Tag Archives: education

Introducing children to Shakespeare by using insults.

Thou art a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three suited, hundred pound, filthy, worsted stocking knave…” (King Lear)  I hope, dear reader, you don’t think I am referring to you.   Perish the thought, no, I simply wanted to grab your swan-like neck and swing it in my direction.  I don’t want to insult you but I do want to talk about insults and how they can be used to help children be comfortable with Shakespeare’s plays.

 Children love Shakespeare if they are introduced to his works properly.  Unfortunately, what should be an exciting journey with The Bard often becomes painful, embarrassing and boring.  I say painful, embarrassing and boring because if the background work is not done, Shakespeare’s language can seem unapproachable.  It then becomes embarrassing because the learner feels stupid.  We all know that feeling when something seems to be definitely “not for us”, we cut off and it becomes boring.  I am a great believer, therefore, of priming children with Shakespeare’s works well before they reach the teenage years.  Children who have been introduced to the stories   (it is important that children know what is happening in story form well in advance of reading a full blown play) and aspects of the language are ready to read one of Shakespeare’s plays.  It is thoughtless to expect teenagers who haven’t grown up in a literary atmosphere or a book loving household to embrace a sixteenth century play without any former grounding.  Fundamentally, I cannot stress the importance of introducing children to Shakespeare in a child friendly manner.

This is where insults are invaluable.  I first came across this exercise whilst doing a day long workshop with The Royal Shakespeare Company.  It was used as a warming up exercise to allow everyone to relax and clear out those dreadful inhibitions we can suffer from.  Everyone is given a piece of card with an insult written on it.  It can be something like this quotation from King Lear:

Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.

Elizabethan music can be played whilst everyone swiftly marches or skips around the room.  When the music stops you turn to the nearest person to you and shout your insult out at the top of your voice.  They then shout their insult back at you.  The next time, it can be whispered in a sly manner. In essence, the insults can be said in many different ways e.g. angrily or with uncontrollable laughter. It is a very good drama exercise. The insult cards can then be changed around.  Incidentally, children, teenagers and adults love this as they are actually allowed to use insults without getting into trouble – it has that naughty, delicious edge to it which allows us to let off steam and then gives us the desire to learn.  It also gives Shakespeare a bit of street cred before he gets the label of boring.

As children love to be creative, I have added an activity so that they can create the insults themselves.

Activity

They need to take an insult from the first two sections below (both of these are adjectives) and then add it to the third section which is a noun.  Add ‘thou’ at the beginning and you have a lovely Shakespearean insult.

Section 1 – base, proud, shallow, beggarly, bawdy, filthy, coward, paunchy, gorbellied, puking, droning, dankish.

Section 2  worsted-stocking, pigeon-egg,  boil-brained, onion-eyed, elf-skinned, trunk-inheriting, clapper-clawed, milk-livered, lily-livered, doghearted, hundred-pound.

Section 3 knave, rogue, bladder, bugbear, pribbling, flap-dragon, boar-pig, barnacle, apple-john, maggot-pie, coxcomb.

For instance – Thou filthy, boil-brained boar-pig.

For any children who particularly enjoy the insults, I love Elizabethan insults so much that I have them all the way through my book Will Blyton and The Stinking Shadow.  Will finds Hamnet, a small boy trapped in a stone, who unfortunately hurls insults every time he opens his mouth.  He is, of course, from the Elizabethan period and has had a curse put upon him by the evil, Elizabethan magician Corpsehound.  His outrageous insults get Will into trouble everywhere he goes.

“Leave me be, thou fetid, old skanky breath,” says Hamnet.

 

So thou base, clapper-clawed rogue – I’m sorry it’s become a habit.  What I really mean is “until we meet again, dear reader.”

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6 Great Dickens Related Activities To Share With Your Child

I have a theory that if children are casually introduced to our literary heritage when they are young, they will go on to do well with English and Literature when older.  I have come across so many people who dismiss Literature because they don’t understand Shakespeare or say it’s all boring.  Quite often, I can see fear in their eyes.  Yes, it is true.  People see books written in the Victorian period as alien.  Plays written in Elizabeth I’s time, well we don’t mention those at all.  The reason for this, I am sure, is that they were not casually introduced to them as children.  When I use the word ‘casually’, I mean not making a big issue of it.  Enjoying great literature is simply a way of life.  It enriches all our lives.  It doesn’t matter if we haven’t got two pennies to rub together, NOBODY, can take away that feeling which rises through the body when we have fusion with a work of great literature.  My fourteen year old recently chose to perform the end monologue from Doctor Faustus by Marlowe for his acting exam.  He is expecting a great result because he felt so confident with it.  At the age of thirteen he got a distinction in his exam for a Richard II monologue, again something he had chosen.  He simply has no fear of great literature; this is because it has always been there in his life.  I have to hastily add, that I have never fed it to him in great dollops or made him watch or read any of it.  It has always been casually offered.

Watch Great Expectations together.  This is a good one to introduce children to Dickens.  The atmosphere of the marshes and the graves makes it eerie. Also, children can empathise with Pip’s fear when the escaped convict, Magwitch threatens him.  Even if we just watch a clip of the beginning of the film on Youtube, it’s a start to introducing our children to Charles Dickens.

Have a communal reading session together.  Make the room cosy, have something available to eat and drink, then sit around with the kids and read a few pages of Dickens to them.  Pickwick Papers has some wonderful comedy scenes which children will react to.  Always ask their opinions of the characters.  Tell them they can say exactly what they think because there is no right or wrong answer in Literature as long as they have the evidence from the text to back themselves up.  If any of the children say that it’s rubbish or they are bored, tell them that is an excellent critical opinion if they can explain what it is about the text which makes them think that way.

This is a bit eerie.  Find a graveyard with Victorian headstones and ask the children to take photographs of the headstones from that period.  Lead the children into noticing the ages when people died.  The chances are that quite a few of them would be children themselves.  This offers a discussion opportunity about the lives of children in the Victorian period.  Later use extracts from Oliver Twist to demonstrate how difficult some children’s lives were.

Visit a Charles Dickens site.  There is Dickens World in Kent, Charles Dickens Museum in London and Charles Dickens Museum in Portsmouth – the place of his birth.  There are also London Charles Dickens Walking Tours.  Taking children to places which celebrate writers and their works’ demonstrates the writer’s value in our society.  It diminishes the image of a dead person from long ago writing a dusty old book.

Dickens would walk for hours and hours.  Walking helps to give clarity with plots, character motives and helps ideas for settings.  Take the children on a Dickens type inspirational walk.  Give them notebooks, pens and a camera.  If possible, go somewhere they have not been before so that they are seeing with new eyes.  Be playful, bounce ideas around.  Something strange has probably happened in this place before – what could it be? – Who was involved?  Get important words written down in notebooks.  If the children are too young to write or simply don’t like writing yet, don’t worry, it’s the ideas which are important.  The object of the exercise is to let them see that there are creative opportunities around every corner.

Take a scene from a Dickens novel, a television adaptation or film and get the child or children to act it out in their own words.  If there are not enough children the adults can join in.  It’s great fun.  The object of this exercise is to get the child to interpret what is happening in the scene.  Also, as a language exercise, discuss how language has changed since Victorian times.  If the scene contains an upper class person (that sounds dreadful, but it is the English class terminology from then) and someone with a cockney accent, discuss the fact that the two people speak so differently.  It will give the children a valuable insight into the class system of Victorian England.  If possible, get some costumes or props.  It helps to create a Victorian atmosphere and adds to the fun.

I always make sure that I enjoy these types of activities because I know that if I don’t think they are fun, then the children involved certainly won’t.

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6 Great Literary Outings For Kids and Teens.

Most of the time, we associate enjoying literature as sitting at home reading a book.  Reading should be an adventure though.  Here is a starter list which will get the young literary person out and about.

Visit a writer’s home.  I don’t mean that we should turn up at Jacqueline Wilson’s door and demand a cup of coffee.  I am thinking of places like Haworth where the Bronte sisters lived.  Sometimes, writers from the Victorian period can seem unreal or stuffy to young people.  However, when they visit their homes’ and see their clothes’, their manuscripts,’ and in the case of The Brontes, the room where some of them died, the writers become real.  I remember visiting Haworth as a teenager after reading “Wuthering Heights”, I was Catherine Earnshaw as I walked on the moors.

Visit a literary festival.  It doesn’t matter whether it is a huge established one like Cheltenham or a small local one which attracts four writers.  Literary festivals charm both kids and teens.  I will never forget seeing Anthony Horowitz in a marquee at the first ever Oxford Literary Festival.  I thought I had gone to a rock concert by mistake.  The placed was packed and the atmosphere was vibrant.  This was even before Horowitz appeared.  He came on dressed in all black with his hair slicked up.  Kids of all ages were wringing their hands with glee.  Two boys at the back of me giggled excitedly as they decided he was like a mad professor.  Literary festivals inspire children and events can cost as little as a few pounds, some are free.

The library is going to seem like an obvious choice.  The reason I have chosen it is, libraries can give children, particularly teenagers, autonomy.  My fourteen year old is constantly discovering new writers and people he wants to read about.  He goes onto the online library for the county and gets books on every subject possible sent to our village.  When the book arrives, he is notified by email.  He promptly pops around the corner and picks his goodies up.  He is independent.  It doesn’t cost anything and he feels in control.

I often choose books to read for their settings.  Creating a setting for reading can really enrich a child or teen’s book experience.  For instance, we used to live about fifteen minutes from a very quiet beach.  When my son was younger, we read Michael Morpurgo’s “Kensuke’s Kingdom” by the sea.  Okay, we weren’t on a desert island but  reading Kensuke’s Kingdom with the waves a few feet away, certainly made it feel like we were.  Nowadays, we go to English Heritage ruins and read Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories – we love it.

Follow a literary trail.  There are many established ones, for instance, Lincolnshire has one for Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  It can be more exciting though, if you do your own.  Research a writer from our literary heritage and plot the places to visit.  This can take place over the course of weeks and months.  When we start doing our research, we are often surprised by what has happened on our own doorsteps.

The last one is getting out and watching literature being performed.  Shakespeare and Marlowe wrote plays to be watched and not read.  Also, it demonstrates that literature can be a social event, we don’t have to enjoy it in isolation.  Look out for drama students performing, it won’t kill the budget and the energy is rejuvenating.  I recently watched six plays, performed by drama students, over the course of a weekend.  They were not only acting in them but had written and directed them.  I was impressed by the quality of their work and their enthusiasm energised me for days afterwards.

Enjoy your literary outing.

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6 Great Reasons To Read To Teens.

Solitary reading is a recent pastime.  Traditionally, a book was read to an audience.  Since people could speak they have gathered around fires exchanging stories.  Wonderful family traditions can be built on communal reading – I read a Victorian ghost story to the family every Christmas Eve.  We sit by the fire in a candle lit room and collectively enjoy the atmosphere.  It’s very Charles Dickens.

Poster promoting reading by Charles Dickens in...

Poster promoting reading by Charles Dickens in Nottingham (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Great literature wrestles with difficult subjects.  Sometimes when we try discussing a subject with our teens, it can sound like we are preaching and our well meant words fall on ear phone ears.  However, when we read to our teens, difficult subjects arise naturally and we can talk about them as part of our reading experience.  For instance, in Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Doctor Jekyll takes chemical substances which change both his appearance and his behaviour.  In effect, it ruins his life.  When we chat with our teens about their opinion of Doctor Jekyll, we usually find that they have already made up their minds about him and his actions.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde po...

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde poster. Converted losslessly from .tif to .png by uploader. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Schools do not have time to cover a full novel because of their tight curriculum.    At this point, I expect parents are wondering, who does have time to read a full novel to a teenager especially as they could read it themselves.  To cover the last point first, many great novels are being overlooked because teenagers are not being introduced to them.  Many teenagers read novels from our literary heritage because they have to to pass exams.  This gives out the wrong message about these great works of fiction.  If we offer lounging on the sofa, having a piece of cake and being introduced to the world of Laurie Lee’s “Cider With Rosie”, without having to write an essay on it, it’s an appealing proposition.  As for the time factor, reading sessions can replace: watching programmes which nobody really wants to watch, time spent complaining of boredom, time spent squabbling or staring at a computer screen because there seems nothing more interesting to do.

Cider with Rosie. This rather overgrown cider ...

Cider with Rosie. This rather overgrown cider press is just off the B4070, where the path leads up to Wickridge Hill. It's only a quarter of a mile from Slad where Laurie Lee, of "Cider with Rosie" fame was a regular at the Woolpack Inn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reading to our teenagers aids bonding.  Before our children can read, most of us, read them bedtime stories at least.  The beaming child’s face gives us the sense of joy which only parenting can release. The child gets to a certain reading stage though and we feel that we no longer need to read to them.  Often, parents and teenagers can seem to grow apart because although they share a home, they live in different worlds.  Reading to our teenagers gives us something to share with them, therefore something to discuss.  I love Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, my teenage son doesn’t.  We have stimulating arguments about it.  It’s better than quarrelling over the fact that he hasn’t put his dirty socks in the wash.

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from The Br...

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from The Bride of Frankenstein as Frankenstein's monster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reading to our teens balances the relationship between child and parent as it empowers them to read to us.  If we read to them, after a while they will choose books, stories etc to read to us. It gives them self esteem and therefore balances the teenager/parent struggle.  Teenagers who have a sense of control in their lives are easier to live with.  Having their parents listening to their choice of literature gives them a feeling of autonomy.

Teenagers are the adults of the future and we need them to embrace our great literary heritage.  We need them to read to their future children.  By reading to our teens we are promoting a love and understanding of literature.  We are sending out the message “do as I do, not as I say.”

Happy reading.

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