A Christmas miracle for the English classroom (it involves a film, but students are learning too!)

Writing about Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture adaptation of A Christmas Carol teaches students to develop an individual response to a ‘text’.

It’s that time of year again. The last week of term arrives and Merry Christmas erupts into merry hell as some Tweachers declare their intention to work right up until the final bell, whereas others opt for an end of term movie or quiz.

But here’s a suggestion that might establish some common ground: a short sequence of learning that gets students thinking about Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture interpretation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, developing their analytical writing skills and – hopefully – enjoying themselves as well.

Most students are very familiar with the premise of the story, but of course, a whole-class discussion is a great way to establish how they’ve responded to the film, what they already know about the context of the novel and the extent to which the students feel the narrative has relevance in today’s society.

After the discussion, we watch the opening sequence again, which depicts London as a snowy winter wonderland, replete with holly wreathes, carol singers, burning braziers, candles and Christmas trees. Through whole-class discussion or with students working in pairs, we aim to identify mood, key plot points, possible themes and aspects of Scrooge’s character.

It’s really interesting to consider how Dickens’ novel and subsequent adaptations represent some of our Christmas traditions and the extent to which they helped to establish them in popular culture. The poem ‘A Visit From St Nicholas’ by Clement Clarke Moore is also worth reading with students to this end. Both the poem and Dickens’ novel are examples of festive life imitating festive art to a significant extent.

This premise can be explored in practice as students work in pairs and use handout of screen shots to pick out images which evoke the aforementioned mood, key plot points, possible themes and aspects of Scrooge’s character. Using the opening of the text itself, we then make links to parallel or analogous lines or phrases in the novel.

This task can also work really well in an ICT room, where students compile their own screenshots using Snipping Tool and annotate those images with quotations from the online version of the text.

We spend time exploring the context of the novel, particularly the origins of Christmas in the pagan Winter festival, the influences of the Roman festival of Saturnalia and the early Christian traditions. Students research the origins of Santa Claus and the archetypal gift-givers that have been fused into the modern day figure, such as Odin, St Nicholas, Sinterklaas and Father Christmas, as well as the events that influenced Dickens’ own impressions of Christmas and his views about social justice.

No stranger to poverty himself, Dickens worked in a shoe-blacking factory after his father’s financial difficulties brought the family into destitution. With this in mind, we consider Dickens’ own experiences as a child and the effects of these on the conception of the novel, particularly how the symbolic characters of Ignorance and Want represent social attitudes toward the poor during Dickens’ lifetime.

Some key questions in the form of a mindmap help the students to discuss in pairs their responses to the novel and its transposition to moving image. They capture their thoughts on the mindmap. At this stage, helping students toward forming an individual response to the film and its relationship to the novel is really important. The provision of some provocative statements can help with this:

We then engage in a collaborative planning discussion, where I use questioning to draw out a suggested structure for our review. I ‘scribe’ these ideas into text boxes on a PowerPoint slide, which we then move around, sequence, number and expand. Students can use this collaborative planning to help them arrange and sequence their own ideas.

A style model, such as this abridged and slightly adapted version of Michael Billington’s review of Jack Thorne’s 2017 stage adaptation of the novel at the Old Vic, can be a really useful way of getting to grips with the right tone of voice for the purpose and audience of the writing. Review writing is less formal than other analytical styles such as the essay, and it usually contains wider references to popular culture and other reference points. With this in mind, it’s useful to think about what works well in the writing at whole-text, sentence and word level. These three ‘signposts’ can provide a useful framework for classroom discussion.

As with any piece of writing, modelling the drafting process is really important. I model my opening paragraph, flagging up some of those aspects of review writing we drew out of the style model and encouraging students to critique what I’ve written. We deconstruct my own attempt (below) and discuss evaluative adverbs such as ‘richly’ and ‘thrillingly’ and the adverb ‘quite’, which subtly implies that although other adaptations have come close to Zemeckis’s achievements, they’ve been a little wide of the mark. I also highlight the importance of ensuring that context is an integral and seamless part of the commentary.

When looking back at their own writing, those three ‘signposts’ discussed earlier can again help provide a loose framework for students to critique their own work as it’s being written. Much of this discussion centres around choices of language and why it’s appropriate for the audience and purpose of the text.

Reflecting on whether or not I’ve written in an appropriate tone of voice, I experiment, as part of the live modelling and editing process, with some methods of incorporating humour into the review, such as through the use of questions that address the reader and the use of comic analogy.

When encouraging students to edit and refine at sentence level, I explain that that various structures can help students convey modes of thinking that bring heightened sophistication to their work, for instance, opening with the adverb ‘perhaps’ to indicate tentativity and balance, using the subordinating conjunction ‘while’ to show awareness of multiple intentions and deploying fronted verb phrases that help students to summarise with ease and precision.

As students are working on their second drafts in Google Docs, I offer feedback in ‘suggestion’ mode, correcting errors and making suggestions that guide students toward adopting the conventions of review writing.

Robert Zemeckis brings the Victorian Christmas as envisaged by Dickens to life in a spectacularly festive way. The message at the heart of the novel – that charity and kindness should be practiced at Christmas and all the year through – feels especially relevant in today’s society. This particular film is very accessible, and the motion-capture technology has allowed Robert Zemeckis to realise Dickens’ magic-realist vision really sucessfully. Whether or not students are studying the novel, engaging with this particular adaptation seems like a worthwhile way to spend the last week of term.

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