Building Knowledge

There has been a lot of talk recently in my social media interactions about interpretation of texts in the English classroom. Interpretation is an interesting thing as not only do we have elements of context, some of which are more or less clear depending on the text (for example, knowledge of historical periods and biographical details around Shakespeare are cloudy and there is much contested, even if he predominantly wrote all of his works, worked in collaboration or if this even matters to a text), and there are a variety of readings which can be made depending on the critical lens being used.

English teachers often reach their own conclusions about a text based on their own understanding, contact with a range of different readings and we pass these on to pupils. However, new readings emerge from with academia which mean these readings, along with our own interpretations can change over time. Indeed, the rich texts we teach often hold a joy for us as we can read the same text multiple times throughout our lives and discover something new or find an element which resonates with us differently as a reader in our 20s as opposed to a reader in our 40s.

Therefore, interpretation is very much based on our knowledge. Historically I believe that in the English class we have been eager to move pupils too quickly into interpretation but considering the pressure which comes from GCSE and A Level criterion which includes references to alternative interpretations, originality of thought and ‘flair’ I can understand why this has happened. Add to that the unseen element of the exams, where most of the scaffolds are removed, and again it makes sense that we are keen to ensure our pupils are prepared for this.

In order to clarify my position on this, I would like to explain a bit about where Macbeth sits within the last curriculum I taught, and the role knowledge plays in allowing pupils to be confident when they arrive in the exam halls or considering their next steps in their education.

Macbeth was taught at the start of Year 10. In the past I have often situated the Shakespeare text at the start of Year 11, finding that if pupils study it after they have been analysing other texts, especially poetry, their responses and understanding of key concepts was more secure. Some schools place it in Year 11 as they wanted to keep the study fresher when pupils arrive in the exam, worried that they will struggle to retain key information, although this is less on the case now that greater emphasis is being placed on retrieval and distributed practice. I located it at the start though as it would allow for more of this over time, but also as the challenge in KS3 rose and pupils understanding of the core knowledge grew, it made sense to build on that immediately.

Prior to teaching Macbeth, students in Year 9 had studied first Animal Farm, learning about the genre, form, context and extending their knowledge of things like rhetoric. This was then followed by The Crucible. Again, context matters here, but I begin with focusing on the setting ensuring they have a grasp of the facts around Salem, the form again (which does not quite operate in the same way as other plays do, but prepares them for looking at Priestley later), some information about the playwright and character. Lots of closed questioning, including using multiple choice questions, are used to check for understanding. As we read the text together, I draw on links back to Animal Farm, considering parallels between them. This includes weaving in further contextual details, so pupils develop an understanding of McCarthyism.

As well as continuing to explain and discuss language choices, focusing in on readings of individual word choices, I talk about audience reception (almost impossible not to with this text), using extracts from reviews and newspaper reports.

Their understanding of The Crucible provided a link to ideas of power, gender, religion and historical fact about witch-trials which can then be picked up when we look at James I in relation to Macbeth, as well as being an interesting text to study in its own right.

The Year 9s also then studied Lord of the Flies, again providing the opportunity to look at power, duality, and lots of rich language. This is a particularly interesting text to study as there are some quite opposing views about it, perhaps much more contests as a whole text that with the others, and it gives an opportunity to highlight again alternative interpretations. Reading this from a psychoanalytical point of view will bring something quite different to the party. This again provides them knowledge of interpretation for when they arrive on Mabeth’s doorstep.

Finally in that year we looked at Much Ado About Nothing. Quite a change of tone from the other texts, but picked up again on the ideas around gender, and introduces discussions around the role especially of parents, displaced soldiers in relation to masculinity and of course the themes of love, something they had looked at in Year 8 when they had studied Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Year 7. Beatrice’s demand of Benedict to kill his friend was a particularly interesting scene for them to spend time on, preparing them for debates the role of Lady Macbeth (again, interesting to link back to the psychoanalytical reading of Lord of the Flies), and gender roles as presented in the play.

When arriving then at the teaching of Macbeth in Year 10 I know (as I was lucky enough to have taught this particular group from Year 8), that they will have looked closely at these texts, encountered alternative interpretations, have had modelled for them how to reach conclusions about these alternatives and have embedded terminology around language, grammar and structure. In addition to these texts, they also had studied a range of poetry, linked to the texts we were studying. They had also explored non-fiction, classical stories, had been taught about allusions, including biblical ones (Lord of the Flies is again interesting for this, but we had encountered them throughout), the importance of metaphor, where and how context could enrich our interpretations of a text, the limitations of these, and how to construct arguments effectively. All this will have been modelled, practised, and for many of them, secured.  Amongst all of that they had also spend time learning about how to craft their own writing, something which I again linked to the texts we were studying, drawing on elements of the texts as stimulus or bringing in other texts which dealt with similar themes or ideas.

Then they met Macbeth. Armed with all that wonderful knowledge. It doesn’t matter if they forget a plot point from The Crucible or which Goodie was who. What matters is they that have knowledge of both the fundamentals of English (what these are is still yet to be totally defined) and lots of exposure to the disciplinary nature of the subject. The knowledge of how we analyse, debate, evaluate and interpret.

 I still used a summary to support their understanding (they had a range of starting points we were still working to close the gaps on), both plot as a whole and summaries of scenes we were about to read. I had found there was more of a wow factor if I only summarised up to Act I, scene 7 before he kills the king so we can explore the mindset of the character and make predictions- good readers are constantly making predictions).

I also gave them some contextual details at the start and as we read the play, layering on more details which could aid understanding and explain where some differences in interpretation may come from as we read. At the start I modelled how I would use those contextual links but adjusted the level of scaffold as they developed their understanding of the play. Of course, this wasn’t something new to them as we had been doing this with the other texts for the last two years already.

We looked at different performances of the same scenes and decide where these interpretations were rooted in the text, where there may be deviations and evaluate how effective they were. As well as reading the whole text we looked at a whole production too. Homework was mostly used to reinforce and check learning from a lesson, but gradually moved into the writing of essay plans, thesis statements and other elements an the essay. I rarely would set something like writing a whole essay as again I think we have rushed to that much too soon when they didn’t have the knowledge to be able to tackle it effectively. Then we end up with lots of imperfect practice and building fluency around errors.

Lots of this explanation clearly centres on me as a teacher. I know I have a lot of expertise I want pupils to be exposed to. I also want them to understand it, so very little of this was a lecture style approach. It involved lots of focused questioning, rehearsal of responses, including verbally, and individual practice. Sometimes I teased out interpretation, at word or text level. Occasionally in our discussions the pupils would try to introduce an incorrect reading. Depending on what it was, factual inaccuracies being different to possible interpretations, as a class we would examine where this response came from and how reasonable it was. Despite my level of expertise some pupils would introduce something new which I had genuinely not considered before. Maybe that means I am a terrible teacher but considering the quantity of sometimes opposing interpretations that have emerged around just this one play, I am sure I can be forgiven for not having looked at them all (Bill Bryson was estimating around 37 years to read all that was stored in the Library of Congress on Shakespeare and there is more emerging every day).

 What might be interesting to know is that this was a mixed ability class. There were pupils in there who I know went on to secure grade 9s. They also went on to study English at A Level. They probably would have done that pretty much without me though. Others continued to struggle and didn’t succeed as well in the exam (well TAGs) as I would have liked. There were some pupils who had complex needs. There were some who had very low literacy levels which we continued to work on. Is this a perfect approach? Undoubtedly not. Would I have done it differently with that group? Sorry, but no.

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