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Peer into the List of Pairs

8 Aug

My list of textual pairings now offers over 210 combinations!  I have tried to craft the list so that it offers a mix between what schools might already have in the book room and texts that could be purchased to supplement existing stock.

Telling Stories

27 Jul

In the introduction to my Penguin Books edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet the following quotation appears:

“The telling and retelling of stories is our main means for getting some insight into and control over our circumstances.”

It seems to me that sentence could be replicated exactly in an introduction to Othello.  Indeed, that text is preoccupied with the telling of stories.  In fact, it is through the telling of stories that Iago is able to consolidate his power over Othello and a range of other characters.

It would be interesting to see whether students studying the ‘Narratives that shape our world’ unit in Year 11 Advanced feel that this statement is an accurate representation of the purpose of storytelling.

So many pairs!

22 Jul

My list of textual pairings now exceeds 200!  I am keen for suggestions of combinations that have worked in your classrooms so that I can expand my list.

What is storytelling?

21 Jul

As part of the Year 11 Advanced module ‘Narratives that shape our world’, students need to engage with notions of narrative and storytelling.  I stumbled upon an article in The Guardian about scientists and storytelling, and thought it could be used early in the unit as a means of teasing out this concept with students.

Best Books

4 Jul

I was reading Laura Randazzo‘s post entitled ‘The Best Book Ever?‘ in which she discusses America’s best-loved novels.  After reading the list included in her post, I couldn’t help but feel that there were some books which I would not have included, and others that appear to be missing.   This got me thinking: do others feel the same way?

I would like to ask this question of students in the school’s Book Club, asking them to work collaboratively to come up with a list of their top 50 books.  Perhaps, we could then work towards reviewing each of these books for the blog they are working on.  Additionally, we could use this as a way of gauging students’ interests, perhaps better tailoring our recommendations for reluctant readers.

A number of the students in Book Club are genre readers.  A spin off project could involve them compiling a list of the top 20 fantasy books, for example.  We could then combine this list with an illustration and make a collection of book marks that could be distributed to students with the next books they read in English class, thus encouraging wide reading.  In fact, students could even work on subject specific lists (sci-fi for science, books about the environment for geography etc), thus allowing other faculties to build students’ love of literature.

Textual Interventions

24 Jun

I am looking to introduce the concept of textual interventions to my senior students.  In essence, a textual intervention is a form of tweaking or re-imagining of an element of a narrative and then critically reflecting on the choices made.  It may, for example, involve identifying a gap, silence or absence, or shifting context, genre or perspective.

As a way in, I thought I would show students this article entitled ‘Classic Horror Films Remade as Rom-Coms.’  I think this might be useful and fun way to show how a text’s core ideas can be re-imagined in new context to reveal new understandings of the world.


20 Jun

I have been reading a lot of book reviews recently.  It struck me that the point of a review is to offer enough information to entice one to read the text, but not so much information that the entire plot is explained.  This got me thinking, could I use this as a tool to trigger students’ creativity?  Could they re-view or re-imagine the original text by exploiting the gaps in the plot left when a text is reviewed? For example, could I use extracts from this review of Colm Toibin’s ‘Sleep’ to as stimulus for students’ gothic compositions?

I am excited to give this a go!

Representing Tasks

9 Jun

One of the modes typically assessed in the English classroom is representing.  Recent discussions regarding assessments at school have started me thinking about creative, engaging and meaningful ways to have students represent their understanding of texts and concepts set for study.  Some ideas are below:

  • Students select four small props or symbols representative of the key ideas in a text.  These are used as the focal point of a speech/tutorial presentation.  One prop selected by a student studying Othello, for example, might be a pair of reading glasses.  This could be used to flag discussion of Othello’s desire for “ocular proof” of his wife’s alleged infidelity, a punning allusion to Othello’s inability to ‘see’ Iago for who he truly is, and/or a link to how the omniscient audience ‘sees’ and understands Othello’s downfall.
  • Students create a poster advocating for the social change desired by the poets/authors whose texts have been studied during the unit.  Students then present their poster, explaining how the poster (a) responds to the texts and issues set for study, and (b) demonstrates their own commitment to the focus issue.
  • Students invent and pitch a product to represent their knowledge of persuasive devices and advertising techniques.
  • Students craft a metaphor or simile to explain and represent a concept set for study.  Then, they create a presentation explaining how that metaphor or simile can be used to explore their set text(s).

Gender and Othello

15 May

When I am teaching Shakespearean drama I often wish that I was able to treat my students to multiple performances, each offering a different perspective on the play.  Why?  Because each casting decision, each dramatic decision offers insight into the play’s enduring relevance and values.

The value of performance is underscored in a recent review about a production of Othello in which the eponymous protagonist was recast as a lesbian.  If we view Othello’s characterisation as the Moor as a mere shorthand for communicating his difference, the re-imagining of Othello as a lesbian does not change much.  After all, on this reading, lesbian and Moor are both equally effective synonyms for ‘Other’.  If, however, Othello’s characterisation is about more than difference, if the colour of Othello’s skin is as central to Othello as Shylock’s religion is in The Merchant of Venice, then maybe recasting Othello as a lesbian matters greatly.   Maybe it changes everything.

The author of the review is of the view that changing the gender (let alone the orientation) of Othello matters greatly:

“In changing the gender of Othello – making the character … a woman who has excelled in what is clearly very much a man’s world – the stakes are raised, and the evening speaks to present-day workplace politics. Iago is the “ancient” who feels resentment at a woman’s success…”

Her view, it seems, is that the shift in characterisation modernises the text such that it reflects the context in which we live, offering a certain universality to the underlying interpersonal conflict.  This would be an interesting idea to discuss with my class – I what they see in Othello and how closely this understanding is linked to the colour of his skin.

I would also be keen to discuss the following:

  • Characterisation of Othello tips the gender balance in the play as three of the four key characters are now female.  If Othello is recast as woman, is Iago (the only male) recast as ‘Other’.  If so, how might this change how audiences view him?
  • Does the gender and/or the sexual orientation of Othello impact his effectiveness of a tragic hero?  Why/why not?
  • How does exploring the downfall of a woman and/or lesbian play into current social narratives regarding gender and sexuality?
  • Is it a feminist statement to recast Othello as a woman?  Explain.

The ‘Good Bloke’ Narrative

14 May

A recent conversation with students about Othello raised an interesting question:  If we view Othello as offering a window into the protagonist’s domestic world, then do we also (given the play’s ending) have to view Othello as a perpetrator of domestic violence?

The question is a good one in that it demonstrates critical engagement with the text studied.  It should also be valued as a way of grappling with the play’s continued relevance.  Another way of asking this question might be: Do we value Othello for the way it sheds light on the problems plaguing domestic relationships?

This understanding of Othello as an abusive husband was almost immediately countered by another student who, instead, perceived Othello as a ‘good guy’ corrupted by the machinations of Iago.  Othello may have killed his wife, argued this student, but it wasn’t really his fault as his rage was fuelled by Iago’s manipulative conduct.

The ensuing discussion, I feel, could really have benefited from students reading Clementine Ford’s article ‘The problem with the “good bloke” narrative’.  In this article Ford discusses the inadequacy of a system where males who murder their loved ones are cast as ‘good blokes’ and, in doing so, the gravity of their conduct is diminished.  In the words of Ford:

“Turning murderers into ‘Good Blokes’ only reinforces an underlying community belief that there are circumstances in which men (and it’s always men, because nobody defends women who murder children or describes them as ‘awesome’) can be driven to this kind of response. That indeed the pressures of being a man can be so intense and suffocating that they feel they have no choice but to end the lives of everyone they’re ‘responsible’ for.”

In light of this article, I have a number of questions for my students:

  • Does/how does the characterisation of Othello as a ‘Good Bloke’ devalue women?
  • Is Othello an anti-feminist play?  Why?
  • Is Othello an anti-male play?  Why?
  • What is Shakespeare seeking to achieve through his representation of men and women?
  • What narratives about masculinity and femininity is Shakespeare offering in Othello?
  • Why is it acceptable to perceive a literary domestic abuser, but not a real life domestic violence perpetrator, as a ‘Good Bloke’?
  • At what point does/should personal responsibility begin?