English - Persecution in prose

2nd November 2012 at 00:00
Bullying themes provide ample inspiration for lessons - and life

We began reading Susan Hill's I'm the King of the Castle in class last term and it ended up dominating the lessons. Her writing gets under your skin, and my Year 9 pupils, predominantly boys, were fascinated by Edmund Hooper's persecution of his unwanted house guest, Charles Kingshaw. I do not think they will forget this book easily.

Hill's title is a common playground chant. We explored similar chants and childhood rhymes that contain sinister messages of exclusion, intimidation or conflict; researching their origins proved a handy homework task. Students liked interviewing their parents about the rhymes they remembered from their childhoods, too.

In Hill's novel, Kingshaw commits suicide as a result of Hooper's bullying and there is no shortage online of similar news stories today. We compared the ways in which non-fiction journalists and fiction authors achieve reader sympathy for their "characters" with their use of language.

Amanda Todd (pictured right), a teenage victim of cyber-bullying, committed suicide last month, five weeks after posting a video of herself on YouTube (to read the BBC news story, go to bbc.inRx1n2Y). In the video she is silent, but holds up pieces of paper expressing her feelings. Pupils could imagine what Kingshaw would write on his pieces of paper if he were to post his own YouTube video. Handled sensitively, this could link fiction with real life effectively.

The arrival of Kingshaw at Hooper's home sparked enthusiastic opinions and real-life stories from pupils. How does it feel to have an unwanted guest imposed on you? How does it feel to be that guest? Writing from two different perspectives and using a thesaurus to explore different "emotion" words led to some empathetic work. Hot-seating or role play can also be useful here.

I like organising debates around the idea of the boxing ring, inviting two pupils at a time to debate in a three-minute "round". And bullying produces helpful fodder.

The class had previously studied William Golding's Lord of the Flies via Nigel Williams' stage adaptation and saw immediate links with Hill's novel. However, in Golding's story the absence of adults is a major theme. What happens when no adults are there to "control" children?

I do not believe in teaching fiction just to study "issues", but these stories invite the exploration of bullying themes. I never said, "You should learn lessons from both texts about actions and consequences." But I know my pupils did.

Fran Hill teaches English in a Warwickshire secondary school and is a freelance writer and performer. You can download her e-book, Being Miss, from the Amazon Kindle store.


Using a resource pack from TESEnglish, help pupils to use emotive language to discuss characters in Susan Hill's I'm the King of the Castle.


Look again at the themes of William Golding's Lord of the Flies using Lewiss' illustrative revision mat. bit.lyLOTFrevision.

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