Whilst there is much that I loved about teaching, there is little that I miss. Two specific and repeated teaching moments each year, in my latter years, did however always please me, and these I do fondly recall. One was GCSE Original Writing for coursework where I always taught/enabled students to write poetry using my ‘copycat’ approach [and it invariably produced excellent results – and yes in terms of grades but that was the bonus rather than focus – once students had made that leap into the unknown of metaphor, or as I put it, not having to make literal sense but making grammatical sense]; the other was A Level Text Transformation for the AQA English Language and Literature syllabus where students took literary texts and transformed into other genres/styles [and it invariably produced outstanding, publishable results, and yes yada yada yada].
As far as I can work out, this option still exists in the revised syllabus being taught from 2014. It did change a little whilst I was teaching, altering from a single transformation into a double one [if interested, check out the Specification], and one of these major changes became the compulsion to select a ‘literary’ text from a prescribed list of authors. Whilst it didn’t happen whilst I was teaching this Spec., I was pleased to see the addition of two authors I had recommended, Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver in the Poetry category, but I do wonder if any schools had availed themselves of this choice since their inclusion. It is interesting also to discover the inclusion of Billy Collins.
Both of these annual teaching events were special because they focused on creative writing, and for me this was as pure as one could be in teaching English. Indeed, in troubled target and other terrible times, this is a focus that sustained me, especially and obviously, I trust, because of the student responses.
This is by way of introducing two work suggestions I found recently but don’t believe were used by students, certainly not the Seamus Heaney one. Firstly, however, the Jane Austen idea wasn’t one I recall many students following, though I remember one superb response, and I think I only suggested it once in my last year of teaching this unit. The Seamus Heaney isn’t an idea I ever presented: whilst a brilliant and challenging poet, I was always concerned that students would chose him because of GCSE familiarity, and whilst this isn’t necessarily wrong, I always felt at A level students should be exploring beyond their previous experience. That said, and recognising that many might opt for that familiarity, and perhaps perceived ‘easier’ option, I wrote for such a choice a model for the beginnings of a transformation [rather than as with the Austen, a work outline]. If I were to present it to students today, I would want them to challenge the views I give Heaney in his imaginary narrative: but that of course would be the whole point. Indeed, my model could be pursued very much to be the exact representation of an obtuse, unlikely viewpoint [which the accompanying critical commentaries could find a meaty source for analysis].
To the two ideas:
Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice is the story of Mr and Mrs Bennet and their differing views on, and the consequences of, trying to marry off their daughters. Those daughters too become the focus of the narrative – obviously – as do their suitors and subsequent spouses, but the other major focus is the satirical if at times caustic portrait of this whole social context provided by Austen in her inimitable style.
IT is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
“What is his name?”
“Is he married or single?”
“Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
“How so? how can it affect them?”
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”
“Is that his design in settling here?”
“Design! nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”
“I see no occasion for that. You and the girls may go, or you may send them by themselves, which perhaps will be still better; for, as you are as handsome as any of them, Mr. Bingley might like you the best of the party.”
“My dear, you flatter me. I certainly have had my share of beauty, but I do not pretend to be any thing extraordinary now. When a woman has five grown up daughters, she ought to give over thinking of her own beauty.”
“In such cases, a woman has not often much beauty to think of.”
“But, my dear, you must indeed go and see Mr. Bingley when he comes into the neighbourhood.”
Jane Austen as author:
Essentially a satirist, she would mock the behaviour, attitudes and values of the wealthy and small social world that she herself knew and experienced. This gave her an insight and sharpness that has rarely been matched. She is particularly satirical about attitudes to love and wealth and the way women often behaved in the pursuit of both.
You could modernise the marital preoccupation: think of WAGs and so on! This could be done as a script or a monologue, exploring how things have and haven’t changed. It could be done as a newspaper article, either a tabloid expose or a broadsheet analysis of how ‘footballers’ wives’ are a reflection of greed and shallowness in our modern culture.
From ‘left field’, and not a fully realised idea, but I’m being adventurous: link to poems by U.A. Fanthorpe. From her ‘Selected Poems’ there is a range of poems looking at women with mental illnesses and/or hospital contexts and their narratives [monologues] could focus on wanting to find a man and be married….
Or, link to the work of Caryl Churchill who would have a much more feminist attitude to women who seek marriage just because it is expected [though you would always need to remain aware that Austen did not approve of, and rather satirised, this preoccupation, so there are some interesting complexities to develop here].
Seamus Heaney transformation
I’ve used the pen as a gun, without question. I laid my father to rest in that one clever line where I was more concerned how the enjambment would strike rather than the horror of those final words. I was a wise arse, that’s for sure. I wrote about bogs too but never considered the real muck I was stirring.
All those fine words – those guttural nouns and adjectives and the archaic names I researched and used – they’re all gone now. The muse came and went, drowned like unwanted ‘wee scraggy shites’. I could narrow the poetic stanza to perfection as expertly as the father I honoured in that poem and then tore to pieces in brutal bloody bathos. That one collection burnt me out. All autobiography and then nothing else. Now all I have is this prosaic urge to retell and redefine. So here goes.
I’ll do the obvious first: all that digging and ploughing was a joke. He was brilliant alright, but that meant there wasn’t much time for me. I wasn’t always upstairs writing either, but I heard him tell mother about the ‘precious’ poet he had for a son. That hurt. I got my own back – well all know that – but I could have done so much more damage. All that crap about frogs and farting and the loss of innocence! Generations of schoolkids get taught that poem and about how growing up is the rite of passage that takes us from innocence to experience. Mammy and Daddy frogs and then Slime Kings! Just how melodramatic is that? I caught him in the barn that one night when I got home late from the school play. His grunting and groaning was more coarse than any fornicating frog and that woman he was with was no better. But I shaped it all into a neat metaphorical story that won plaudits from all the amateur child psychologists out there….