So after showing the ‘West Side Story’ version of Romeo and Juliet and C.J.Dennis’s poem we went on quite quickly. We didn’t look in depth at structure or whatever the year twelve teacher would do. All I wanted was for them to enjoy reading. This was, after all, year nine.
It’s a bit like whisky. When you are first introduced to whisky someone offers you a sickly sweet Bourbon, probably with cola. Then you gradually develop a taste for it and you try it with water only, or ice. Then a decent blend. As you get older your tastes are refined a little and you embark upon the joys of single malts. You learn about the different areas of Scotland, about Islay whisky and the Highland styles, about Speyside and Japanese and then you become older and jaded and poorer and you go back to a reasonable blend.
Does that make things clear? No. Well all I wanted is for the year nines to enjoy their first taste of decent literature without having to dissect and analyse.
So we picked up Macbeth. We turned the room around and they all sat or lay in a circle while Grandpa read them a story. They could follow if they wanted or not. I didn’t mind.
Then something happened that I hadn’t anticipated. As I was reading one of the boys said that he’d like to read one of the lines. Macbeth’s or Macduff’s or someone else’s. Not all got involved. Many were very happy just listening.
Then at one stage one of the girls said she wanted to learn some of Lady Macbeth’s lines. So I told them I thought that was a good idea and everyone would be required to learn a soliloquy. The one boy who I was most concerned about as far as participation and involvement really sparked up and learned the whole of the Porter’s lines from Act II.
Again I didn’t do a lot of explaining difficult lines. Let’s just read the story.
But when we finished the class took over and left me to sit. They all wanted to discuss whether Macbeth was a fool or a really brave leader or was Lady Macbeth a manipulative woman and so on and so on.
What next? How about some really obscure poetry? My choice.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s
The Marriage of Geraint and Enid.
This was heavy.
So I copied the whole of that section from an old edition that was full of magnificent coloured illustrations. I asked the office to run off a complete copy for each student and to bind the poem between sandy brown cards.
Then we started reading. I started reading. This time they wanted me to read the whole thing. At the end of every lesson, and it took a few weeks, I said they should write down what they thought was going to happen next. We would then start the next lesson with their forecasts.
Then came another memorable day. Daniel, the boy who was the least vocal and least enthusiastic, disagreed with Melisa about what Geraint would do next. Most of the class, including me, were of the opinion that Geraint would choose one particular path. Daniel looked at Melisa, and at me and said, “You are all wrong. If you go back to about page three you should remember that when Geraint set out he said that he would choose to do something for Enid if he got the chance. Now it is his chance. He hasn’t got a choice. He has to do this.”
And Daniel was right. And all of a sudden he was a part of the class. Before this he had been a disruptive nuisance. The clever students looked at him with respect and he blossomed.
When we finished they asked for more. There was only one week left before midyear and so they all learned, off by heart, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
When we returned after the break they asked for more so we read Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden.” They had all asked for another of Tennyson’s and it was my choice. It is a wonderful story of love and loss and honour and shipwreck. If you would like a good story get a copy and read it. I know my year nine class enjoyed it.
One final word about Daniel. His mother saw me in the car park one day.
“Do you realise how much it has cost us? You and Daniel and Shakespeare? Next week Daniel and his father and I, and his brother all have to go down to Melbourne to see the Bell Shakespeare Company’s performance of “Othello”. Daniel asked us to buy the tickets for his birthday.”
To sum up: if you treat them as if they are stupid they will prove you right. If you expect them to succeed and if you set a high bar they will almost certainly live up to expectations. Either way, students usually live up to whatever you expect of them.