The Bechdel Test and the Curriculum.

The Bechdel Test has long been used as a means to assess the extent to which a film either consolidates or combats the patriarchy.

After watching this excellent Ted Talk from Colin Stokes, I believe that as educators it is our duty to assess the literature texts we study with our students, to see to what extent they too either pass or fail the Bechdel Test. 

I’ve written before about my belief that the disproportionate amount of Male-focused texts (either featuring mainly male characters, or written by male authors) mustn’t automatically be assumed to be all rainbows and roses for the boys we teach. After all, most of the males we study in literature are pricks. I believe this is as damaging for males as the lack of female characters and authors is for women. 

And yet.

Recent statistics that show 59% of females aged 13-21 have faced some sort of sexual harassment at school in the past year, have led me to worry. Seriously worry. 

Afterall, a book that fails the Bechdel Tests implicitly tells our boys that women:

  • Do not have friends to go to
  • Will not speak out

All of the texts I teach- of Mice and Men, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, A Christmas Carol, A Midsummer Night’s Dream- fail the Bechdel test.

Of course, changing the canon takes time. Many, many years in fact and menu of the texts that fail the Bechdel test must remain in our curriculum because they deserve to be there on literary merit alone.

But we need to do something. 

We can alter our KS3 curriculums to include more Bechdel-friendly texts, in the hope that exposing kids to these sort of books will ensure their place in the literary canon of the future.

Also, we can talk. We can tell kids about the Bechdel test and the possible implications of a studying a world in which women do not speak out. 

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Pace: A Discussion 

Right, let’s sort this word ‘pace’ out shall we? It’s a word that’s chucked about more frequently than swimming pool vending machines chuck out Lion bars, particularly during Lesson Observation Feedback.

At the risk of sounding condescending, before I talk about what I think people mean when they say ‘pace’, I’d like to explain, to those who don’t know what it means, what it means: ‘Pace’ refers to a rate of movement. That is, when teachers are told ‘You need more pace’, they are being told ‘You need more rate of movement.’ It’s meaningless. It literally means nothing that can ever plausibly be held to be meaningful in any context. Telling a teacher that their lesson ‘needs more pace’ is no more helpful than telling them their lesson needs more oxygen. It’s rubbish.

Here’s what I think people mean when they say “You need more pace.” Either: 

  1. You need to be quicker
  2. Your lesson needs to be broken down into small chunks

Allow me to expose both of these, in turn, for the utter testicular matter that they are.

Firstly, let’s address feedback that is given as “You need more pace”, but actually means, “You need to be quicker.” If that’s the case, why not just say: “You need to be quicker. Your explanation of the intricacies and complexities  of the abolition act needs to be delivered more quickly.” 

“As for you, you’re spending too much time explaining how to multiply fractions. Next week, I want to see if you can get your explanation down to just 5 seconds per pupil. At the moment you’re at 10. Or, actually, you’re spending too long saying ‘seven’. I know it’s two syllables and all, but do you think you could get that down to a quarter of a second. Look, try with me now. Seven. Seven. Better…seven.”

Why don’t people just say, “You need to be quicker?” I expect it’s because, deep down, they know there’s something inherently wrong about it. It’s wrong because:

  •  assessing speed of delivery inherently implies that learning can be divided into units completely distinct from one another. 
  • It implies that learning is a modular process. Which, it ain’t. Learning latches onto prior learning.
  • It puts classroom teachers in this ridiculous position of being required to literally achieve the impossible: that is, to bend all laws of physics to ensure that full understanding of a task can be completed at a given speed. This completely ignores everything we know about learning. That is, that different people learn things at different speeds.

So what’s the solution?

The solution is, if you’re giving someone feedback and you want an element of their practice to ‘be quicker’, you need to say that, and not ‘pace.’ Also, given the efficacy of SMART targets, it may be useful to stipulate exactly how fast you want them to get. 

Now, onto the second meaning of ‘Use more pace’: “Your lesson needs to be broken down into small chunks.” 

Generally, people impart this advice after viewing lessons in which some students display distracted behaviours, or behaviour that can’t be categorised as ‘engaged’.

Kids become disengaged if they a) find something difficult or b) are bored. Neither of these two things can be remedied by breaking things down into smaller chunks. Actually, the issue here is quality of explanation or task rather than the ‘length’ of tasks within a lesson. 

If kids find things hard, that’s okay. It generally means they’re learning.

And if a task is boring- SO WHAT? Sometimes things that are vital to our wellbeing- tax returns, signing autographs, brushing our teeth- are just boring. And long too. Turning lessons into an educational pic n’ mix ain’t doing anyone any favours. 

We need to develop kids’ ability to persevere at stuff-like life- that’s ‘ard work. Their exams aren’t going to be five minutes long and made up of video clips, play-doh, and interpretative dance. It’s gonna be 2 or 3 hours of writing stuff which one may find boring. We need to prepare them for this. Breaking lessons into ‘smaller chunks’ isn’t always the way to achieve this.

So what’s the answer? Well, if you want to tell someone to break their lessons into smaller chunks, tell them that- don’t say they need more pace. And may I suggest you explain your advice with some bloody good research evidence with which to support your request.

How I Teach…Iambic Pentameter

I want to let you know how I teach Iambic Pentameter, in the hope that:

  1. You can tell me how to improve my teaching of Iambic Pentameter
  2. It provides you with some ideas as to how you might want to teach Iambic Pentameter

 

Before I explain how I teach Iambic Pentameter, it’s first useful to explain what iambic pentameter is, and why I teach it.

What?

Iambic Pentameter is a line of poetry made up of 5 iambs. An iamb is a metrical foot made up of two syllables of which the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. Therefore, a line of iambic pentameter is a line of poetry consisting of 10 syllables following the pattern:

Unstressed (u) Stressed (/) Unstressed Stressed Unstressed Stressed Unstressed Stressed Unstressed Stressed

As in:

 U       \      U        \      U    \    U     \        U   \

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Why do I teach it?

I teach iambic pentameter for two reasons. Primarily, I think an understanding of iambic pentameter enables students to better analyse Shakespeare. Secondly, I think an understanding of iambic pentameter can lead to a greater appreciation of the poetry or verse as a construct- something thought about and built, rather than something that magically appears.

How do I teach it

I begin by explaining to students that what we’re about to learn is difficult. And that, finding this difficult is not only natural, but an indicator that they’re learning something. I also tell them that it is my responsibility, as much as theirs, to revisit this throughout the weeks that follow, so as to ensure full understanding.

I begin by explaining the concept of syllables. I will use phrases such as , ‘The English Language is syllabic. This means that its words are made up of syllables.’ The definition of ‘syllable’ is a tricky one and I don’t get too hung up on this. I go for a student-friendly definition which is a little abstract, but works with examples: ‘A syllable is  a beat in a word. “Matthew” for example, has two beats: “Math” and “Hew”. At this point I’ll ask students to work out how many syllables are in their full names. I’ll also ask them to work out the number of syllables in words such as ‘Universal’, ‘Swimming’, and ‘Antidisestablishmentarianism’.

Once students know what syllables are, I write the following word on the board:

Rebel.

I’ll ask students to pronounce it, and they’ll generally all pronounce the noun version of the word (REB-el). Then, I’ll ask students what rebels do, and point at the word on the board as I do so. They’ll then give me the verb version of the word (re-BEL). I’ll repeat this process for the word ‘Present’ (gift) and ‘Present’ (show, provide). Once I’ve done this, I’ll explain that although the words are the same, the thing that changes the meaning, is the stress we put on syllables: ‘In the noun version of the word “Rebel”, we put greater stress on the first syllable. “Reb”-“El”.’ As I do this, I’ll raise my hand for the stressed first syllable, and lower it as I pronounce the second. I’ll reverse the process for the verb version, and do the same again for ‘Present’.

I’ll then pick a student with a two-syllable first name in the class and I’ll ask the whole class where the stress falls. Generally, in western names, the stressed syllable is always the initial one. I’ll explain that if it wasn’t, we’d start to sound like French. I’d do a mock French accent as I explain the differences between ‘Amy’ and ‘Ai-MEE’.

At this stage, the kids should know a) that the English language is syllabic and b) that syllables are either stressed or unstressed.

Next, I tell kids what an iamb is. I’ll explain that an iamb is what’s known as a foot. I’ll explain that  an iamb has two points (like the pad and heel of a foot). Normally, I stand on a table at this point and watch everybody see my the soft tread of my heel hitting the table’s surface, followed by the rest of my weight following through as my pad (?) hits the table. I’m careful to make the second hit more forceful than the first. I then tell kids that an iamb is:

  • A unit of two syllables…
  • Of which the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed.

I’ll provide examples of iambic words such as:

BeWARE

ComPARE

DeSERVE

Then, I’ll say these words with the reversed stress pattern. It helps the kids get it, I find.

Then, I’ll write the beginnings of a famous line of Shakespeare and explain that it is iambic:

To be or not to be? That is the question.

I’ll say this aloud, emphasising the unstressed and stressed beats as I do so, by adjusting the volume of my voice: louder for stressed beats; quieter for unstressed. I will then explain that many actors, because they don’t have a grasp of iambic pentameter. They’ll deliver the line thusly:

To be or not to be? That is the question.

I’ll explain that actually iambic pentameter means that it should be pronounced like this:

To be or not to be? That is the question?

I’ll also show them this clip to help further explain the importance of stressed and unstressed beats:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEs8rK5Cqt8

I’ll ask students to tell me who they think has it pronounced most correctly, according to the ‘rules’ of iambic pentameter (I think it’s Prince Charles).

Right, now, I’ll ask students to look at the phrase IAMBIC PENTAMETER. We’ll analyse it and I’ll break it down into:

  • IAMBIC (containing iambs)
  • PENT (5)
  • METER (Rhythm)

That is, a rhythm containing 5 iambs. I’ll ask them how many syllables there are then, in one line of iambic pentameter. This is the stage at which you realise who has got it and who hasn’t. Most won’t have it. So repeat some stuff.

I’ll explain that iambic pentameter is a type of poetry. It’s poetry, even if it doesn’t rhyme, because it follows a metrical structure.

Now, it’s the time to explain why Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter. I discuss a number of theories:

  • It mimics ordinary human speech
  • It resonates with us because it mimics the beat of life – our heartbeats

I explain that I think these explanations are rubbish, even though I might be wrong. I explain that lines of iambic pentameter are just nice to listen to. The fact that they begin with a nice soft, unstressed beat, is soothing and less aggressive than if someone spoke to us (or the audience, or a loved one) beginning always with stressed beats.

Then I explain the most important thing about iambic pentameter:

Iambic Pentameter isn’t interesting when it’s there. It’s more interesting when it’s not there.

Allow me to explain: generally, it’s characters of high status or power who speak in iambic pentameter. Lady Macbeth, for example, speaks in iambic pentameter. Characters of low status or power, such as servants, nurses and porters, speak in prose.

At this point I’ll illustrate the differences between prose and verse by asking students to look at the differences themselves. I’ll normally direct them to the Porter’s speech in Macbeth, and ask them to compare it with verse spoken by the Macbeths in the previous scene.

Once students know what prose is, I’ll direct them to the sleepwalking scene. Lady Macbeth, now insane with guilt over her part in Duncan’s’ death, now speaks in prose. I’ll ask students why they think that is: it’s because Lady Macbeth has fallen from grace. Shakespeare now deprives her of the eloquence her power used to grant her. It’s his way of showing us that Lady Macbeth is now powerless. She can no longer boast of ‘the valour of [her] tongue’; instead she must be content with monosyllabic splutterings of ‘O! O! O!’

Finally, one more thing. I like this from Macbeth:

Stars hide your fires. Let not light see my black and deep desires.

I like the emphasis. I like the fact that black is stressed and light isn’t. I’ll encourage students to see the same.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

Experts expecting expert answers: misguided.

If you champion Verbal Feedback, as opposed to written feedback, people will get you over a barrel. People who get paid more than you will ask you the question, “If I asked one of your students what they needed to do to improve, would they be able to tell me?” The truthful answer is, of course, no. Not all students would be able to articulate how to improve, and they wouldn’t be able to for a number of reasons:

1. Firstly, learning a concept means that you are a novice in it. Novices do not have the same capacity-or vocabulary- as experts to reflect or articulate what they need to do to improve. I’m currently learning Italian. I’m improving, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly what I need to do next. I just keep doing the tasks I’m given and I keep on improving.

2. Not all learners are aware they are learning.

3. Not all learners realise that a learning experience is a learning experience.

4. Learning involves being in a state of liminality; that is, a strange state of confusion, doubt, struggle, and generally being unsure. This state of liminality is rarely conducive to explaining clearly and effectively, to someone in a suit jacket, what you need to do to improve.

World Mental Health Day: Romeo’s Strength

I accept that Romeo Montague has his faults. Two huge faults in fact. Firstly, there is his habit of enacting murderous revenge on cousins-in-law who kill his best friend. Secondly, is his rather deplorable attitude to seduction:From Love’s weak childish blow she lives uncharm’d.

 She will not stay the siege of loving terms,

 Nor bide th’encounter of assailing eyes.



His description of love as an attack betrays a patriarchal assumption that women are a ‘thing’ to be conquered and taken, with force if necessary. Alas, not much has changed in 400 years since this play was written.

And yet, in my experience as an English teacher, the thing that invokes the most ire from people, regarding Romeo’s character, is his tendency to mope and talk about his feelings. The adjective ‘wet’ (showing a lack of forcefulness or strength of character; feeble) is one I often hear to describe him, and it is surely an adjective more inspired by the metrosexual effeminacy of Di Caprio’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s eponymous star-crossed teen, than by the actual acts (murderous revenge, for example) that Romeo commits in the play.

On World Mental Health Day, I think it’s important to note that Romeo’s tendency to discuss his feelings-however ‘wet’, mopey, or superficial we may perceive them to be- is a strength of his, rather than a weakness.

Let’s not forget, Romeo is in a bad way. His own father notes his tendency to ‘…draw/ The shady curtains from Aurora’s bed’ and ‘Away from light…private in his chamber pen himself.’ The argument regarding whether Romeo is in love with Rosaline or not is a futile one: the fact is, he feels as though he is in love, and that’s enough justification for the behaviours that we might now ascribe to the clinically depressed.

This thing with Rosaline: it’s affecting him. Therefore, when Benvolio entreats him in Act 1 Scene 1 to explain what ‘sadness lengthens [his] hours’, and Romeo replies as he does-with hyperbolic and poetical lamentations on the pains of unrequited love- we must celebrate this fact.

Consider the masculine world of Verona. This is a place of violent sexual bravado and aggression. This is a place where men boast about rape and peace is a word to be hated. In a world where masculine toughness is so valued, Romeo’s frank and open honesty about his own feelings, however ridiculous they may seem to us, is a real strength. And kudos to Benvolio too: it’s bloody lovely to see a man who cares so much about his friend.

English teachers: this year, if you’re teaching Romeo and Juliet, please do the boys in your class a favour: slag Romeo off for the murder off Tybalt and be sure to berate him for his sexism.  But please. Please, please, please commend him for the fact that he talks about how he feels.