Published: Saturday, July 27, 2013

Essay

Teaching literature, learning Shaw

Teaching literature, learning Shaw

As a subject, English Literature has never been a popular choice for candidates sitting for their O-Level examinations, let alone their advanced levels. Even though nearly all of us have been taught from childhood to read story books, few of us later still hold the earnest passion to scurry into the library at every free period and burrow their noses into a book. However, that is precisely what we need English Literature classes for, don’t we? So that our language skills and writings can become improved, our limited vocabulary more enriched and our desire to read books no longer remains embedded. The sad, underlying truth, however, is that English Literature classes often don’t help. Because most of them are taught in the wrong way if you’ll blatantly admit; the consequences accumulate to half the students fearing the subject and the other half remaining aloof and indifferent.
When I was in eighth grade, we were given the book Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw for our English Literature Class. I had bought the book during the holidays, and at that time, wasn’t familiar with the name Bernard Shaw. Frankly, I had absolutely no idea who he was as a writer, what were his attributes, and couldn’t care less  if he were alive or dead. Nevertheless, I started reading the play, more in an effort to appease my mother and also I didn’t want to start classes utterly clueless. I liked and enjoyed the simplistic dialogues that the characters used, and all the characters seemed funny and comical enough, to my taste, so I did finish the book within a few days. What I detested was the abominably large description of the scenery that Shaw continuously seemed to put in most of the story. I found that very tedious, and used to skip off the parts, shrugging that it didn’t matter. Back then, I had no idea that this was one of Shaw’s trademarks and that using such elaborate descriptions helped the readers to gain a better picture of what was happening. Being like any impatient fourteen-year-old, I enjoyed the book to the point where I never picked it up again in the holidays, and had another game up my sleeves to gain good marks—to surf the internet whenever we were to give a test.
Our eighth-grade English Literature class was taught by this respectable lady, Nilofar Prakash, who had come from India. I had thought that we would straightaway start with the play and perhaps finish it in one term, considering there were only three scenes and the book was very short. However, she made us do a project first dealing on the background where the story was set, focusing mainly on the Victorian era and the biography of George Bernard Shaw. Our project mainly involved finding anything about Shaw and drawing some sketches of clouds where we could write phrases or paragraphs about him. As you can imagine, researching about the writer proved to be much more exciting than I could have ever thought, as Shaw wasn’t just any normal playwright, but possessed so many other extraordinary, witty, eccentric, even mind blowing qualities. That beginning proved to be one of the best introductory sessions to start off the class.
Our teacher went on to great depths to explain almost every single line; and though in the beginning, it seemed a lot of work, I soon became very appreciative. After all, there were so many hidden underlying themes that existed in the dialogues and needed to be explored thoroughly. So many ambiguous references to class divisions and the almost laughable phoniness that people from the upper class showed just to fit into their ‘respectable’ societies, were delineated to us, giving acute knowledge that it exists painfully in our society, even now. Our teacher often used to ask us what we thought of the dialogues as well; and you would be surprised at how differently everyone viewed them from each other.
We also had loads of fun in the classes too. Our teacher sometimes used to make the students act out some parts, which provided a showcase for anyone to show off his or her acting skills or just be plain dramatic. We even listened to contemporary songs from her Ipod, that she would connect to an amplifier, and compared it with the theatrical love that Sergius, one of the main leads of the story, always displayed for his upper-class lady love, which was a dark contrast to what he really felt for someone beneath his own class. But the classes were also a learning experience, since we gave tests based on the dialogues and wrote about the messages that were being conveyed to the readers and what we thought about them too. Then later we had to pen down essays on character analysis and development of the different characters, the plots, etc.
I cannot speak for my classmates. I can only say that memories of the class still stick to my mind, even after four years. It was something I greatly looked forward to every day of school. It was a chance for all of us to say what we thought of the story and the characters and see for ourselves how greatly all of our opinions differed. It’s exactly how any class, be it any subject, should be taught—a platform for students to voice their thoughts, learn, grow up, and still be young at heart.

Samiha Matin is a young writer.