Homework: Bring in an onion.
You can imagine the looks of consternation and befuddlement as Year 10 recorded the assignment into their planners, but dutifully they responded. On the following Monday, my classroom was populated with the vegetable in all its myriad sizes and shades but the students were still none the wiser.
I’d been wracking my brain as to how to bring Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Valentine to life for days. In it, the poet laureate uses an onion as an extended metaphor as she presents her lover with one on February 14th. Duffy’s aim was to dispel the clichéd proclamations of love. The default settings of kissograms and satin cushions were just not good enough to express her feelings.
Consequently, to teach it I felt it was vital that the same method applied. So instead of a conventional question and answer session on what a particular simile or phrase might suggest to the reader, my aim was to allow students to actually hold the subject in their own hands. The responses were better than I could have ever anticipated and even more heartening was the fact that they came with little or no prompting from me.
“If I peel it, it’s kind of like a present, right?”
“Onions have lots of layers, so her love isn’t just on the surface”
“They make you cry, so it’s like she’s telling someone that love hurts just as much as it makes you happy”
“If you separate an onion and wrap it round your fingers, it’s just like a wedding ring which could mean it’s all about commitment”
The responses and interpretations kept on coming and as their thinking developed, the students began to understand for themselves the reasoning behind Duffy’s logic.
Instead of being a metaphor in its abstract form, by physically interacting with the onion they were able to analyse the poet’s choice of language and form and as a result, their knowledge was not only expanded but hopefully embedded too. For my part, it became incontrovertibly clear that a teacher’s job is to guide and facilitate learning. Retention will never occur if students do not come to their own conclusions about any given topic.
Several months later, I asked one of my Year 10 students what she remembered about the lesson. “My fingers stank for the rest of the day,” came her response.
“And what does that tell you about love?” I countered.
“It stays with you?”
Yes it does. And I hope that lesson will stay with them for a long time to come too.
[Images: English Smart Revision and gatheringbooks.org]