Teaching is a strange thing and it is hard to define what makes things stick in a student’s head when other ideas leave the brain as quickly as someone drinking Sambuca shots - or the even faster way that vomit leaves the body after drinking all of those Sambuca shots. What do we do with those ideas that really stick?
You can always guarantee that there is one student who tries to crowbar something you taught them once into everything they study. There are students who will direct every lesson discussion to oxymorons or relate everything studied to pathetic fallacy. It is like they cannot let go of that idea. You might be debating Brexit and still the student would pipe up and describe the Brexit as an oxymoron and cite that the change in weather is clearly pathetic fallacy suggesting out changeable nature.
It just so happened that I had one student who obsessed on an idea I had taught them. But, the idea carried on into every single text we taught at GCSE with quite a lot of success. She had developed an interpretation to all of the texts using this idea.
So, what was the seed? Well, the seed was the stiff upper lip. As a class, we were exploring Wilfred Owen’s ‘Exposure’ and I was exploring how the way soldiers were supposed to be stoic and not let events affect them emotionally and mentally. We were discussing the title and how it referred to the soldier’s exposure to the elements, but also the exposing of the reality of fighting in war, revealing what is behind the stiff upper lip. We explored as a class how the stiff upper lip has ingrained itself in our culture and how we compare with other countries. This in turn led to a discussion of Facebook and how we are more open to spill our emotions and feelings to others and how this contrasts to the Victorian attitude that was still ingrained in the soldiers fighting in WW1. We ended the lesson by exploring the significance of the war poets: they weren’t just attacking war, but attacking how society approaches dealing with things. They challenged and attacked the lies.
The lesson ended and so had, I thought, the idea. Then, we started to look at ‘A Christmas Carol’ and within the first lesson a student made a link to Scrooge and the stiff upper lip. She made the point that the imagery associated with Scrooge embodies the Victorian attitude to emotion: hard, sharp, closed and cold. The ‘solitary as an oyster’ got some battering by the symbolism bus too. The oyster’s shells are like the lips of the Victorian person: closed and hard to open. The student then went on to explore the significance of the ending. The cold Scrooge thaws and becomes a warmer, emotional character man. He transforms from businessman to friend. Work represents the place where we see the stiff upper lip regularly. The work and the money is more important than feelings and emotions. That’s why Dickens juxtaposes Scrooge’s business with the home of the Cratchits. Scrooge highlights what happens when we are stoical all the time. It isolates us. It makes us miserable. In fact, the whole story is about making Scrooge’s lips do something.
We love a connection in English and this connection of ideas between ‘Exposure’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ was incredibly fruitful. But, we didn’t stop there. The student would pipe up during the teaching of these texts:
The Charge of the Light Brigade - typifies the stiff upper lip
Remains – the damaging effect of the stiff upper lip on us and how it is still a way of thinking today
War Photographer – how we struggle to feel emotions for others because of our obsession on our own lives
Poppies – how it is more acceptable for a woman to express emotion
Kamikaze – how stoicism is part of other cultures
Bayonet Charge - how we aren’t certain what to think and feel because we just follow orders or the common majority
London – the blind acceptance of a way of thinking
Ozymandias – how the ability to empathise and connect with people caused self-destruction
My Last Duchess – the fear of looking bad and presenting positive outlook on something bad
But, it wouldn’t stop there. When reading ‘Rosabel’ paper, the student would highlight how Rosabel’s behaviour at the start of the extract reflects her following the stiff upper lip attitude. Her journey on the bus with people reflects the common mind-set of the population. KBO. Yet, her desire to throw the hat at the red-haired woman is about her stiff upper lip wobbling. Her emotions are coming to the surface. She can’t repress what she is feeling any more.
We’d then got to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and then there it was again. The way the young people behave in the play reflect that the stiff upper lip is something that is learnt and we are conditioned to think that way. The young people are so spontaneous and forthcoming with their emotions – they gush over everything. This compares to the adults who tend to be a bit measured with their emotion. In fact, Lady Montague is so British she dies off stage. Talk about stiff upper lip. Every part of her body becomes stiff and she politely does it off stage. She doesn’t show emotion. Lady Capulet is another example of this. The men are slightly more different, suggesting that men could show emotion but women couldn’t.
Finally, we got on to ‘An Inspector Calls’. A play which is a whole metaphor for the stiff upper lip. It is telling that the play is set in the dining room. A place that is private and not visible. They can show their secrets, lies, true feelings and thoughts in that room, but they cannot show them outside the house. They must put on a façade that everything is good – great – superb. They must show a stiff upper lip and present a façade to the rest of the world. It is interesting to note that the most emotional characters in the play are Eric and Shelia. Two of the youngest characters. In fact, Eric is struggling to keep the façade up he is resorting to alcohol (Remains). A connection with ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Young people struggle to be stoical, suggesting age and experience teaches people to control emotions, yet this is seen as a negative in the texts.
Through serendipity we discovered a thread through the majority of texts and, more interestingly, we had a readymade interpretation of the texts. Yes, there is a danger of a student crowbarring the idea in every text, but this made quite an interesting starting point when discussing ideas about the text. There are obvious themes across the GCSE texts we study, but what are the concepts that would help lift up their understanding of the texts. Some are obvious like ‘The American Dream’ for American texts but maybe there are some that we are not so clear and explicit when teaching a text. The stiff upper lip was just something I thought that would be a one lesson idea. However, it spiralled and thanks to a plucky student it kept coming back. It makes me think what concepts that aren’t so obvious that would help a student’s understanding of a text.
I give it 5 minutes before the student mentions the stiff upper lip in a Year 11 lesson this week.
Thanks for reading,