King Lear Year 13 essay presentations

I will be posting the essays presented to the class here.  Please feel free to listen and comment on anything which takes your fancy.

Ethan on Cordelia in 1:1 (written after 2 lessons as an introductory exploration)  

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Edexcel IGCSE: draft short writing task

I am trying to get my y11s to deliberately plan a short task for the short writing question.  Too many plan to write and simply write until the time runs out.  My idea is to consciously plan for no more than 4 paragraphs to try and help them, structure their work.


This powerpoint and draft is designed to help students understand an approach to the writing which should deliver results.


I wrote alongside them, and post my offering here:  marks out of 10?  I did my best….

possible short task  Simply my sample draft


possible-short-task-full-ppt     possible-short-task full ppt  The draft with discussion and explanation.

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Jerusalem essay presentations

In the lesson today, one of my Year 12s was asked to present his essay to this title:

“Johnny Byron is a modern man who is rooted in the past.”

Please feel free to use this in your classes or to respond to on here:  we are always looking for feedback!




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Much Ado: presentation of women

Year 10 silent essay planning table tops. Download your PDFs here.

women in MAAN table planning

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Much Ado: Honour and Dishonour


Yr 10, please download your work on this theme here.

honour dishonour worrk

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Paris : Friday 13th November 2015. How can we know what to feel? A ToK stimulus by any other name…

A couple of hours ago I read a tweet from a twitter-colleague Emma Kell (@thosethatcan).  It read “When there was unprecedented horror in France in January, I was full of energised response for my students. This time, I’m all out of words.”  All Morning I had been trying to mark Year 10 essays about Much Ado and found myself staring out at the rain and thinking about Paris and the terrible events unfolding there last night.  Again and again my mind wandered and I found myself close to tears on numerous occasions.

If we return to school and cannot discuss such atrocities with the students, we let them down.  This is not about British Values, or some other such nonsense peddled by the Thought Police at the DofE, this is about being human and interpreting our emotions when faced by the unimaginable,

I suppose this is the assembly I shall never deliver, or the TOK lesson I wish I was due to teach.

Please:  if you do not want to explore the atrocities carried out in the name of religion last night, do not read this piece.  It is personal and does not in any way reflect opinions of any organisation I represent.  However, I needed to write it, to help me to clarify my own thoughts.

At the time of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January and in 2012, I wrote this piece for my ToK students: Charlie Hebdo   I felt able to articulate comment  at the time in a way that leaves me now.  I believe it comes down to what the IBDP ToK programme might refer to as the Ways of Knowing.  In short, knowledge is transmitted and assimilated in four ways:  Language, Perception, Reason and Emotion.  Has Language ceased to be a useful medium for knowledge in these cases?

If we look at today’s papers, the language is all rather predictable.  Not just cliche ridden, but lacking in any ability to convey the real horror of events.  “Carnage”, “Chaos”, “Tragedy”, “Massacre” are simply not enough.  Nor can we deal with the perpetrators.  To some they are “scum” – a catch-all term used so widely these days it has no meaning at all, apart from to those left-wing twitter trolls who cannot refer to anyone of the Right without the label Tory-Scum attached.  This easy familiarity has robbed the word of any power.  To others: “terrorists”.  But, to call these people “terrorists”, though accurate, lacks emotion and the idea that a terrorist is to some a “freedom fighter” simply muddies the water when this word is deployed.  What they are is “murderers”.  A simple word, but again one that does not convey the enormity of the crimes committed against innocent souls last night.  We seem to have run out of Language, as Emma was suggesting in her Tweet.

Our perception of events last night is coloured by all sorts of things:  what were we doing when we heard and what was our frame of mind at the time? Which news channels do we watch, and with what language did we gain our knowledge of events?  What sort of response was our social media timeline providing? How old are we and what other events can we recall with which to interpret the events in Paris?  I am 52.  I was a student in London in the early 80s and recall IRA atrocities aplenty, both in London and in in Warrington and Omagh.  I recall vividly the events of 9/11 and 7/7, so have a strong field of reference.  Beyond this I am stuck, however.  My perception of the perpetrators and their warped sense of moral rectitude is one of utter evil, but beyond that, I can perceive no detail to help me to come to a clearer understanding of events.  I suppose that like many, I have a vague notion of a bearded warrior somehow sweeping along the Champs Elysee much as he had done in Iran or Syria.  This is clearly wrong, and one of the troubling niggles here is that witnesses have described men dressed in a quasi-paramilitary manner carrying guns.  Let’s face it, we see that in London regularly.  No one looks twice, we lower our heads and move swiftly on – it simply does not attract notice.

But I am clearly troubled emotionally, and so are many of my colleagues and friends if Twitter and Facebook are anything to go by.  We are left with Plato’s chariots of reason and emotion being pulled in opposite directions by the respective teams of horses.  What we cannot obtain is a cathartic response to rebalance the system.

The emotional response is staggering.  If emotion is to be the only route to knowledge, it is certainly readily implanted.  This morning’s social media posts were dominated by pictures of Paris with cursive script encouraging us to “pray for Paris”.  Curiously we were asked to pray for a city, not the families and loved ones of the victims, nor for the innocents touched by such scenes that their sleep will be troubled for days and weeks, nor for perpetrators in a sense of granting Christian forgiveness.  No.  This was a convenient application of emotional thinking – utterly well intentioned but ultimately a sloughing off of any responsibility to actually engage with the issue.  We pray, and then go about our daily business, the emotional crutch has done its job. It is so glib and so convenient.  It is also somewhat ironic that we were being asked to pray, since one of the many Gods to whom the average social network might pray must actually have been in some way responsible for the atrocity, if only by a failure of duty of care for his followers.  No, this does not wash with me.  I am sorry and I apologise if I offend, but the emotional fall-back of God, simply is not enough.  We are the ones on the planet who can change behaviours and who have to work out our route to salvation on a personal level in the light of such events.

My emotional level, curiously, improved when I listened to a recording of Beethoven 9.  The marking was long forgotten.  There is something tragic and uplifting about the Ninth symphony.  During the 3rd movement I began to feel emotion which was actually beneficial – to recognise the beauty of the little string filigree which accompanies the slow melody began to me me smile and stop living in a state of semi-fret all morning.  In the last movement in the setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, the Bass soloist interrupts and angry and grumbling orchestra with these words:

O Freunde, nicht diese Toene!
Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen und freundenvollere!
O friends! Not these sounds!
But let us strike up more pleasant sounds and more joyful!

Before launching into the well known tune – the European anthem no less!  With the message that “alle Menschen werden brueder” we are begged to remember that we are all human, regardless of divisions artificially imposed by governments or religious doctrine and this must be our foremost emotional response  – to seek to join  and not to segregate.  Funny how it can take an external stimulus to do this  –  to speak to our emotions and possibly carry the truth of an emotional response.  In my career as a singer, I sang these words many times, but they never had the resonance they carried today as I listened.  Cometh the hour…  (if you are interested in my thoughts on music by the way, try this post: on music ToK ).

So, having begun to channel my emotions, we come to the rational approach.  Far too cold for social media, but much needed all the same.  Voltaire’s Pangloss would have rationalised an explanation for such an act in his “best of all possible worlds” and in today’s world we can all begin to piece together a rational response.  Ideas begin to form and then float away, to return later and coalesce in order to allow us to leave our houses without irrational fear: 120 deaths (it may be more) in a city of 2.244 million (2010) is a pinprick; such events do not occur  with regularity and there is more chance of being struck by lightning or even wining the lottery than of being caught up in such  an event (thank you Adam Hills at @thelastleg); in the USA in 2014 there were 51.753 shooting incidents, resulting in 12.568 deaths ( ).

All in all, the reasoning approach which emerges eventually allows us to respond in such a way that we can continue to live our lives and interract fully with our friends and colleagues.  It takes much longer to emerge, the more closely you are caught up in the event, of course.  And we should not discard emotion at all, because we must respond on that level – that is our humanity.  It is also what scares us about the murderers we see in the you tube clips and on the news – gunmen, suicide bombers and cowardly, black hooded executioners beheading innocents – why do they not have emotion?  This is the terrifying question and the one which should bring us up short.  Of course (?) it is better if a terrorist is brought to face justice in a court of law rather than being vapourised in a drone attack, but then again if the man in question has so lost touch with his innate humanity how can we expect any remorse or recognition of “wrongdoing”?

Uncertainty is part of the Human Condition, and we must cope with it on our own ways.  That’s what makes life worth living in so many ways.  The trouble is that when the ways of knowledge begin to fail us, the uncertainty can be unbearable,  We should always try to step back and allow room for our thought processes to coalesce.  Life is not perfect and it never will be.  At times, it is simply too painful and complicated for our brains to process.  That’s Life.


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Mockingbird and Violence: response to essay.

Explore the presentation of violence in To kill A Mockingbird.

These slides were prepared by a yr 11 class after an essay question (above).  The idea was that we would track Lee’s presentation of violence through the novel and then the students wrote paragraphs in small groups which are appended to the end of the document.  I think it is an interesting activity and the short paragraphs could be used to provoke comment and discussion in any classroom.

As ever, my starting point was: “what sort of society choice is Lee presenting here?”  In short, do we want to live in an Atticus society or a Ewell society?  From this discussion we developed thoughts about justifiable and non-justifiable violence and from there it was a relatively easy job to identify the types of violence on show.  Since so many students are keen to tell me that “it is a sin to kill a mockingbird”, I was surprised how many did not see the fact that you can “shoot all the blue jays you want” suggests that there some aspects of violence which can be tolerated.  Once this is accepted, the essay seems to fall into place!

violence in TKAM

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The perfect short article?

In today’s Guardian Clive James writes about the trolling of Germaine Greer. I love James’ writing – so succinct and so powerful. Just consider the utter simplicity and myriad responses to the sentence: “It needs only a few words to make a melody.”

I post this as a shining example of the clarity and power of a short article written well. Hopefully, if this were a response to a short writing task for Edexcel it would get 10/10 – if any of my students emulated this writing, I would be so proud of them.

“My brain is not too fast on its feet lately, so I’ve been a fortnight figuring out what I think about how my eminent contemporary Germaine Greer got herself ambushed by ultra-feminist students because of her opinions about trans women. The only trans person I have ever known personally started life as the man who, when we were at Sydney University together long ago, taught me most about literature. His house was a library and he lent me books by the score. Decades later he started life again, as a woman. She wrote a book of her own, in which she said how miserable she had once been, and how happy she was now. On that evidence I would find Germaine’s opinion at least questionable when she says that trans women don’t stop being men. But there is no question at all about the activists who wanted to stop her saying so. They have no idea of what free speech is or what a university is supposed to be. As for the supposed irony that Germaine’s feminist writings helped to create her current persecutors, it’s tosh. They created themselves, like blog-trolls.

Indestructible microbial organisms, blog-trolls copulate with themselves constantly, producing offspring in the form of lethally insolent verbal tics. In a previous column I noted that the use of the word “methinks” was a sign to stop reading. It has since occurred to me that if you glance straight away at the end of any posting and find the two-word sentence “Just saying” you don’t have to read the confident statements that lead up to it. In any left-wing posting about politics, the use of the supposedly satirical term “US of A” is the sure sign of a dunce. In right-wing postings, any attempt to express the argument in the form of a poem should be taken as an instruction to stop reading instantly. If I had started looking for these signals earlier I might have saved a year of my life.

Is there a cure for the blustering carelessness of the web? Only on paper. This week, reading Yeats again, I wondered how he thought of a phrase like “the crumbling of the moon”. I suppose he was thinking about growing old, but he packed the regret into a murmur. It needs only a few words to make a melody. My granddaughter has a subscription to an effervescently inventive comic called Phoenix, which features a brigade of heroes dedicated to fighting against the forces of “anti-fun”. She and I agree that anti-fun must be resisted. But adults should retain their dignity. Just before Halloween I almost bought a scream mask for myself, but remembered in time that the children are supposed to scare the adults, or there’s no point.”
Clive James, 2015.

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Shylock, anti-semitism and contextual awareness

A few days ago I was reading this post by Martin Robinson, author of the book Trivium21C and all round interesting thinker and blogger on education: Martin put me onto this BBC broadcast in which Alan Yentob and the author Howard Jacobson explore the issues around Shylock and anti-semitism whilst discussing the thought processes behind Jacobson’s latest novel: Shylock’s Dream: This is a great programme and anyone teaching Merchant should show it to students in order to provoke a discussion of the context of reception relating to the play as we move into a 21 Century in which anti-semitism is clearly still rife and in which it seems easier, at times, to drop a text from the curriculum rather than face the genuine difficulties that arise when exploring the nuance and variety of contextual approach offered. Today, it seems, students are very quick to race to the the headline description – thus Merchant is anti-semitic, Othello is racist, OMAM is racist and so is Mockingbird, regardless of the multi-layered complexities such texts offer.

In the programme, there is much discussion of the anti-semitic nature of the portrayal of Shylock. It is indisputable that Shylock receives hideous treatment from the Christians, represented by Antonio at the opening of the play, and also that the punishment of denial of his faith seems utterly beyond any reasonable scale of justice or mercy. Yet Shylock is given in Act 3 such a clear cry for understanding and for religious tolerance, that it is hard to see Shakespeare writing in such a way as to present an anti-semitic model. The writer of Richard III was perfectly capable of creating an unremitting monster, so should we see something in this play beyond what the actor Antony Sher, in the programme, refers to as an attitude driven by the post-holocaust awareness of the appalling treatment of the Jews under Hitler. It is very hard to read the play in the modern era without this being the overwhelming contextual reference which attracts our thoughts.

My question is more to do with the context of creation. 350 years before the holocaust. MEP Daniel Hannan describes it as a play that has done “immense damage” and can present anti-semitic examples from the 19th century to support this idea. Stephen Greenblatt calls Shylock the element which “ruins” the play – in short he so overpowers the bawdy love romp that his story dominates the reception of the play.
I have no doubt that the play displays anti-semitism in deep cruelty both in the behaviour shown towards him and by his behaviour and his obsession with his bond in Act 4.

Yet I wonder if this is really what was uppermost in Shakespeare’s mind and in the minds of his audiences. Shylock is not the real protagonist of this comedy. The needs of the comic plot require the hindrance and final acceptance of a marriage – in this light Shylock is the hindrance and the protagonist is surely Bassanio or Lorenzo. It is Shakespeare’s error that Shylock is portrayed so strongly given the balance of the plot. We need to consider if the 16th Century audience might have found other elements in this character. The popularity of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta certainly indicates a popular ease with the portrayal of Jews as the red-haired, crook nosed, crook-backed creature of the anti-semitic portrayal of Jews by the Christian church and therefore by many of the populace, no doubt. However, the majority of the audience would only have understanding of Jews in their imagination. Jews had been thrown out of London in 1290 and certainly, despite the presence of a couple of hundred Jews practising their faith in secret, few in the audience would have had first hand knowledge of a Jew. There was real sectarian hatred at the time, of course, much nearer to home.

Claire Asquith has presented a case in her book Shadowplay which might allow a different perspective. Just as with the material in the programme discussed above, there is a single focus to the writing – to prove that Shakespeare was writing in a coded language to offer support for the Catholic lobby in England at the time. Much is open to question or interpretation here. There is an element which rings out when reading this play. In late 16th Century England, Catholics lived in secret and in fear of discovery, arrest might be brought about by possession of a single book or an informer’s word concerning church attendance. In this environment I feel that students should consider the genuine context of the day. It would not be possible for Shakespeare to present the characters on stage as contemporary followers of the Christian church, so might he have found a useful archetype behind which to hide his comments about contemporary society? Asquith offers ideas about “light” and “tall” being coded Catholic traits and “dark” and “low” referring to protestants. Amongst other ideas, what if the “dark” Shylock was a presentation of the type of Puritanical Protestant at the centre of the purge of Catholic England? The opening of the play seems to focus in the interaction between Shylock and Antonio on the concept of revenge. It is not a huge stretch to imagine this as a perceived rationale for the behaviour of Elisabeth’s secret police following the cruelty and violence meted out to Protestants under her sister, Mary. Another issue, raised above is the utter cruelty of the punishment proscribed by Portia – the change of Faith. Again, no one in 16th Century England could miss the resonance of the past 50 years in which Catholics ands Protestants were required to do precisely this in order to be able to live their lives in freedom. Indeed, this would not necessarily seem to be a punishment in any way unusual. Within this model, we need to see Shylock as Shakespeare’s Jew of Convenience, rather than a serious character portrait of the rapacious Jew of legend.

Shylock is cruel and obsessed not by wealth, but by his “bond”. Indeed this obsession, signalled by the numerous repetitions of the word throughout the trial scene, suggests an obsession with the written word and the authentic document itself. This is so close to the Reformation idea of the need to strip religion back to the true text and to the authentic simplicity lost by the Catholic church over time, that again, I am sure many in the audience would pick this idea clearly when watching the play. Indeed, if Shylock becomes a figure of Protestant Fundamentalism, then there is a genuine contemporary resonance to the Character which lift him above the run of the mill, two dimensional portrayal of the cruel, rapacious Jew. It allows Jessica a sensible reason to leave his home and move away from such Fundamentalist thinking (though I am pleased that Jacobson and I share a similar distaste for this girl – leaving and stealing…), and also presents a challenge to his Queen, when she has to outwit her own secret policeman in order to temper his excesses.

Obviously there are loose ends here. I doubt if the Queen’s Men would have voluntarily performed such a potentially destructive play without protest if the message were too strong. This is not a play designed to restore the Catholic Faith, but I do not believe it is a play designed to focus on the character of Shylock as part of an anti-semitic piece of writing. Shylock vanishes after Act 4 because there is no longer any function for him in the plot. He has performed the role of the angry father who obstructs happiness in this play in terms of one of the two love-tangle plot lines. I wonder if Shakespeare dropped him so easily simply because he was not intending an anti-semitic message, but had jumped upon his Jewishness as a convenient cover for his message about the intractability of the religious zealots of his day.

There can be no convenient answer. The play is one which has invited anti-semitic portrayal in Nazi Germany and which has become the “anti-semitic” play. I am not sure this is fair. I amy be wrong, but i do not sense wide anti-semitism in the rest of the plays and do not see this as a Shakespearian trope, whereas critical comment on the politics and religious arguments of the day run through each of the plays for all to see.

I do not enjoy the play and find it to be broken. This is something shared with all the contributors to the programme. It does not work and one reason is that Shylock has become bigger than the play. The comedy plot/s is/are relatively uninteresting – girl flees cruel father to rush to boy and boy overcomes obstacles to attain the unattainable wife. Much of the humour of Act 5 with repeated jokes about girl’s “rings” soon palls and the homoerotic charge of Antonio’s relationship with Bassanio is an unnecessary side track. The clown is an embarrassment. Asquith makes a case for Act 5 in terms of the opening of Jessica’s eyes to higher things (Catholicism) and links the man who “has no music in himself” (a Puritan) with “strategems and Spoils”, being “dark (Protestant) as Erebus”. She may be right and Lorenzo may well represent a figure saving Jessica from the darkness of a religious fundamentalist upbringing, but I believe that it is possible this fundamentalism is Protestant, hidden behind a convenient archetype – the Jew.

This does not make the potential for ant-semitic readings of the play any less, nor does it excuse the carelessness with which the treatment of the Jew in the play is carried out, but it does offer a perspective on the context of creation. The punishment is vile and unforgivable, yet contemporary audiences would have seen this enacted regularly; the terms of the bond are inhuman to modern eyes, but at a time of heresy punished by being burned alive or by hanging, drawing and quartering, a pound of flesh does not seem anything like as stomach churning as it does to us today and the careless use of an archetype which had been portrayed as evil and which was, literally, made up of outsiders to mask the political message within the play would not have offended at the time. In a post Holocaust world, it makes any performance of the play riven with problems. The main question on anyone’s lips today when seeing a production is “how is Shylock portrayed?”. The play is no longer about the Merchant of Venice, but has become about Shylock in the modern consciousness.

Actually, if this causes discussion and revulsion at anti-semitic ideas and behaviours, this is probably a good thing, though I do not think Shakespeare intended this at all. But then, the author is dead, isn’t he?

P.S. Can’t wait to read Jacobson’s book!

Other posts to look at:

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Unseens for examinations

As many exams now require students to look at unseen text, I have been thinking of ways to address the issue of establishing understanding of a text, whether prose or verse. I attach a powerpoint which might be useful – the flow chart is a bit of an eye-ful, but might be used to provoke discussion.

unseen writing

I hope I have stressed the need ot be aware of anomalies – those moments which stand out from the “ordinary”, that is the norm for whatever text is in front of the reader. I am always surprised when students miss out the unusual “because it is hard” – that’s the point. The unusual may well be the element the writer considered and redrafted for hours before settling on the right form of langauge – that is why it matters!

In the powerpoint I use Pride and Prejudice, Sonnet 116 and Blessing (Imtiaz Dharker) as three texts to review in brief. I have used the Dharker before to illustrate my ideas:

The Sonnet is one of the current Edexcel IGCSE set texts.

A group of posts on unseen writing can be found under this tag:

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