Sunday, 8 February 2015

Predicting - the Macbeth way

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a crystal ball?

Wouldn’t it be nice to see whether the education system improves or not?

Wouldn’t it be nice to see if the workload for teachers reduces in the future?  

Wouldn’t it be nice to see the outcome of the next General Election now?

A lovely crystal ball would certainly be handy. Then again, the problem with knowing the future is that it influences some of the choices leading up to it. You become conscious of the choices you make and the implications of each choice. Listen to me, I sound like the ardent time traveller. Only, yesterday, I transported myself back a thousand years and spent a good hour stomping on butterflies. Nothing happened.  

One of the ‘great’ things about some of the recent changes to the English curriculum is the addition of more Shakespeare in the curriculum.  As a result of this, our Year 8s are now studying Macbeth. Interestingly, a play about predictions and choices. Oh, and, a whole load of other things.

Now, in the past I have always used prediction in a number of ‘predictable’ ways.

Based on the title, what do you predict the play is about?

Look at the names of the characters. What do you predict the story will be?

Here are some lines from the play. What is the story?

 Let’s watch this scene. What happens next?

Here are some objects. Predict how they could be used in a story.

In fact, all I have done there is copy and paste from a work sheet I use – only joking. But, generally, that’s what I tend to do. I might spice things up and start with some contextual background or some key words, but the prediction usually centres on the plot.’ Predict the plot’ tends to be the staple tool of an English teacher. I bet you were naturally predicting the content of this blog when you first saw the title ‘Predicting – the Macbeth way’.

I am allergic to working through a text in a logical and chronological way. In the age of spoilers and sneaky boys that read the last page and tell everyone on the bus, I like to be creative in how we, as a class, explore a story. Yes, there’s a time and a place for being genuinely surprised when reading a story, but the hard thing, often for students, is the plot of Shakespeare’s plays. This week I found a great little script on TES. It’s called ‘Macbeth for beginners’.

We read the script as a class. Then, I separated the story into twelve episodes. Students were given the task of scripting a scene in pairs. The only rules I gave them were:

[1] It must be tense and dramatic through the language choices and stage directions. Not by adding gore or violence.

[2]It must be close to Shakespeare’s style of writing, using the kind of imagery and techniques Shakespeare usually employs.

[3] It must be two minutes long.

[4] It must all be written in iambic pentameter. Okay, maybe not that rule.

They were predicting the dramatic choices rather than the plot, which in my book is a lot more stretching than: It has witches in it – what do you think will happen?

For a lesson, the students worked busily on their scripts, making some interesting choices. I had to snigger with a pair of boys writing the scene after the murder of King Duncan. The only description for the scene they had was: Lady Macbeth waits for Macbeth to return from murdering King Duncan. This is a rough approximation of the conversation I overheard:

Student 1: We can’t have her talking to herself for too long. What about a noise?

Student 2: Yeah, and she can react to it. What kind of noise? A bang.

Student 1: Nah, how about a cat?

Student 2: Yeah, a cat.

Student 1: Or, what about an owl?

Student 2:  Yeah, an owl would be better. You would know it was a cat straightaway, but if it was bird, it might make other noises.

The great thing about this for me was the discussion on dramatic choices. The students, from the start, were thinking of the play in terms of dramatic context. What would make things dramatic? What choices are important for creating tension?

I have always had the frustration of students focusing on the plot more than the linguistic / dramatic choices, but this approach seemed to change things for me. Teaching Shakespeare can be endless decoding or translating for students. This allowed students to engage in the dramatic choices pretty soon in the reading process.

The next step for me is to get students to write a commentary on the choices they made as playwrights. Then, as we read through the play, we can compare the student version with the original Shakespeare version and compare and contrast them. From the start, the focus is on the construction of the play, rather than the story.

But what is the implication for other aspects of English? Take this scenario:

Tell students that they are going to read an article criticising Jamie Oliver. In the article, the writer cites the following reasons for not liking him:

[1] He pretends to be like ‘Joe Public’ when he is very rich.

[2] Has endless supply of famous friends.

[3] Uses ingredients that most of us would never use.

[4] Rarely gives precise ingredients.  

The article is humorous. Write one of the paragraphs, thinking how you could make it humorous.

Then, compare with the original article.


As a teacher, I spend a lot of time analysing extracts. Put a sheet in a student’s face and then get them to search for things. However, this predicting the writing hold more weight for me. A lot of activities are based post reading and this approach allows us to focus on the writing pre-reading. Predicting how things are written makes things far more interesting than predicting what is written.  

Thanks for reading. I am off to check the tea leaves at the bottom of my mug. Or, I might go back and squash a few more butterflies.  



1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    As a fellow English teacher and blogger, I stumbled upon your website from a Google search. I am happy that I've found someone who shares my interests. Thank you for sharing these ideas and resources. I've taught 'Macbeth' before in grade 11 English--one of my favorite plays to teach because of how easy it is to compare and connect to current events, issues and media. Students like to analyze the character of Macbeth and to ask 'is he the protagonist or antagonist?'