Monday, March 05, 2007
Those handbooks, teachers’ aids and pedagogical crutches from Ginn and Letts dominate literacy teaching in primary schools. Whenever I see ‘100 Literacy Hours’ I blanch, they’re like those no-preparation boil-in-the-bag meals for people who live on their own, everything’s done for you, all you need to do is re-heat it. The problem is they are bland, tasteless and stodgy.
There’s a week’s lessons on the sinking of the Titanic, but it is indescribably dull, chock full of facts, no photographs, one sketchy drawing and some wordy and unreadable newspaper accounts. I’m sure the same people could describe the creation of the Universe and turn it into a dull, boring exercise replete with tick boxes, levelled writing and key skills for assessment – REALLY BORING.
Departing from the script I decided to use the services of that Hollywood blockbuster starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslett. Yes, it’s a schmaltzy film with a completely improbable romance – boy from steerage meets fiancé of mega rich tycoon and they fall in love. The characters are either ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ without an anti-hero to lend any credibility and the film takes whopping liberties with the truth, but like the children I soon got hooked.
I’ll not give a series of detailed Lesson Plans (11.36 a.m. raise right hand and ask the following question…) with exhaustive learning objectives and bullet points, because after years of the Literacy Strategy one sight of them and my eyes glaze over, the brain goes into neutral and I know an advanced state of narcolepsy is imminent. The Literacy Strategy designed by robots, delivered by robots.
There’s so many teaching and learning opportunities from the film – question and answer sessions, newspaper accounts, drama and story writing. We watched the film in half hour blocks. The film has got four strong story lines-
1) Rose as a young girl and as the old woman returning when the wreck is searched (the film uses flashbacks very effectively).
2) The Titanic and the society that it represented – Third Class tickets $32, the most expensive First Class tickets $4,500.
3) The Heart of the Ocean diamond and its fate.
4) Rose and Jack, why did she try to commit suicide? “For some people it was a ship of dreams, for me it was a slave ship… inside I was screaming.”
We discussed why the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic sank; it was designed to stay afloat if four compartments were flooded, the iceberg pierced five; the watch didn’t have binoculars; the rudder was too small. A catalogue of disasters all eminently avoidable.
The BBC web site has some excellent information about the most controversial aspect of the film, was the chairman of the White Star Line, J Bruce Ismay a villain? In the film Ismay climbs into one of the lifeboats just as people begin to panic. The inquiry held shortly after the sinking completely exonerated Ismay, he helped to supervise the evacuation of the ship and no passengers were left in that part of the ship, some passengers said he was ordered into the lifeboat. The newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst had a personal dislike of Ismay and those passengers trying to claim insurance payments tried to heap all of the blame onto Ismay.
In the film Captain Edward Smith is portrayed as a hero, pressurised to make the fastest crossing. The reality was that the Titanic could never break any speed records because its top speed was 23 knots against 26 knots for the fastest passenger ships. Smith chose to ignore warnings about icebergs, didn’t slow the ship or heave to as other boats in the area did. He panicked under pressure and didn’t organise the evacuation of the ship with the result that some of the first lifeboats launched were only half full. This was compounded by the fact that there weren’t enough lifeboats. 94% of women and children from first class survived, but only 47% from steerage. They didn’t realise how stark the situation was and it took time to get to the upper decks where the lifeboats were stored.
The closest ship to the Titanic was the California but it had shut its radio system down for the night and mistook the distress flares for fireworks. The Carpathia was 58 miles away and picked up the survivors hours later.
We viewed again the sinking of the Titanic and wrote a recount of the sinking – the bow tilting at an angle; the band playing on; people jumping into the freezing ocean; the funnel collapsing; the roar as all the furniture, plates and cutlery slid down the ship; the lights going out; the ship breaking in two and the interval between the bow and stern sinking. I got the children to imagine themselves as a child on one of the lifeboats, what would they see, how would they feel?
Rose reminisces and says, “He saved me in every way,” from that I got the children to recall the scenes from the film, one in particular when she watches a young girl in her starched dress, with a lace napkin on her knee being instructed by the mother on the finer points of etiquette. At the end of the film Rose climbs on to the railings on the stern and takes out the Heart of the Ocean, what are her options? Give it to the crew, keep it or drop it into the sea. We had a really wide-ranging discussion.
The children were absolutely engrossed by it, even the ones who never do homework researched information themselves. It’s that old lesson; Depart From The Script – Teach What You’re Interested In. Extra resources – ensure a steady supply of tissues.
Totally Off The Wall - Titanic by Bunnies