Category Archives for "British Literature"

19th September 2018

Teaching Biblical Allusions

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRVm_TAE24A
(Errr – don’t watch this if swearing offends you).

I’m from a very religious family.  My step-dad is a former RAF Chaplain (and served in the Falkland Islands) and is now an itinerant vicar (which is not the same as what George and Lennie were); my brother is a vicar.  I grew up steeped in religious tradition – from churches were the communion wine is golden to ones where they play guitars and dance. I am enduringly grateful for my upbringing.  Not least when it comes to teaching literature. You see – I can spot a biblical allusion at 50 paces.

*The purpose of this introduction is to contextualise some of mild irreverence below.*

Kids these days…

Have no clue about the Bible and why should they? Yet, this absence of knowledge results in pupils often struggling to identify and understand many of the deep running threads in literature.

I often describe the need for deep subject knowledge as being like a tapestry – it is complex and interwoven, creating an overarching picture with mini-scenes within.  Threads are drawn upon as needed but always remain embedded in and attached to the big picture.

Yet – if this tapestry is English literature – then much of what we study (if not all) was written in a time when religion and religious ideologies were key to moral and ethical outlook, social norms, thoughts on the creation of wealth, and society, and even the nature of life and death itself.  Rightly or wrongly identity itself, for much of history, was shaped by religion.

Some may disagree – but I would argue that religion was the predominant ideology of English Literature right up until World War I.

Thus over 700 years of written literature is interwoven into a tapestry where life and religion were twisted threads.

Therefore, to study, understand, and enjoy literature – knowledge of religion and the religious texts, such as the Bible, is essential.

How should we manoeuvre this camel through the needle’s eye?

It’s easy, as with all things historical context based, to bolt this knowledge onto a unit of work.

You’re teaching Great Expectations – you paraphrase the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The Lord of the Flies – well, that’s just one big Biblical allusion, although you could just summarise beginning of Genesis and then skip to the New Testament…
The Handmaid’s Tale – same.

Whilst this approach works for individual texts, it doesn’t allow students to develop an overall bank of knowledge that they can rely on. It robs them of the cultural knowledge that is part of our history, as well as our literature.

I like what ED Hirsch has to say in The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (this is an affiliate link!):

No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible. … All educated speakers of American English need to understand what is meant when someone describes a contest as being between David and Goliath, or whether a person who has the “wisdom of Solomon” is wise or foolish, or whether saying “My cup runneth over” means the person feels fortunate or unfortunate. Those who cannot understand such allusions cannot fully participate in literate English.

But this piecemeal approach is not enough

Religious imagery (both positive and negative) pervades culture still.  By only teaching what is needed to tackle one text, we are not weaving the tapestry.

My long-term goal is to create specific units of work that study ‘allusion’ in KS3, knowledge units that study Biblical knowledge as well as mythology from Greek, Roman, English heritage. Not just studying the stories but also studying representations of these stories, characters, and ideas throughout literature.

I’m a while away from being able to do that, so here’s the stop-gap:

At the moment, I teach these as explicit, out-of-context starters in year 9.  Whilst I am aware this isn’t ideal – I do feel that some knowledge is better than none, for now.

Teaching Biblical characters who have become literary “clichés”

Here’s the list of biblical characters and stories that I teach, with some examples below:

Old Testament:

  • Adam and Eve
  • Satan…
  • Abraham/Isaac
  • Cain and Abel
  • David (and Goliath)
  • Jezebel
  • Job
  • Joseph (and his cheerful coat)
  • Lot and often more importantly Lot’s Wife
  • Moses
  • Noah (and the Flood)
  • Solomon

New Testament:

  • Jesus
  • John the Baptist
  • Judas
  • Mary (mother of Jesus)
  • Peter (the rock)
  • Paul (Saul)
  • Pontius Pilate
  • *The Holy Spirit*

Top Bible stories to know:

Old Testament:

  • Creation – Genesis 1 and 2, Adam & Eve, the apple, the snake, the Garden of Eden etc
  • Cain & Abel – the first death, the first murder
  • The Flood – the rain, the boat, the animals, the rainbow, the dove.
  • Jonah and the whale – I didn’t put Jonah as a character above because his story isn’t really all that without the whale. It’s a great narrative about rebellion, trust, and redemption.
  • The Tower of Babel – the arrogance of man and the birth of language.
  • Moses and the Ten Commandments – what happens at the top of the mountain and what happens when you get down again.
  • Job – misery loves company.

New Testament:

  • The birth of Jesus – rather than the nativity itself, I tend to focus on King Herod and the baby genocide, the astronomers and following a star and then the idea of the birth of a new humanity and the age of harmony with God.
  • The story of John the Baptist (or ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’)
  • The Beatitudes
  • The Good Samaritan
  • The resurrection of Lazarus
  • The Parable of the Prodigal Son
  • The “Let he who has no sin cast the first stone” story
  • The betrayal of Judas
  • The Crucifixion and Resurrection – again, where my students have the basic knowledge from their Religious Studies lessons, I tend to look at nature imagery and Christ figures.

Even more…

Also because Biblical allusion, among other things, is tested under the AP Literature curriculum – there are loads of fabulous sites that have lists of biblical phrases etc. I like this PDF because it has a bunch of useful literary, biblical and historical allusions.

What to test your knowledge of Biblical reference and allusion? Have a go at this BBC quiz!

 

 

 

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Pre-reading activity for any literature text

Helping students engage with and understand literature before they read is essential. One way to take the fear away from old-fashioned language or writing that is unfamiliar is to let students play with it before you read.

This pre-reading activity is deceptively simple. Here’s what you do:

  1. Before you read the text in class, select 4 or 6 important words or phrases from the text.
  2. Ask your students to divide a notebook page into 4 or 6 boxes (depending on how many words/phrases you choose – one box per phrase)
  3. Then they should write the 6 words or phrases as titles in each box.
  4. All of I do then is ask students to draw an image to represent the phrase. You can see my instructions below – this is for the war poem, The Drum by John Scott.

It always amazes me how varied, interesting, and deep my students’ interpretations of these words are. Remember they have no idea what they are going to be reading. Yet students are able to see the depth in the language so much more easily when they only have a handful of words to deal with.

Here are a few examples of my student’s work: from Romeo and Juliet and the task above on The Drum!

 

If you try using this activity with your class, drop me a note in the comments to let me know how it went! You can see all my Literature resources here.

 

 

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Macbeth: 3 ways to take your lessons to the next level!

As we get towards September, I know teaching Macbeth is just around the corner. Again. Please don’t misread me, I LOVE teaching Macbeth. It’s almost my favourite Shakespeare play to teach (see my post on teaching The Tempest).

I teach Macbeth every year and every year I find I l-o-v-e it all over again! In my class, there is no room for a quick trot through the play. My students all sit an examination on the play at the end of their 2 year English Literature qualification. We have to know the play and know it very well. Each year I try to add something new to my Macbeth armoury.

Here are 3 ideas that I used this year to take my teaching of Macbeth to the next level!

1. Get stuck into Holinshed’s History

Raphael Holinshed was an English chronicler (similar to a historian today) and it is his chronicle of English history that was Shakespeare’s main source for the play Macbeth. Holinshed published two ‘complete histories of England, Scotland, and Ireland’ in the years 1577 and 1587. Each publication holds a large and comprehensive description of the history of these three nations.

Holinshed’s version of the story of Macbeth describes the reign of King Duncan and shows Macbeth to be a bloody dictator. It also included a woodcut illustration of the three witches that presents them more as nymphs or fairies, and less like the dark, genderless creatures in Shakespeare’s play. You can find out more about Holinshed and his chronicles here at the British Library site.

I have included resources for Holinshed’s history in my Macbeth unit on TpT. If you’re curious about what’s included you can find it here!

How do I use Holinshed in the classroom?

It is very simple, we have a short extract that we read directly from Holinshed (like the one below). We read it directly in Early Modern English (Elizabethan English) – you can talk to students, if you feel like it, about this transition moment in the English language. I love that Holinshed, like Shakespeare, shows both the old styles and new styles in his writing.

So somewhere around the end of Act 4 and the beginning of Act 5, we read a page from Holinshed, describing Macbeth’s later reign (remember Macbeth was actually King of Scotland for 17 years). We chuckle at the funny spelling and words.

Then we talk about the differences between Holinshed’s description of Macbeth and Shakespeare’s one. Holinshed generally comes out the winner because his presentation of Macbeth is bloodthirsty to the extreme.

After that, I ask my students to discuss the play by referencing Holinshed’s history. I might use sentence starters like:

  1. Holinshed’s Histories reveals Macbeth castle at Dunsinane was…
  2. Holinshed explains the complete nature of Macbeth’s tyranny…

2. Explore 1606

The year that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth was a truly spectacular year for English culture and politics. Not only did London see the first performances of King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony & Cleopatra in that one year but England was rocked, almost constantly by political intrigue.

Let’s start with the obvious:

  • In late 1605 the Gunpowder Plot saw a failed assassination plot to kill the King. Let me say that again – kill the King. Now, according to medieval beliefs, the King is God’s representative on earth. A man appointed by King to rule of the earth.
  • To kill the king (I love the word ‘regicide’) was then to kill God’s appointed leader, to go against God’s plan, and to break his organisation and order of all the things. To kill the king was to go against nature himself.
  • Now many of us know the Gunpowder Plot because of Guy Fawkes and 5th November and fireworks night. But, what is often overlooked in our popular memory of history is that the Gunpowder Plot was arranged by a group of Jesuit priests.
  • In fact, the assassination plan was known to the head Jesuit priest in all of England,  Henry Garnet. So let’s recap: a group of priests were planning to kill God’s representative on the throne. Wow! Something surely was rotten in the state of Denmark (I mean England).
  • The sensational trial and execution of Henry Garnet, Guy Fawkes, and other members of the Gunpowder Plot took place in early 1606.
  • Think back to Macbeth – what happens? That’s right. The King is murdered. Right in front of the audience, Shakespeare plays out the ‘what might have been’. It’s like Shakespeare invent reality TV 400 years before Big Brother.
  • Added that we have the Berwick Witch trials, the Oaths of Allegiance to the King, Catholic Equivocation, James’ own version of the Inquisitions, and…the hint that Shakespeare might have been a Catholic sympathiser. Well, it seems, 1606 was a year of intrigue.

3. Get stuck into Shakespeare’s sounds

I have a long post already about how I teach Shakespeare meter and rhythm. You can read it here. I use many of the same strategies when I teach Macbeth, but I can never pass up the opportunity to add a little piece to my metrical teaching.

Here are a few ideas that I love in Macbeth:

  1. Most of us are happy with Shakespeare’s basic metrical rhythm, iambic pentameter. Here’s an example from Act 5. But get thee back; my soul is too much charged. You can see the “iamb” which is the pattern of ‘unstressed’ then ‘unstressed’ syllables. Then the pentameter is 5 pairs of syllables. So 10 syllables per line.
  2. A “trochee” is the opposite of an “iamb”. This is where you start with the ‘stressed’ syllable and it followed by an ‘unstressed’ syllable. Because the stressed syllable comes first, the trochiac meters tend to sound harsher. Gall of goat is a great example from the witches’ spell Act 4 Sc 1. Many characters move to speaking in trochiac meter at different points in the play. The break in the usual meter shows emotion, turmoil, or change.
  3. The witches don’t just invert the metrical pattern, they also use a lesser number of syllables. This is called catalexis. The process by which a metrical pattern is cut short for effect (it can be at the beginning or the end). Shakespeare doesn’t just give the witches otherworldly words to say, he gives them a whole otherworldly way of speaking.
  4. Their lines are shorter than the other characters’ lines – often made up of seven syllables (seven was associated with witchcraft). Consider the symbolism of this, they have short lines because Shakespeare shows they are less than human.
  5. Their chants are mostly written in a catalectic (incomplete) form of trochaic tetrameter, which sounds like an incantation or magical spell.

If you’re curious to learn more about how to teach the meter and sound patterns in Shakespeare then do read my other blog post and download the free resource.

You can also see my complete Macbeth unit by clicking on the picture below:

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6th April 2018

Teaching The Seafarer

Teaching language change and development is one of my favorite units. The English language is constantly changing – MTV was fly in the 90s, today it’s the Inbetweeners is sic. What is the link between Generation X’s slang and teaching The Seafarer? Before I begin tackling this Anglo-Saxon poem – I spend some time with my classes looking at language change and the history of spoken language.

Language change

I ask students to research words recently added to official dictionaries, sometimes we do this in lessons; sometimes we flip it and this is a pre-unit homework. Always I share a few of my favourites – these were added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017

  • Bubblehead – an foolish, empty headed person
  • Listicle – an article that is formatted as a list
  • Ghost – to abruptly cut off communication with someone
  • Throw shade – to disrespect someone publically

After this, I like to ask students what words they would add to the dictionary, or even to teach the teach a few new words! This is how I learned: sideman, dench, moist (yuck), peak, and would you believe – roadman! Kids don’t get to use these words in my lessons – ever – so this is their one and only chance to sling some lingo.

Then, I ask students to tell me the oldest word they know. They generally come up with something like “thy” or “thou”, occasionally they might throw in something more groovy. Some clever sprite might try “forsooth”.

At this point I introduce Anglo-Saxon words that are still in use today, including Viking, berserk, gun, ransack, hell, troll, saga. Are you sensing a theme? There are some great ones: claw, clip, crawl, get, give, hit, race, run, stammer, and take. The Anglo-Saxons were people of action. Now my class understands that our language is both ancient and very modern.

And so we cycle round to The Seafarer. We begin by writing our own poetic lines based on some of the words in the poem.

We discuss man and nature, adventure and fame, and explore the language of the ancient world. We look at theme, character, and Anglo-Saxon beliefs. We research The Exeter Book and the history of the poem. We create our own poetry, writing, and display work.

If you’re interested in more details about how I teach The Seafarer please click here.

 

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Love British Literature?

Access this Austen free resource and a whole lot more!

If you are ready to bring a bit of Brit Lit spark to your classroom - then this Austen resource pack is for you!

10 book gifts for Brit Lit loving teachers

Finding Christmas gifts for high school literature teachers can be tricky – after all, the world is full books – but which ones to choose?! If you are a parent, a colleague, or a family member and you want something special to show your appreciation for a British Literature loving teacher this Christmas, then this gift guide is for you. Below are 10 wonderful books that any Brit Lit loving teacher will adore. I own and have read each one, so these are my personal recommendations. This post does contain affiliate links (and I do receive a small commission from any purchases made using these links) – but I love and use these books myself!

10 book gifts for British Literature Loving Teachers

Shakespeare!

I love this book by Jonathan Bate. He has an easy style but as a Shakespeare scholar – he knows his stuff. This biography digs into the possible motivations for Shakespeare’s many works. It charts his life, education, and adult life – the influence of the politics of the day and how his success changed him.  A must-have for any Shakespeare teacher!

Click here to see this book on Amazon US.

Or click here to see this book on Amazon UK.

 

James Shapiro’s book ‘1606 The Year of Lear’ is actually his second account of Shakespeare’s history. This book focussing on 1606 is the sequel to the hugely popular 1599. 1606 was the year that King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony & Cleopatra were first performed – arguably three of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.

I was lucky enough to attend Shapiro’s book launch at the Globe Theatre last year and in about an hour he summarized a thousand minute histories that helped shaped Shakespeare in this year of power.  He explores the significance of the shift in politics and power. The gossip about Shakespeare’s family. The struggles in Europe and across the globe. I cannot recommend this account of the history of Shakespeare enough.

Find the US Amazon version here and the UK Amazon version here!

Rex Gibson’s book Teaching Shakespeare is a staple in English classrooms in the UK. It is on the reading list of nearly every teacher training institution for English teachers and this is no coincidence.

He has a wonderful way of explaining Shakespeare’s ideas and contexts, as well as giving 100s practical and ready-to-go classroom activities to get students involved in studying, enjoying, performing, and analyzing Shakespeare plays.

Find the Amazon US version and the Amazon UK version here!

 

The novelists!

This autobiography of Charles Dickens isn’t the only Claire Tomalin book I am recommending today. She is a wonderful researcher and a passionate lover of literature.

I first read this book about 5 years ago when I was teaching Great Expectations and I was trying to understand the shift in Dickens’ narrative style away from social commentary and onto relationships.

Tomalin answered every question I have ever asked about Dickens and many I have not. She sets out his traumatic childhood, his sensational public appearances and acclaim, and the affair that nearly destroyed him. Her writing is joyful and sympathetic and full of wonderful factual detail.

Click here to find the Amazon US edition and then find the Amazon UK edition here.

For me, the title: ;The Bronte’s Wild Genius on the Moors’ says it all. Juliet Barker’s book is a swiping text that fully details their tragically repressed home life and the story of each talented sister. Emily is truly wild, beautiful, strangely unrepressed. Romantic without being a true Romantic. Anne – rejected, alone, unrequited. Then Charlotte, a melancholic teacher, who dreamed of living in her imagined worlds.

If you are looking for a book that celebrates woman in world that could not and would not celebrate them, then The Brontes is for you.

Click here for the Amazon US version and here for the Amazon UK version!

My second choice from Claire Tomalin is her definitive history of Jane Austen. I always wanted to know why a woman who never married could write with such accuracy about relationships and marriage.

There are so many rumours about Austen (she was engaged for just one evening). Tomalin perfectly captures Austen’s wit, social criticisms, intelligence, and her insight.

I love this book! Find the Amazon US version hereClick here to see the Amazon UK version.

 

Last but not least is perhaps my favorite of all these Brit Lit novelist biographies – Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley.

Of course, the lives of Wollstonecraft and Shelley are great fodder for Charlotte Gordon, but her exploration of their truth, their realities, and their impact is extraordinary. The triumphs and heartbreaks of these two women are beautiful articulated – mother and daughter are completely united – in this struggle to find their place in the world.

See the US Amazon version here and the UK Amazon version here!

Theory and Reference!

I can’t seem to leave those Romantics alone! My first reference book is a cross-over history and literature text. Richard Holmes is an expert historian and biographer and in this book he digs into the Romantic era and finds the science, explorations, and inventions that shaped the Romantic imagination.

The full title is ‘The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science’ and it helps us to see the Romantic sublime experience of the technology of the day.

For any fan of the Romantics or even the Gothic this text is an exceptional grounding in history.

Find the US Amazon edition here and the UK Amazon edition here!

Jonathan Bate makes a reappearance with this amazing introduction to English Literature. If you haven’t seen these “Very Short Introduction” books, they are excellent: short, precise, clear. Enough but not too much!

If you are studying or teaching English Literature for the first time, then this book is for you. If you are a veteran, this this book will refresh and renew your love of all this Brit Lit.

Click here for the US Amazon version.

Click here for the UK Amazon version.

 

If like me you love gorgeous visuals and pithy summaries then The Literature Book is for you.  A beautiful chronological journey through literature (not just British!) this wonderful book gives a great overview of each literary era and then zooms in on seminal or canonic works.

This book has pride of place in my classroom it is my go-to resource to give historical context, detail, or greater reference to anything we are studying.

Check out this amazing book on Amazon US here and on Amazon UK here.

I hope you enjoyed my gift guide of books for British Literature loving teachers.  I would love to hear about any other books that you would recommend – just drop me a comment below.

Thanks for visiting!

Create a BANG this fireworks night in your ELA classroom

Pop Quiz! Which of these best fits you?

  1. My students love debating.
  2. I want to push my students to apply their learning to the real world.
  3. I think we can learn lessons from history.
  4. My students struggle to link literature to life.

If you answered “me, me!” to any of these 4 statements, then today’s blog post is dedicated to you. Here are 3 engaging classroom activities that: give your students a chance to debate; challenge students to stretch classroom knowledge to become real world knowledge; and help them link history and literature with their lives!

1. Research the man Guy Fawkes

It’s easy to forget that Guy Fawkes wasn’t the instigator of the Gunpowder Plot, the man and the money behind it was Robert Catesby. A wealthy farmer and Catholic, Catesby persuaded many of his friends that James I was a weak king and could be easily removed from power.

Guy Fawkes, however, was also not the bumbling fool often portrayed in cartoons. He fought in the Spanish wars against the Dutch Republic and was an experienced soldier.

If you and your students are interested in finding out more about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder plot – then check out my Guy Fawkes Hero or Villain resource on TpT.

After you have researched Guy Fawkes in detail, use these debate prompts (a sneak peek from above resource) to spark some deep discussion in your classroom.

2. Watch and discuss V for Vendetta

**Now a big disclaimer is needed here: V for Vendetta is rated a 15 here in the UK. The whole film is not suitable for classroom use.**

How do I use the film in my lessons to help discuss Guy Fawkes then?

Introduce the story: V for Vendetta (1998) is a graphic novel by Alan Moore. The story is set in a dystopian future where the United Kingdom is ruled over by a neo-facist regime. One night, 5th November, a freedom fighter attempts a revolution. He takes over the national media and makes a speech encouraging all citizens to join him the following year (on 5th November) again to start a rebellion.

Watch the clip:

Read the speech and discuss persuasion:

I have attached a file with V’s revolutionary speech here. We discuss rhetoric and persuasion here and compare it to other political speeches. Then we discuss V’s use of 5th November as a sign of positive revolution.

I pose the questions:

  • Is V rewriting history?  What is the evidence for your response?
  • Can we trust history? Can we trust historical evidence and facts?
  • What happens when history is altered or parts of history are forgotten?
  • How is history dangerous?

In his dystopian novel, 1984, Orwell writes, “who controls the past, control the future” – we discuss this and the truth of it in our world today.

If your students love V as much as mine do then I often let them watch these two extra clips: The 5th of November Overture and *spoiler* the finale scene (note this contains swears) and will also spoil the film for them – so beware!!

3. Write your own nursery rhyme

One of the best things about nursery rhymes is that they are all pretty gruesome in nature. If they aren’t warding off the plague, they are accusing you of being a witch.  The nursery rhyme written for the ‘celebration’ of failed Gunpowder Plot is just as brutal.  We study it for ‘historical accuracy’ and rhetorical techniques and then we create our own Gunpowder Plot nursery rhyme. Sometimes we cast Guy Fawkes as the hero. Sometimes a hapless fool deserted by his comrades. Sometimes we write about James and the Lords in Parliament. Occasionally we imagine the horror if it had succeeded. If all else fails – we create a visualization of the original rhyme with lots of gory detail.

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes, guy, t’was his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England’s overthrow.

By god’s mercy he was catch’d
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.

And what shall we do with him?
Burn him!

An extra sweet treat…

Check out this interactive Guy Fawkes game on the BBC History website.  Go to the Powder Plot Game here.

Ok friends

If you wanted to get your students debating; brief history and literature into the real world and challenge your students to really think, then this post was for you.

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Hidden Content

20 verbs for analytical writing

In my classroom, we spend a great deal of time analyzing language and techniques in literature. Often one we have read and discussed a text, my students are confident with their ideas. They have things to say about the language used, the structure, or the form. Yet they can struggle to put these ideas to paper.

I avoid using sentence frames for literature essay writing whenever I can. They are hugely restrictive and it is boring to mark a whole set of essays that read the same.

One way to improve how close analysis is written up is to focus on the verbs of analysis. I have these 20 posters up in my classroom and I refer to them frequently. I also have them printed in a small task card size so students can have them on their desks.

These verbs not only help students focus their thinking and ideas, but also allow them to bring some variety to their analytical writing. We are avoiding the overuse of ‘this suggests’ and ‘this implies’!

 

 

This list of 20 verbs is free for you to download here!

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Subscribe to my weekly teaching tips email!

Sign up below to receive regular emails from me jammed packed with ELA teaching tips, tricks and free resources. Also access my free resource library!

5 ways to help your students love 19th century literature

We all love a period drama don’t we? Well, you and I probably do. But your average teenager… Reading 19th century literature with classes presents us, as teachers, with a number of unique opportunities. It is at this moment that we are, probably, at our most multi-disciplinary. We are scientists – discovering electricity and inventing CPR. We are adventurers – seeking out the south pole and charting the North West Passage. We are theologians – struggling to believe in the Age of Enlightenment. We are historians – obsessed with the Classical Age, avoiding the present. We are politicians – fearing Revolution and rebellion.  When I look at the 19th Century I see all the “old England” of smugglers, pirates, and highwayman and I also see all the “new England” of the factories, technology, and workhouses.

1. Starting at the beginning

Before I even put a piece of 19th century literature in front of my students, I pose the question: “What is the difference between life today and life in 19th century?”. Generally, at first strike – I get only the obvious answers (people were dirty). The knowledge that my students have of history is limited. They can tell me loads about life in the workhouse, they can talk about factories. But beyond these specifics they are still in the dark. “History” says the historical novelist Dame Hilary Mantel “is what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it”. The bits we pick out of the sieve to teach our younger students is pretty specific.

So what are the main differences we see:

  • Language – the language and vocabulary of the 19th century will be different
  • Topics – life was different, so writers will be writing about different things
  • Attitudes – people believed different things, those beliefs will come out in literature
  • Social class – it was definitely a thing back then
  • Gender roles – while we might not think the fight for equality is over yet, at the beginning of the 19th century it hadn’t even begun
  • Science, religion, geography, technology: the list of differences goes on.

2. Different writers same ideas

Once we have made this list, it’s time to jump straight in and look at some writers. At this point – I might set my classes up with an author research study.  Sometimes I find it is favourable for students to know in advance some of the historical and biographical details linked to a particular author. For Austen, Dickens, and Shelley, these are particular relevant.

We also tend to notice that while there are few narrative links between stories we read (A Christmas Carol -> Pride and Prejudice -> Frankenstein); we do come across the same ideas again and again. The abuse of power, the issues of social class, the treatment of the poor, the role of women in society. Each of these novels, in some way, speaks to these universal themes again and again.

Ok, so we’ve talked about the differences between now and then, we’ve met the author. We can’t put off reading the text any longer!

We also don’t always read full texts (shhhh don’t tell the writers!). There are some 19th century texts that our national curriculum and examination syllabi require us to study. But other than that we have free reign. However, given that many are 300+ pages and some have opening sentences that run to 100+ words, I don’t always decide to read entire novel. In fact this year, I have been teaching extracts only. Extracts from my favourite 19th century fiction and I have been BLOWN AWAY by the understanding shown by my students. This broad range has given them a far greater insight into this area of British Literature than if we had just focussed on one novel. The image above shows an extract from Sense and Sensibility that we love to study!

3. Reading 19th century fiction: 1-2-3 read

There are 5 skill areas that I cover when we read 19th century literature:

  1. Comprehension: the narrative plot line
  2. Comprehension: language
  3. Comprehension: ideas, attitudes, perspectives
  4. Analysis: language and imagery
  5. Analysis: syntax and structure

Developing comprehension of these extracts can take time. I don’t want to tell students what everything means, being reliant on the teacher in that way doesn’t help anyone. But – students need to know a whole bunch of stuff before they can even begin to grapple with the ideas and points of view presented in a text. For example: the language here is quite tricky. Marianne states “Is there a felicity in the world superior to this?” I kid you not when I ask classes about this sentence – they often think it is about a girl named Felicity.  When we are reading we are trying to work out what is going and what can sometimes be hindered by our understanding of language. So comprehension of narrative and comprehension of language must go hand in hand.

Students are great at creating a general understanding of what is going on by themselves. They know that they won’t get it all straight away. So we do a 1-2-3 reading strategy.

I start off by reminding students that a 500 word extract should only take about 2.5 minutes to read. I tell them, that because I love them and because it’s like “way old writing”, I’ll give them 3 minutes.

  1. First read. Then share with their partner: who are the characters / people in the extract? What was the most dramatic or interesting moment?
  2. Read again: build on their first reading – what kind of people are the characters in the extract? What are they like? What emotions do they express? What do they do in the extract? Pair and share ideas again.
  3. Third read: what happens in each paragraph? At this point, I normally get them to draw up a numbered table in their notebooks and write out the events as they read again. Final time to pair and share, they can add anything they’ve missed.

And what do you find? That despite not knowing what the word ‘felicity’ means – students have understood what happens in each paragraph.  This particular extract from Sense and Sensibility is perfect for this exercise (and guess what – shhh – you can download it as a freebie here).

4. Word Work

So now we know what is going on in the extract – we can flip back and do some word work. This is absolutely vital before we do any close analysis. It would be very easy to treat this as another dictionary task, but one issue with 19th century literature is the use of language that has slipped outside of everyday usage. Students need to grapple with these words for themselves before they can interpret another writer’s use.

For me then this word work is 2 phrase: first the dictionary work to define and then second to use these new words (or reframed words) in their own writing. The examples above are sentence starters that I give students using the vocabulary. I do this because with this students are more likely to use language correctly with this additional support, than if asked to just come up with their own idea.

5. Studying syntax

The final area we really focus on when studying 19th century literature is syntax and sentence structure. For us in the modern age, the event of modernism, saw a revolution in sentence structure. Authors rejected the highly embellished writing of their predecessors. Modern writers use shorter sentences and fewer clauses. Students can find reading the long sentence types seen in 19th century literature a challenge. So I turn it into a puzzle or a scavenger hunt.

By teaching the syntactical structures, such as polysyndeton, cumulative, and periodic sentences, students can make sense of what they are reading, and find ways to explain its purpose.

For my Maths and Science boys – literature becomes a literal puzzle, one that they can define, measure, and explain with more ease.

I hope these hints and tips will help you make 19th century literature come alive in your classroom.  If you are interested in my resources to help deliver these ideas in your classroom please see the links below!