Monday, October 29, 2012

Macbeth and World Without End

Teaching grade 10 Academic English in a GTA school has been a challenging task to say the least. Right now, I am struggling with how to teach students to write a “3R Journal” for the Independent Study Projects (ISPs) which are worth 15% of their marks for the semester. The “3Rs” stand for “Retell”, “Relate”, and “Reflect”. Students are given a long list of questions they can choose to answer in each category based on a novel they selected for the ISPs, but they have difficulty using critical thought to produce a deep analysis. The Retell section does not use literary terminology (i.e., protagonist, antagonist, setting, mood/atmosphere, etc.) nor does it include a discussion of theme; the Retell does not take literature, television and movies into account to do a thoughtful comparison, and the Relate does not look at the real world and evaluate the author’s portrayal of teen issues, given the state of the world in which we live. In spite of the list of question, in spite of my preaching, and, yes, in spite of providing exemplars.

To remedy this, I have developed a labour intensive (for me) activity in which students write a 3R journal of Macbeth over 3 nights and I take it in and give them feedback so they know they are on the right track in preparation for the second of two journals. This means setting everything aside, including other marking and planning, in favour of providing detailed feedback that most of them will never read. And I get mostly drek in return for my troubles. Maddening.

I have a pretty good exemplar for the Retell portion of Macbeth which I share with the students when I give the assignment back after assessment. I sat down to provide them with a Relate, but found it difficult. I could talk about matters involving the current political climate in Ontario in which the Education Minister has used her power to subjugate, first teachers and then the rest of the public sector, ignoring their right to strike in strict defiance of the labour relations act. In this case, she relates to Macbeth because she is using her power for personal gain, possibly so she can say she single-handedly fixed what is wrong with paying public sector workers their due, and mending the broken budget, while ignoring the fact that she and her colleagues, public sector workers all, earn more than double teachers et al, but we are not supposed to discuss union matters with our students.

I could talk about the recent political upheaval in the Middle East and how many dictators in that part of the world have recently earned their dues, but that may potentially offend the student population, the majority of which are Muslims and may prefer to call these main saints rather than dictators. If I ask them to be politically correct and not refer to Macbeth as “a Hitler”, then I must, too, be equally PC and steer clear of Muslim politics.

I decided to scrap the Retell exemplar, resolved that, as long as the students gave me apples-to-apples comparisons (i.e., friends peer-pressuring one into smoking a cigarette does not equal Lady Macbeth “peer-pressuring” Macbeth into killing Duncan, primarily because a woman was not considered to be the peer of a man and the offenses do not compare in their severity), and gave me examples from the text to back up their assertions—in other words, as long as they tried—they would earn their “E” for excellent. Then I saw last week’s episode of World Without End.

World Without End, based on Ken Follett’s novel, takes place in the 1300s (300 years before Shakespeare wrote Macbeth) mostly in the town of Kingsbridge in which Petranilla (played by Cynthia Nixon) is a character to rival Lady Macbeth in the throes of PMS. Driven to secure her safety and security she schemes, lies, poisons, commits treason and murder to get her son, Godwyn, successfully elected prior. Her son takes the role of Macbeth, allowing himself to be persuaded by her plan for him, eventually driven near mad by his lust for his cousin, Caris, and The Black Death as it ravages his body and mind. He temporarily loses the title of prior—to Caris—due to his illness. With Godwyn incapacitated, Petranilla goes after a new target, this one a son born out of wedlock and given to a town couple to raise. Having poisoned her illegitimate son’s father, Roland, the Earl of Shiring, she convinces Queen Isabella (Aure Atika) to give the priori back to Godwyn, and to give Ralph (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen) the Earl of Shiring title, so he can rule Kingsbridge and take Phillippa, the girl of his dreams, and Roland’s daughter as his wife (nevermind the fact that this makes Ralph and Phillippa half-siblings). So far, in his “new gloss” as Earl of Shiring, Ralph has fared about as well as Macbeth. His peasants revolt, killing his men, and Phillippa commits suicide rather than allow him to touch her on their wedding night.

Another link to Macbeth is talk of witches. If you remember your high school English, Macbeth meets three witches who prophesy his future. Driven by what they say, he and his wife kill the current king. With that done, Macbeth continues to kill anyone who threatens his crown, including innocent women and children. At one time, Lady Macbeth prays to dark forces to give her more manly attributes which links her to the witches as well. In school, I discuss, at length, Elizabethan beliefs which include religion, superstition and witchcraft. This year I was able to use World Without End as a parallel, as both Caris and her mentor are accused of being witches for their practice of “the healing arts”. First Caris’s mentor is hanged for being a witch when she insists on amputating a man’s arm rather than healing it with a poultice of dung. Later, having pissed off the Prior (before Godwyn assumes the position), she, too is accused of witchcraft, and sentenced to death. It is only by agreeing to be a sister of the priori that she is able to remain alive. The notion of religion versus superstition and a belief in witchcraft, the supernatural and the afterlife are themes that are prevalent, not only in medieval literature, but contemporary literature as well.

Next semester, when it is time for the practice 3R journal, I will be able to provide them with a Relate exemplar, a modification of this blog entry. Hopefully that will help students to understand how they can relate their novels to themes and characters in other literature and/or popular culture.

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