Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Through a mirror darkly: How do you teach context?

Teaching is a bit like eating a Cabury’s Creme Egg. Each person has their own way of doing it. Some nibble one bit at a time. Some eat things all in one go. Some eat half and come back later. I think Twitter and blogging are very frustrating, as everyone has a perspective and not everybody can, and will, agree. A few people moan about how some people eat in crazy way; and a select few tut about how others are ‘traditional’ in their way of eating.

I get a little excited when Christmas finishes as from January onwards the creme eggs are on sale. Therefore, for months until Easter my wife and I taste / devour / eat / scoff / ravish the chocolate eggs. My wife slowly eats hers and I, contrastingly, eat mine in one go. We both enjoy the experience, but have different approaches. That’s what can be a little frustrating about teachers on blogs and Twitter. It is the asserting that their way is the right and the best way.  I don’t think for one minute I have nailed eating chocolate eggs (other chocolate eggs are available) or teaching; I just feel if I share my thoughts or ways of doing things I might learn from others.  I am happy to be wrong, but more than happy to question.   
So my question is today: How do you teach context? Each sliver of text we study is a telescope into the world that the writer was writing in. We learn things about life, culture, politics and other enlightening things.  A lot of these come from the book itself and you teach them as you go along. Why are people so mean to Curley’s Wife? Why does Crook’s sleep in his own room? But, occasionally, we need to go a little bit further to understand the text.  
The story we read in class is a pale imitation of the world students know. Some created worlds are close to their own world; others are strangely alien. Some things are obvious and some not.  The Depression reflects the Repression of today in ‘Of Mice and Men’.  I know: A good book doesn’t need explicit contextual information. The sign of a good book is its ability to discuss key aspects of human existence. They surpass the time they were written. They don’t need detailed explanation. But, alongside this might be some complex idea that was only relevant at the time. To fully understand ‘The Merchant of Venice’, you need to know the religious context of the time. To fully understand ‘Julius Caesar’, you need to know that Queen Elizabeth’s life was threatened by assassination plots on a regular basis. Some of these may have been from the Pope, who lived in Rome at the time – where Romans come from and where ‘Julius Caesar’ is set.  Learn the fact that there was a Jewish doctor who was accused of poisoning the Queen and you have a deep understanding of both plays.   
So, what do you do?

Which of the following do you use when teaching the context of a play, novel or poem?

[A]Dig out a sheet photocopied from a book.

[B] Give a lecture on what you brain knows about said context.

[C] Show students a picture, painting or piece of music and like a good food critic get students to infer what this tells us of the time by looking for hints of this and essence of that.

[D] Dust off a video that you found in the stock cupboard that features an Open University documentary that has the colour brown with aplomb.  

At the moment, I am preparing to teach ‘Othello’ for the first time and I have got to that awkward context question, again. I love history and I love referring to it in lessons; however, there comes a point when essays become information dumps. Teaching contextual information alongside a literary text has always been, for me, a tightrope act. Balance one way and all the students do is regurgitate facts about how William Shakespeare might have been gay, or Christopher Marlowe – or even both. Balance the other way and you get students forgetting that text is a product of its time and focusing on how William Shakespeare nicked his plot from Eastenders  and Coronation Street.  Sometimes, I have been successful. Others, I haven’t.

Adrian Beard’s ‘Texts in Context’ has been a great book for me teaching A-level, highlighting that there are different contexts.

Dramatic context

Social Context

Political Context

Gender Context

Religious Context

The problem I find with the concept of context is that there is so much of it. As teachers we have to whittle down what is relevant to the understanding of the story.  Does the colour of Queen Elizabeth’s dress really matter to the plot?

At the start of texts, I produce a poster summarising key contextual points. For example:  

Porphyria’s Lover: Context

·   Victorians didn’t really talk about sex.

·   Women had no power.

·   Women couldn’t leave or divorce a man.

·   It was terrible if a woman had an affair. They would be shunned by society.

·   Victorians were worried about women and their desires.

·   People could only marry a person if they were of the same social class. The rich married the rich and the poor married the poor.

·   Victorians were interested in how the mind works.

·   Most people attended Church on a Sunday.

I give students a list of facts, statements or general opinions of the time. This is produced as a poster and kept in the classroom as a display. It then becomes an aide memoir to students. The repetition and generalisation of Victorians is important, I think, because it then sets up the difference between the student’s context and the context of when the story was written.  It makes for a great starter. How would you change the poster for modern readers?
During the teaching of the text, I will ask questions about the text and ask them to link to what they know about the context. Because these are generalisations, it allows students to form ideas much quicker than specific dates and details. I might at a later stage change or adapt the list, but it makes for a collective grounding of what we know. As it is there at the start, it becomes a part of the daily dialogue in lessons and students learn it better than the infamous context lesson.  The statements are the kind of things students say, so I then work to develop and improve the sophistication of these ideas.
Recently, on Twitter there has been the argument of facts versus skills. In this case, I think it is vital that students have those facts to develop their knowledge of the text. The skills of decoding and understanding of a play go hand-in-hand with the facts of the time. One doesn’t make much sense without the other.

Work out
I am spoon-feeding them, right? No so. After we have read a fair amount of that book, play or poem, I get students to do a bit of circuit training. I set up ten stations around the room; each one covering a different aspect. At each stage there is an article (dense text with no pictures) and two questions. For example:

 What do you think the King’s attitude towards Catholics was at the time the play was performed?

The play was written for the King to watch. Where do we see the King’s views reflected in the play?

Armed with a highlighter, the students visit each section and search for some golden nuggets of information and link them to the play. To spice things up, I might include a picture or extract from another play. However, the emphasis is sifting through the texts. Students have to dig and think for themselves. All the time the emphasis is on ‘relevance’: How is this piece of information relevant to my understanding of the text? They move at this stage from general opinions of the time to specific ideas.

Case Studies 
The great thing about the internet is that you are only three clicks away from a case study or an eye-witness account. Recently, I came across this article from the BBC:


It makes for an interesting point. From reading ‘Othello’, one would assume that seeing a black person in England was very rare. Reading this article would challenge that notion. But, it would also raise the issue of a multicultural England. The play shows us a multicultural society in its infancy. Although Othello is a minority, he is working in a different culture to his own. The simple questions at the end of reading a case study or extract would be:

Does this change our feelings or thoughts about the play?

Context can usually be boiled down to some bite-size facts that we can easily test with closed questions. However, presenting an idea through a case study, for me, is more effective. It is dealing with the ideas and themes rather than the what. How many times have I read an essay that starts with a date or a fact about context? Starting with an idea is so much more meaningful than a dull fact. The idea that ‘Othello’ reflects London with its population provides lots of food for thought. Was Shakespeare for a multicultural society? Was he promoting it?  

I find that my approach seems to work for me, because it doesn’t rely on the facts too much. The information is important, but it is the idea behind the fact that is more important. I have read endless essays that have told me that a student has researched the text very well, but without the connection to the writing and the understanding of the influence on the writing, the student will struggled to succeed.

I have shared with you what I do and I would love to know what you do.  To be honest, I am not that interested in how you eat your eggs though.




  1. Hi Chris - another fab post, as usual!

    I love teaching Othello and have taught it to GCSE and A Level classes over the years.

    A basic strategy I use is to ask 'Would this happen now? Why/why not?'

    Students can get sucked into the whole Othello's is a victim of racism etc... So to stop that simplistic reading, I get them to research religion and Moors. Although again, Shakespeare complicates this by having Othello 'win over' the Senate by talking about himself using Christian language of redemption and heaven.

    Interestingly, Othello seems supremely self-confident because of the position he holds. This is a good starting point for discussing the difference between power and status.

    Also, I ask them to find out about the black character the audience may have been expecting after watching Shakespeare's earlier play, Titus Andronicus, Aaron the moor. When Othello descends into a violent, irrational character, some lit critics interested in post-colonialism suggest he may be reverting to the Renaissance stereotype of a black man. I like my students to consider the alternative, which is he is responding and thinking like a soldier. Action first. Deal with the problem.

    Apart from the race issue, I spend quite a bit of time on politics and Machiavelli, linking to Iago. How the student responds to Iago affects their interpretation of Othello. I throw in a bit of A.C Bradley to show how lit critics have changed their position over the decades.

    Rambling now so signing off!!!

  2. Thanks for that. Lots of ideas for my teaching of Othello. I like the simple question: 'Would this happen now? Why/why not?' That would clear make the distinction between then and now clear.

    Furthermore, I think the comparison to another play is great, as I think we see things better in relation to other things around it. That would allow you to highlight a pattern, rather than a one off choice. Right two more things to add to my context list.

    How do you eat your eggs, by the way?

  3. Thanks that was really helpful. I like the poster and highlighting idea.

    As for me, not very groundbreaking but I like to take a bit more of a poststructuralist approach and get them to connect to how it speaks to their world first - what can they relate to or not relate to and then take it form there - see if their are and similarities or marked differences.

    I then I tend to ask the pupils what they can gather about the time it was written from reading key extracts before I go into the context via teacher talk, youtube or handout. They usually surprise me with their undertstanding, have good ideas and make some key connections with the text before I share any additional info.

    As for my eggs, I bite the top off and make a mess - metaphor for my life when I come to think about it - ha.

  4. Thanks, Kat. That is an interesting point about how it 'speaks to their world'. I like your idea of how it doesn't relate to them. Sometimes, I think this point is neglected. We spend far too long looking for connections that sometimes the things that are not relatable are more important. That has got me thinking about things. Maybe, we should approach it from the 'why isn't it relevant to me' aspect from the start. That then would allow us to tease some ideas out.

    My thinking cap is well and truly on. :)
    Thanks again.

  5. I enjoyed this post as much as the rest of your writing; unusually, as a history teacher, I also feel like I might have something to offer, given that teaching context is, in a sense, my full time job. It's something I've struggled with: as a historian, sometimes I've found I forget how much contextual knowledge I draw on in your own understanding. So, particularly as a new teacher, I would find myself in the middle of teaching the Civil War and realising that, without having covered the depth of popular religious belief, the importance, the shattering nature of the changes, mean nothing.

    I like the way you have conceptualised the way students' understanding of context develops - from basic factual knowledge to the importance of making genuine and often original links between understanding of the time period and what we find in the play; I particularly appreciated your description of trying to build up a more sophisticated understanding of the past beyond the shallow view of, for example, England as a homogenous culture in Tudor times.

    On occasion I've presented a few facts, similar to what you've done, but I've tried other things, depending on the direction of the lessons. For example, I might give an outline chronology of events, or a series of pictures to make inferences from, or contemporary quotations. My favourite thing (and one of the most effective) is to invite students to 'on a holiday,' viewing a series of captioned pictures from the time. The captions present the information, the pictures and the 'holiday' idea help them to stick. This is a treat, so I only do it for the times and places I'd have liked to have visited: Ancient Athens, the Byzantine Empire and the Italian Renaissance.

    I really like the way you get students to return to their earlier understanding and add to and develop it… I think this is the most important way in which I use contextual knowledge in history - linking back to topics covered last week, month or year and highlighting the links. In my old school we used to do a common assessment of an essay on why so many people volunteered to join the army in 1914 and the 'contextual information,' which the mark scheme said was key to getting above level 6, was a single sheet of paper. What I added in later years was a lesson on 'what was life like in 1901,' (more pictures and information) and then a couple of lessons on the sinking of the Titanic - as a way to introduce ideas of class, duty, respect, honour, empire and so on.

    One thing I've really enjoyed at my current school has been working with the English department to teach the context of the works they are studying: most recently I have been teaching 19th and 20th century America as a background to 'Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry.' It's fun for me, seems to help the English department and the students are highly motivated and love making links between the time and its history…

    Thanks, Harry

  6. Thanks for that. Consider your holiday photo idea stolen. Great idea.

    I think you are so right about the chronology point. Context is never just about one event. It is often a series of seemingly unrelated things happening.

    Thanks again



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