The Story of Mick… teaching Macbeth

I taught 15-16 year olds in a pupil referral unit; this is an educational establishment for young people who can’t or won’t function within the ordinary state system. We taught them in their last year of statutory education, just one year to turn them around and get them some decent exam results so they would have a realistic chance of a  future, in education, training, or employment. As you can imagine, these young people were seriously challenging with every sort of behavioral issue, every sort of emotional difficulties and often with crime and substance abuse lurking in their background.

Team building with two of my favourite students on a miserable day in the Mendip Hills. We’re standing on a wobbly plank at trying to cross an imaginary chasm! Aaron, on the right, wrote a brilliant ‘Macbeth’ essay.

The General Certificate of Secondary Education in English includes the study of a Shakespeare play. The obvious choice is ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ aided by Baz Luhrmann’s wonderful film… but they had nearly all studied it to some extent lower down in their schooling, even if it was only to watch the film. I was free to choose whichever play I wanted them to study and then produce a written assignment from their studies… but which one… which one would appeal…

Hamlet! A young guy agonizing over his mother’s relationships and grieving for his dead father… plenty of resonances with our kids… but Hamlet does waffle on a bit… so… A comedy!! But no, they wouldn’t think it was funny and I would be ducking behind my desk as their text books rained down on me. A tragedy with plenty of blood and guts… Richard III – what a great villain… but again I just couldn’t see my students wrestling with the text and grappling with the characters…

Macbeth… more kings, more waffling on, fights, assassinations, power struggles… hey! Wait a minute! I think I have it!

And indeed I had. What is Macbeth? It’s a struggle for power, one man’s overwhelming ambition to be top of the gang… hey, gang! That’s it! The kids love gangs… some of them are in gangs (the local one is PYO, not pick-your-own but Persistent Young Offenders.)

My students… outward bound!

I had a plan. I would tell the students the story first, without revealing it was Shakespeare, and once they had grasped the plot and the characters then we could look at the old 1971 Roman Polanski film, and then we could get down to studying the text.

So King Duncan became Danny, Macbeth became Mick, Banquo was Ben, Lady Macbeth was Maxine… I soon had a whole cast of new names for the characters. “Is this a dagger I see before me?” No! It’s a gun! But how to present it to my students?

I  used PowerPoint a great deal and decided to tell “The Story of Mick” through a presentation. The next problem was how to illustrate it….  Who could my actors be? I trawled the internet, Googling  for a group of people who would look the part. To engage the kids they had most of all to be cool, they had to be tough looking, real men who would do dangerous things… and they had to be attractive and the sort of guys the kids would admire.

Suddenly I found them. Did they tick all the boxes? Strong looking? Yes. Faces full of personality? Tick. Cool – above all they have to be cool? Yes, yes, yes.

R-gang… cool, handsome, full of character… not a gang but a band!

The picture I found was of an American band and they fitted my idea perfectly. On the far left is Ben… Banquo, Mick’s best friend, loyal, strong and faithful. Next to him is Mick himself, aka Macbeth… strong, charismatic, a great warrior until things go tragically wrong. King Duncan… Danny, the leader, a man of great power, a good man, a noble man, but his generosity and kindness to Mick is rewarded by betrayal and death. Next to Danny is McDuff, another mighty warrior; in my tale he is Dave, resilient, determined and the only man able to wrest the kingdom from Mick’s grasp. In my story, Duncan’s two sons become Malcolm and Donalbane become Malik and Don, Danny’s cousins; they have to be wise and perceptive enough to escape Macbeth madness and then return to take control.

I made my PowerPoint and it was a tremendous success. The students became fully engaged with the story, understanding motives, character, narrative. We looked at the PowerPoint a couple of times, then watched Polanski’s film before moving onto Shakespeare’s text. The students produced their assignments… and passed their exams! The only problem was, I did have to check their work carefully to make sure they wrote Macbeth and not Mick, Duncan not Danny and Banquo not Ben!

Danny had everything going for him… he ran the biggest syndicate in the south of the country, for syndicate read organized crime… His organization included,  his two cousins, Don and Malik, Mick  and Ben his best friend.  Another key member of the business was dave.

But his hold on the world of crime was challenged by the San Salvador 18 – a vicious gang lead by the ruthless Norri who came from the northern streets then moved into casinos and nightclubs… threatening Danny’s empire. Danny sent his best men, Mick and Ben who soon resolved the problem;Norri  passed away shortly after a ‘business meeting’ with Mick and Ben

Danny was delighted with Mick’s success… but his delight was lessened when he discovered that his trusted second in command, Colin had been betraying him to  Norri for several years. Colin paid the ultimate price for his betrayal.  Danny  decided to reward Mick with Colin’s ‘business’ One of Colin’s string of race horses

Danny tried to get in touch with Mick and Ben but they were having a good time at a night club. In the early hours of the following morning, Mick and Ben sauntered through the streets of the city looking for somewhere to have breakfast before heading for the airport. They fancied a good old fashioned fry-up and found themselves in a poor part of the city.

Suddenly three women called to them from a doorway.

“Tell your fortune, fine sir?”

“Cross our palms with silver and we will tell you great things!”

“Lucky heather? Lucky white heather?”

If you would like to find out more about the R-Gang, to whom I am so grateful, and to whom my students owe so much, follow these links:

http://r-gang.com/

http://www.facebook.com/pages/R-Gang/155819715844

11 Comments

  1. grumpytyke

    Another superb post on how to teach, Louis. Had you been my teacher I might have done better in English Lit at GCE ‘O’ – long before GCSE (I got a distinction in English Language). I first read Gulliver’s Travels at about 7 years old and loved it. It was the set book for my GCE Lit (along with Julius Caesar and Milton). Having studied Gulliver to death in my pre GCE year, I’ve never been able to beyond the first chapter since.

    Like

  2. Kana Tyler

    Hubby and I were JUST talking about this, while we were watching the BBC Pride & Prejudice at 3 in the morning… I was describing how the kids’ eyes would automatically glaze over with self-induced coma when presented with any Classic because they were so sure that “Classic”= dry…

    What’s a teacher to do? Ha, pull a Lois! Sneak a story under the teen-radar BEFORE they know what they’re getting into. 🙂 I wish now that I’d saved some of my (male!) students’ writing about the humor in Pride & Prejudice (after I’d hooked them with a sneak-attack, naturally)…

    Have you seen Danny DeVito in “Renaissance Man”? He pulled a Lois too. Story of Incest, Murder, Mental Illness, Intrigue… Woops, it’s Hamlet! 🙂

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  3. loonyliterature

    Reblogged this on loonyliterature and commented:
    I love people who go the extra mile to help others, especially when they are encouraging young people who have had a hard time to get on in life. I love this post where Lois helps 15-16 year old in a pupil referral unit to pass an exam on Macbeth. Lois gets top marks and everything else going for her effort and teaching know how – she is really a Loony Literature type of lady – well done Lois!

    Like

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