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.
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?
FACTS, FACTS, FACTS
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 outI 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 StudiesThe 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.