Let Beowulf and Mr Tickle inspire you at half-term

18th February 2011 at 00:00

Half-term, hooray! I have a list of fun things to do that I have been adding to since January. The trouble is, now that half-term is here, all I want to do is sleep.

Many of us became teachers because we love our subject. Yet we are so busy helping others to enjoy learning that we have little time for it ourselves. The spark of love for what we teach still remains, but it gets buried under pressure and paperwork.

Before term sucked me in, I saw something that I would recommend to any teacher who wants to reignite that spark. The exhibition Evolving English at the British Library is both user-friendly and enthralling, displaying many priceless original documents together for the first time.

This is the first exhibition to tell the story of English worldwide, from Anglo-Saxon runes to rap, from mystery plays to Mr Tickle. Sound recordings bring it to life: you can hear Shakespearean rhymes in the original pronunciation. Themed sections from 'Grammar' to 'Swearing' sparkle with striking juxtapositions. Pinter sits alongside the earliest written example of an English conversation, added between the lines of lfric's Colloquy. In this pupil-teacher dialogue, the pupils "would rather be beaten for the sake of learning than not to know it". Bless.

This exhibition certainly gives perspective. "Nowadays children ... know no more French than their left heel, and that is a misfortune for them if they should cross the sea and travel." No, that's not the Education Bill: it's John of Trevisa in 1387. Even text speak is not new. The Victorians did it, as in this "emblematic" love poem: "I 1 der if U got that 1I wrote 2 U B 4 ..."

A letter home in English from Henry V will be the treasure that moves one viewer. For another, it may be Jane Austen's slanting, energetic handwriting. The massive presence of the King James Bible, displayed for the first time ever next to the Wycliffe, Tyndale and Coverdale bibles, will awe another.

For me, it was Beowulf. "Listen!" is how the poem begins, as most lessons do. The poet was grabbing attention in the mead hall, as we are in the classroom. Like all teachers, I see handwriting every day, but to stand in front of that 1,000-year-old manuscript was special. The handwriting is alive: there are slight irregularities in the graceful letters on the sheen of the grey page. You can see faint ruled lines to keep the writing straight. Burn marks, too: it was damaged by fire in 1731.

If you can't get to London, you can see some of it online. The interactive timeline and the 'Turning the Pages' sections of the British Library website let teachers and pupils see the same documents as history professors. Pour a glass of wine and browse your way back to what made you love learning in the first place.

As for the challenge of teaching in English today, William Caxton sums it up: "Certainly it is hard to please every man because of the diversity and change of language."

Catherine Paver is a part-time English teacher and writer. Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices is free and runs until 3 April. www.bl.uk.

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