Saturday, 31 October 2015

Jacob Marley's Bowel Movements

I am starting 'A Christmas Carol' with a class next week and my brain is thinking about the process and how I can develop and improve the learning process for students. A new GCSE means a new way to approach things in the curriculum. The majority of us are thinking of ways to make things stick. In a previous blog, I have talked about how I am going to approach the analysis of the text. Now, I am looking at how to develop the students' level of understanding and engagement. At the same time, I am thinking about the new Paper 1 and question 4. Question 4 focuses on getting students to critical analyse a text.

My plan is to produce an article like the one below for each of the five staves in 'A Christmas Carol'. They are written for the classroom and they are designed, in theory, to be engaging and challenge a student's thoughts and feelings towards a text. Once I have taught the first stave, the class and I will read the article and develop our own thoughts / feelings towards the text.

In principle, I want students to critique the text but I also want them to do other things at the same time, such as:

  • Relate ideas to other texts they have read.
  • Form an opinion based on several points in the text.
  • Comment on the expectations of a reader.
  • Justify ideas and clarify the weak and strong parts of a the idea.
  • Highlight consistent elements or inconsistent elements.  
  • Develop their confidence at using subject terminology.

The problem we often have with teaching texts is that the critical discussion doesn't appear in our lessons until students have the whole text in their brain. It is usually at the end of the unit. I want this critical analysis to be there from the start. We have passive readers and we might be in part responsible for that. Yes, we get students to hot seat a character at a difficult point in a story, but we don't go - slam on the breaks: Is this a criticism of America society or is it just a harmless moment exploiting the social rules of Maycomb county?

So when students have finished stave 1, I am going to test them on what they know. Then we are going to read and discuss the article. Depending on the class, I will decide on uncovering the article one paragraph at a time. I have deliberately been heavy with opinions in the article. Plus, I have been vague and ambiguous so that students have to justify some of these opinions with their own examples. Alongside the studying of the text, I am getting students to develop their interrogating skills of reading texts. Here, they will be reading the article and agreeing or disagreeing with the statements written. For example:  

It isn’t a ghost story; it is a comedy with some ghosts in it.

I hope the following questions will be asked:
Have we read enough to make that judgement?
Is it a comedy?
What makes it comical?
Is it a ghost story?
What makes it a ghost story?
What else could it be?
Is a ghost story just a story because it has ghosts in it?

I hope that the analysis and discussion will lead to students making their own critical analysis of the text. Plus, it allows me to include things I want the students to know without having to make it a lecture. 

It might be a lot of work for me to do, but I think it is an important thing for me to do. We expect students to pull a number of different threads together in their analysis yet we are not providing them with enough of that complex analysis in lessons. Yes, we waft an A* example essay, but we don't consistently show students critical work. Some academic work is too difficult for some classes. However, the odd paragraph or sentence is starting point. This approach will help bridge the gap and allow for us to look at some academic examples later when we have read the full text.

I loved reading criticism of texts I studied at university. Why should students have to wait for A-levels to be introduced to critical readings of a text / topic. We teach lots of topics but maybe we are missing out on some wasted opportunities. Look at the topics I have for next term:

Year 7 - Heroes and Villains

Year 8 - Great Expectations

Year 9 - The Novel

There is a lot of scope for introducing criticism.

Year 7: Television and films have spoilt the way in which we view heroes and villains.

Year 8: A child's view is not the best viewpoint in storytelling.

Year 9: Novels are more concerned with the feelings of a character than the events the character experiences.

I think there is endless scope for critical writing in lessons. The danger I fear with a new curriculum is the insistence of having endless extracts of texts. Students move from one literary text to another. Surely, a healthy bit of critical analysis is better than having just more literary texts. Literary texts makes students think, but criticism makes students think. I want students to think and question, and not just think.

Stave 1 - Jacob Marley's Bowel Movements

We all expect Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ to be a warm, cosy story of a character who learns the error of his ways and, finally, understands the true meaning of Christmas – whatever that is. The story we think we know is all wrapped up neatly in a ghost story and on top of it is a bow made of tinsel and everything you think Christmas is about, such as Turkey, party games, snow and presents. The problem is that the whole thing is a comedy. A funny laugh-out-loud story. It isn’t a ghost story; it is a comedy with some ghosts in it. What’s that you say? Yes, it does have some ‘dark’ moments in it and a few romantic moments, but look at any decent comedy and you’ll see that they contain some ‘dark’ parts in them. Death has a complex relationship with humour and comedy.

Look at the protagonist: Scrooge. Our over-familiarity with the character has morphed him into this cruel tyrant. We subconsciously know he is bad. Everybody knows he is a bad character. Our brains have been wired up to think that he is the pantomime baddie (it is Christmas, after all). Boo. Hiss. We probably think he kicks cats and bunnies for fun. He doesn’t. In fact, all he does in the first stave is refuse to go to a family party (can’t blame him), refuse to give money to charity and question whether his own employee should have Christmas day off, or not. He is a symbol of what is wrong with Britain. If I ever see the character in TESCO, I’d spit in his face. To be honest, I like the Scrooge in the opening stave of the story. He is dry, sarcastic and incredibly cutting. Scrooge is the ‘funny’ old man. Scrooge is a mixture of Jack Dee and Victor Meldrew. Life throws annoying things at him and it is his reaction to things about life that is funny.

Charles Dickens’ protagonists are interesting when you compare Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’ to the other stories written by him. If you wanted to create sympathy for a character, you’d probably opt for an orphan child or a young woman. Just me typing those words alone has probably caused tears to form in your tear ducts. Let me put a brute near them in a melodramatic way and you’ll be hooked and praying the poor, little orphan or generic young female makes it to the end of the article. Dickens knew the secret to making us feel something. Step forward Tiny Tim. Sniff. Sniff. Our main character is old, male and rich. A bit like Dickens. Or maybe a reflection of Victorian society – old, male, rich and cruel. Charles Dickens places the victims on the side-lines. They are important to the story, but they are only important when placed near Scrooge. If you look at the rest of Dickens’ stories, the Tiny Tim character is thrust in your face from the first chapter or so. Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Nicolas Nickleby and Pip are all on a journey and we, as readers, witness the several injustices they face through the course of the story. We connect with these characters, emotionally and dramatically. Sorry, Timothy Cratchit but I don’t connect with you. It is Scrooge I connect with.

Scrooge is a mirror to reflect the stupid ideas commonly accepted at the time the story was printed. Our modern cynical ways has taught us that Christmas isn’t an enjoyable time for people. Eastenders has helped to reinforce this for the last few decades. Christmas is a about tears. Christmas is about ruined meals. Christmas is about dealing with annoying family members. Christmas is about everyone pretending to be happy with a forced smile.  Scrooge gets it: "Every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!" His modern cynical view of Christmas is refreshing and funny. His nephew is the drippy, lovey dovey romantic view of Christmas. I bet he signs all his cards with kisses with a pink, fluffy pen. The fact that Scrooge wants to use the tropes of Christmas to kill people is hilarious. Holly through the heart. Boiled in pudding. Gassed by sprouts. Drowned in a gravy boat. Quality street forced through a person’s nose. Scrooge isn’t cruel; he just isn’t kind in the way we expect our characters to be. He is just direct and honest and goes against the social rules. Who says we should like Christmas? Society?  

Charles Dickens’ third person omniscient helps us with the comedy too. He plays with the humour of a situation. At the start we have it emphatically told to us that Marley was dead before the events of the story unfold: The narrator says:
‘Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.’

Any semblance of sympathy towards the character of Marley is lost when the narrator analyses and questions the use of a simile. Before the first page is finished, the writer has started playing with language and playing with our expectations in storytelling. A sombre mood is undermined by odd comic touches and exaggeration to the point of excess.  It is the light touches that Dickens does that lightens the mood. After all, he said that he wanted the story to do the following:

‘May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.’
Therefore, the story has the trappings of a ghost story but the heart of the story is pleasant and light. The odd word here or there helps to keep the story light. Scrooge asking the ghost to sit down is one specific example. So too is the following line:

‘Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.’

The phrase ‘fled in terror’ turns one moment simply into slapstick. The humour is complexly woven in the story and it pulls the story back from being too grim, too dark, and too scary. Just when you think it has become clearly one type of story it pulls it back into something pleasant.

If you are not convinced with me that ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a comedy, then just look at Scrooge’s reaction to seeing a ghost for the first time. Instead of running and screaming, instead of fainting with fright, instead of pure disbelief, instead of hiding away from the phantom, Dickens makes Scrooge notice the ghost’s lack of bowels. This then leads on to the following line:

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.

Even the greatest writer in the whole of literature can include a gag about somebody going to the toilet or not in this case. Toilet humour. Bah! Humbug!  



1 comment:

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