Sunday, 5 August 2012

Starting Shakespeare

A couple of my new trainees are slightly nervous of starting teaching with Shakespeare in September. Just to prove it isn't only a problem facing new entrants to the profession, an experienced former colleague is equally nervous about teaching Julius Caesar to a set of KS3 students with low levels of literacy. 

I pointed that colleague in the direction of the excellent collaboration between Warwick University and the RSC ( and particularly the 'whoosh' sample lesson and resource they have on the website. Active is the way to go when it comes to engaging students in Shakespeare - whether they are 5 or 15, and no matter how well they get on with the text or not. 

We also visited Mary Arden's House and Anne Hathaway's cottage yesterday, both of which are owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. 

In the shop at Anne Hathaway's cottage (above) we found the excellent Rough Guide to Shakespeare by Andrew Dickson, who is the Guardian theatre critic and honorary fellow in English at Birckbeck College, London. He is also, apparently, an alumnus of Ermysted's for those of you still following from back in the day in Skipton. Which is the point of this longwinded explanation. The Rough Guide to Shakespeare is brilliant for the English teacher or trainee wondering where to start with Shakespeare's plays. It skims you through the major points of each play, the interpretation, the major productions through the ages and introduces you to some good criticism and other resources. So when I see my trainees next, I shall be recommending it to them.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

10 ways to use a cinema postcard

  1. Analyse the image as a piece of advertising – denotation, connotation, placement, layout, message.
  2. Use it as a creative writing starter – describe the image on it with as much detail as possible.
  3. Use it as a creative writing stimulus – stare at the postcard intently for one minute (letting your eyes de-focus as if for a magic eye image) then close your eyes and see what floats up from the depths.
  4. Create a character based on the image on the front, then write a postcard home from him on the back.
  5. Reward card – sending it home to say well done.
  6. Creative writing – reordering your story. Write a plot summary. Write each sentence on the back of a card. Turn all over and use the images to create a new order (images that fit, images that tell a story, pairs of images, chains of association). Then recreate your story in the order on the postcards.
  7. Write ultra-short stories or flash fiction, that cannot be longer than you can fit on one card. Display/ distribute the cards around school to promote creative writing and reading.
  8. Use them to write out poems on. Distribute around school in various places to celebrate National Poetry Day.
  9. Write a postcard home from a character in the novel or play you are studying – the postcard has to use vocabulary and characteristics which you can show evidence for from the play or book.
  10. Persuasive writing – either trying to sell the product on the front of the card, or persuade the reader to visit it. And you have a ready-made illustration! 

Friday, 18 May 2012

Serious writers, silly pictures

A quick note to guide you to this amazing page:

Which is a blog post entitled 'Photos of Extremely Serious Writers Doing Extremely Silly Things'. Perhaps a display for the next World Book Day?

Monday, 7 May 2012

Well aren't I a muppet?

1) I had forgotten that I had spotted a 'snapper-up of unconsidered trifles' in the person of Autolycus, brilliantly played by Tony Bell in The Winter's Tale.
2) 'The game's afoot'. Source? No, not Sherlock Holmes. Henry V. I'm an idiot.

I have had Holmes on the mind a little, however, as I have been reading A Study in Sherlock  which is a collection of short stories inspired by the great detective. I bought it because of the story A Case of Death and Honey by Neil Gaiman, and then read the rest. It is passingly interesting that a Holmes fan in the UK is a Holmesian, whereas in the US they would be a Sherlockian. But the really funny thing was reading a story by an American writer (as the majority of them are) which had several American Holmes collectors flying to the UK to stay at the home of another collector who lived on Dartmoor. Coming down to breakfast in this grand house the narrator described eating 'egg, bacon and a scone'. This is because the nearest equivalent to the US 'biscuit' is a scone - only more savoury. It's scone-like in texture (presumably because both are made with milk) but bread like in taste, I suppose. From a British point of view probably the things you put on top of a beef cobbler are the nearest thing. But no English house would ever serve a scone with breakfast. You might have a potato scone with breakfast in Scotland - but that is another thing entirely. I have now lost the point of this, except that it might  vaguely be to do with words and things. Oh, and go see Propeller. See them do anything.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Crack another eggcorn

I know that I've written about eggcorns before [small delay while I truffle off through the new Blogger interface to find the right link] but I've just read an email that resulted in me looking something up.

I saw a student last week and thought I saw a 'sea change'. Another tutor saw her a few days later and saw a 'seed change'. That's odd, I thought. Being aware that my English has two characteristics 1) words I learned through reading that I consequently have no idea how to pronounce and 2) words I learned through family speaking that I have never seen written down anywhere, I went off in search of the connection between the two phrases.

[Side note. My mother and various other members of my family pronounce the word 'picturesque' as 'picture-skew-only-it's-not-really-it's-picturesque-because-you-have-to-be-careful-because-I-had-a-friend-at-school-whose-family-pronounced-it-pictureskew-as-a-joke-and-she-grew-up-thinking-that-was-really-how-it-was-pronounced-and-used-it-in-a-university-interview-and-was-subjected-to-ridicule'. So usually I can rely on family phrase pronunciation being correct. However, I recently discovered that the verb 'to be overfaced' is a Yorkshire, or at least a Northern, usage only. So there are things in my everyday vocabulary which I think are universal which turn out to be local dialect. Which is why it never hurts to be careful.]

Turns out 'Sea change' is from The Tempest (natch), but that 'seed change' is an eggcorn - or false etymology - for the same phrase, because it is a change which precedes some major growth. Interesting. If you're me.

And that leads me to Shakespeare and the brill production of The Winter's Tale which I saw yesterday (and am going to see again with someone else in a couple of hours). Never seen or read it before. Normally a new Shakespeare is reason for me to be sitting there going 'oh, that's where that phrase comes from'. Not so much yesterday, except for one classic: 'tumbling in the hay'. I shall be listening out for more this afternoon.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

A small challenge for the syllablically inclined

I have failed to get people to write sestinas in the past, but here are some much shorter poem challenges for you:
They are looking for English language haiku, tanka and haibun. Counting syllables is always fun - if you're an English teacher get your class writing. If you're an English student, tell your teacher.

I might even have a go myself, having spectacularly failed to write a poem a day during April for NaPoWriMo (

Ah well, back to marking.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Sharing the knowledge

Courtesy of Rowan's mum, an awesome piece of information (and off the top of her head, something which my teacher trainees might refer to as 'mad skills' (they're so hip and down with the kids)):
Wezand in Shakespeare is from the Middle English wesand, and before that the OldEnglish w«£send, and means "throat" or "gullet", and Spenser called it a "weasand-pipe".

Friday, 9 March 2012

Bumface and co

Bumface is an astonishingly good novel by Morris Gleitzman. It's about a boy who pretends to be a pirate to keep his younger sibling amused, and his best friend, who is forced into marriage. It's set in Australia, it's brilliant and it deals with a lot of difficult issues. It also starts with the hero having to admit that he isn't drawing a penis in his book. Which he is supposed to be.

A new novel is coming out in the UK which promises to deal with the issue of forced marriage in a slightly more serious way. There's an article, if not a review of it, here. Secrets of the Henna Girl tackles a British girl who is saved by the Forced Marriage Unit, Britain's taskforce. It's important to know about because the government is considering how to tackle forced marriage. It's important because the girl who disappears from your school at half term and doesn't come back might be missing because she's been married off to someone she's never met, twice her age.

Children's books maybe, but tackling issues we should all know about.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Baby talk

Sort of. I could spend ages talking about twin talk, and reduplicative sounds and babbling. But really I think you should just go watch this:

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Six Pirates of Verona

In a little town in South West Scotland is The Bookshop. Whenever I go to Galloway a trip to The Bookshop (and the bookshops) is completely inevitable. And there's always treasure to find. Most recently I found the most awesome book.

It's not in great condition: it was a cheap book in 1827, and the year's have not done it any favours. I'm clearly going to have to be careful about using it, the boards of the cover are fairly bashed, and possibly mouse-nibbled, and there's the liver-spots common to old books and old ladies. But it's amazing. It is:









which is practically a Shakespeare play in itself. The point of this is that I can tell you 'demi-cannon' is used once, and it's metaphorical, referring to sleeves. Apparently 'lemon' only occurs once, in Love's Labours Lost. I can even tell you the page numbers. Which is the rub. They refer to a particular edition of the collected works, printed before 1827. But of course, the good thing about Shakespeare is that there's also the Act, Scene and Line reference to get you there, even if you're using the Penguin Classics version.

Unfortunately the six pirates are all deeply disappointing in their context. The real prize of this book is the sheer range of words collected within. This was not an author who stuck to his basic 20000 words. Many of them just appear the once. The famous wind-up from Othello, for example, 'an old black ram is tupping your white ewe' is one of just three uses of the forms of the verb - all from the same play. Too rude? Too blunt?

I shall leave you with an exhortation from The Tempest: 'Cut his wezand with thy knife!'.

Yeah, I don't know either.


Monday, 6 February 2012

Top Totty

Okay, time to weigh in. Mostly because the callers on Jeremy Vine make my blood boil. It's kind of language related but not entirely.

This is, in case you've had your head buried in the sand for the last fortnight, about a beer in the House of Commons bar. Called Top Totty, it has a picture of a woman dressed in a white bikini and wearing bunny ears carrying two pints. Last week a female MP complained about it, inadvertently raising up a storm around her.

Two counter-arguments to her objections have been raised:
1) you're having a sense of humour failure.
2) 'If the position was reversed and it was a picture of a topless man, that would be fine, so you're just being over-sensitive.'

These are the usual objections to any woman complaining of sexism.

Let's deal with (2) first. The situations are not comparable! Men as a whole have not been objectified. They have not been systematically treated as less equal, less intelligent and less worthy of being a member of the ruling class because of their gender. Therefore such an image does not reinforce centuries of stereotypes and oppression.

(1) I really hate it when feminists get accused of not having a sense of humour. I especially hate it when women accuse us of that. It's another tool used to divide us. It's almost impossible to counter, and it is exactly the argument that countless bullies have always used: 'it's just a joke, what are you so het up about?'

The essential point about this particular incident is not the beer in general. I probably wouldn't have a problem with a beer called Top Totty that wasn't accompanied by that particular image. But it is completely inappropriate in the House of Commons Bar. Women are vastly in the minority in the House of Commons, and have to encounter, deal with and triumph over a vast array of sexist insults and behaviour on top of the normal bullying, ahem, sorry, debating, in the House. Don't believe me? You know that much of what is said in the House does not get picked up by the microphones? All the rhubarb rhubarb type comments. Deborah Cameron tells about one of her students' research projects that discovered the 'rhubarb' when women MPs speak is likely to be 'boobs'. Repeated over and over. Because a) that's a valid political argument and b) that's the most important thing about women. Remember David Cameron's not too long ago comment telling a female MP to 'calm down dear'? Men who react are dominant, assertive, fighting for their constituents. Women are hysterical, over-reacting and oh, suffering a sense of humour failure.

So that's it. Very tangentially related to language. But the old adage 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me' is simply not true. Words have power. Power to keep the oppressed in their place.

p.s. The race analogy - not going to go there, because that really is off-topic but 1) it's a fair analogy, ish and 2) it's not worth making because all the attention changes focus.