On a sunny Wednesday, the remainder of the 6.2 English students ventured to Winchester, accompanied by David, Julia and Magnus, to explore the area that influenced so much of Keats’s later poetry, and to follow the walk he took along the River Itchen that inspired him to write his ‘Ode to Autumn’, often described by critics as the perfect poem.
We began in the Winchester College Fellows’ Library where Dr Richard Foster, curator of the college’s collection, showed us a first edition of Keats’s 1820 Poems which included the ‘Ode to Autumn’. We also saw a First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623. The we had a talk by Dr Gary Farnell from the University of Winchester about Keats’s stay in Winchester in 1820.
We then retraced Keats’s route from the Hospital of St Cross to the cathedral close, and then to Colebrook Street, where Magnus’s friend Amelia Ashton hosted us in her garden for a picnic lunch and another talk by Gary, this time focussing on The Eve of St Agnes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and Ode to Autumn. We ended the afternoon with a sonnet writing competition.
Not only did this allow us a fresh set of eyes on the texts we had been studying for months, but allowed us to build up a greater picture of the surrounding world of Keats’s poetry. Thank you so much to the English department and Magnus for a wonderful day.
The first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s play Othello was on Hallowmas Day, November 1, 1604. James I had been king for just over 18 months and he had very recently overseen the Treaty of London which concluded 19 years of conflict between England and Spain. It was a time of great change, a time of unification and much longed for peace.
On Wednesday, Bedales English Literature A Level students were joined on Microsoft Teams by fellow Bohunt English Literature students to take part in a short lecture programme organised by myself and Deana Buchan, Head of English at Bohunt. We were joined remotely by Dr Kath Diamond, a Renaissance specialist who lectures at Goldsmith’s College and Queen Mary and Westfield, and who delivered a fascinating lecture on ‘Turning in Othello’.
Amongst other things, Kath’s lecture recognises the significance of this period of political and cultural change in Jacobean London and the bearing it has upon the action and motifs to be found within a play which presents a ‘spiralling vortex of change’. The play opens in the turmoil and business of a bustling Venice, centre of trade and commerce and the seat of much public debate and discussion about the ongoing war with the Ottoman Empire in Cyprus. It narrows to the defeat of the Turkish army before narrowing again to the private matters of Othello’s marriage to Desdemona and then ends with yet a further narrowing to the marital bed; site of Desdemona and Othello’s tragic end and loaded with much dramatic symbolism. The play is a play of change and a play of turmoil that leaves both its contemporary and 21st century audience somewhat unsettled (though for different reasons) and yearning for the kind of peace and order that a king like James, Shakespeare’s patron, ought to bring at the start of his reign.
The students then explored the way the masculine and the feminine may be considered in the play through shorter presentations led by myself and Deana; a useful foundation for further classroom discussion. At a time when we can’t take our students to the theatre or to lecture programmes, this was a superb opportunity for both 6.1 and 6.2 to revisit their study of Othello and it ushers in the start of more exciting joint projects between Bohunt and Bedales that Deana and I hope to be able to realise in face to face events next year.
Block 3 have been studying Ernest Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and The Sea in their English composition lessons this term, which has led to all sorts of fishy descriptions and discoveries. Last week they tried a form of poetic composition which involves taking lines from the text and rearranging them to create a poem.
Everyone had called him The Champion He always thought of the sea as la mar The strange light the sun made on the water He loved green turtles and hawksbill with their elegance and speed He was happy feeling the gentle pulling and then he felt something hard and unbelievably heavy He held the line against his back and watched its slant in the water I love and respect you very much. He is a great fish and i must convince him They are our brothers and are like flying fish I hate cramp. It is a treachery of one’s own body. ‘I’ll kill him though, ‘Now is when I must prove it.’ – Nicky, Block 3
The Human Fish
Fish, I love you and respect you very much You let the female fish always feed first. You are good, play jokes and love one another Take some rest fish Chew it well and get all the juices
Fish, I love you and respect you very much But through my treachery, My big fish, I will kill you dead before the day is over
It was the saddest thing I ever saw The female made a wild and panic stricken fight. Still, through my treachery, I love you and respect you very much – Jake, Block 3
In the dark the old man could feel the morning coming, The boat moved slowly through the dark water, He was sorry for the birds, The small delicate dark terns, Always flying and looking and never finding, The birds have a harder life than we do – he thought, Why did they make birds so delicate and fine, When the ocean can be so cruel? She is kind and very beautiful, Yet, She can be so cruel, It comes so suddenly and such birds that fly, Dipping and hunting, Their small sad voices are made to delicately for la mar, But – he thought, She gives or withholds favours, And if she did wicked things, It was because she could not help them, – Shoshana, Block 3
This poetic composition exercise is something that you can do with any text and which produces a very wide variety of outcomes. I thought you might like to have a go yourself, maybe with your family, so here are some instructions:
Choose a novel or short story that you love or know well to work with.
Choose 10-15 phrases or short sentences and write them down. The tricky bit is to not think too much but to trust your instincts and choose lines that ‘speak’ to you. You could also experiment with choosing lines at random.
The quotations you’ve chosen may well have some sort of shared theme. You could use the theme as the title of the poem or you might choose one of the lines to be the title.
Re-arrange the quotes into some sort of order that makes most sense. Try not to think too hard but go with what feels right.
You might need to leave out one or two of your original choices but try to include them all if you can.
You might need to alter the grammar of some of your quotations slightly to help it make sense.
Read it through again and again and make any alterations it needs each time.
For the past two years, I have been in the unusual position of teaching a whole cohort of A Level English students. What a privilege this has been; first to get to know you all last year through studying the contemporary Poems of the Decade and an evening with Julia Copus, and then to guide you through some of the pressures of online learning.
Certainly, my most fulfilling teaching moments last spring involved supporting many of you as you wrote your coursework essays. We worked together, adopting university-style tutorials that were really conducive to the task at hand. In this intimate learning environment, you rigorously dismantled and reassembled your analytical arguments, embedding close textual analysis and context into essays, and become young but impressive scholars of Seamus Heaney, and Arundhati Roy. It is wonderful that I have taught one or two of you since Block 4 and that a number of you are now determined to study English at university: what more could a teacher want?
In the autumn term of this academic year your focus and determination were remarkable. At times as a teacher managing the new COVID secure protocol on site was tough; but it was worth it so that I could introduce you to Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf in person and watch you draw comparisons between this novel and her older sister Wuthering Heights. Both novels deal radically with early forms of mental health, a subject on which you often edify me.You demonstrated such maturity and sensitivity in November, embracing hybrid teaching early on so that those of you at home self-isolating could stay part of the class discussion. You make me very proud and are a credit to your parents.
I believe passionately that we learn much from creating peak experiences inside and outside the class room and I had hoped to take you on a weekend trip to Haworth in Yorkshire, to visit the Parsonage where Emily Bronte died and to walk up onto the Moors to Top Withens, a remote, abandoned farm considered to be the inspiration for her only novel. Instead we returned to our homes and computer screens and I have had the challenge of trying to inspire you with the poetry of John Keats.
A poet of the senses, he is a joy to teach in the winter and early spring in Steep, ideally in the Meditation Hut or the Lupton Hall, where two years ago I launched the first ‘Eve of St Agnes Experience’ with Lucy McIlwraith.
This year I asked you to work on collaborative creative responses to the poem and I have been amazed at what you have achieved from homes many miles apart. Your original work neatly coincides with the publication of an essay entitled ‘Weavers of Dreams in The Eve of St Agnes and A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘ in the English and Media Centre EMAG, co-authored with my partner in Keatsian crime, Lucy. I’ve decided this will be my third and last Keats’ experience, and hope to teach Shakespeare next year. It makes sense to end on such a high.
To all of my 6.2 English students: thank you. “St Agnes moon hath set.”
As teachers, we’re very aware of the problems associated with screen-time and have been looking for ways to have students present their ideas that don’t involve toiling in the blue light of their laptops. So, over the last few weeks of online learning, Bedales students have had lots of opportunities to present their work in all sorts of ways. Here are a few of the things students have been doing with the English department.
In Block 3, students have been producing their book reviews as short films, some of which you can see here.
The Block 4 English Language students have been studying a variety of 19th century fiction genres and learning about what has made novels so successful. As part of this, many of them have been asked to make comic strips or Gothic films as a way to understand just why isolated castles, terrible weather and mysterious strangers have become such integral parts of Gothic literature. You may remember this is something we did with last year’s Block 4s in the summer term so maybe we have the makings of a yearly film festival at Bedales! See some great examples from Julia’s class here.
6.1 English Literature students are currently studying A Streetcar Named Desire and have been given a choice of performance tasks. We have some students writing re-creative scenes, re-imagining Blanche, Stanley and Stella in different times and places; some aim to learn and perform a key speech of one of the main characters with costume and full dramatic effects; others are working on mini-lectures about themes and ideas in the play such as how music is integral to an audience’s experience of the play in the theatre.
Block 5 and 6.2 students have been preparing for internal assessments but they have still been able to get away from their screens to produce useful revision materials for each other. Block 5 have produced informative documentaries about something they know well such as climate change or chicken-keeping in order to practise the skills they need for paper 2 of their GCSE English Language exam.
Meanwhile, 6.2 English Literature students have been busiest of all, making lectures about ‘Othello’ either as audio files or filming themselves (in Jago’s case, filming his hands making meticulous notes!)
The pièce de résistance, though, will doubtless be the now traditional Eve of St Agnes Experience which this year has had to undergo some changes. Unfortunately, we can’t recreate the midnight feast enjoyed by the poem’s characters Madeline and Porphyro in the same way as in previous years, but can still wish ourselves into their world with photos re-creating key scenes and poetry workshops writing verses we think Keats would have included if he could! Look out for more on this from Julia in next week’s Bulletin.
At the start of this lockdown, I was worried we’d be missing out on all of Bedales’ brilliant talks and performances… but I stand corrected! This week we were visited by Deanna Rodger, a multi-award-winning slam poet, who joined us online to lead a workshop for Bedales students and give a poetry reading for Bedales Events’ annual Poetry Series.
For the workshop, there were about 12 of us, so it was easy to ask questions and get our voices heard. We started the workshop with an icebreaker – each of us had to write small sentences on what ‘freedom’ meant to us. Then, we compiled them all into one big, spoken poem, and Deanna performed it for us (I’m surprised at how good it sounded, honestly). In the end, I think we all concluded that ‘freedom’ for us meant not having to set an alarm in the morning!
Next, Deanna introduced us to free writing. Essentially, we had to write about something for three minutes without stopping or taking our pen off the page. It’s an exercise that really helps with writer’s block. Our first topic title was ‘A mother once said’, and we had three minutes to write a poem with that title. I did struggle a bit with it at first, but I got the hang of it eventually. After those three minutes we quickly moved on to the second title, ‘My face as a map’, then after that, the last one: ‘Home as a smell’. Once we’d put all our thoughts onto paper, Deanna told us to take our favourite sections from each of them and compile them into one, big poem. Although this stumped me slightly (I didn’t know where to start!), there were some absolutely gorgeous poems from everybody else.
After the workshop, there was just enough time for a quick dinner before Deanna’s poetry reading, talk and Q&A for Bedales Events. To open the event, Deanna led another icebreaker. We were told to think of the emotion we’d been feeling most that day, then write that emotion as a place, a food, a mode of transport and a person (I chose hopeful).
After that, Deanna started her talk. I bet it was hard talking to yourself in front of a camera, but she was so friendly it was like you were in the room with her. She performed two of her poems, Being British and Ode to Summer Infant Duo, both of which were engaging and beautifully structured. Afterwards, Head of English David Anson hosted a Q&A where Deanna talked about her inspirations (Mariah Carey, obviously), the time she wrote her first poem (after having a fight, obviously), and her plans to write a Disney musical (as does everyone else, obviously).
Both the talk and the workshop were excellent, and it was great getting advice from a real poet. I’m sure I can say on behalf of everyone that I hope Deanna comes back soon.
This half term Block 3 have been using their English composition lessons to read and write poetry about nature and the seasons. Naturally, John Keats’ To Autumn proved an inspiration for many with phrases that everyone half knows, even if only from the Mr Kipling advert! We’ve also read Seamus Heaney’s Personal Helicon,in which he muses on the way that nature creates and reflects artistic inspiration and helps us to know ourselves better.
Our local favourite is Edward Thomas, who many Block 3 students know from visits to The Poet’s Stone – a hop, skip, and very steep trek up Shoulder of Mutton Hill. The poems But these things also and The penny whistle evoke the landscape around Bedales and students gained a clearer insight into the subtlety of nature writing from the detailed imagery Thomas uses.
I’ve been really impressed with the poems that the Block 3 students wrote in response. You can read a selection below:
Autumn is the soft dying days when the light fades into mysterious night; Autumn is the cold seeping into your cheeks making them go a rosy pink; Autumn is the sharpness of the cold in your lungs and the chilly nip of the crisp air; Autumn is the cosy afternoons by the fire and the musty November smell; Autumn is the silence in the sky; Autumn is the path from summer and the bridge to winter.
The autumn came that year, too fast, too soon. The rolling winds whipped in from the west. And all that was in light, shadow overtook. The late summer fruits lay rotting in the fields, As if summer itself had forgotten them. More harvests failed with every looming day, As the thunderclouds crowded low, drenching the ground.
Where there should have been leaves, golden and red, There was the black rot of decay. Where the autumn grass once would have lain, Bear rock, earth and mud had overtaken.
Standing tall, silent, sturdy, They loom above you, The pines are straight and thin, They have stood for tens, hundreds of years.
Needles drop, crunch underfoot and rot, Branches fall only to be replaced many years later, Squirrels hop from tree to tree, escaping from some unknown.
Winter is coming Winter is coming thick and fast The earth is getting hard and frosty The sun has hidden behind a cloud And you may be thinking what is happening And I tell you Winter is coming It doesn’t matter what you think It doesn’t matter what you do Winter is always coming. When the leave stand strong Then Winter is just around the bend. When the hedgehogs are curled up in their dens And the rivers are freezing up The wind blows hard on my face And I know Winter is coming.
The trees shiver naked in the blowing wind, The cool rush of a fresh breeze, Leaves scattered across the floor, With little wellies splashing
The winter bounds stick to the paths With the mud rushing on Nowhere is safe from the weather Not even the warmth.
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.
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.
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.