As we teach from behind lines, and speak behind screens, talking has never been more vital to the cohesion of a school community. We currently tread a line between curating a semblance of normality for students in our classrooms, but also in recognising the value in talking to colleagues: from the quick exchange in the corridor between lessons, to the more sustained discussions of our subjects. I tweeted only last week about how wonderful these conversations are, particularly at a time that people are so busy, so focused upon getting the job done, that these can quickly fall in priority. I wanted to share three conversations I’ve had in the last week.
Year ten are studying Macbeth. We are up to Act three, as Macbeth justifies his decision to have his closest friend Banquo murdered. He speaks with utter discontentment at his ‘fruitless crown,’ complaining like a petulant child at how short-lived and hollow his reign will be on the throne, spitting ‘he’ about with envy and resentment as he speaks of Banquo’s children and what he regards as a fact which, only two acts previous, was here-say muttered by monstrous women on a heath. One student mutters that he’s deluded, and we begin a dissection of the paranoia that drives Macbeth, a changed man from the self-doubting, double guessing Macbeth of precious scenes. We draw upon our knowledge of a Machiavellian figure from our study of Shylock, grasping that in the same way, Macbeth is now working by deceit. Another student states that this Macbeth makes decisions now, yet they are the wrong ones, and another student remarks he is a coward- not for ordering his friend dead, but for making excuses for it.
Year seven are studying Norse mythology, as we read Loki’s attempts to outwit the dwarves by finding the small print in his bet. Keen to keep his head, he states that he didn’t include his neck, at which point the dwarves prepare to sew his mouth shut instead. Year seven conjure up ways that Loki could appeal to the dwarves’ pathos: begging them for mercy; explaining to them that his live is in their hands; apologising even. One student remarks that Loki would never apologise- he’s far too cunning. We pause and unpack the work cunning- perhaps taken from the Norse word for knowledge- kunnandi- but that you must have knowledge to deceive in the first place.
Year eleven are recapping An Inspector Calls, as we study the way in which power is exploited by the characters, particularly male characters. We discuss this through a visual of pots, in that a male’s ‘pot’ of power is already half full, though gender alone. However, they interpret power differently and this presents itself in the way they interact with Eva. Mr Birling’s sense of power is overt, decisive and iterative- he asserts Eva’s actions as a breach of authority and fails to perceive it as a personal act. Eric’s actions are entirely personal, driven by his own ideas of what power and masculinity should look like. We settle with Gerald, and Year eleven, to my pleasure, regard him with disdain- because he is the one who masquerades exploitation with heroism. They remember his use of ‘fresh’ with disgust and identify that his act of saving Eva from Meggarty is just saving her from a man just like himself. They’re well versed in recognising Gerald as a predator.
Don’t be fooled: my classroom is not like a re-creation of the Lyceum, as we marvel at literary figures before taking our quills to scroll. But those moments cement to me the value and reward of discussing our subject, that cannot be captured on worksheets or quizzes or formula. It is a teasing of the threads; as each year group toys with such similar concepts, using these characters to re-examine such ideas throughout time. In its most holistic sense, retrieval acts as the organic yet powerful catalyst for these conversations, drawing from what has come before to make sense of it in the present day.
In a time where we strive to meet gaps and compensate for lost time, it’s difficult to admit that these conversations are the irreplaceable aspect of our classrooms, captured only through the interplay between one person and another. However, they are paramount for both us as teachers, and also the student: they act as a timely, yet readily available reminder of what it means to teach. It’s what we can all call upon as a reminder of what is undisputed and uncontested, outlasting all other uncertainty. It’s exactly why the curriculum is magic.