Thursday, 2 December 2021

Ye Nationale Curriculume By Steve Way


As well as writing I am teaching several adults in Spain English via the internet. A large portion of the 30 – 50-year-old students tend to be reluctant to speak in English. They’ve explained to me that in their generation at school (which they were grateful to attend as so many of their parents didn’t have that opportunity) the teaching of English was carried out by Spanish teachers, who were themselves reticent to speak in English. This meant that the focus of the lessons was almost exclusively directed towards the teaching of grammar. Some of my students can wipe me off the floor when it comes to identifying the multitude of verb forms in the passive tense, formal variations of conditional statements etc etc. They just need enormous support and encouragement in gaining confidence in expressing themselves verbally. Indeed, the agency I work with has been offering ‘conversation club’ sessions for the last few years where the participants are supported in just talking and listening in a ‘safe’ environment, rather than having ‘normal’ lessons. (Though our lessons don’t comprise endless exercises in grammar!) It has been very interesting to be involved with this process as I’ve seen many of the participants gain considerable confidence and skill from ‘just’ speaking and listening. I think it’s partly because the process is closer in form to the way we learn our first (or if we’re lucky first few) language(s). How many toddlers consciously delineate between their use of the present continuous or the past simple? They (we!) eventually work out how to do so and more besides without attending a single formal lesson in grammar.

The purpose behind outlining this experience with my students is that their learning represents what I see as another example of the consequences of an imbalanced approach to teaching. I think I’ve written before about referring to a heffalump to a few groups of children and being met with blank faced incomprehension. Having seen my grandson having to fiddle around with frontal adverbials in uninspiring exercises similar to those my Spanish friends no doubt endured, it continues to concern me that nowhere near enough time is set aside for children to read – or have read to them – complete stories, or to be able to write freely without having to worry about peppering their prose with ‘powerful’ adjectives, or having to compose while constantly looking over their shoulders for other reasons.

I wondered how a Shakespeare in a slightly different parallel universe would have coped with a common approach to themed writing, resulting in the piece below. Shakespeare’s imaginary teacher gained his own voice as I wrote it, so I do want to emphasise that his views, although perhaps historically accurate, are very much not the views of the author.


Dailie Reviewe

Straforde-upone-the-Avone Primarye Schoole fore Boyse.

Literacye Lessone.

This day I did ask the boys to write a story. I did give them much stimulus by explaining the history of the tragic Scottish king Macbeth. I did show them artefacts I had bought in, and we did then create a most magnificent piece of artwork that doth now adorn one whole wall of the school room that doth show the succession of the Scottish kings. We then weaved cloth of tartan and the children dressed as characters in the troubled history of this king and the children did role play exercises acting out imagined scenes in the life of this evil man, leading up to his killing of the previous King of Scotland, King Duncan. In this, as he hath done before in role play, young Williame Shakespearee did excel, taking on the role of the aforesaid Macbeth most brilliantly, suggesting a gradual moral decent that finally led to tragedy.

After all this stimulus I did then ask the boys to write their own versions of this story. I have to say that the results were most disappointing, even the unusual effort of the above mentioned Williame. I do declare most vociferously that I cannot understand it! I did give the boys all the stimulus herewith described and then did but remind the boys what they should be thinking of when’ere write.

As always I dids’t request them to recall that they must each moment consider the spelling of each word as they dos’t write their piece, forgetting not each rule of word construction that I hads’t aforetimes instructed them to do. Furthermore, I dids’t remind them to remember that every passing second they should be on guard to ensure their punctuation be perfectly and accurately executed. We did briefly run through the various perplexities of the use of full-stops, commas, apostrophes, colons, semi-colons, ellipses, capital letters, paragraphs, chapter headings and more besides though we had often aforetimes considered each in long and arduous detail.

Straight after did I then remind the boys, recalling to them their target of writing for this terme, to make copious use of “words of power” (whereof we do refer to adjectives) and thereof to on occasion present them in adjoining groups of three, a powerful impression upon the reader for to make; of the use of simple sentences, of short sentences and long, simile, metaphor, irony, pathos, bathos, pork-scratchings, rhetorical devices, implicit and explicit meaning (and much more besides).

Finally, did I review the need for a beginning that doth catch the attention of the reader, then the development of the plot that doth grow from the seed of the aforementioned appealing beginning, with many a problem being introduced into the text that doth by some absorbing means or contrivance have some resolution. Finally, I did further remind them - as I always do before allowing the boys to begin their writing - that the piece must be drawn to a most satisfying and edifying conclusion that will be much appreciated by the audience for which they doth write withal… which usually be just me. Naturally it then behove me, as night doth follow day, to ask the boys to consider, as they doth paint their plot, that they remember to develop the portrayal of the characters that they doth introduce as consequence of the story they expound but in doing so not forgetting to set the scenes of their narrative with many a diverting illustrative device.

So thus I had, methought, most excellently prepared the children for the task of writing. I cannot understand why all the boys but Williame produced not one line of entertaining or improving text and in Williame’s case he did in - contradiction of my instruction - write a most ill-formed play and not a story. As I told the boy myself while admonishing him before his fellows there had not been one mention of the supernatural in our preparatory work and yet this boy had incorporated witches and diverse unnatural beings, including ghosts, into his piece. Not only that his piece introduced the idea that Macbeth’s wife played a considerable role in stimulating the moral demise of this man, an propostion which is of course inconceivable, as though a woman could have equal status in a marriage as a man! Methought I would like to see how young master Shakespeare would portray the actions of this woman since women (rightly) be not allowed to perform in or even witness any play! Any form of developed narrative would of course quite overheat their simple minds… but I digress.

Young William did become much agitated as I most correctly did chastise him for writing such a poorly conceived composition. Verily, it is a tale told by an idiot I dids’t tell him, signifying but nought. Williame did then exclaim, “Forget writing then! I shall become a glovemaker!”  This was but the one part of our lesson that did please me, for we could do with another glovemaker in Straforde-upone-the-Avone and it doth not seem conceivable that master Shakespeare surrendering his pen for his needle will be much of a loss to posterity.


Lynne Benton said...

What a wonderful indictment of the current trend of "teaching children to write"! Fantastic, Steve - I really enjoyed it. Many thanks. (Would that a few teachers could read it too...!)

Steve Way said...

Thank you for your kind comment Lynne. It would be interesting to find out what teachers - and those who dictate the curriculum - think of it!