Saturday, 7 December 2013

A lesson on character – most roads lead to Dickens

I love Dickens and I am embarrassed to say that I never studied his work at university. I even did a whole unit on the Victorians and yet I never glanced at a page of his work.  Furthermore, I never read any of his work at school when I was a student. Yes, I was Bill Sykes (that is quite hard to carry off – you’ll know what I mean when you have met me or meet me) and I did a lot of method acting for that part. Just drinking! However, it was my PGCE course that led me to his work. We were due to have several sessions on ‘Great Expectations’ and we were instructed to read the book. As I wasn’t busy, I read and read and read the novel. I read it solidly for about two or three days and loved every word and line.

There was a barrier I had built up around Dickens. It was complex, difficult, troublesome and so slow to read. Yet, as soon as I read one I enjoyed the experience that I read another. And another. And another. I traipsed through ‘Hard Times’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and I am making my way through ‘Nicholas Nickelby’. I have devoured his short stories like ‘Captain Muderer’ and ‘ Sid and Nancy’. Sat patiently on my shelf are another two of his novels. Like most people, I like a balance in my reading, but every year I visit a Dickens in some kind of way.

As an English teacher, I read. I read and then I read some more. I read everything and anything I can get my hands on. Last week, I read a Darren Shan book and next week I will try and read ‘The Snow Angel’.  My favourite opening to a conversation is: ‘What are you reading?’ I love hearing what people have read.  There is a proportion (I am not judging) of English teachers that have never even sniffed a book by Dickens.  Yet, each novel is rife with lessons on description, character, setting, rhetoric, facts, opinions, structure and other aspects of English. I see endless resources on TES about extracts from ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘Harry Potter’ and other contemporary novels, but few cover Dickens. In fact, I received very few views on this blog when I put Dickens in the title of a post. I don’t intend to be elitist about books, but within seconds of opening a novel written by Dickens I can find a description of a character; however, I have to search bit harder in some teen fiction.   

Shut up, Chris – what do you know? Well, I think I have proof of the benefit of Dickens. Every year our Year 8s read ‘Great Expectation’ (all sets – yes, even that set) and they also read a modern novel. In Year 10 or 11, I show them the poem ‘Havisham’.  All students remember the character and recall key facts about the story.  I then ask them what novel they studied. Nothing. I then shout out some names. Nothing. I then mention some key plot details. Nothing. I then show them a cover. A slight glimmer. The class novel seems to disappear in the memory but Dickens lasts longer like it is etched in their brain.  

Anyway, below is a series of activities that I always do with ‘Great Expectation’ and it goes down a storm.  I did it with a set 5 and they enjoyed it.

Step 1: The Context
There are three things that students need to get their head round when studying Dickens:

·         He was paid by the word to write.

·         His work was serialised.

·         His readers would probably forget things quickly from chapter to chapter.

Yep, they are huge generalisations, but they help students to understand the context that Charles Dickens wrote in. This all opens the dialogue up about what would they do in this particular situation.

What would they do if they were being paid a pound per word?

What would you do to stop people forgetting what happened in the story?

Step 2: The Names
I give students a selection of names and descriptions of characters which they have to matchup.

Oliver Twist

Edward Murdstone

Mrs Billickin

Mr Gardgrind

Uriah Heap

·         A person only concerned with their tenants paying their rent

·         A cruel stepfather

·         A boy whose luck keeps changing

·         A teacher who is only concerned with teacher boring facts

·         A person  who  is quite sneaky  

We usually discuss these character’s names and try to create our own.  My favourite this week was Mr Shat: a teacher who shouts a lot and wears a large hat.  I had to explain to the student that his could mean something else.

Step 3:  Caricatures

I show students a selection of caricatures of famous people. The first activity is name the celebrity. Then, students identify what the writer has done to make the picture of the celebrity funny or unique. Most artists pick two clear features.

Finally, I take the pictures away and ask students to describe how the people were painted. Usually, they all tell me all the things the writer has exaggerated.

We then discuss the terms exaggerated, caricatures and grotesque.

Step 4: Mr Bounderby
We guess the personality and appearance of Mr Bounderby from his name. Then we look at the following:

He was a ---- man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, ----- man, with a stare and a metallic laugh. A man made out of a coarse material, which seemed to have been --------- to make so much of him. A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples, and such a --------- skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open and lift his eyebrows up. A man with the pervading appearance on him of being an inflated -------, and ready to start. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-------- of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.

We guess the words and then look at how it is like a caricature. Students make links to the pictures before and discus how Dickens has created this through the writing here.

Step 5: Having a go at being Dickens
Finally, I show students this example and ask them to write their own Dickensian character. 

To my amazement, a strange woman walked into my room with the most strangest of attire I had ever seen. She walked in with so many coats on that she looked like a clothes horse, and each item of clothing had holes in it, where a maggot or moth had eaten the material away. She walked in in a most peculiar fashion too with her head bent forward as if she was searching for something on the floor. She was looking, possibly, for her marbles, which I am sure she lost a long time ago, as she muttered something about a missing boy. She walked in barefoot as well, which suggested that she hadn't travelled far or that she had the toughest skin in the world that even a knife would struggle to penetrate.

 However, their description must have:

·         Exaggeration

·         Elements of a caricature

·         A grotesque element to it.

The results I get are hilarious and brilliant. Teachers, strangely, make great characters for activity. I had one student describe a mole on a character’s face being a spider poised to move any minute now. Some students go down the snot route but others go for a more subtle approach.

All this is from one description of a character and a few names. The beauty of Dickens’ writing is that each line is loaded with effective writing and a range of techniques. Open a page of his book today and I will guarantee you will find something you could use in lesson.




  1. I do like these ideas on caricature. I've just been discussing it with A level students studying 'The Rivals' and it really appeals to me as a way of exploring characterisation in comedy. And 'Captain Murderer' I've used again and again. I think it's absolutely marvellous. Thanks for the post.

  2. Thank you, Fran. Have a good week and don't eat any strange pies!

  3. Simply full of lessons. I'm reading in here and thought that many students would appreciate your work.


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