A 10 minute planning screencast to assist my yr 11 students. The question comes from the Edexcel Certificate January 2014 paper, but the ideas and thoughts are valid.
A 10 minute planning screencast to assist my yr 11 students. The question comes from the Edexcel Certificate January 2014 paper, but the ideas and thoughts are valid.
Year 10 have been chatting about the characters in Priestley’s play as part of their group S+L assignments (IGCSE still has an oral component at the moment). These sound files are their thoughts.
I should add that the discussions are unscripted but the result of a time sharing ideas and tracking an individual character during the reading of the play. The free-for-all discussion about responsibility was sprung on them and is unplanned and unscripted – It is rough around the edges, but shows the character of the group well, as well as engaging clearly with the matter under discussion.
Please treat these with respect. By all means use them, especially as part of either grade moderation exercises or revision material.
Class discussion Who is to blame?
My Year 10s have been struggling with consistent provision of evidence and analysis in essays on Anne in spectacles. Hence a quick revision powerpoint to focus on PEARL paragraphs.
A give back for the following question: “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other”.
How does the play present the need to take that advice? You should look closely at characters, language and action in your answer.
This is in note form and deliberately does not include direct links to quotations but asks my Y10 students to join the dots for themselves. The comments are intended to use SOLO taxonomy to relate the essay writing task to the development of relational knowledge and thence to the marksheet.
Forgive my crass joke, but I always imagine Priestley’s play as though overhead by a sleepy Yr10 on a hot afternoon and then dream of his confusion when Anne never appears… Is she another of Eva’s pseudonyms?
But this is a valid question to address. Partly because of the fact that I gave it to Yr 11 this year as part of a mock GCSE, and partly because the press is full of concern that such a small range of text s are being taught at GCSE.
Let’s be honest. I have yet to read a list of set texts which has excited my by its use of genuinely recent work or by the potential excitement and daring of the choices: Paddy Clarke? Give me Saturday Night and Sunday Morning any day – that would shake up a few good debates. (What has happened to 1950/60 new realism? It’s as if it had never been written). So we fall back on i) the “easy and ii) the effective. M+M and Inspector in schools all over the country. I’ll focus on Inspector. M+M is a wonderful novella and for each time I think I teach it because of the moving portrayal of a fractured society or because of the glorious use of language found in Steinbeck’s descriptive writing I immediately remind myself that it is also much shorter than Pride & Prejudice and the context is simpler to grasp… Maybe some justification there then – though blame the exam boards for appallingly lethargic alteration of texts offered, not teachers for teaching to their strengths!
So, rant over, to address the question. As a teacher or an audience member this play delivers. It is not long and is not complex. Priestley is a highly controlling writer and the stage directions offer students clear instruction and advice about characters and setting, but the question needs to be addressed from the beginning – form.
This is a “well-made play”. Ensure that students accept this idea and use it in all essays. The nub in this case is the journey from ignorance to knowledge at the same time as the characters on stage. This is the key to gripping an audience. Behind the illusion of a whodunnit lurks a hugely powerful political exploration, but the development of Goole’s case against the Birling family fascinates on stage because no one knows where he is going and what secret will come out next. Not only this, but the Aristotelian unities of time and space ensure that we are constantly hooked and never allowed to lose focus. The lack of time lapse between acts is a masterstroke. Such a simple idea and yet as each new act opens, the implied question to the cast is directed as much to the audience – “well?” “you know don’t you”. After all the cliffhanger has been the subject of conversation in the bar and now we are directly pulled back into the action as though no time has elapsed.
Such an approach only works well with good characters of course and here Priestley pulls off another piece of magic. The implied allegorical nature of the characters allows quick identification of character as well as judgement to begin. Mystery plays succeeded in illiterate times because everyone recognised the characters for what they were. We can relax and enjoy the outcome precisely because the characters do conform to type – we despise Sybil, but love the arrogance of her bourgeois bigotry – just like a soap opera… The effect here is one that allows us to engage and to identify. Surely most girls see themselves as Sheila or Eva (the good bits), not Sybil and this can only be beneficial as they see the possible implications of a society that isolates on the grounds of class in the exaggerated world portrayed. We can laugh as Birling witters on about the Titanic, but we recognise the essential arrogance of his position – he’s not “ignorant” here by the way since he would need to be psychic to see what will happen. This is the effect of dramatic irony. We know more than he does and respond as intended by judging him because of it. We don’t know what will happen next in the plot though!
So, good characters are essential and delivered, most effectively once Goole has left and the sinners begin to turn. OK, so Envy and Lust remain converted but the speed with which Greed and Pride revert to type is genuinely scary. I always wonder what role Gerald plays and short of a convincing deadly sin, wonder if he is the Mephistopheles of this play. If so he is the charmingly plausible tempter – the man who will lure the family back to the path of “evil” once the “good” Mr Goole has left. But if Mr Goole is so good, why did Priestley give him that name?
Names are so important – Eva, the ur-female; Sybil Birling named after a blind prophetess, but Goole? GHOULS are not nice ghosts, they are blood suckers who enjoy their pain-causing. This does confuse me, but if students and teachers alike spend time questioning and debating this point then again, there is valid reason to teach this play. Such questioning in class or on the train home from a performance is surely at the root of engaging with the writers’ craft. Answers should not be glib and easy.
Surely, however, the reason to teach this play is the complexity of the time resonance and the relevance to toady.
Priestley wrote in 1945 a paean to socialism that was first performed in Moscow and transferred to London after the war in time for the election of a socialist government – a triumph which many had not foreseen. The play is part of this sea-change and should be read as such. As unbiased as a party political broadcast, we do our students a disservice if we underplay the politics of this play. After all we teach them Critical Thinking – they are ready for this.
This play is as relevant today as it was in 1945 and will be in 2045 because there is still injustice in the world. Students respond to this so we must embrace it. Worried about a failure to “get” the politics? Britain has a coalition precisely because no one could see so clearly as JBP and there was no clear water between the parties. The situation today is little changed and even if one does not share the ideals of JBP, the heavy handed caricatures of Capitalist greed can still be recognised in Bankers bonuses and other tales from the current media. I wonder if, should the trial find that a certain England captain is not guilty or if the evidence is found to be flawed, anyone will ask the question – yes, but what if…? This is the vital importance of this play – it demands a social conscience form all who read it.
It may be that too little variety exists in syllabuses today, but please avoid knee jerks – some texts are valuable and valid even if they are ubiquitous.
I wrote this shortly after the election of a coalition government and events have now moved on. Luckily, I think the current political scene will allow students to get even more from the play. In a Britain governed by Birlings with an opposition led by a throwback to old fashioned Socialist leaders of the past and away from the glib “New Labour” model, the opportunities for contextual discussion are vast. Only this week we have seen Britain’s steel industry under threat of closure and many question the balance between the financial health of the country and social welfare of large portions of its people. This is the play. Priestley will never become irrelevant and will always have the power to provoke thought. I am glad I am teaching again next year.
Should we believe Gerald in Act 2? Thoughts to stimulate and provoke.
After reading pages 35-40 a lively debate often follows as we try to work out whether Gerald is a reliable witness or not. A few things that you might like to consider as you approach this question are explored below, within the context of establishing that a) he is deeply unreliable and b) that I believe his good intentions.
Firstly, to consider his reliability we must consider the context of this interview. Eva is, as ever, the crucial witness who is never present. People will state with confidence how she felt or what her hopes for the future were, but all this is speculation and based on their own view of the situation they find themselves in. For Gerald this is a tricky situation. As the son of Sir George Croft we can safely assume that he belongs to a level of aristocracy above that of the Birlings. His political leanings have been shown in Act 1 to be Capitalist as he supports Birling in his handling of the strike –“you couldn’t have done anything else” pg 15. Here, however he seems to have to accept the need to stop protecting himself in order to clarify his part in the events leading to Eva’s suicide. His conversation with Sheila at the end of Act 1 –“yes, we can keep it from him” suggests that his natural instinct is for self-preservation, yet here he seems to have realised that openness and honesty will serve him better in the long run. He will, however, garner his truth with a degree of narrative designed to reduce the negative connotations from sticking too closely to his character.
This is the reason, therefore, for the lengthy description of the meeting in the bar – “the girl… gave me a glance that was nothing less than a cry for help” pg 35- which establishes his role as the protector and saviour of Eva. His own attitude to the “hard-eyed dough-faced” women suggests the inbred disdain of his class for those less fortunate, but Eva, presumably because she is still young and beautiful, has awoken something inside him. He is clear that their first meeting did not result in sex, but simply an arrangement to meet again and that the installation in Charlie Brunswick’s flat arose from the discovery of her true financial position, not from a wish for a “kept woman”.
All this is given to us in his own testimony and you may feel that he would say that to protect himself. However, consider the role of the Inspector here. As the omniscient controller of the confessions, the Inspector would know if he were lying. Since he does not interrupt, we can assume he is not. So why does Priestley want Gerald to be seen as truthful here? Probably, since the political parable of the play focuses on the Birling family, Gerald’s position is meant to be seen as outside the group. His fault seems to be one based on an inflated romanticised self-image, not the envy, greed or lust shown by the rest of the family. Moreover, he can be seen here as acting in a manner more suited to the Socialist – until he goes to bed with Eva/Daisy. Gerald acts to support someone weaker in society and this is important. In this play, the age gap indicates social awareness. The young are easily assimilated to the inspector’s point of view whilst the older generation remain stolidly entrenched in their (to Priestley) unacceptable political positions. Gerald, as we learn form the initial stage direction sits between the two. It is, therefore, sensible that he should be portrayed as showing aspects of both sides of the political debate. Ultimately, he will fail Priestley, but here his honesty is enough for Sheila to “rather respect” him.
So context suggests that we should accept his story. What of the writing? First of all, you can not make assumptions based on your gut reaction or on how you perceive Gerald through 21st century eyes. Base you comments on the text itself.
The first place to look for any idea of intention behind the speech is the stage directions. In this play you must be aware of the directions and use them to support any thesis you develop. Looking at Gerald in this section his directions retain the sense of “steadily” or hesitatingly throughout. “Steadily” implies calmness even though the other characters are interrupting him for clarification, or in the case of Sheila to use irony to belittle him. He maintains his calm and outlines a detailed, factual account. His speech becomes slightly fragmented by pg 39 with dashes breaking the long sentences and although this could indicate him struggling to invent the next sections of his story, I feel that they indicate the increasing difficulty he is having as his emotions get the better of him. Indeed at the top of pg 39 his tone is “low” and “troubled” as he is forced to face up to the emotional impact that he has had on Eva/Daisy and she on him. “Troubled” is not an emotion associated with the Birling parents!
As he runs out of facts, he needs to seek information from the Inspector. He seems genuine when he asks about Eva/Daisy and how she coped after the affair and the punctuation of the speech at the foot of 39 again supports the idea of his speech being fractured by emotion rather than any other cause.
Structurally the calmness of his story is contrasted with the squabbling of the Birlings. The interruptions by the parents and the increasing authority shown by Sheila in putting them down serve to delay the inevitable outcome of the story, thus increasing or maintaining tension, whilst at the same time showing Sheila mature from an emotional, wronged lover to a mature and dignified woman when she returns the ring. The serious nature of that exchange, with the recognition that they “aren’t the same people who sat down to dinner here” signifies the moment at which Sheila has accepted the change and her crossing to the Socialist perspective. She sees that Gerald’s honesty and openness has indicated the possibility of the change in him and leaves the door metaphorically open with her “ we’d have to start all over again, getting to know each other –“
Against this maturity and burgeoning social conscience Birling’s plea for her to accept that all young men have affairs and to continue the engagement looks impossibly self serving and highlights the growing gulf within the family. Sheila assumes control over her father and Gerald is left asking her permission to return. The balance of power has shifted.
At this point, as Mrs Birling tries to close the inquisition the focus will shift back onto her and the family as a whole. Gerald needs to be believed. If he is not than the fireworks of the Mrs Birling interview can not have the required impact. We are reading the calm centre – the eye of the storm –in this passage. The language and the context support the idea that Gerald is telling the truth. His behaviour has been reprehensible towards Sheila, but his motives towards Eva/Daisy were at one level pure. It should disappoint at the end of the play when he introduces the idea of self-preservation. If we find him to be lying here, that disappointment is lessened.
What can a middle aged English teacher possibly find to write about?
my ideas and thoughts on teaching Secondary School English
A blog for all things #TeamEnglish
Like the students I teach, I am always learning.
#teacher #teaching #education #academia #academic #research #researcher #secondary #FE #HE #lecturer
Preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past.
Thoughts and ideas about words, stories and what works best in the classroom and beyond
Wisdom rediscovered for the twenty-first century
Crowd Sourced Advice For New Teachers
An English teacher's musings.
There's more to life than books, you know. But not much more
Ranting from the chalkface
A topnotch WordPress.com site
The online magazine for KS4 Literature students.
My views on Teaching & Education
"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." - As W. B. Yeats never said