My best worst lesson

30th May 2008 at 01:00
Best - My favourite lessons involve teaching Shakespeare's sonnets

My favourite lessons involve teaching Shakespeare's sonnets. The wonderful expressions on the faces of the Year 12 boys when they suddenly make sense of a seemingly obscure, alien text are truly rewarding. The lesson that I will always remember was when I was teaching a Shakespeare-sceptic class of disaffected boys with a range of learning needs.

We were discussing a particularly complex sonnet (number seven for anyone interested) that involved an elaborate simile of the rising and setting sun. There came a point in the lesson at which I realised that a hushed silence had suddenly descended upon the class. The cause of the silence?

Simply that each and every pupil's attention had become completely focused on the text, as they began to realise the intricate cleverness of the thing and excitedly attempted to puzzle out the meanings hidden in every line.

Once we had finished dissecting each section, I revealed to them the purpose behind the poem, written to convince a reticent young nobleman of the urgent need to get married and procreate. In light of this revelation, they revisited the sonnet furiously, and discovered more new resonances and nuances at every turn.

That day I knew that Shakespeare had finally inspired respect among these reluctant boys centuries later.


I realised the pitfalls of teaching Shakespeare very early on. As a young female trainee teacher, I found myself faced with a class of beefy, hormonal Year 9 lads who carried with them a certain reputation. I knew I was going to have to be tough and, more crucially, never put a foot wrong.

The lesson was on the first act of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and I spent hours the previous day researching it. My idea was simple: to highlight Count Orsino as the archetypal courtly lover and pick out all the varied courtly love imagery to support this, such as: arrows of desire, the hunt and the stormy seas of love.

All was going smoothly until we got to the line "the rich golden shaft," whereupon I bellowed with manic enthusiasm: "Now what does this image conjure up?" Fuelled by the nervous silence, I enthused: "Shaft! Shaft! What has a shaft?" It took me 10 minutes to get the class settled down again and, realising valuable momentum had gone, I tried to move on to a different courtly love image, of a ship on a stormy sea.

Ploughing on with grim determination, I tried to draw out the significance of the image and how the movement of the ship on the sea reflected the powerless feelings of the male lover, being tossed and turned on the seas of love. Once again I was met with a mute response and, in exasperation, I called out: "Tossing. What do you think of when you think of tossing?"

I never managed to regain control, and, ever since, I've avoided Twelth Night.

Rachel Tuxford is an English and drama teacher working on supply in Bedford.

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