The Price of Poundland Pedagogy

Masks.jpgBeing a trainee teacher often involves shifting from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again with astonishing speed. As we heard today from our experienced GPS speakers, saying ‘crisps and dick,’ instead of ‘crisps and dip’ can entirely ruin a lesson. I am still internally smiling, no laughing even, about what happened in yesterday’s English lesson…

On Tuesday, wanting to create the salubrious environs of a noble Veronese banquet and ball, I rushed into the neon-lit cornucopia that is the Poundshop in Chelmsford. Here was a diversity of Venetian-style masks, all ornate and beautifully decorated, choosing for myself a particularly pretty, damask pinky-red mirrored number, swathed in lace; many other different masks went into the shopping basket. I parted with a few pounds spent on goodies, including some fake tashes, promising myself they’d be used many times into the future: for the masquerade ball in ‘Much Ado…’ with the year 8s and 9s and maybe for a party at home. The gender bender disguises of the heroines in ‘Twelfth Night,’ ‘Merchant of Venice,’ and ‘As You LIke It,’ could definitely be facilitated by the right facial hair or mask.

The Capulet ball would be a chance to have fun with a new bunch of recalcitrant teens, to charm and enthuse them to the delights of Shakespeare and to give them incentives to read out loud for the first time. I had just taken on the year ten class with a new timetable at the beginning of this week. After a series of cover teachers, the class of thirty had got used to being plain rude to whoever stood at the front of the class. But my plan, I hoped, would change all this…

A break before the lesson allowed me to prepare the scene. Tables were pulled together and clothed in white, I used elegant cream place-cards, recycled from a recent Golden anniversary of a family member, to set out the seating plan, having spent the previous night finding a diversity of interesting and obscure aristocratic titles for my new English students. Each of the 6 tables had a plate with a course from a formal Italian meal and the task for that table. The aperitivo was to consider the stage directions – the lighting, choreography and other aspects of how to direct the scene; the antipasto -changes in Lord Capulet as he welcomes high society into his home and scolds his nephew; secondo – the theme of love, for this is the key scene where our eponymous young lovers meet and fall in love for the first time. The contorno was to consider Tybalt and the theme of honour; Insalata- Imagery; and Dolce – impressions of Juliet. Masks were artfully arranged at the front on my desk as an incentive for students to become actors, to read out loud for the first time this term.

When the lively bunch queued outside the class and peered into the room, they were definitely excited. They came in loudly and found their names, sat down and excitedly began to introduce themselves to each other. Princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, lord lieutenants and viceroys, marquesses and dukes, to name but a few, began to assume a more upright bearing. I explained what each table had to write notes on and was about to explain that people would move around the tables, when I realised this cramped room was far too small for anybody to move, except the actors maybe. A few introductory powerpoints later (a summary, setting the scene) and the required roles for 11 actors was up on screen, with big speaking parts highlighted in red. I asked for volunteers and they duly put up their hands, but only 7 of them. Here is where I came unstuck. It was all too exciting, there was too much to accomplish and I picked the first people to put their hands up, nervous that no-one else would like to read. I should have waited, teased out more people, refused more. The actors that came to the front were part of a cool, disruptive gaggle. I was just happy that someone had volunteered, I was buoyed up on the vision, the plan…

God, they struggled with the text! They slumped into their chairs, when I had asked them stand, mumbling quietly, embarrassed. Capulet faltered and gave up, I became Capulet. They took off their masks, no-one else could hear what they were saying. I stopped the action periodically, perhaps confusingly (I was Capulet after all), to explain the plot and decode the language. One girl who played a servant at the beginning of the scene, sat at the front, and began to lean against the white board, flicking the powerpoint from the prompts/ scaffolding I had put for each of the 6 topics. I was distracted, trying to get that slide up again, in a little struggle with her, with me at the computer, her sitting near the front, leaning back to change the slide.

For the classroom, I fear, Romeo and Juliet met inconsequentially, against a more interesting flickering background. Their poignant words, full of tender, nearly ecstatic, religious imagery was mostly not heard properly. It was perhaps not understood fully that this is their first electric touch and kiss. I became Capulet again, Benvolio, the Nurse, then at last, the teacher…

All back to the seats for the last 20 minutes of questioning and formative assessment. Order, order! I pull off my pretty damask mask and everyone is looking at me, all the students, these newly assumed members of the upper-class, pointing, staring and laughing and laughing more. “Miss, Miss, Miss,” (I know it was a bit of a miss wasn’t it? But still…) “Miss, miss, miss…”( more uproarious laughter) “Your face, your face, your face…” laughter almost obscures their words, “Your face… IT IS ALL RED!”

Lesson learnt – Poundshop pedagogy can come at a price. Of course, soap washes off the stains; new ideas may leave you red-faced at the end, but hopefully, the memories are indelible. The classroom quietened down, we got on some serious study and I put my mask on til the end of the lesson.

Sheri Haward

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