Thinking about the new closed book literature exams, we’re going to have to face up, very soon, to how we teach our students to learn quotations. Along with writing exams by hand when they only ever usually type or text, learning quotations by heart is probably (in my opinion) one of the single most pointless exercises we can inflict on students. I had to do it in 1979. It was daunting – and I had a good memory. I don’t remember one of those lines now. Is this a kind of torture dreamt up by ministers to get their own back for years of X-Box and PlayStation rows at home?
Yes, I understand the arguments in favour – it may reinforce understanding of the author’s use of language and it is marvellous to be able to quote a bit of Shakespeare at dinner parties – if you go to those sorts of dinner parties. Actually we all quote Shakespeare day in day out (as Kate Tempest so perfectly explains in My Shakespeare): all that glitters, puts my teeth on edge etc. Why would a citizen of the 21st century ever need to quote Charlotte Bronte or Charles Dickens? They’d just say “Hang on, now you’ve mentioned food banks, I’ll google what Dickens said about poverty,” and that would be that. Better still they’d download the film version of Jane Eyre with dessert and lament the conditions at Lowood School. I also understand that it is a discipline – but a discipline for what? To replace beatings and writing lines?
Anyway, it’s game on and we will all have to find ways to support students to learn quotations. Interestingly, when I did a search using the words ‘how to teach students to learn quotations’ it drew a blank although I eventually found a couple of ideas I would use through this link:
Returning to Shakespeare, many of his phrases have embedded themselves in our everyday language – we quote him without even realising it. We could do something similar with phrases like “We are members of one body” and aim to make them everyday cliches in our classrooms. I can imagine ‘giving us the rope so that we’ll hang ourselves’ and ‘The point is you don’t seem to have learnt anything’ becoming quite popular catchphrases in lessons and it could be an amusing way of learning by heart. However, this will never work with many of the subtler and text-specific quotations: I can’t see us sliding, “If you think you can bring any pressure to bear upon me, Inspector, you’re quite mistaken” into the starter unless Ofsted have arrived at short notice.
However, we must not panic our students and over-glorify ‘quote’-spurting. Yes, it is important to know key quotations and to use apt words and phrases which are lifted directly from the text but we must also emphasise that students can paraphrase if they can’t remember the exact words or word order and that this is known as close reference to the text for which marks will awarded. Decide on some quotations could be used in any essay –you could choose two or three about each of the following: character, message, key themes, plot development and context. Then focus on developing interpretations of these quotations – this will help to make them ‘stick’ and will also arm students for the higher level skill of interpretation which can often lost during the learning by heart process. A quotation like, ‘Let not light see my black and deep desires.’ can be used to support interpretative comments about any of the above aspects of the text at different levels:
This shows that Macbeth is having evil thoughts.
This suggests that Macbeth has a conscience because he knows his thoughts are wrong and that he is struggling to come to terms with what he now realises about himself.
Shakespeare suggests that Macbeth knows he is wrong to want the kingship.
Shakespeare uses these words to reflect the kind of inner conflict we have all experienced when we override our moral code.
The theme of light and darkness is reflected in Macbeth’s words.
Throughout the play we see the struggle between good and evil played out in Macbeth.
At this point we realise that Macbeth is allowing his darker thoughts and ambitions to take hold.
At this point in the play we begin to be be aware that Macbeth has taken the witches’ words seriously and does in fact harbour thoughts of ultimate power, even though he knows that these ‘desires’ are malicious.
At the time the word ‘black’ referred to evil and light represented what was good.
At the time, light would have represented goodness and black often represented evil because people associated the devil and witches with darkness and night time. The religious connotations of ‘light’ could imply that Macbeth wants to hide his thoughts from God.
Other than this, I suppose we are left with rote learning and chanting – maybe we could hook up with Maths and explore how they teach times tables?