Magazine article NATE Classroom

Writing to 'Instruct'

Magazine article NATE Classroom

Writing to 'Instruct'

Article excerpt


Year II Examination Tips

1. Do all your revision the night before.

2. In the exam write down all you can remember, never mind what the question is.

3. Hurry through the questions, then put your head on the desk for a nap.

I once displayed this list of instructions (above) on the board, and some members of the class started to write it down.

Those who started writing it down were embarrassed, of course, when they 'got it'. The 'tips' were sarcastic, apparently giving instructions but actually implying what not to do. Or, to interpret it another way, some Year 11s are so weak in the exam room it is as if they've had instruction in how to perform like this. (I was embarrassed too, since it seemed to me an adverse reflection on teaching and learning in my classroom that they copied from the board with uncritical alacrity.)

The American comedian Bob Newhart has a comic monologue called 'School for New York bus drivers' in which he says they're so bad they must have gone to school to learn how to be so bad. In his sketch they have lessons to learn how to make a woman with packages spin to the back of the bus, for example, and to terrorise learner drivers.

A blog correspondent in 2007, complaining about the driver of a school bus, wrote in conscious imitation of Newhart:

'Er, Mr. Smith, drive faster, the kids are still in their seats. Ah ... Good! Three kids just fell into the aisle.'

'Okay, the green light about 100 feet ahead just turned red. That's it, Mr. Smith. Step on the gas. And honk your horn. Stay on the horn. Good! Excellent. At least four cars rear-ended each other in the intersection that you ran through.'

( polis-mn/TMKF37EM3FSIFTLDN, accessed 24/03/09)

The technique of satirical instructions has a long history. Jonathan Swift's 18th century satire Directions to Servants uses the same principle: servants are so bad they must have read a textbook to teach them how.

For example, in this passage:

   Stick your plate, up to the rim inclusive, in the
   left side between your waistcoat and your shirt:
   this will keep it at least as warm as under your
   arm-pit, or ockster (as the Scots call it); this will
   hide it, so as strangers may take you for a better
   servant, too good to hold a plate; this will secure
   it from falling; and, thus disposed, it lies ready
   for you to whip out in a moment ready warmed,
   to any guest within your reach, who may want it.
   And lastly, there is another convenience in this
   method, that if, any time during your waiting,
   you find yourself going to cough or sneeze, you
   can immediately snatch out the plate, and
   holding the hollow part close to you nose or
   mouth, and thus prevent spirting any moisture
   from either, upon the dishes of the ladies headdress:
   you see gentlemen and ladies observe a
   like practice on such occasion, with a hat or
   handkerchief; yet a plate is less fouled and
   sooner cleaned than either of these; for when
   your cough or sneeze is over, it is but returning
   your plate to the same position, and your shirt
   will clean it in the passage.

Note that, according to Swift, not only are the servants insanitary and disgusting in their practices but also vain and snobbish: 'too good to hold a plate'. His own attitude might strike contentious chords with twenty-first century readers like your students, but it could be fun to test the clarity of his set of instructions here. Try a paired exercise with a class in which one reads out the passage and the other mimes the actions. Film it as if it is an instruction video.

Edwin Brock's poem Five Ways to Kill a Man (find the text and listen to Edwin Brock reading it at The Poetry Archive www.poetryarchive. org) is a more modern and bitterly sarcastic version of the same technique. …

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