Original writing: Edward Hopper’s Automat

Year 11 are working on the Original Writing task for GCSE Paper 1 at the moment, and we spent today’s lesson looking at how to explore an image. There are dozens of ways you can approach this task, and I’m sure people have their favourite methods, but I thought I’d write about this lesson because it’s a lovely way of getting students to generate ideas.

A couple of days ago, I read codexterous’s blog post on creative writing icebergs, and thought that this was a brilliant way of getting students to think about an image that I’ve used for years as a creative writing prompt, Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting Automat. So the Do Now task for today’s lesson was the following slide:

The students very quickly came up with the idea of isolation, and the idea that both images conveyed a sense of cold, whether physical or metaphorical. I prompted them to think of what they knew about icebergs, and from then it was an easy jump to the idea of surfaces and what lies beneath: the fact that you can look at Hopper’s image and have no idea what’s going on in the woman’s mind, or in her life, to bring her to this lonely café.

We then started to look at the painting in more depth. I asked the students to spend a couple of minutes simply writing down what they could see. It was fascinating to see how closely they read the image. They began with obvious points: a woman wearing a green coat and a yellow hat, sitting alone at a table in a café, with a window behind her in which two rows of lights are reflected in the darkness. Then they started to focus on particular details. One of them pointed out that the warmth of the colours: the reds, oranges and yellows. Another picked up on the empty chair opposite the woman. There was a lot of discussion of her clothes. Her coat looks expensive, with a fur collar and cuffs. Her dress is short and low-cut: she looks as if she’s dressed for a night out. She doesn’t have a bag with her. She’s wearing only one glove. She’s looking into her cup of coffee with a downcast expression on her face, emphasised by downward curve of the brim of her hat. I get students to think even further, about the things they can’t see: how much coffee is left in her cup, what time it might be, whether the table is clean or a little bit sticky.

Edward Hopper, ‘Automat’, 1927

From this point, questions abound. Why is she there? Is she on her way to somewhere, or is she going home? If she’s on her way somewhere, does she know where she’s going? How long has she been there? Was there someone sitting opposite her earlier? Has there ever been someone sitting opposite her? Is she running away from something? Why is she so dressed up? Has the person behind the counter noticed she’s there? Are they keeping an eye on her, concerned, wondering whether they should ask if everything’s okay?

We’re going to spend more time developing this piece of writing next week, but today we finished by focusing on that cup of coffee. I asked the students to imagine that they were looking at it, from the woman’s point of view, and to describe it. We shared our ideas, and one student came up with the brilliant idea that it had originally had a heart drawn in the foam on top, but that now the heart had disintegrated, leaving the woman with nothing but the dregs. We talked about what kinds of sentence structures might help us to create a sense of bleakness and despair, and decided that some single-words sentences, and short simple sentences, might be useful. Then we had five minutes to write a description, and I wrote alongside the students. Here’s what I came up with:

There wasn’t time for us to share our work, but that will be the starting point for next lesson. We’ll then think about how to structure a longer piece of writing, using drop-zoom-flash-end as a scaffold. Lots of thinking, lots of rich discussion and hard imaginative work, but the kind of lesson that passed by very quickly.

We need to talk about Blood Brothers

Yay! It’s another adoption post.

One thing I bang on about a lot is the number of adoption-related texts there are across the various GCSE English Literature specifications. I’ve written about this in my article ‘Images of Adoption: Adoption in Literature and in the English Classroom’ (in Teaching English, issue 16) and I’ve spoken about it on the Loco Parentis podcast and for a forthcoming edition of the Adoption & Fostering Podcast. Of all of these texts, the one that crops up most frequently is Willy Russell’s 1983 play Blood Brothers, which you can study for GCSE English Literature with AQA, Edexcel, Eduqas and CCEA. It’s one of the most popular texts with all of these boards, coming second only to the classroom stalwart An Inspector Calls. It also appears as a text for study in GCSE Drama with AQA, OCR and CCEA, where it’s consistently the most frequently-studied play. In theory, you could end up doing Blood Brothers for both GCSE English Literature and GCSE Drama. You’d hope that English and Drama departments would coordinate things so that students weren’t doing the same play for two different subjects, but then again, some English departments introduce texts at KS3 and then teach them again at GCSE, so nothing would surprise me.

Thicker than water? (Source: Creative Commons)

I’ve been meaning to write about Blood Brothers again for a while now, largely because I continue to be astonished by how many schools teach it and how unproblematically it’s viewed. Recently, in response to the discussion about Kate Clanchy’s book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, Alex Wright tweeted that ‘If one reads a depiction of another, who, for whatever aspect of their personhood is depicted in a way that lessens them, one can and will internalise these depictions. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root.’ This really nailed what’s at the heart of my discomfort with Blood Brothers. It’s a play about social class, inequality and injustice, and all of these are important themes to explore. But at the heart of all of this is the adoption of a child, and it’s the use of adoption as a plot device – and the simplistic way in which it’s treated – that, for me, makes Blood Brothers a really troubling text.

The plot of Blood Brothers is simple. Mrs Lyons is unable to have children: her cleaner, Mrs Johnstone, has found herself pregnant with twins even though she already has ‘seven hungry mouths to feed’. Mrs Lyons persuades Mrs Johnstone to give one of one of the twins to her, but insists that this has to remain a secret, as twins who are secretly parted must never learn the truth: ‘If either twin learns that he was once a pair, they shall both immediately die.’ The two boys – Mrs Johnstone’s son Mickey, and Mrs Lyons’ son Edward – grow up in different households, with different opportunities and expectations. Nevertheless, the two become friends, each unaware of the relationship between them. Together with Mickey’s neighbour Linda, they form a trio who play together, roam the streets and get into trouble with the police, who treat Mickey and Edward very differently. Edward does not know that he is adopted, but – like the vast majority of adopted people – he struggles with his sense of identity, and feels much more drawn to Mickey and Mrs Johnstone. Later, Edward goes to university; Mickey and Linda get married. Mickey loses his job in a factory and goes to prison for his role in an armed robbery. On his release, he is depressed, unable to cope without antidepressants. An exhausted Linda turns to Edward for comfort, and Mickey confronts him with a gun. Mrs Johnstone appears, and tells Mickey that he and Edward are twins, but the inevitable happens: Mickey’s gun goes off by accident, killing Edward, and Mickey is then shot dead by armed police.

It’s easy to see why Blood Brothers became so popular with schools. It’s a play that works on uncomplicated stereotypes about social class and privilege, with plenty of opportunities for students to compare and contrast the presentation of Mickey and Edward, Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons, and the ways in which life has treated them. Take the incident where the children are apprehended by a policeman for throwing stones. Mrs Johnstone is told that Mickey was ‘about to commit a serious crime’; Mrs Lyons is reassured that ‘it was more of a prank’. Or the conversation between Mickey and Edward when Edward returns after his first term at university: Edward has had a fantastic time, and is looking for parties and a chance to celebrate: Mickey has just been made unemployed. Edward tells him that ‘if I couldn’t get a job I’d just say, sod it and draw the dole, live like a bohemian, tilt my hat to the world and say “screw you”’. Edward doesn’t have a clue. But on a more complex level, the play offers scope for the exploration of political theatre and classical tragedy. The disturbing figure of the Narrator, for instance, breaks the fourth wall at crucial points to underline the theme of superstition and fate that runs through the play, reminding both Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons of the consequences of their actions. The message the Narrator offers is clear: the separation of the twins has disrupted the order of the universe, and the balance will only be restored with their inevitable deaths.

We studied Blood Brothers in GCSE Drama when I was fifteen, back in 1988, when the play was still relatively fresh. I have a vague memory of playing Mrs Lyons in the scene where she persuades Mrs Johnstone to give up one of her twins, doing my best to put on an RP accent and holding a cushion up to my front, pretending to be pregnant, Oh, the irony. We loved Mrs Johnstone – salt of the earth, of course we did – and hated Mrs Lyons, with all her middle-class selfishness. We were teenagers, and this was Merseyside in the 1980s, and our sympathy was always going to be with the underdog. Of course Edward was really Mrs Johnstone’s son: of course Mrs Lyons was possessive, grasping, wanting what she couldn’t have and using all the force of her social and economic privilege to get it. What’s the problem?

This is where I go back to Alex’s words. ‘If one reads a depiction of another, who, for whatever aspect of their personhood is depicted in a way that lessens them, one can and will internalise these depictions. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root.’

Adoption as a whole, and adopted people in particular, aren’t served well by popular culture. There are so many hackneyed tropes, so many predictable storylines. Adopted people threaten the natural order of things. They’re cuckoos in the nest. Think of Mrs Rachel Lynde in Anne of Green Gables, warning Marilla Cuthbert of the horrors that await her if she adopts a child, telling her of adopted children who put strychnine in the well and set fire to the house while their adoptive families were asleep. Think of Heathcliff and Edward Cullen. Adoption might bring material advantages, but it also means that – like Edward in Blood Brothers – you’ll never really fit in. And as for adoptive parents – well, they’re just weird. There are very few positive representations of adoptive parents in contemporary fiction and drama. The Brinks in Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, the appalling Averys in John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, the Donaldsons in Anne Tyler’s Digging to America: adopters are naïve and selfish at best, loveless monsters at worst. No wonder they couldn’t have children of their own, you can imagine people saying. When you look at Mr and Mrs Lyons, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that they were never really meant to be parents in the first place.

Blood Brothers does not make any claims to realism, and the Lyons family is – obviously – light-years away from the average adoptive family in the UK today. Edward’s adoption is both unofficial and illegal, and Mr and Mrs Lyons escape the lengthy process of assessment and approval that all prospective adopters in the UK have to undergo. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this play represents the most significant fictional model of adoption that many of our students will have encountered at this point in their lives. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root. Many teaching resources choose to focus on the play’s adoption theme and hold it up as an oddity, something outside students’ own lives. One resource on Teachit asks ‘Do you think that it is ok for women to give up their babies for adoption? What reasons do women have for doing this?’ Another asks students to ‘create a short improvisation in which a teenager discovers that he/she was given up for adoption at 1 week old. He or she only discovers the truth when going through an old shoe box kept in the loft. How do you feel when you are told that your mum and dad are not your real parents?’ Imagine being an adopted teenager in this classroom, faced with this activity: lives like yours reduced to outdated stereotypes, painful family histories turned into an exercise for open discussion. Adoption, and families formed by adoption, are persistently othered: adoptive families are weird. (Adopted children are actually told this, by the way, by other children. The Dude certainly was. I have no idea where the other kid got it from, but it must have been from somewhere. Another kid told him that all adopted people end up in prison. That kid must have got that from somewhere, too. I have lost count of how many misconceptions I had to correct during the Dude’s school career.)

And adopted children have quite enough to cope with already, thank you. All adoption is rooted in trauma, and this is particularly the case in the UK nowadays, when the vast majority of adoptions involve children who have been taken into care because their birth parents were unable to keep them safe. The effects of this trauma can be lifelong. Some children will have very vivid memories of the events that led to their removal from their birth parents’ care. Others will have been very young, but early trauma – including that which is experienced prenatally – leaves its mark on the developing brain.

And yet, even now, adoption provides a seemingly endless set of tropes for entertainment. Just this week, a post shared on my Twitter timeline spoke of social media posts by parents joking about coping with their children during the long summer holiday, and how they were tempted to ‘have them adopted’. There’s a children’s novel called The Unadoptables, a supposedly ‘joyful’ Gothic romp about a group of orphans in nineteenth-century Amsterdam who are rejected by prospective adopters for a variety of reasons: one has big ears, one is south Asian, one has twelve fingers, one is mute and one is a girl who happens to be feisty and outspoken. Memes and jokes and plot devices, all riffing off a topic that is hugely complex, with no idea of the ramifications involved. (The Unadoptables was widely criticised by adopted people, adoptive parents and child welfare professionals when it was published in 2020: this Twitter thread, by Nicole Chung, will give you a sense of the debate. It was, nevertheless, bought by Penguin Random House for a ‘significant’ six-figure sum that would have paid for many hours of post-adoption support.) How long will we have to put up with this kind of thing?

So, as we approach the new school year, a favour. If you’re going to be teaching Blood Brothers, please think really carefully about how you’re going to handle the adoption-related elements of the plot, whether you have adopted or care-experienced students in your class or not. Pay these parts of the story the same kind of attention that I hope you’re paying to problematic depictions of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability – anything, in fact, that might cause students to feel less valued and less important, singled out because of their difference. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root. For many of our children, the education system is difficult to negotiate. Texts like Blood Brothers make it a whole lot harder.

What schools need to know about adoption

My son, the Dude, finished his school career a few weeks ago, and is enjoying a blissful summer before starting college in September. (Well, not entirely blissful, as he’s broken his hand, but he’s managing). It’s fair to say that school can be a difficult place for adopted and care-experienced children, and we’ve had our share of issues to cope with over the years. As an adoptive parent, you have to spend a huge amount of time being your child’s advocate, and this often involves having to explain things about adoption that you’d hope education professionals would be aware of already. So here’s my list of things that schools need to know about adoption, based on fourteen and a half years of adoptive parenting.

A long, long journey: the Dude, aged two, shortly after his arrival
  1. Adoption has changed since the 1960s and 70s. It’s no longer about young single mothers giving up tiny babies because there was no other option available to them. The vast majority of children adopted in the UK nowadays have been taken into care as a result of abuse or neglect. A court then has to be convinced that there is no possible chance of them returning safely to their birth parents. For this decision to be made, a huge amount of evidence has to be built up. That takes a long time – time when children might have been in harmful situations or in the uncertainty of foster care. All of this will have had an impact.
  2. Linked to this is the fact that children don’t have to have a conscious memory of the events that led to their adoption in order to be affected by them. Early trauma – neglect, abandonment, exposure to harm – disrupts the formation of secure attachments, and leaves its mark on the developing brain. Some of our children will also experience the consequences of poor antenatal care and exposure to drugs and alcohol before birth. It’s not a question of whether our children ‘remember’ any of this.
  3. Adopted children are not lucky. Even if they’ve been adopted by the most supportive and loving of parents, who can give them experiences and material advantages that their peers don’t have, this doesn’t make them lucky. In order to be adopted, they will have been through a whole raft of pretty horrible experiences. Living through circumstances that are so bad that a court has to separate you permanently from your family of origin does not make you particularly fortunate.
  4. Adoption doesn’t make everything okay. The effects of early trauma mean that some of our children will continue to need support for years into the future (and some adoptive parents will have to fight for every bit of this support, because accessing it isn’t easy). So don’t roll your eyes and claim that adoptive parents are making a meal of it when they remind you that you need to make adjustments.
  5. The classroom can be a scary place. This applies especially to children who have only just been placed with their adoptive families, who will be facing a whole bunch of new situations and people and sensations, and might well be in a different part of the country. But even children who are relatively settled in placement might still find the school environment overwhelming. Give them a safe base and clear routines that don’t involve having to make too many choices. This is particularly important in the early years, when free flow play can present children with so many different options that they end up completely bewildered: it’s like having too many puddings to choose from.
  6. Some areas of the curriculum can be extremely difficult for adopted children. Anything that involves bringing in photos of yourself as a baby, talking about your family tree, reading about children who are displaced (Goodnight Mister Tom, I’m looking at you), talks from organisations about trauma and abuse. If you’ve got adopted or care-experienced children in your school, you should do an audit of your curriculum and, if necessary, liaise with parents or foster carers. There’s a surprising number of adoption-related set texts on GCSE English Literature specifications: make sure your students aren’t blindsided by the vengeful birth mother in The Woman in Black, or the appalling worksheet on Blood Brothers that asks students to imagine only finding out that you’re adopted when you discover your original birth certificate at the age of sixteen.
  7. For many adopted children, shame can be an overwhelming emotion. Shame about what happened in their past; shame about whether it was their fault; shame about having a different kind of family. This can then bleed over into other aspects of their lives (being told off, losing a game, doing badly in a test, being teased in class). Help them to manage their reactions, but be aware that this is a difficult thing. Don’t expect them to just laugh it off, or chide them for not being able to take a joke. And don’t tell them it doesn’t matter, because it does.
  8. Social thinning is a very real thing. Many adopted children struggle to form friendships, and will need support with this. Nurture groups, friendship benches, extracurricular activities: they’ll all help. If possible, help our children to build friendships that will extend beyond school as well. Those cliques at the school gate will often exclude our children from playdates and parties, especially if their behaviour marks them out in class as being different. Anything you can do to combat this would be brilliant, and adoptive parents will be extremely grateful.
  9. Do pass on information. Make sure everyone involved in the child’s day-to-day school life knows everything they need to, including any relevant information about developmental trauma and triggers to watch out for. It sounds obvious, but it doesn’t always happen.
  10. Don’t expect adopted children to be spokespeople for adoption. They might not want to talk about being adopted. They might not want their friends to know. That’s fine, it’s up to them. It’s not a secret, but it is private. They might find anything that sparks memories of life-before-adoption really scary. They definitely shouldn’t be put in a position where they’re asked ‘What’s it like to be adopted?’ in front of a whole class of their peers. If they want to talk about it, that’s different, but make sure it’s a safe environment.
  11. Jokes about adoption really aren’t funny. The only funny adoption-based joke I know is the late Jeremy Hardy’s comment about how some parents like to cook and eat the placenta, after their child is born: adoptive parents don’t have that option, so they might want to cook and eat their social worker instead. He was allowed to say that because he was an adoptive parent. Don’t say ‘I bet your mum wishes she’d given you up for adoption’ to a random kid in your class who’s just done something mildly foolish. Really. Just don’t. Even if you don’t have any adopted or care-experienced children in your class. It’s still all shades of wrong.
  12. Adoptive parents are real parents. We went through a lot to get here. As one of my friends eloquently put it: ‘You had to go on courses and be assessed and everything; most people just have a shag.’ Our children might not be genetically related to us, but we love the very bones of them. And they’re bloody amazing, so help us to look after them.

Hey, Ofsted

Thirty-two years ago, it was the summer of 1989. I’d just finished my GCSEs. Other people kept muttering that I should find a job for the summer, but Merseyside in the 1980s wasn’t exactly overflowing with summer jobs, and in any case I had other ideas. I was alternating between going for long solo walks – pacing around the hot summer streets of Newton-le-Willows, the air thick with the scent of goldenrod and willow herb – and reading. I was due to start my A levels in September and we’d been told that we should read as much as possible over the summer. We had an induction session where we had to write down the last three books we’d read, and cross off anything that was one of our GCSE set texts. I wasn’t completely sure what I should read, but I did know that teenage fiction and pony books wouldn’t pass muster. I’d read a review of David Lodge’s novel Nice Work in the paper, and thought it sounded interesting. I bought a copy of it from WH Smith in Warrington and read it over the course of about four days, and discovered from it that there was the possibility of doing English at university, something I’d never actually thought about before but which started to take hold in my mind, that long summer, in a way that nothing else ever had.

All in all, it’s just a … (Source: Creative Commons)

One of the central characters in Nice Work was a lecturer called Robyn Penrose. At one point in the novel, she mused on what it would be like to have never read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and then reflected that there must be many thousands of reasonably well-educated people who had never read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, who had never shivered at Lowood with Jane or throbbed in the arms of Heathcliff with Cathy. I’d heard of the Brontës, but what I knew of them came largely from Kate Bush singing about the wily, windy moors. There was a gap in my knowledge and it seemed to me that reading Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre was something I needed to do. I didn’t know it yet, but I was on the edge of something big.

I bought a Penguin Classics copy of Wuthering Heights, with purple-streaked heather moors on the cover and an introduction by someone called David Daiches. I made myself read the introduction, even though it looked complicated. I found out about the Brontës, about the sisters who died so young and the ones who survived, and was intrigued by strange crabby Emily who strode across Yorkshire and didn’t give a toss about anyone. I devoured Wuthering Heights, and then I read Jane Eyre, and between them the Brontës opened up spaces in my head that I didn’t know existed before.

I raided the local library and pored over biographies, dusty-looking books from the non-fiction section that hadn’t been borrowed in years. These books made no concessions to teenage me. I needed to reach up and find my own footholds. I wasn’t sure what to do with all this stuff I was learning about. It was a huge, absorbing mass of ideas and I couldn’t quite make it fit in with the rest of my life. I had a vague sense that my friends wouldn’t know what to make of any of this, and so I didn’t tell them. It felt like dangerous knowledge, all these things I was finding out about these three strange sisters and their slightly embarrassing brother, up there in the parsonage. It was leading me into alien territory, out there on the other side of the Pennines. Empty moorland acres and twittering skylarks and trees sculpted by the wind. I squared my shoulders and trudged on into the unknown.

By the time sixth form started, I was reading Villette. It felt like the biggest book I’d ever read. Not just in itself – six hundred densely printed pages – but in its honesty, its unwillingness to make concessions. I was possessed by Lucy Snowe’s lonely journey to Brussels, her awkward existence at Madame Beck’s pensionnat and her emerging friendship with the equally spiky Paul Emanuel. I tucked my copy into my schoolbag with my French textbook and my History notes, and read it in the library when I should have been learning about the Wars of the Roses. Walking home from school, I played out conversations in my head – imaginary university interviews with lecturers who’d read more than I could ever imagine – about why the Brontës were so important and why Villette was so much better than Jane Eyre.

Learning doesn’t just take place within a classroom. That summer, the summer of 1989, changed my life, and it happened because I had the freedom to spend three months lost in books, going for walks, and thinking.

Horses, when they are young, benefit from being turned out to graze and explore. There are things that they need to learn, but they also need time to just be a horse.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with Amanda Spielman’s announcement that students in Year 11 and 13 shouldn’t be given study leave this summer, but one of the most important is that it ignores the fact that young people – especially after a deeply traumatic year – need to be given time to be themselves. They need to mooch around and pursue their own interests; they need to hang out with friends and spend time on their own. Some will be out earning money; some will have other responsibilities. Some might still need the support of school, and it’s important that this support is there, for all manner of reasons. But what none of them need is to be in a hot stuffy classroom, pursuing someone else’s idea of catch-up. Let them be, and let them breathe.

Learning, and teaching

Horses and I go back a long way.

The Class of 77

Here’s a photo of the Class of 77 at the Civic Hall playgroup in Newton-le-Willows, Merseyside. A group of four-year olds, ready to move on and start school. See the little blonde girl on the rocking horse? That’s me. I am hanging onto that horse with silent, steely determination. If you think I’m going to let you have a turn, you can think again. Off you go to the Wendy house, and find something else to do.

I started riding real life equines, as opposed to rocking horses, when I was six, and rode intermittently for the next ten years. I started off at a proper riding school and then graduated to a local livery stable where I was allowed to ride the owner’s outgrown ponies. I was competent – I could canter and stick on over small fences – but I didn’t ride regularly enough to become good. I had a bad fall when I was thirteen, when the pony I was riding bolted and dumped me off into a barbed wire fence, and after that I was always a bit too nervous. At some point my visits to the stables grew less and less frequent, and eventually, at some point in my GCSE year, they stopped altogether.

Riding was always something that I wanted to go back to. I missed being around horses; missed the smell of hay and the clop of hooves. Living near lots of open countryside made me think of how lovely it would be to go for long hacks on summer evenings. But I could always find reasons to put off picking up the phone and booking a lesson. I didn’t have time. It was ruinously expensive (if you want a cheap hobby, don’t go anywhere near horses). I might fall off. It wasn’t until the year I turned forty that I finally got round to riding again, knowing that if I’d regret it if I didn’t.

That was nearly nine years ago, and in those nine years I’ve made a lot of progress. I have a stronger seat (which is massively important) and know how to ride more deeply and influence the way the horse moves. I have ridden some difficult horses. People whose opinion I respect have told me that I am relaxed on a horse and can ride tactfully. This is important, because horses, like your average Year Ten class, need to be approached with tact if you’re going to get the best out of them.

I will never be as good as I want to be, though. This is partly because I only ride once a week, but there are other things as well. One: I am not as brave as I need to be. I have to fight against the thought that at some point I might be ever so slightly out of control. If I fall off, I’ll go crunch, not bounce. This is an alarming prospect. Two: there are things I physically struggle to do, like the fresh hell that is trotting in a two-point position – basically, standing up in your stirrups while the horse trots along. It hurts. Want an agonizing cramp in your quads? Ten minutes of two-point trot will do it. There are ways in which I no longer bend and bits of me that just aren’t strong enough. And three: while I can recognise good riding and bad riding, someone else’s model of excellence isn’t enough on its own to help me improve. I can see what really good riders do on a horse, but I can’t imitate it. I’m not there, and I probably never will be.

Learning all of this has been really important to me, not just as a human but as a teacher. At school, learning came easily to me. Some subjects, like Maths, took a bit more effort, but I managed. I could look at a good example, work out what I needed to do, and incorporate it into my own work without too many problems. I never really had to struggle. Learning to ride has been different. There have been tears and frustrations, and times when I’ve thought about giving up. I’ve had to work my way through the low points and battle against my own pride. I’ve been taught by people whose standards have been unrealistically high and people who have pointed out what I’m doing wrong without ever telling me whether I’m getting anything right. I’ve also been lucky enough to be taught by a couple of lovely, lovely people who have been encouraging and kind, who have challenged me in just the right ways without making things feel insurmountable. As a result of this I’ve known how amazing it is when you’re told that yes, even though that thing seems really difficult, you can do it, and even if it you don’t do it perfectly, you should still give it a try. And so you do, and the sense of achievement gives you a fabulous crazy glow for the rest of the day.

As teachers, we’re used to being the people who know things, the people who can do things. Part of everyone’s CPD should involve learning something they don’t find easy, and reflecting on what it’s like to struggle and feel a bit rubbish, and on the difference that the right kind of teacher makes to all of this.

How many children had Lady Macbeth?

‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’ That, of course, is the title of a lecture delivered by L.C. Knights in 1933. Knights was challenging the idea that Shakespeare’s characters can be treated as if they are real people, with lives that existed before the plays and go on afterwards. Because of this, he didn’t answer the question at all. For Knights, Shakespeare’s plays should be seen as dramatic poems: he had no time for what E.C. Pettet referred to as ‘the critical game of constructing a world outside the given material of the play’ (Shakespeare and the Romance Tradition, 1949). Nowadays, we are keen to remind students that Shakespeare’s plays were written for the stage, not the page. And thinking about the stage, of course, inevitably involves thinking about what is going on beyond the words themselves. We get students to consider set design, costume and sound effects: we show them examples of different stage and screen interpretations and make use of the insights offered by actors and directors. Often, these insights do exactly what Knights was opposed to, constructing backstories for characters and considering why they might act in the way they do. This week, Year 10 and I have been exploring different interpretations of Lady Macbeth; and I’m going to argue that rather than ‘how many children had Lady Macbeth?’, a far more interesting question is ‘how many children did Lady Macbeth lose?’

A declaration of interest, before I go any further. I write as a woman who is unable to have children, and literary and dramatic images of childlessness, child loss and alternative ways of building a family are of great interest to me. I’m writing a book that touches on the representation of adoptive families in popular culture, and I’ve got a future post brewing on the unfortunate Mrs Lyons, one of the lead female characters in Willy Russell’s curriculum stalwart Blood Brothers, who is desperate to have a child and therefore does what all infertile women do and arranges an illegal adoption. In recent lessons, my students and I have watched a number of interviews with actors who have focused on Lady Macbeth as a childless woman, and these have intrigued me. So let’s have a look.

Possibly not that grief-stricken: Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, John Singer Sargent, 1889. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

What do we know about Lady Macbeth and children? We know, of course, that she has ‘given suck’: she says so, in Act 1 Scene 7, where she manages to persuade Macbeth to kill Duncan. Macbeth is initially adamant that they will ‘proceed no further’ with their plan. He has weighed up the consequences for his immortal soul, and knows that he will be punished in Hell for all eternity. (Remember that doom mural I posted a couple of weeks ago? That’s what he’s scared of). Lady Macbeth throws everything she can into her attempt to change his mind. She calls him a coward. (‘She says he’s a pussy!’ said one of my Year 10s, delightedly, seizing on the reference to ‘the poor cat i’th’adage.’) She claims he doesn’t love her. She tells him he’s not a real man, even though he’s a warrior who was on the battlefield a couple of days ago, unseaming traitors with a sword that smokes ‘with bloody execution.’ And then she reminds him, horribly, of the fact that

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

So at some point, Lady Macbeth has fed a baby. And, assuming that it’s unlikely that she would have been a wet-nurse, it seems that at some point, Lady Macbeth has had a baby. We know – because Macduff says so later, when he discovers that his wife and children have been murdered by Macbeth – that Macbeth himself has no children. So this baby is no longer alive. And even though Macbeth proclaims that his wife should ‘bring forth men-children only’, suggesting that she is still of childbearing age, there’s a hint that the Macbeths’ failure to produce a living heir is something that weighs on Macbeth’s mind. This comes in his soliloquy in Act 3 Scene 1, when he ponders the fact that it will be Banquo’s descendants who become kings, and not his own:

Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe.

‘Fruitless’, ‘barren’: the implications are quite clear. And once we start to join the dots, we can invent a whole backstory for the Macbeths that rests on their absence of a family.

The actor Louise Lombard, in a series of short videos made for the BBC in 2012, critiques interpretations that depict Lady Macbeth as some kind of ‘pantomime witch’ – like the BBC’s own 1970 production for its Play of the Month series, starring Eric Porter and Janet Suzman. Lombard argues that it’s more interesting to try to understand Lady Macbeth, rather than to condemn her. Her words about the baby, for example, ‘can be played as pure evil – as if she doesn’t care. But I think the Macbeths cared deeply about this baby. And I think understanding this baby helps me to understand Lady Macbeth.’

It’s a fascinating idea, and one that my students enjoyed exploring. In Lombard’s version, Lady Macbeth sees herself as the victim of some kind of cosmic injustice. In a society where the main role of a woman was to produce children, she has been unable to give her husband any living descendants. (And let’s not forget that Shakespeare’s audience, in the early seventeenth century, would have been finely attuned to the issues of inheritance, of bringing forth men-children in order to secure the line of succession.) Are Lady Macbeth’s actions fuelled by a desire to right these cosmic wrongs?

Similar interpretations of the Macbeths and their marriage have cropped up in a number of productions. Julia Ford’s depiction of Lady Macbeth in the 2011 production for the Liverpool Everyman was described by Alfred Hickling in the Guardian as expressing ‘a despairing hope that an empty throne might compensate for a barren womb.’ The 2015 film version, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, begins with the funeral of the Macbeths’ child, and sees Lady Macbeth talking to the ghost of her dead child during the sleepwalking scene. In such interpretations, the Macbeths become less a butcher and his fiend-like queen, and more a couple whose reactions to the world have been distorted by grief.

The idea of a Lady Macbeth consumed by her childlessness puts an interesting spin on her reference to the one character in the play who is actually a mother: Lady Macduff. ‘The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?’ I’m imagining a Lady Macbeth twisted by her inability to give Macbeth a living son; a totally unhistorically-accurate and un-Shakespearean Lady Macbeth who has spent a lot of time at family gatherings surrounded by women who have done what they’re supposed to and produced brood after brood of pretty chickens. She’s there, sitting on the sidelines, consumed by failure. I can sympathise with this Lady Macbeth, because I’ve been there. I’ve never asked for evil spirits to fill me with direst cruelty or urged my husband to commit regicide, but I know that sense of wanting to rage at the universe because of what you’ve been unable to do. Her sleepwalking words carry the dark spite of someone who feels vindicated: you thought you had it all, down there in Fife with your perfect family, and look where it got you.

When I teach plays, I’m always keen to get students to imagine what’s happening on stage: not just where people stand and how particular lines will be spoken, but what might be happening in the gaps and silences. This is particularly important with Shakespeare, whose stage directions are so minimal. A brilliant example of this is in King Lear: what’s going on with all those riotous knights, and why does Goneril get so angry about them? In the RSC’s 2016 production, it’s made abundantly clear. They stomp around everywhere, have food fights, overturn furniture, make rude gestures with bread rolls, and try to grope the serving-maids. I’d be a bit cross if that was going on, especially once the Fool got up on the table and started arsing around with a ukulele. So can we imagine what Lady Macbeth might be doing, how she might be spending her time while she’s waiting for Macbeth to return from battle? Is she sitting beside her dead child’s cradle, struggling with her grief? Is this a recent loss, or an old one that she is still mourning? Why is she so isolated? What might she be looking at?

None of this, of course, is necessarily what Shakespeare intended, and it certainly wouldn’t please L.C. Knights. But it’s part of the whole process of playing with ideas and pushing interpretations to see how far they’ll go, and that’s one of the things that makes teaching English so interesting.

Teacher Feature: Mrs Lintott

Hey, it’s the Teacher Feature! This is going to be a regular-ish series exploring fictional teachers from page, stage and screen, and fittingly, the opener is going to focus on a character from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, which gives this page its name. I could have chosen Hector or Irwin, but instead I’m going to write about Mrs Lintott, played in both the original stage version and the 2006 film adaptation by Frances de la Tour.

Mrs Lintott with Hector, Irwin and the History Boys, at Fountains Abbey. (Source: Wikipedia)

Every staffroom needs a Mrs Lintott. She’d look after you in your first few weeks as a rookie teacher, making sure you knew how the coffee rota worked and whose chair you shouldn’t sit in. She’d dispense wisdom and offer suggestions on how to approach particular students. It was the Mrs Lintotts of my first school who gave me the pieces of advice that have stayed with me all my career. Don’t try to be their friend. Be kind, but make sure they know where the boundaries are. Bright students can wind you up far more effectively than less able ones. If you expect to make a meaningful connection with every student you teach, you’ll burn yourself out. Mrs Lintott has a box of tissues and a packet of digestives in her desk drawer, and knows just when you need them. She’s essential to the running of the school, although her role isn’t an official one and doesn’t come with extra pay. A school without at least one Mrs Lintott is a very poor thing.

Mrs Lintott, in Bennett’s play, acts as a kind of moral centre, standing in the middle of a triangle formed by the dilettante Hector, the smoothly ambitious Irwin, and the repulsively shallow Headmaster. The Headmaster wants the school to rise in the league tables: he is determined to get more students into Oxford and Cambridge, and recruits Irwin to tutor the school’s most able History students. Mrs Lintott has taught them in the past, but it’s clear that her approach won’t cut it, in Oxbridge terms. She offers hard graft, ‘plainly stated and properly organised facts.’ (I bet she loves a well-organised lever arch file, with dividers and plastic wallets, all the headings underlined.) Irwin offers flash. As Rudge, one of the boys, puts it: ‘You’ve force-fed us the facts; now we’re in the business of running around acquiring flavour.’ He gets his students to approach the past from unexpected angles, finding tangential ways in. With him, the boys find the moments when history ‘rattles over the points’. They develop intellectual agility. But they couldn’t have done it without Mrs Lintott laying the foundations.

Hector’s lessons, meanwhile, are all about ‘sheer calculated silliness.’ They’re the antidote to the Headmaster’s weaselling, a space to shore up fragments of Gracie Fields and George Formby and act out scenes from classic films. They are fun – witness the improvised scene in the French brothel – but eventually the boys realise that they’re not going to get them into Oxbridge. Hector is a joker, but he’s also sad, in every possible sense of the word. He offers the boys lifts home on his motorbike, and gropes them as they sit behind him, but they treat this with a weary eyeroll rather than reporting him. He recognises the loneliness in Posner, the most fragile of the boys, and speaks to him of the ‘sense of not sharing, of being out of it. Whether because of diffidence or shyness, but a holding back. Not being in the swim. Can you see that?’

Hector knows that Irwin’s lessons are about playing an intellectual game. So does Mrs Lintott. She’d have no truck with such Ofsted-isms as ‘rapid and sustained progress’, with knowledge organisers and ‘wow words’ and the need for everything to be outstanding all of the time. She’d recognise that true learning is a long slow burn, an uneven path.

In the play, Mrs Lintott has some cracking lines. There’s the obvious one about studying at Durham: ‘It’s where I had my first pizza. Other things, too, of course, but it’s the pizza that stands out.’ There’s the bit where she defines history as ‘women following behind with a bucket.’ There’s also the point where she describes the Headmaster as ‘a twat … a condescending cunt.’ (In a production at my former school, the student who played Mrs Lintott delivered this line with real relish.) But for me, the part where we really see the essence of Mrs Lintott is at the end, at Hector’s memorial service, when she tells us what has become of the boys. Their fates in the film differ from those in the original play – Posner’s ending is happier, Lockwood’s sadder – but that doesn’t really matter. What I like about this scene is the sense of Mrs Lintott’s role extending into the future, there not just for the seven years of secondary school but for many decades to come. She’d be the one who’d bump into her former students, or their parents, in the supermarket, and find out what they were up to. There’d be shared reminiscences, and maybe the odd letter. She might attend the occasional wedding, in her size seven, wide-fitting court shoes; she’d certainly be there for funerals. Teachers who matter don’t just get you through the exams. They balance and stabilise; they help to make a school a genuine community that shows young people how to be. They might not set the educational world on fire, but they do help to ground it.

Everyone should be taught by at least one Mrs Lintott, at some point in their life. Who’s yours?

Rites of passage

About ten years ago, I had the idea that a good way to mark the end of Sixth Form would be to get my A level students to spend their final lesson decorating gingerbread people. It turned out to be a lovely thing to do. I took in lots of squeezy icing, cake decorations, jelly strands and the gingerbread people themselves, and we had a great old time. Most years, I put everyone’s name into a hat: everyone drew out a name and had to make a gingerbread portrait of that particular person. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen yourself represented in gingerbread, believe me.) One year, I got my English Literature group to make a character from one of the texts we’d studied. We had several Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a forlorn Willy Loman and a particularly memorable Duke of Gloucester from King Lear, who took up an awful lot of red icing.

The Class of 2017

Rites of passage are an important thing. Final assemblies, awards ceremonies, speeches from departing staff: they mark an end and help you to move on to the next phase of your life. At my previous school, there were no end-of-year celebrations and no chances to say a proper, formal goodbye. My current school is much better. There are speeches and thank-yous and a sense of tying up loose ends. It’s a ritual that matters, one that shows a proper valuing of the time you’ve spent in a particular place, the work you’ve done there and the things you’ve learned, whether it’s as a student or a member of staff.

Last year, with a global pandemic and one day’s notice that we’d be closing, we had very little time to organise anything, but we still managed to sign shirts and hold an impromptu disco. This year, conscious of the ongoing risk, we didn’t do gingerbread people, but we still pulled names out of a hat, and this time we drew each other, instead.

Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ is a fabulous, atmospheric poem about the end of primary school: I love the sense of impending change in the final stanza and the sky splitting open into a thunderstorm in the last line. And C. Day Lewis’s ‘Walking Away’ looks at departure from a different angle, that of the parent taking his child to school. I always think of the penultimate line whenever students leave school: the idea that selfhood begins with a walking away, moving on to an unknown future with all the chances and uncertainties life brings.

Running on empty

Of all the phases in the school year – back to school in stiff new uniforms in September, the exhausting long drag up to Christmas, freewheeling down to the end of term in July when all the exam groups have gone – the current one is always the toughest. In a normal year, it’s the final preparation for exams, cramming in as much practice as we can before the students go off on study leave. Teaching becomes less about genuine, mind-expanding education and more about making sure that everyone knows which boxes they’ll have to tick. Remember to quote at least three sources, cram in your buzzwords, apportion your time carefully … Nerves are frayed, minor irritations get magnified, and everyone just needs to go away and calm down.

This year, of course, it’s not a normal year at all. In the UK, grades for GCSE, A level and BTEC are being determined by teacher assessment. Last year – the first year of the pandemic – we had to forecast grades based on what we thought students would have been most likely to have achieved if the exams have gone ahead. Schools went into lockdown in March, when teaching for the exam courses was practically over: determining the grades was an administrative headache, but at least we didn’t have actual students to cope with as well. This year’s exam students have had to contend with two prolonged lockdowns plus innumerable periods of self-isolation. Individual schools and colleges have been free to determine how they’ll assess their students and what they’ll get them to cover, bearing in mind the level of disruption they’ve faced. We’ve had to put all of this in place in a relatively short space of time, and the last couple of months – in schools everywhere – have seen classrooms full of silent rows, heads down, scribbling frantically.

All this has generated a massive amount of marking, which has all had to be done by normal classroom teachers, with no extra time and for no extra pay. One English-teacher friend is a GCSE examiner: she reckons that if she’s been paid her normal examiner rates for the amount of marking she’s done over the last few weeks, she’d be pulling in at least £2500. Another friend has a colleague who is currently undergoing outpatient treatment: she’ll be spending a day marking while hooked up to a drip. A group of headteachers in England and Wales is campaigning for the exam boards to refund at least half of the £220 million charged for administering this summer’s exams, pointing out that individual schools are setting assessments, marking them, carrying out quality-assurance checks, processing results (which are being issued ten days earlier than they usually are, just to add an extra complication) and handling appeals. The exam boards promised to make assessment materials available for schools to use, but these materials were not released until just before Easter – and when they were released, they were also made available to the wider public, meaning that students could access not only question papers, but also mark schemes. It didn’t really matter, though, because none of the assessment materials were new. They were all past papers that we’d already worked with and used and discussed in class. We ended up having to produce our own.

Year Twelve, meanwhile, are currently looking at word-formation, and we’ve been talking about all the blends and compound words that can be used to describe something that’s an epic mess. Shitshow. Omnishambles. Clusterfuck. Call it what you like. What it means is that teachers everywhere are not just exhausted – sapped by that elemental tiredness that sets in at particular times of year – but battered, wanting to curl up in a corner until it all goes away.

So if you know any teachers, look after them, over the next few weeks. We’re helping students through a difficult stressy time and dealing with our own exhaustion as well. We’re good at caring – it’s why we do this job – but often we’re not good at giving ourselves a break.

I give my department chocolate every Friday, not because it changes anything but because it just gives everyone a bit of a lift. Let’s face it, who doesn’t need a Twirl at the end of the week? For the past few weeks, one of my lovely colleagues has given me chocolate in return, adorned with an appropriate sticker. One week, it was ‘Didn’t swear out loud today.’ Another, it was ‘Didn’t lose my shit.’ Because even though we’re running on empty, this is what we do: we take a deep breath, swear quietly to ourselves, and carry on.

in thunder, lightning, and in rain

I’ve just started teaching Macbeth for the sixty billionth time. Okay, the fifty billionth time. Well, actually it’s the twenty-third time, but the point is that in the course of a teaching career there are some texts that come up over and over again. People think this must get tedious. My standard reply is to remind them of all the Maths teachers, teaching Pythagoras’ Theorem and quadratic equations year in year out, or the biologists with photosynthesis, or the French department conjugating present tense verbs: now that’s what tedious is. With Macbeth, at least you’ve got some blood and guts involved.

There are some parts of Macbeth that are fantastic to teach. I’ve just got to the end of Act One Scene Three with my Year Tens, and we’ve been focusing on how Shakespeare builds up a sense of Macbeth in our minds before we even meet him. There’s that tantalising mention by the witches in Act One Scene One: what do they want with him, exactly? And then there’s the account of his prowess in battle by the wounded captain in the next scene, telling us of his sword that smokes with bloody execution and of how he killed the treacherous Macdonwald by unseaming him from the nave to the chaps. Scotland has been invaded by Norway, and a number of Scottish thanes have betrayed their king: in fighting against them, Macbeth is cast as not only brave and ruthless, but also loyal. So, we’ve got mixed messages about him. It’s not surprising, then, that he reacts to the witches in the way he does. He starts, and seems afraid. It takes him a while to find his voice. And when he finds out that he is indeed going to become Thane of Cawdor, his mind starts to work overtime. On Friday, we looked at his aside in Act One Scene Three, where Shakespeare explores the thoughts that are beginning to take shape:

[Aside] Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme. — I thank you, gentlemen. —
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

Look at the quibbling in this speech. He doesn’t know whether the witches’ words are good or bad. If they’re bad, why have they brought him something good? If they’re good, why are they making him think of something so awful that he can’t even name it, so terrible that it makes his heart pound and his hair stand on end? Nothing is but what is not; fair is foul and foul is fair. This is a man whose world is about to be turned upside-down, who is contemplating something that goes against everything his identity has been built on.

Macbeth also introduces students to the idea that you need to know something about the context of a work of literature in order to inhabit its imaginative world. There are the obvious things that students can research – beliefs about witchcraft in Shakespeare’s England, the Divine Right of Kings, and the status of women – but I also like to show them images of Hell from the ‘doom paintings’ that decorated the walls of medieval churches, to show them that Hell was something that Shakespeare’s audience would have seen as very real and utterly terrifying, and therefore to underline just what Macbeth faces as a result of killing Duncan. There’s a fantastic example in the church of St Peter and St Paul at Chaldon in Surrey. It dates back to the thirteenth century, and depicts the seven deadly sins and the weighing of souls. In one image, the condemned are thrown into a boiling cauldron, with leering demons poking them with giant forks: in another, some poor unfortunate is suspended by his ears while his nether regions are roasted over an open fire. Imagine sitting in church every Sunday, looking at pictures of flame-grilled genitals and eternal torture: that’s what Macbeth has in store for him. The other thing I like to get them to do is to find out when Macbeth was first performed, and then to find out the date of the Gunpowder Plot. Why would James I have been so keen on a play that points out the evils of regicide? You can see the students putting the dates together. Oh.

Doom mural at St Peter and St Paul, Chaldon (Source: Peter Trimming at Geograph Britain and Ireland; licensed for reuse under Creative Commons)

The main problem I have with Macbeth is that it jumps the shark. There are the brilliant early scenes with Lady Macbeth, the murder of Duncan, the unravelling of Macbeth’s mind, the breakdown of his relationship with his wife (look at how he tells her, just before the murder of Banquo, to ‘be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck’, and contrast it with how much he needed her earlier in the play). There’s the chaos unleashed in Scotland, the banquet scene, and Macbeth’s return to the witches. And then there’s that tedious conversation between Malcolm and Macduff, and the unravelling of the second set of prophecies. And it’s all a bit rubbish. I remember sitting in a Year Eleven lesson when I was studying Macbeth for GCSE, and thinking, ‘is that it?’ Some verbal quibbling about a C-section, and a group of men cutting down branches? Compared with the end of King Lear, it seems contrived, a bit of a trick. You’d tell him to go back and have another go, if you were his beta reader.

I expect you know that Fleance, in Roman Polanski’s 1971 version of Macbeth, was played by Keith Chegwin, later of Swap Shop, Cheggers Plays Pop and, after several years in the wilderness, the Channel 5 gameshow Naked Jungle. Did you know, though, that Paul Farley wrote a poem about Chegwin’s role? It’s here, at the Poetry Society website. The most atmospheric Macbeth I’ve ever seen: the production in the crypt of the Norman church of St Peter in the East in Oxford, now the library of St Edmund Hall. It was December 1991, the end of my first term, and there were actual bats flapping around. And my favourite Macbeth-related moment: back in 2017, when we were driving up to Orkney, we passed through Birnam, and a group of forestry workers were cutting down trees.