Archive for April, 2013

 

Compare the emotions portrayed in Mrs Lazarus and Answer by Carol Anne Duffy.

Have you included:

1.       Overview

Both poems interweave ideas of love and death;

Both poems are personal and from a first person point of view – although Mrs Lazarus is narrative whereas Answer is a dramatic monologue;

The love in Answer is immutable, eternal and defeats death; the love in Mrs Lazarus changes and wanes on the death of her husband.

2.       Sensuality Both women display a high degree of sensuality in their language. Duffy shows women to be sensual and sexual in their relationships with men.

Answer:

  • Within the formality and rigidity of the structure, Duffy refers to the sensual pleasures of love:
    “kiss… tongue… heart… arms… mouth…”

Mrs Lazarus

  • The dead husband is reduced throughout the poem to “the shrunk size of a snapshot”, until “His scent” vacated the home. The husband’s presence reduced to a mere sense-perception, suggesting the warmth of the love they had shared
  • The sensuality of her shock on touching “a man’s strength”

 3.       Passion Both women are passionate in their loving

Answer:

  • The imagery of fire and “hissing flame” and the “small coal glowing” suggests passion
  • The choice of verbs suggests passion: “roaring, foaming… spinning… waves torn from my breath”
  • A high calibre student may make links from here also to Anne Hathaway as another example of a powerfully passionate and sensual character, particularly in the interplay of language and sensuality.

Mrs Lazarus

  • The passion of her grief is extreme in her passionate choice of verbs: “ripped… howled, shrieked, clawed”
  • The alliteration of “Gone home. Gutted the place” echoes the description of her passionately having “retched” his name. almost onomatopoeic.
  • A high calibre student may gon on and comment on the echoes here of Havisham but a pain from which Mrs Lazarus escapes whereas Mrs Havisham does not.

4.       The Partner

Answer:

  • The image of her lover’s kiss as a “fossil” suggests that even if his love were long dead (literally or emotionally) her love for him would endure
  • The image of the partner being “sealed up” or “locked” in ice suggests a form of death or absence;
  • The image of the partner’s body as “only breeze against my dress” suggests again an absence.
  • Notice how the speaker’s love remains as emphatic as ever in the repeated “yes yes” even if unrequited

Mrs Lazarus

  • His “dwindling” from husband to
  • “snapshot”, to
  • a “name” which no longer worked as a “spell” to conjure up the image of his “face”,
  • the eventual loss of the final physical evidence of his existence as the “last hair on his head / floated out from a book” and his scent was lost,
  • to just the “zero” of the wedding ring – notice the use of the physical shape of the ring to symbolising not the eternity of love as is traditional but the death of love and its reduction to nothing,
  • to “legend, language” and eventually
  • “memory”, devoid of emotion and allowing her to move on.
  • Notice that the process is one allowing her to become “healed” not of abandoning her husband
  • Notice the “horror” she feels when she finds him resurrected: “rotting shroud, moist and dishevelled”
  • Not simply a visceral horror of the reanimated rotting corpse (more zombie than resurrection) but also the emotional horror of facing the man she has moved on from, rendering him a mere “cuckold”

 5.       Conclusion

Which version of love seems most realistic or healthy?

A love that continues despite the death or absence or withdrawal of the lover sounds romantic, but can become obsessive, self-defeating and ultimately a form of “death” itself.

A passionate love that feels desolation and grief but allows the surviving partner to heal seems much more healthy.

A more challenging comparison this time, perhaps? Mrs Lazarus and Answer.

Mrs Lazarus

I had grieved. I had wept for a night and a day
over my loss, ripped the cloth I was married in
from my breasts, howled, shrieked, clawed
at the burial stones until my hands bled, retched
his name over and over again, dead, dead.

Gone home. Gutted the place. Slept in a single cot,
widow, one empty glove, white femur
in the dust, half. Stuffed dark suits
into black bags, shuffled in a dead man’s shoes,
noosed the double knot of a tie around my bare neck,

gaunt nun in the mirror, touching herself. I learnt
the Stations of Bereavement, the icon of my face
in each bleak frame; but all those months
he was going away from me, dwindling
to the shrunk size of a snapshot, going,

going. Till his name was no longer a certain spell
for his face. The last hair on his head
floated out from a book. His scent went from the house.
The will was read. See, he was vanishing
to the small zero held by the gold of my ring.

Then he was gone. Then he was legend, language;
my arm on the arm of the schoolteacher-the shock
of a man’s strength under the sleeve of his coat-
along the hedgerows. But I was faithful
for as long as it took. Until he was memory.

So I could stand that evening in the field
in a shawl of fine air, healed, able
to watch the edge of the moon occur to the sky
and a hare thump from a hedge; then notice
the village men running towards me, shouting,

behind them the women and children, barking dogs,
and I knew. I knew by the sly light
on the blacksmith’s face, the shrill eyes
of the barmaid, the sudden hands bearing me
into the hot tang of the crowd parting before me.

He lived. I saw the horror on his face.
I heard his mother’s crazy song. I breathed
his stench; my bridegroom in his rotting shroud,
moist and dishevelled from the grave’s slack chew,
croaking his cuckold name, disinherited, out of his time.

Answer

If you were made of stone,
your kiss a fossil sealed up in your lips,
your eyes a sightless marble to my touch,
your grey hands pooling raindrops for the birds,
your long legs cold as rivers locked in ice,
if you were stone, if you were made of stone, yes, yes.

If you were made of fire,
your head a wild Medusa hissing flame,
your tongue a red-hot poker in your throat,
your heart a small coal glowing in your chest,
your fingers burning pungent brands on flesh,
if you were fire, if you were made of fire, yes, yes.

If you were made of water,
your voice a roaring, foaming waterfall,
your arms a whirlpool spinning me around,
your breast a deep, dark lake nursing the drowned,
your mouth an ocean, waves torn from your breath,
if you were water, if you were made of water, yes, yes.

If you were made of air,
your face empty and infinite as sky,
your words a wind with litter for its nouns,
your movements sudden gusts among the clouds,
your body only breeze against my dress,
if you were air, if you were made of air, yes, yes.

If you were made of air, if you were air,
if you were made of water, if you were water,
if you were made of fire, if you were fire,
if you were made of stone, if you were stone,
or if you were none of these, but really death,
the answer is yes, yes.

Okay, I have asked my Year 11s to write an essay in exam conditions on these poems and this title.

It is so close to the exam, I clearly need to give them feedback but no longer wish to take in their books, depriving them of the opportunity to revise. Therefore, I have started giving them a “Have You Included” sheet.

It is basically an essay plan – what would I have put into the essay had I been asked to do so. But it allows students to self assess, referring to what they wrote, my Have You Included sheet and the marking criteria.

Compare the experiences of education portrayed in In Mrs Tilscher’s Class and Head of English by Carol Anne Duffy.

Have you included:

1. Overview

The experiences are very different:

i.      Mrs Tilscher is affectionate and warm;

ii.      Head of English is mocking and satirical.

The titles of the poems – the difference between naming the teacher and identifying her only by title – are hugely symbolic       

2. Relationship with the teacher

Mrs Tilscher

i.      Opportunities given “you could” do and go anywhere

ii.      Respect shown to the pupil: “Mrs Tilscher loved you” and sometimes “left a gold star”. Is maternal an appropriate word for Mrs Tilscher?

Head of English

i.      Gives instructions – imperative sentences – “Notice…” “Sit up straight”

ii.      Curbs and restricts, limits student responses “show your appreciation / by clapping. Not too loud”

iii.      Prefers the formulaic and traditional poets: “Season of mists” from Keats’ To Autumn is presumably her preferred form of poetry; Kipling likewise traditional – and also colonial, perhaps an offensive figure to those who have English as a “Second Language”

iv.      Short snipped fragments of sentences – gives impression of snappy, rude teacher barking commands

3. Environment

Mrs Tilscher is a sensual poem, students engaged through the senses:

i.      “tracing the route”

ii.      “coloured shapes”

iii.      “scent of a pencil”

iv.      Exciting: even books were “enthralling” and the class “glowed like a sweetshop”

v.      At points, synaesthetic:  “the air tasted of electricity”, “chanted the scenery” almost mystical or magical

Head of English is dramatic monologue, less description

i.      Silence is enforced “Whispering’s, as always, out of bounds”

ii.      Environment is controlled “Open a window”

4. Education beyond the curriculum

Mrs Tilscher shows a development and growing up process, perhaps rite of passage

i.      The tadpoles “changed” which parallels the students’ own maturity

ii.      Questions over “how you were born” and students “impatient to be grown”

Is this paralleled in the shortening of the stanza lengths?

iii.      Final humid image of the sky “split open into a thunderstorm” heavy with suggestion of the turmoil and potential of adolescence.

Head of English

i.      Extremely limited view of poetry and of education

ii.      Dismissive: “not all poems, / sadly, rhyme these days” – undermined by Duffy’s own use of rhyme within the poem itself?

iii.      Final line deeply offensive, challenge to the poet to “Convince us that there’s something we don’t know”

iv.      Reference to education of technique out of context – “Remember / the lesson on assonance” – no opportunity for students to play with or experience language, only derive a lesson

v.      “Take notes but don’t write reams. Just an essay / on the poet’s themes”

Two fabulous poems by Carol Anne Duffy – nothing unexpected but a clear opportunity to ask students to compare her attitude to education in the poems. A good start to the OCR Poetry Anthology on Duffy.

And a good reminder for us teachers that education is done with and by children, not to them!

In Mrs Tilscher’s class

In Mrs Tilscher’s class
You could travel up the Blue Nile
with your finger, tracing the route
while Mrs Tilscher chanted the scenery.
”Tana. Ethiopia. Khartoum. Aswan.”
That for an hour,
then a skittle of milk
and the chalky Pyramids rubbed into dust.
A window opened with a long pole.
The laugh of a bell swung by a running child.

This was better than home. Enthralling books.
The classroom glowed like a sweetshop.
Sugar paper. Coloured shapes. Brady and Hindley
faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake.
Mrs Tilscher loved you. Some mornings, you found
she’d left a gold star by your name.
The scent of a pencil slowly, carefully, shaved.
A xylophone’s nonsense heard from another form.

Over the Easter term the inky tadpoles changed
from commas into exclamation marks. Three frogs
hopped in the playground, freed by a dunce
followed by a line of kids, jumping and croaking
away from the lunch queue. A rough boy
told you how you were born. You kicked him, but stared
at your parents, appalled, when you got back
home

That feverish July, the air tasted of electricity.
A tangible alarm made you always untidy, hot,
fractious under the heavy, sexy sky. You asked her
how you were born and Mrs Tilscher smiled
then turned away. Reports were handed out.
You ran through the gates, impatient to be grown
the sky split open into a thunderstorm.

Head of English

Today we have a poet in the class.
A real live poet with a published book.
Notice the inkstained fingers, girls. Perhaps
we’re going to witness verse hot from the press.
Who knows. Please show your appreciation
by clapping. Not too loud. Now

sit up straight and listen. Remember
the lesson on assonance, for not all poems,
sadly, rhyme these days. Still. Never mind.
Whispering’s, as always, out of bounds –
but do feel free to raise some questions.
After all, we’re paying forty pounds.

Those of you with English Second Language,
see me after break. We’re fortunate
to have this person in our midst.
Season of mists and so on and so forth.
I’ve written quite a bit of poetry myself,
am doing Kipling with the Lower Fourth,

Right. That’s enough from me. On with the Muse.
Open a window at the back. We don’t
Want winds of change about the place.
Take notes, but don’t write reams. Just an essay
on the poet’s themes. Fine. Off we go.
Convince us that there’s something we don’t know.

I’m not going to dwell on this but there is a practise in teaching that I abhor. Dishonest reporting. Defensive reporting. Call it what you will.

A school – genuinely not mine I hasten to add and not my Department – who knows, I may have picked this report up on the floor of a railway station during a journey from Scarborough to Chester – has just sent Year 9 reports home. As is typical, there is a subject comment, a smattering of Key Stage 3 National Curriculum data and grades for Commitment to Learning under the headings Classwork, Homework, Motivation, Presentation & Organisation and Behaviour.

Well, data is data. No issue there.

But, Commitment to Learning. It is graded out of 5 where 1 is outstanding, 3 is satisfactory and 5 unsatisfactory. In itself, fine, again. A somewhat blunt tool perhaps but effective.

Now, taking just one subject, every grade for Commitment to Learning is a 3. Satisfactory. As a parent, I look at that and I look at the child and I’m thinking that – whilst there is serious scope to improve – there are no real concerns.

Then I read the comment.

XXXXXXX has made the right decision in deciding not to opt for this subject in Year 10. Throughout the year, he has shown very little effort and commitment towards his work. His main problem has been a lack of focus and application, which had resulted in work, which is of a standard far below what is expected of him

According to the descriptions provided by the school, a 3 for Motivation is a student who

Shows interest, though the levels may vary; happy to learn but needs direction

And a 3 for Behaviour describes a student who is

generally attentive in class; usually engages with his or her learning

“Shows interest… happy to learn… attentive… engages”

“Very little effort… lack of application”

These do not accord.

They clash.

They jar.

Is this child at a school where work “of a standard far below what is expected” is described as “satisfactory”?

In my opinion, humble or otherwise, this is a dishonest report. I suspect the school in question has a procedure by which Departments and teachers have to justify why grades beneath a 3 are given. I hope there is. And those students beneath a 3 deserve some form of intervention to support and improve their commitment. How is giving a satisfactory report for “very little effort” going to motivate this child to change? Is it not only giving him ammunition in every argument with his parents about homework? Can you hear the teenage mutterings of “But nothing was bad on my report. I didn’t get any unsatisfactories”?

With Mr Gove’s performance related pay, to give children 4s and 5s may undermine that teacher’s career progression. The political language of accountability may prevent or disincline some teachers to put anything other than the mid point, satisfactory grade for students who actually, just before they start GCSEs, may need a sharp strong reminder that their Commitment to their own Learning needs to change in order to secure their future.

I am fully aware that I am now ranting. Possibly raving.

I don’t want it thought that I disagree with data. Student tracking, identification of students requiring intervention or support or praise is clearly right and valuable. Critical. But data is pointless, utterly pointless, if it is not based on reliable and accurate and honest data. And if the political system disincentivises teachers from being honest then, seriously, something has to be wrong.

I was asked on Thursday – whilst undergoing a very personal procedure – how I motivated a Department.

The answer might be this:

20130413-220531.jpg

Spending hours baking millionaires’ shortbread for them all!

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No soggy bottoms either!

The recipe can be found here if anyone wants it.

Look good enough to motivate us to the drudgery of KS4 moderation, new Programmes of Study and data entry?