Spreading cheer at annual Block 3 Fireside Night

By Lucy McIlwraith, Teacher of English

As the nights draw in and we all remember the reason for the winter festivals that feature lots of fire and warmth, it’s time for the English department to spread some cheer, as we did at the Block 3 Fireside Night last Friday. This is an evening event, at which students and staff are invited to perform memorised poetry, stories and songs in the great hall of the Bedales Dining Room, lit only by fire from the enormous fireplace and a few candles. As it is difficult to photograph an event held in near total darkness, it must retain its mystery, but here is what it’s all about…

The students had been asked to think about life without phones, TVs and electricity, and what homegrown entertainment would look like without those things. Before the Fireside Night, Bedales English teachers had shared their own feelings about performance and how nerve-wracking it generally is. I had also been to the Block 3 assembly to reassure students that no one would be looking for perfection in this kind of performance, and remind them that we all need to forget what we see on our screens everyday, as it is not a fair representation of a live performance.

So, with the fire crackling and candles twinkling, students arrived at a dark hall last Friday to recreate the kind of entertainment enjoyed by our ancestors. Julia started the evening with a haunting rendition of Where the Boats Go by Robert Lewis Stevenson  and then introduced her students: Ivan reciting a Robert Frost poem called Nothing Gold Can Stay and Grace with Babysitting by Gillian Clarke.

The bravery of these first performances was a wonderful catalyst for the others. Later on – having decided they were brave enough –  others from Julia’s class also performed: Freya, with Anne Hathaway by Carol Ann Duffy and Lotty, who chose a powerful poem about Greta Thumberg. Our special guest, Clive, spoke the words of an ’80s rock ballad, making them far more profound in the process, and was, of course, cheered to the rafters.

Mary-Liz’s stand-out performances were from Caspar with Do Not Go Gentle by Dylan Thomas, which was impressive in its sophistication, and Seb, who confidently gave us two contrasting poems – one about death and a comic piece written by himself. As head of department, David might be expected to give the most impressive performance of all but, with terrible irony, his carefully rehearsed speech from Hamlet (in which the title character muses on the excellence of human-kind) flew out of his head. Thankfully, his students made up for his memory loss with faultless performances including raucous group singing from Bay, Leo and Kit.

Louise’s rendition of The Raven was followed by some keen performances from her class. Eliza performed Leisure by WH Davis, fully exploring the poignancy of the poem through her interpretation; Sienna gave a powerful version of one of her favourite poems, A Day by Emily Dickenson with confidence and poise; Hendrix lifted our spirits with his confident performance of the amusing poem, The Little Turtle by Vachel Lindsay and Alex approached the task with his signature confidence and performed his poem to great applause.

My own class was represented by Shoshana and Xander, both performing classics of the nonsense genre, The Jabberwocky and The Jumblies which provided welcome relief, I’m sure, after my own version of Jolene, a song I might not have performed quite as well as Dolly Parton herself, though not for want of practice. Jen’s classes were last with honourable mention going in particular to Oscar and his hilarious performance of My New Pet and Roan’s stirring and dramatic version of Dulce et Decorum est.

The evening was rounded off with a soulful Let it Be from Zeb, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar which gave us all a wonderful atmosphere to go out on.

Please do take the opportunity to ask students about their experience of the Fireside Night – they were an amazing and appreciative audience and deserve praise for this as well as their bravery in performing.

Block 3 experiment with comparative poetry

By Julia Bevan, Teacher of English

My Block 3 students have been practising writing poems using extended metaphors.

In class, we read The Beach by William Hart-Smith, Winter Morning by Roger McGough and In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound to inspire us, observing that none of the poems used full rhyme or a particular rhythm; instead, they’re constructed using one long sentence.

Students then worked together in small teams groups, looking at a range of images – a skiing scene, traffic on a motorway, a mountain top and a red London bus – and coming up with a number of metaphors and similes to describe aspects of the picture (mountain tops as “Stegosaurus spines” in the skiing scene, for example).

Next, they were asked to turn their collective notes into a descriptive sentence that uses at least one metaphor, then turn that into a poem.

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Creative scenes inspired by Gothic literature

Block 4 English students have been busy this week creating scenes inspired by 19th century Gothic Literature classics.

Students were asked to prepare a short Gothic film, either presenting a scene from something they have read in texts such as The Hound of the Baskervilles and Wuthering Heights, or alternatively, create a scene of their own.

They were also given the option of creating a scene in other ways – such as this painting by Fabiola Paterno Castello di San Giuliano.

See more examples of the students’ work below.

Kipp Bryan

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Visiting Thomas Hardy’s Wessex – perspectives

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On Tuesday, 6.2 English Literature students went on a trip to Dorset to visit some of the key sites in Thomas Hardy’s life, to complement their study of Hardy’s 1841 novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, as well as some of his poetry.

The group visited Hardy’s Cottage in Higher Bockhampton, where Hardy was born, grew up and wrote his early novels, before going onto Stinsford Church, where Hardy’s heart is buried with his first wife, Emma Lavinia, and walking across the River Frome, across which Angel Clare had carried Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

The group also visited Max Gate, the atmospheric Victorian home which was famously designed by the author and remained his home until his death in 1928, before hearing from two English Literature PhD students, Laura Cox and Sophie Welsh, about Hardy’s work. Here, some students share their perspectives from the trip.

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Oscar Clark: Sinking into Hardy’s armchair by the fireplace he designed, tiled by ceramics he found, surrounded on three sides by the privacy of a screen that has stood since he sat there and looking at a mirror upcycled by the man himself, I listened to Neill, the National Trust volunteer guiding us through our visit to Max Gate. A scholar on all aspects of Hardy, Neill showed us the humourous, sensitive and at times difficult man, as well as the nuances and foibles of his personality being reflected in the features of the home he designed.

Isabella Doyle: My favourite moment from the trip was seeing Hardy’s Cottage, where he grew up. I learned much information from the guide who showed us around Hardy’s former home. She explained how Hardy’s mother had strongly advised her five children not to marry, and Hardly was the only one who went against her advice – twice.

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Recreating ‘The Eve of St Agnes’

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A Level English Literature students were transported back in time on Monday when they took part in a practical exercise designed to reinforce their understanding of one of the course’s key texts – The Eve of St Agnes by John Keats – following the success of last year’s experience day centred around the same poem. 

The Eve of St Agnes, which is set in the Middle Ages, was inspired by the legend that unmarried women could see their future husband in their dreams if they performed certain rituals on 20 January, the evening before the feast of St Agnes.

It follows the young maiden Madeline as she escapes a loud and festive family party to go to her bedroom and perform the rituals, hoping to see her lover Porphyro in her dreams, despite being from opposite sides of two rival families.

Madeline does see Porphyro that evening, but her dreams morph into reality as her lover – having snuck into her room while she was at the party – emerges from his hiding place in the closet and attempts to rouse her by laying out a feast and playing the lute.

To bring them closer to Keats’ poem, 6.2 English students were asked to work in groups across two classes to produce tableaux representative of the poem. They sought the help of the school’s costume department to find appropriate attire and recreated the scenes in various locations – including the Lupton Hall, the sand quarry and All Saints Church in Steep, with some venturing as far as Midhurst.

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English students exercise persuasion skills in homework debate

By Lucy McIlwraith, Teacher of English

This week, my Block 4 English set were given the chance to debate a subject close to the heart of every member of the school community: homework.

Having learnt about persuasive devices and studied speeches from speakers as diverse as Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg this half term, students have made their own speeches to their class on a wide and eye-opening range of topics. Kipp Bryan had researched fast fashion and advised us all to buy more from vintage clothes shops; Theo argued for a ‘back to basics’ approach to paying footballers; Stella Miller gave an illuminating account of what it has been like to be without a smart phone for the last month and how liberating it has been; and Masha Kulakova argued for more languages to be taught to primary school children. Having practised their skills as solo performers, the class moved on to a more tricky way to persuade an audience: team debates.

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Bringing Keats to life

By Thomasina Rowntree, 6.2 and English Don

On the Eve of St Agnes – 20 January – 6.2 English Literature students were invited to Head of English David Anson’s house to listen to a reading of John Keats’ poem of the same name, which was inspired by the traditions and superstitions surrounding the date. St Agnes’ Day falls on 21 January.

Traditionally, girls wishing to learn who their partner would be, performed rituals on the Eve of St Agnes, hoping that their future lover would be revealed to them in a dream. Keats took this idea and created his poem, a fantastical tale which merges dreams and reality, ending with two lovers disappearing into the night. It links the ideas of the Gothic with Pagan rituals and witchcraft which surround St Agnes.

On the evening itself, we made our way down Church Road on a suitably frosty, starlit night, in keeping with the “bitter chill” described at the beginning of the poem. Greeted with a warming fire, we gathered round a feast, much like the one which Porphyro lays out in The Eve of St Agnes, to listen to the poem. There were “jellies soother than the creamy curd”, “lucent syrops”, “manna and dates”, served “on golden dishes and in baskets bright / Of wreathed silver”. Eating these delicacies while listening to the reading of the poem, we were transported into Keat’s imagined and magical world.

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Poetry and mud studies at Ashford Hangers Nature Reserve

By Lucy McIlwraith, Teacher of English
Photos by Matilda McMorrow, Librarian

In the English department at Bedales, we like to give students the opportunity to venture outside the classroom to gain a deeper understanding of literature. Over the last couple of years, we’ve visited Thomas Hardy’s cottage in Dorset while studying Tess of the D’Urbervilles; hosted a tea party as part of our work on The Importance of Being Earnest; enjoyed a midnight feast of exotic sensory delights to go with John Keats’ poem, The Eve of St Agnes; and held a fireside evening of poetry-by-heart for Block 3’s study of the oldest forms of English literature.

Our latest venture earlier this week gave a 6.1 English Literature class a first-hand experience of writing poetry in finest Hampshire mud. The set are studying Seamus Heaney’s first poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist, which includes lots of descriptions of water, slime and bogs. In order to get under the skin of poems that feature phrases such as ‘bubbles gargled delicately’ and ‘the squelch and slap of soggy peat’, it seemed like a good idea to don wellies (with thanks to Outdoor Work for lending some to white-trainered students) and wallow in the plentiful mud at Ashford Hangers Nature Reserve.

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Lectures on Othello, Ibsen and women in 19th century literature

By Thomasina Rowntree, 6.2 and English Don

Last week, the Sixth Form English Literature began their week with a trip to London to attend a series of lectures given on Shakespeare’s Othello. It was a brilliant opportunity which really enhanced our understanding of the play.

The first lecture was given by Richard Marriott on Dramatic Structure and the tragic pattern of Othello. He also spoke about the idea of ‘anthropological dualism’ which is transparent throughout the play, as characters are challenged by certain aspects of their personalities.

The second lecture focused on the importance of storytelling. This provided helpful context, as Dr Mason talked about Cinthio’s play, The Story of Disdemona of Venice and the Moorish Captain, which was Shakespeare’s only source material for Othello. She highlighted the changes that Shakespeare made and the significance these had, especially presentation of female characters.

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Poetry by heart

By Julia Bevan, Teacher of English

On 11 October, Block 3 students were invited to attend and participate in a poetry event in the Dining Hall. Welcomed by members of the English department dressed in sheepskins and cloaks, and surrounded by candles, students and staff stood up to perform a poem they had learnt by heart in front of the roaring fire. Some took on Shakespeare and others invited the audience to join them in a rendition of a nursery rhyme.

Lilibet Viner gave a dramatic performance of Helena’s speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Sam Coleman told us what it was like to be a cupcake cooking in the oven; Clara Gardiner-Cox gave a moving rendition of Mary Elizabeth Frye’s Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep; and Miranda Robertson sang a luxurious yet spine-tingling version of Bohemian Rhapsody.

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