Sunday, 6 September 2020

Let’s all join the pity party!

I have a theory: we spend more time and energy on teaching techniques and contextual information, because they mask and hide a student’s inability to engage emotionally with a text. We’d rather crowbar a fact about Shakespeare having a gammy toe during the writing of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ than place emphasis on how a student and audience engages with a text.

I am passionate about stories. I love them. I will tell students how I love characters and how I am rooting for them to succeed. I share my love of pre-conversion Scrooge. Or, how I love Mercutio’s attitude to life. Or, even how I identify with Capulet – I have daughters who don’t do as I ask them to.

I like, loathe, hate, despise, adore, idolise characters in stories.

I think the emotional connection isn’t one we seek or utilise in lessons. Let’s think how this has largely manifested in lessons: a tension graph. Yep, a graph. I don’t know about you but when I am watching a play I am not making a graph. A graph, sorry Maths, does not encompassing the gamut of emotions, thoughts and feelings I go through. I need an etcher sketch for that.  

We largely think students can articulate their feelings as a readers. We think that they can do this without much support. It is the other stuff that they need support on. Read students work and you’ll see they reaction to a text is reduced to words like ‘tension, ‘ shock’ and ‘sympathise’. I think writers are doing much more with texts than shocking, sympathising and making things ooo a bit tense! Yet, their discussion is reduced to stock phrases and occasionally might lead us to a discussion on the difference between empathy and sympathy. We need students to talk better about their relationship with the texts.

 So, what do I see are the problems with addressing this in lessons?

[1] Time needs to be dedicated to discuss reactions

A cursory question is not enough. Students need to explore what they feel and why they feel it.

[2] Over simplifying the reaction

Emojis might have use in sending a quick message, but they don’t successfully convey what a person things or feels. A smile has so many different meanings. Reactions need interrogating and exploring so we can develop ideas.

[3] The student’s position as the audience  

This is the tricky one, because it means moving the student away from ‘entertainment’. A lot of a student’s reaction to a text is based on ‘interest’. What interests them? That’s quite different from engaging with characters. We need to move towards audience identification and audience detachment. Put the student in the text. Not a silent observer.

[4]The plurality of audiences / reactions

For students, they seem there is a correct ‘reaction’ to the text. That often causes them to doubt what they say for fear that it is wrong.

Students need to know that the writer did not write the play / text with their English teacher in mind. They way was written to appeal to a wide audience. Therefore, the men in the audience might react differently to the women. The young to the old. The parents to the children. The young men to the old men. The plural notion of audiences is key for understanding what is going on. I see some teachers introducing literary theory with some success. What if it was as simple as teaching students to view how different parts of the audience would react?


[5] The paradoxical states of emotion

Emotions are complex things. We can both like and dislike something at the same time. There are family members that fit into that category for me. These conflicting views and emotions are important. Conflicting emotions are a key reaction to a text. We like this about them, yet we don’t like that bit about them. A bit like real life really.

Emotions and reactions are nuanced. If we turn reaction to a like or dislike, we simplify the reaction and the process.

To help students with developing the discussion on the audience’s reaction I have developed these steps to help develop their responses to the text:


Step 1: Is it a positive or negative reaction the audience has?


Step 2: What makes them have this reaction?

Do they recognise ….?

A situation

Do they understand…?

A specific person

Do they empathise with…?

A dilemma

An emotion


Step 3: What word from these best matches the audience’s reaction?

The audience ….

Step 4: Why does the writer want the audience to feel or think this at the moment in the play?

…so that we ….

…to prepare us for ….

….to make us see ….

… so that we realise that …

I have made a little table to help with expressing these ideas in discussions. Students are to have this with them when discussing the text.

What is the audience supposed to feel?



What makes them have this reaction?




What makes them have this reaction?





What word best describes this reaction?







warms to






relates to






Why does the writer want us to feel this?

so that we












to prepare us for



to make us see



so that we realise


We live in a judgmental world. We make lots of judgments, daily. The problem we have is that those judgements have been reduced to polar opposites. We like or dislike. We RT or block. We need to have a greater understanding of our reactions. We are too quick judge. The problem that comes from this quick judgements is that we have reduced the opportunity for empathy. There’s no need to pity someone in snap judgement.

Pity needs time.

Empathy needs space.

Connection needs opportunity.

The classroom is key for this: pity, empathy and connection. That’s the power of books. That’s the untapped seam we need in the world just now. And, it is already there. 

Let’s have a one big pity party!

Thanks for reading,




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