When you start out as a Literature teacher, it helps to work with someone who is completely off the wall, and I struck lucky. I worked with an Art teacher who claimed never to have read more than ten books, and certainly not the ones on the syllabus. He was (and is) Graham Rich – now a highly successful artist in his own right. We shared the same students. (I still don’t know of any 16-19 establishment where Art and English are or were twinned like this.)
‘So explain this book to me that you have to teach,’ he said, early in our career, when we were both still young enough to sit up all night and plan our teaching and still be on enough adrenalin to see us through the next day. It was King Lear. It was not in his list of ten books. Exactly how he interpreted what I told him when he had our students is another story, which you can read on my web-site www.billgreenwell.com. But the key thing I had noticed was that my students – our students – were bored, and it wasn’t entirely because I didn’t much know what I was doing. What bored them was the standard process of reading a book, in this case of course a play, when in the ‘I am being taught’ mode. And the process was this: open the book at Page 1, and read it round the class, while the teacher (me) explained what on earth was going on. It was duller than ditchwater. It was duller than the dullest ditchwater in Dullsville.
It occurred to us – there may have been a blinding flash – that the actual business of it being ‘A Book’ was the problem. After all, a book is still an item of a certain cultural reverence, and, even if the web has nibbled away at that a little, this was in any case 1974. So what we did was this. We gave the students two copies of the book (two because you need each side of the page) and asked them to rip the book completely to pieces, i.e. not to shreds, but into a pile of pages. I have done this since with teachers, and once even at a Shakespeare conference, and there is always a satisfactorily audible gasp (even some tongue-clucking). We then gave them a large wooden board, and asked them to paste the pages upon it – in order – using some cheap glue.
In other words, they created a flat book – they could see all the text at the same time. The book was propped on an easel, which stood in the lobby of one of the two adjacent classrooms. And the students read it. Anyone who went past read it. The caretaker read it. This was not a substitute for looking at text, and you can’t solve the complexities of King Lear just by re-arranging the way it is read. But you can utterly destroy the mystique which surrounds the book, and which is often blocking the student from even wanting to understand what is going on. We gave them coloured pins, and asked them to stick green ones into every reference to eyesight (140, I think), and red ones into any reference to birds and beasts. And then you have a question for the students about the text – why are there so many references to eyesight. The flat book made it obvious that they were there. And the flat book made investigating the text a physical, and collaborative act. They knew that play inside out, back to front, up and down.
It was a liberating experience – one of the great things about teaching is that these come along every once in a while; I was just lucky that, thanks to Graham, the first one came in the first six weeks. To this day, I wish we’d copyrighted the idea (Shakespeare is many things, but being out of copyright is a particular bonus!) – and it works with many, many texts, long poems and plays especially. (We did try variations, the most extreme being cutting Death Of A Salesman up so that it went in a single line round the walls; but that was being a bit too cunning.)
Turning the page has its pleasures; but when you have a text which stubbornly refuses to admit students, a flat book is a truly tremendous thing.