Of course you can study Macbeth if you want to. Don’t blame the SQA for that one.

sqaRight from the off, then, let me say that I’m no cheerleader for the Scottish Qualifications Authority. The stress to some of my friends and colleagues caused by some bizarre assessment practices in subjects other than English which seem unbelievable when they tell me of their experiences.  Too often we’ve had goalposts moved mid-season – strange rule changes, confusing, contradictory advice at ‘information’ days – that leave teaching staff in a state of panic, never mind the young people hurtling towards exam season. This year we’ve had to submit Writing Folios on a specially prepared grid, apparently to facilitate e-marking. That was also changed half way through the year. I know of no English teacher who hasn’t experienced a massive increase in workload because of this. So there is a discussion to be had with – and about – the SQA.

However, the appearance of this article in yesterday’s Herald newspaper, Teacher claims bureaucracy blocks study of William Shakespeare – left me a bit frustrated about the nature of the argument. The New Higher exam – or National 6 as it is officially known- brought yet more changes to a course which has experienced so much tinkering even Claudio Ranieri would be embarrassed ( I’m not sure if that joke is massively out-of-date or super hip). Two years ago candidates had to complete two Critical Essays in ninety minutes and a Close Reading exercise, also in ninety minutes. That was it. Along with a Folio of two pieces of writing – and a few Internal Assessment hurdles –  that was your Higher English.

Now, a candidate has to complete one Close Reading exercise – now called Reading for Understanding, Analysis and Evaluation – only one Critical Essay on Literature and a forty five minute analysis of a previously studied Scottish text. Make of that what you will but it’s there. The nature of the assessment means that less time is available for the wide ranging study of literature we had before. I would always study two major texts and at least a couple of poems. But nothing, as the article suggests, is banned. The headline puzzled me as I’d only recently finished Hamlet. Without the need to study two major texts – candidates only have to write one Critical Essay now – I got to spend more time with the Bard, not less.

We also studied six challenging Don Paterson poems and, to a lesser extent, Alan Spence’s magnificent short story, Nessun Dorma. It was a high challenge yet engaging and enjoyable course. Like many English teachers I know, I’ve tried to cover the internal assessment aspect to the course with a less formal approach, as suggested by the SQA. I cover bases and pick ups outcomes through my study of the play, as well as the odd Newspaper analysis we do over the course of the year. I have had to make choices as I adapt to the new course but to suggest that anything has been ‘blocked’, as the Herald article suggests, is at best mistaken and at worst mischief-making.

We have some serious discussions on workload coming up and we should be taking that seriously. If any approach to what should or shouldn’t be studied is being imposed by department, school or Local Authority then that is a serious matter. But be fair: that’s not the SQA. They have some serious questions to answer. Why we are being blocked from studying Shakespeare isn’t one of them.

Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

‘So why are you English teachers so obsessed with death?’ one student asks, quite seriously and legitimately. ‘Erm…we’re not,’ I reply, as I foolishly attempt to cover up the class set of Hamlet I’m about to issue with some ‘Death of  a Salesman’ handouts. I’m trying to convince them that we’re actually very happy people. Yes, Lennie gets whacked at the end, Willy Loman drives himself into a ditch for the insurance money, Macbeth loses his head. Oh, and Johnnycakes has to die alongside Dally if we are to understand the evils of gang warfare and Tom Robinson is up against too much for him to survive. Other than that …

It was kinda difficult to argue though. We’ve finished studying a couple of Don Paterson poems: ‘The Ferryman’s Arms’ tells the story of the poet/ persona’s contemplation of life and death while waiting for a ferry. ‘Nil NIl’ deals with the manner in which life and death even each other out over time. The descent of a successful football team is compared to the death of a pilot ejected out of his crashing plane. But surely there is a greater message about life in there. Paterson considers his own mortality, accepts it and gets on with his day and I’ve always argued that to come to terms with our own inevitable death is the moment we become adults.

For that reason, I think I’m scared of Hamlet. Always have been. Not the character or the ghost but the teaching of the play. I’ve taught it three or four times and never been happy with what I’ve done with it. Its philosophical complexities are difficult to get a hold of for me, never mind the sixteen year-olds in my class. But this year I’ve begun again, planning more time to fit in all the sub plots and alleged minor characters.  The very mention of Shakespeare can be a real stumbling block for some kids so Hamlet is going to be a challenge. Balancing the complexity of the ideas with quagmire of the language (for some) is going to be a challenge.
Screenshot 2015-10-10 10.41.50Before starting any Shakespeare play, I like to start with Trevor Wright’s ‘There is a problem…’ exercise from ‘How to be a Brilliant English Teacher’. Students begin to make connections and build a little bit of intrigue; if you include just enough of a clue to the more gruesome parts then it can be an excellent way in to Shakespeare. But jumping straight into the middle of Hamlet and the ‘To be or not to be…’ soliloquy is perhaps not the most obvious way to begin. I wanted them to get inside Hamlet’s head and get to grips with his contemplation of life and death, in a similar but darker way than Don Paterson does.  And that brought us to the question which starts this post.

I suppose I’m grappling with that very idea, that we do deal with literature which involves death an awful lot. By focusing on that, though, we can prepare our students to think of the complexities of life and the maturity of accepting our own mortality. Perhaps. But perhaps I’m just terrified of Hamlet and it’s just me.