When they told me I was teaching The Tempest to a Year 8 middle set a year ago, I went out and re-read it, and instantly thought it was stupid. It’s filled with unfunny Elizabethan comedy, it has about a million characters, it doesn’t seem to have much of a plot and it also doesn’t really seem to have an ending. It seemed like a disaster waiting to happen, and so I did what any good teacher would do: I grafted. I sat down at half-term and worked out how in the world I was going to communicate this weird, sprawling beast of a play to teenagers who didn’t understand the language of Roald Dahl.
After a few hours head-scratching, what I came up with was this. The Tempest is basically a play of recognisable ‘types’ – stock characters who you’d see in fairytales. There’s the wizard, the princess, the monster, the genie, the villain.
They got it, to my surprise. They got it because it was simple. It linked to some of their prior knowledge, they knew the stories and what they were supposed to think about these characters, and they could build on that. It was a good feeling, the first time I felt like something really worked for me as a teacher, and I’ve been trying to recapture that on some level ever since.
I’ve been re-reading Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick recently – lots of people shouting about Switch on the blogosphere at the moment, but I’m just a humble teacher so there’s limits to how much I can do with it – and I like their principles for creating a sticky idea, which have a lot in common with Dan Willingham:
I’m prone to overcomplicating things, but at heart that’s what my best lessons have been – they have taken a complex idea and communicated it in a simple, concrete, story-based way. I remember hearing Katie Ashford talking about the power of narrative at ResearchED and it being a revelation; I went away and came up with Mr Simile, who’s insecure and keeps comparing himself to everyone else and Mr Metaphor, who’s a shapeshifter. It stuck, and my kids have still got it today.
Stories are powerful, and they’re also, deep down, kind of easy to teach – even with the difficult texts. Yes, you have to work at it, but the Tempest sticks with my kids because they can relate to it and identify with the characters, much like The Outsiders has stuck with them; they took a bit of unpicking, sure, but there’s something in both of those stories that they want, something that’s both exciting and profound and will help them see the world in a different way. Even 8X3 got excited about that; who doesn’t get excited about being told a good story?
Only problem now is that we’re done with The Tempest, and next term we’re doing one of those brutal English Language units instead, where they have to explore the language of newspapers and write their own. They don’t read newspapers, and the immediate point of contact isn’t there, and I don’t know how to make it stick. It’s about language for effect, and if anyone knows of a sticky way to teach that I’d love to hear it, as I’m still drawing a blank on that one.
Still, nothing like a challenge eh?