open displaying wads of chewing gum, and watched in disbelief as I gyrated across the floor being Lady Macbeth as she went mad, washing her hands endlessly. When I became MacDuff, slaying Macbeth at Dunsinane they spontaneously clapped. I was touched – in more ways than one.
Then a voice came from the back...
‘Hey Miss, you really ARE potty!’
But they all remembered the nine buckets of blood – for years. So did the Learning Support Assistant we had, who remembered it for years and laughed about it on his retirement day – I aim to please.
The tension broke and we all had a laugh, then got on with the knotty problem of trying to get this complicated play into their heads so that they knew the story and could discuss some of the themes and ideas William Shakespeare had woven into the fabric way back in the 1500’s when he wrote to entertain all kinds of people, but had no idea that 14 year old children would be trying to write about in the 21st Century.
To help me in this task, I had a compellingly boring cartoon version of the play on a video that had seen better days; and a set of simple books with cartoons in them that would have turned a class of 7 year olds off. The books were fine if all you needed to know were the basics of the story, much as I had enacted out at first; but the film was full of amorphous figures with purple faces who looked more like Rhubarb and Custard than Scottish Thanes. As in Rhubarb and Custard, the figures wavered as they spoke, which distracted you from the fact that they were using a heavily edited version of the original script.
‘So Miss – what happens after Malcolm has been made King of Thingy?’
Oops. That was a question I hadn’t anticipated. Shakespeare hadn’t written Macbeth II or The Sequel – Malcolm the Mad.
Quick thinking needed here.
‘Well, let’s make sure we all know the original story before we try to write the follow-up.’
Finally, after two weeks we had the story off pat, albeit only in the broadest outline and with plenty of prompting from me – but they did know all the characters’ names and who had done what to whom and where.
The next job was to get them spelling the names correctly – lots of carrots, the occasional sweet and weekly spelling tests managed that one, but it was clear that we were not going to get to grips with comparing Lady Macbeth’s personality at the beginning of the play and just before she died.
After initial hiccups regarding discipline and the fact that I actually wanted to teach them something - and expected them to learn as well, many of my class were very willing, even enthusiastic, but totally unable to remember facts from one day to the next.
I began to feel like a parrot. I nearly invested in a tape recorder and miming lessons. I could be like a modern pop star…
‘What was the name of Macbeth’s castle?’
Birnisame, I think Miss.’
‘Dunsinane, Chloe, Dunsinane.’
‘So, can you remember the name of the walking wood?’
Yeah! Me Miss!’
‘It’s Birmingham Miss.’
‘Nearly Dane, nearly.’
We did write poetry though, which was a revelation. This was the result of me despairing about ever getting a piece of prose out of them, either spelled correctly or appallingly.
Taking the Acrostic form of poetry which has a hidden message in it but doesn’t have to rhyme, I asked them to put the name of a main character down the page and try to tell the story about their part in the play. I got this:
Man who was chopped out of his mum
Acked Macbeths head off
Chopped it right down to the spine
Did it in Dunsinane Castle
Up he held it on his sword
Flowed with blood all down his arm
Flutters in the breeze, dead.
It was succinct. Despite the spelling I wished we could write poems in the end of term exams to show that they may not be able to put a complex sentence together, using a subordinate clause or explain a particular piece of evidence from the text; however they had the story of Macbeth nailed in their mind. There were more examples, which told other aspects of Macbeth just as well; put together, they were almost a challenge for Will Shakespeare’s original verse.
The proudest part of this exercise for them was putting them in the school’s National Poetry Day display that was subsequently seen by an HMI. On arrival in my room Her Majesty’s Inspector was immediately led by one of my little darlings and shown their poems. He then asked the million-dollar question ‘Are you studying Macbeth then?’ And got the whole story in one breathless gabble from the whole class. He didn’t ask any more awkward questions, I loved them.
We also made up the front pages of their own newspaper – good idea to try and instil some reportage language here – and they were allowed to name their papers. There was ‘The Dunsinane Doom’ – we had done alliteration the lesson before; ‘Scotland’s Saturday Shocker’ –more in the line of one of the worst tabloids; but the majority of them came up with the names of papers seen in their families – an indictment of how imagination can be quashed by lack of input. Strange how many had the Scottish Sun, or The Daily Sport.
I again had to hand feed the information that I wanted them to produce, and to give them their due; they had a good stab at it! A carrot for the less literate was to make up their own picture for the front page – we ran out of red felt tips as the blood flowed, right down the page and into pools at the bottom of the pages. They all wanted to draw the bloody head on the spear, with gore all over the castle walls, but then struggled to draw a head, so most of them had stick people with my own version of heads sketched on the top to stop the creative juices clotting. They did a good job of them too. The moving woods of Birnam also made their pencils stutter, but the introduction of simple movement ‘clouds’ as in cartoons, soon had those woods marching on Dunsinane Castle again.
Another slight drawback was the terrible attendance of certain pupils. The one who had reckoned I was potty often turned up late with excuses that he had been talking to or kept late, by another teacher. I soon called his bluff, by the simple expedient of asking that teacher whether they had; so then he stopped attending my lessons, simply going walkabout either round the school or outside the boundary, which was not allowed. When caught, his excuse was often that I worked him too hard and it made his brain hurt. If we could have found and engaged that brain, we would all have been happy. Pity he was so turned off, because he had a swift and well-retained knowledge of English and could have got a good mark in his exams – if he had just applied himself. He now helps his brother valet cars for a living, but still does not know where to put the apostrophes as evidenced by his hand-written signs!
Another lad, who was much brighter than he liked to let me know he was, turned up very infrequently and always smelling of pigs, which gave me a good clue as to what he thought was more important than school. It gave me an excuse to open the windows wide, keeping the classroom cool and relatively odour–free.
This lad was also mad on coarse fishing – but how was I to weave that into Macbeth to get him interested? I never did manage that one. His ability to understand the witches’ prophesies would not help him to identify fish diseases, or to write out permits at the lakes where he ended up working whenever he wasn’t at school, which was most of the time.
I had two star pupils.
Pity one of them could not keep her temper under control. She tried very hard, and could have sat the exams, but eventually she got so troubled that every request was met with aggression, and even this ‘potty’ teacher could not defuse her. She would turn up at lunchtime to talk to me about a problem while I ate my sandwich, ask my advice then tell me I knew nothing and flounce off. This happened on such a regular basis I took to walking across the campus to hide in the staffroom for a while – then realised the staffroom was such a hive of gossip and scandal it sent me scurrying back to my room for some peace and quiet.
Eventually this girl kicked in a reinforced glass door outside my classroom and got herself excluded half way through the second lot of witches’ prophesies, so missed the MacDuff twist, but gave me the biggest Christmas card with ‘you are the bestest English teacher I hav ever had’ inscribed boldly in it. I must have got through to her in some way for such an extravagant gesture - or just been one of the first adults who had listened to her for any length of time.
The other star pupil, a nice lad, kept his head down and worked so hard that he really should have been awarded a medal. Disruption and removals of aggressive pupils did not faze him; he just copied the aim off the board and got on with the task set. He was a dyslexic so had to wear green tinted spectacles to stop the words dancing on the page - this left him vulnerable to taunts and teasing, so for the first two weeks I wore my pink tinted sun glasses to keep him company. This display of solidarity soon quelled any remarks, and then my glasses gradually became consigned to the drawer as they became accustomed to his cool shades. Some even wanted to borrow them, so they went around the class with various comments from people experiencing green tinged worlds for the first time. After that, they weren’t mentioned again.
He was unfailingly polite and enthusiastic, but could not spell words of more than five letters, even in the weekly spelling tests when he had tried to learn them overnight. If I pointed out the mistakes, he could tell me immediately how a word should be spelled, but his dyslexia left him very seriously disadvantaged in a test situation.
He had a lovely male Learning Support Assistant called Mr Fisher or Bob, who sat patiently with him and quite enjoyed the interactive lessons, but who often had to blow his nose hard or cough to hide a burst of hysteria. It became a challenge not to ‘corpse’ with each other, so often our eyes did not meet ‘across a crowded room’ for a whole hour. It was a contest of steely determination in most lessons.
Bob was the real reason this lad finally got his spelling sorted out to the point where he was given the chance to move up a group in Year 10. Bob was nearing retirement and had more patience than all the saints in the Western world. He was quiet and unflappable, always the same and gave a sense of calm constancy to lessons. He finally retired to a motor home and we get occasional postcards from hot places, like southern Spain and Portugal.
My star pupil keeps coming and thanking me for giving him the chance – I keep reminding him that he did the hard work; I didn’t sit the exams or get the marks for him.
It gives me a glow though.
After a year of trying to instil some knowledge into their heads, it was made clear that none of my ‘bottom group’ would manage the Government inspired exams, as they could not read nor understand the questions, let alone answer them. I wanted them to have a try, but was out-voted.
So, my next task was the classroom based assessment tests.
Oh joy, oh bliss!
These were not too bad for them, but entailed so much extra work for me that I clocked up twenty hours marking time, over and above my normal marking load. All done at home, up to the midnight hour; and often retrieved from the bedroom floor or under the cat in the morning after I had dropped to sleep, still marking.
The kids loved me.
They didn’t have to endure the sitting still and silent in the hall whilst all around the other, brighter pupils scribbled frantically. This was guaranteed to make them feel even more inadequate than they were already.
So, they were tested and marked by their own ‘potty’ teacher in their own room.
Their comfort zone did not waver. They even sat in their ‘own’ seats.
When the written tests were done, we then had the speaking and listening section to do.
These tests were tedious to the extreme; I repeated myself as many times as there were kids in the class – they all had to be treated the same way.
The lad who rarely attended was verbally very adept, but trying to breathe through my mouth whilst avoiding the porcine aroma did nothing for my delivery of the questions.
The asinine kid who had every excuse under the sun for not being in lessons was unsurprisingly very weak at the verbalisations; my star pupils tried their hardest, but then the girl threw a moody and flounced out halfway through; so got a ‘Nil points’. It was after this she kicked the door in. The lad had read and re-read the written piece and acquitted himself very well.
The very next day they all wanted to know what their scores were!
When I did eventually give them their results, they were unaware of their meaning. After having explained to them about the National Curriculum Levels, they were still un-comprehending. Is a level 3 good or not? This led to a short dissertation in simple language about the ladder of achievement the National Curriculum Levels denote. They were really no wiser when I had finished. So does a level 3 help you kick a door in; steal from a shop; have your eyebrow pierced or look after fish? I still don’t know.
The only thing I did know was that they were coming back next year as my year 10 class and the red felt tips would have to go back in the cupboard…
Boy, did I need that summer holiday and a break with my animals…
Year 10 had raging hormones, just like our young boars.
Well, that was the only explanation for them behaving like a herd of wild pigs in full flight – every lesson.
In fairness, they had been the recipients of a less than disciplined teacher the year before, so thought they could do what they wanted in the classroom, as they had done the year before, when the hormonal stuff had started. She was always carrying bags of sweets around, which explained how she never seemed to have any trouble with them.
Not in my classroom.
It took a couple of weeks, but they eventually got the idea that wearing coats, feet on desk, throwing things and eating or chewing gum were things that I would not tolerate.
They never did suss that I could smell the peppermint of gum from about two desks away, or that, by making them laugh, I could see it stuck to their teeth when they gaped at me in amusement.
One of them even came back to see me a year after he had left with the question
‘How did you know I was chewing in your lessons Miss?’
I told him, but still don’t think he believed me.
I got over the coats issue by leaving all the windows shut and putting the heater on full blast, then when they were all complaining about it being too hot, I opened the windows and got the room back down to a temperature where their brains were not going to sleep involuntarily, or I was liable to an asthma attack – yes, my sometimes wheezy state did hamper things somewhat. They watched as I squirted inhaler down my throat and started to treat me a little as a human being – ‘My sister ‘as asthmas, Miss’. When I got so wheezy they could hear me coming down the corridor, some of the more respectful even offered to carry my books or open the door for me.
I got very good at catching balls of paper in mid-flight – the astonishment factor then led to admiration – the throwing stopped. I even got asked – jokingly – whether I was free for the under 15’s basketball team. I did point out that, being the venerable age of 365, it would be cheating. Throwing balls of paper – or anything for that matter – was soon a thing of the past.
Those talking while I was took a little longer to train.
I tried being softer; louder; very slow; in French; writing ‘shut up’ on the board; silent.
The one thing that worked was walking out. And shutting the door on them.
This ploy made the more sensible of them wonder whether the Head was going to come, or worse, their Head of Year who was known not so fondly as The Rottweiler. Usually, these were the ones who made more noise than any of the others trying to get quiet. If I could have ‘shushed’ as loudly as some of them, I would have had no problems.
I then explained that, if I was going to have any respect for them they were going to have to show me some, and listen. I found that talking quietly and as if they were my peers –but with much simpler language – was the best way of getting results. I soon hardly had to raise my voice.
I explained that I would do my best to get them through the GCSE course that they were starting, but only if they worked hard with me.
As for me, as I was going to have to do as much work as they were.
Bless them; they were in third set, with no idea how much work they were facing to get a half-decent mark.
We had five pieces of coursework to get through in the year. This meant a lot of writing for them, and even more work for me.
What is more, I had never taught this particular GCSE English course before!
I had more than a few years of teaching under my belt but all at the lower end of secondary school – in fact I was a key stage 3 specialist. The amount of paperwork for this GCSE qualification from the Government was staggering and written in such complicated English that it could be sold as an insomnia cure. Everyone else was so busy that translations were not forthcoming; so I picked out the bones of the coursework requirements, made myself a crib sheet and jumped in with both feet.
The first piece we tackled was Media. I was given two out-of-date promotional videos; one for an amusement park in Lincolnshire, the other for Disney USA. I also found two worksheets of questions for the pupils that were almost indecipherable to me, let alone the kids.
We were going to compare the two videos…
Whoever thought that one up didn’t have a clue about how 15 year olds process input.
The UK park film was over 9 years old when I got it. The Disney film was a slick, phantasmagorical invite to join the perfect world.
The kids, give them their due, liked the idea of watching films in lessons, and so were great the first time of viewing. Then they baulked a little at looking for the answers to the questions on the revamped sheet. We had to watch them again. And again. Some lads resorted to writing ‘Don’t know, don’t care’ as answers to diverse questions such as: ‘How does Disney use language to exaggerate the benefits of the park?’
After the fifth, and rowdiest watching, I gave up. Taking the films home, I watched them several times in an evening, and picked out all the relevant quotes for the worksheet questions. I also cobbled together a fairly prescriptive writing frame, where they just had to fill in the relevant bits. Time was short. My printer clattered long after I had gone to bed. The computer, with new cooling fan installed, did not let me down this time.
I was ready for them. Spoon feeding the GCSE course was not really the idea, but they were all so short of basic grammatical knowledge – ‘What the hell’s a simile, Miss?’ that I had to do it that way.
When they realised that I was really helping them, the whole atmosphere changed. The piggishness stopped, they came in and got ready for work, immediately asked for a pen rather than leave it until half way through the lesson - and asked if they didn’t understand.
The next carrot was to let them use the computer suite for word processing it and getting the spelling right. They loved that, we had the three quietest lessons ever, after they realised that I would make them write it by hand if they surfed the Net.
I had two girls, who in my mind I called Dumb and Dumber. Not in an awful way, they were just the two quietest people I had ever come across. One spoke permanently through her sweatshirt sleeve, the other didn’t even make eye contact, let alone speak. There was no point asking them a direct question in class, they were struck even dumber.
I had to do a speaking and listening assessment which was going to be difficult with all of them, let alone these two.
Having been to a meeting where people with years more experience than me had made suggestions about this; I decided to try one that seemed to fit my slightly off-the-wall style.
It was called ‘Room 101’. Now those of you who watch late evening BBC2 programmes will know that a celebrity has to choose a range of things they really hate and convince a comedian to put them into a bin labelled Room 101.
So, here we had the makings of several lessons. Good.
I showed them a taped programme. Then they had to get a list of favourite hates together.
Then, in small groups, they had to put the arguments to convince me that these hates needed to go into Room 101.
Suddenly, these two lasses had their groups following, not leading them. They had good ideas, were reasoned about their arguments and scored highly in the assessment. They even spoke loudly enough to hear them across the classroom.
I could have kissed them.
Finally, as the last lesson, I asked them to give me reasons why I should go into Room 101! I was putting my trust in the relationship I had built up with them over the year, and hoping that even the sillier of them would play along.
I was duly consigned to the bin because I had a bad-hair-day haircut, boring dress sense, kept pigs and was way over 21. There were no truly rude answers and they had a great time doing it, although there was some very hefty debate in hushed tones during the planning. They even thanked me for being a good sport on the way out.
Had I really cracked year 10? Year 10 had cracked me up on occasions, just like the antics of our new pigs…