Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus was the son of a god. He was handsome and strong, and a musician of great renown. Only his father, Apollo, could play the lyre better. When he plucked the strings everyone stopped to listen.

Eurydice was the daughter of a god. She was beautiful and gentle and everybody loved her. When the two met, they fell head over heels in love.

Their wedding day was a joyous occasion with good food, good company and plenty of music and dancing. They felt truly blessed… But just a few short weeks later, disaster struck.

As Eurydice was out one day, she caught the eye of a shepherd called Aristaeus. He didn’t care that she was already married to Orpheus – he wanted he wanted her as his own wife. He chased her and she fled. In her haste to get away she didn’t watch her step, and she disturbed a deadly snake. It reared up and bit her, injecting it’s fatal venom into her blood. She died almost instantaneously.

Orpheus was distraught. He played such sorrowful songs on his lyre that even the rocks and rivers wept for him. He travelled all the way to Mount Olympus and begged an audience with the gods. He played for them and they were so moved by his desolate tunes that they agreed to let him travel to the Underworld to plead with Hades for the return of his wife.

Gaining entry to the Underworld was not an easy task. First Charon, the ferryman, had to agree to a safe passage across the River Styx, and on the other shore, the gates were guarded by Cerberus, a fierce, three-headed dog. Neither would usually allow a living person to enter the kingdom of the dead, but Orpheus played his lyre so beautifully they both allowed him to pass.

Even the frozen heart of Hades himself was melted by Orpheus’s mournful melodies, and he agreed that Eurydice could return to the land of the living.

However, he did not give up his souls so easily, and so of course there was a condition attached… He instructed Orpheus to leave the kingdom and to play his lyre on the way. When Eurydice heard it, she would be allowed to follow him, but Orpheus was not to look behind him.

Orpheus headed to the living world, and as he played all the lost souls stopped to listen, but Eurydice never seemed to be amongst them. Eventually he heard footsteps behind him. Yes! That was her! He would recognise her light, quick footsteps anywhere. On he walked, never daring to pause in his playing, and on the footsteps walked behind him. But the closer Orpheus got to the exit from the Underworld, the greater his doubts grew. Was that really his beautiful wife behind him? Would Hades really give up one of his souls so easily? Could he have sent a phantom in her place? What if he reached the living world and discovered that it was not his beloved behind him? It would be too late, and he wouldn’t be allowed to visit the Underworld a second time. She would be trapped down there without him, and he would be trapped up here without her…

At last he could bear it no longer. With only a few more steps to go until he reached the living world, he turned to make sure it really was his wife behind him. Eurydice stretched out her arms to him, pleading with him to save her. Too late! Hades’ laughter echoed all around. Unseen hands carried Eurydice back to the depths of the Underworld and Orpheus was left to return to his own world…alone.

Worst Lesson Ever Taught

A typical interview question is, “Can you tell me about a really good lesson you have taught, and say what made it so good?” I’m used to that one and I always have one in mind before I go to an interview.

The last time I went for an interview though, they really threw me. “Can you tell us about a really bad lesson you have taught, and what you learnt from it?” I wasn’t expecting that. Quite apart from the fact that nobody ever wants to share their failures, it’s a hard question to answer. Like most teachers I finish every lesson thinking, “I wish I could teach that all over again – I could do it so much better next time.” How do you choose one from so many like that? I decided to talk about the first lesson I ever taught as a trainee teacher as I don’t think lessons get any worse than that particular one.

I knew what my lesson objective was, and I had thought really carefully about what independent activities I wanted the class to do to practise the learning objective. What I hadn’t considered enough, was how I was going to break down the learning objective to allow them to achieve it. The result was a shambles. I threw far too much information at them in one go, and then set them off on their first task.

Of course, they didn’t understand and the noise level rose as they asked each other what to do. I got frustrated because nobody was working. They were frustrated because I was telling them to be quiet and just get on with it, but they couldn’t. By the end of the hour every child in that class hated me, and they were my least favourite class for the rest of my placement.

But I did take away a very important lesson of my own from that experience, and the first bit of advice I would give any trainee teacher going into the classroom for the first time is this:
The lesson objective is what the class should achieve by the end of the lesson. They are not going to be able to do it after the first ten minutes of the lesson – if they can then your expectations are not high enough. You need to plan a series of small steps for them to take throughout the lesson so that by the end they can look at the lesson objective and say, “Yes – I can do that.”

I’ve never made that mistake again, and now whenever I teach I think about my particular children and plan how to break the objective down for those particular children.

Why you most definitely can make up words in English

“Children can’t use word x because it doesn’t exist, and you can’t just make words up.” So said a teacher once on a forum I was following at the time.

My reply was, “Why can’t you?”

Shakespeare is one of the most respected writers of all time, and he invented a whole pile of words! He probably didn’t invent all the 1700 he is often credited with, but there is little doubt that he made up more than a few, including giving new meanings to old words. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

People have been making words up for millennia. Some of the words made up never catch on and are forgotten about; others are used and repeated – and if enough people use and repeat them they enter the hallowed pages of the OED and become an accepted part of the language. I have to wonder whether anyone who claims you can’t make words up has ever taken a selfie (first recorded usage 2002).

Think about it – if you can’t make words up, how did we end up speaking English anyway? Without words ever having been invented we’d still be walking round grunting at each other. We probably wouldn’t have such comfortable lives either, because without the means to record their findings, scientists wouldn’t have been able to keep a record of their successes and failures, and they wouldn’t have been able to pass the baton on to future generations to refine and improve. And what about those inventions? Without making up words, telescopes, televisions, lightbulbs, electricity, football, matches, chocolate and wellington boots would all be referred to as “things”. That would make life confusing!

One of the things I love about the English language is it’s richness: we don’t just have ‘big’, we have ‘huge’, ‘enormous’, ‘gigantic’ and ‘gargantuan’. Another thing I love is the fact that you can play with it: if I told you that my road was really carparky in the mornings, you’d know exactly what I meant, even though the word doesn’t (yet) appear in the OED.

In my opinion, instead of telling children, “You can’t just make words up,” we should educate them about when it’s appropriate to make up words (informal speech, creative writing) and when it’s not so appropriate, and then we should leave them to be creative. After all, who knows? One of them might grow up to leave the English language an even greater legacy than Shakespeare did.

English podcasts

As I said in my last post, I’m a recent convert to podcasts. I really like the fact that I can slip my phone in my pocket, plug my headphones in, and learn something new while I’m washing up or cleaning the windows! It makes the munane tasks seem a bit more bearable!

I’m not a GCSE teacher so I can’t vouch for the quality of the podcasts mentioned in this post, but you may find them useful.

GCSE Revisionpod – I really like this one. The banter between the two presenters keeps it light-hearted.

Revise GCSE English Literature

Approaching Shakespeare – this one isn’t GCSE specific, but there are some really interesting insights into Shakespeare’s plays.

Mr Bruff podcast – I know lots of people really like Mr Bruff’s website as I see it recommended quite a lot. I didn’t find this podcast as engaging as GCSE Revisionpod (above) but everyone has different tastes.