The Schöningh series for teaching materials in English dealing with literature and film in the EFL classroom has by now become widely established. This volume, though, could almost warrant a subtitle using the well-known Monty Python phrase, "And now for something completely different". This ambitious volume does not deal with one single film or novel but with a whole anthology of Monty Python material: songs, sketches, segments from feature films and the film The Life of Brian. This wide choice of material is at the same time the book’s great strength and also one of its potential weaknesses; strength because several important genres which do justice to the brilliance of the Monty Python team are dealt with, giving pupils insight into them, and weakness because one wonders about the availability of some of the material, and teachers are forced to gather the various elements of the sections together themselves.
Nevertheless, it was high time that someone dealt with popular culture and British humour in a thorough and serious manner, and here it is.
The layout of the book is nothing new to those familiar with this Schöningh series. The sections (called components in the series) are based on the genres, with five songs in component 1, five sketches in component 2, five scenes from The Life of Brian (component 3), and one segment each from the feature films The Meaning of Life and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (component 4). The book begins with a brief and informative history of Monty Python, which is followed by a chronological discussion of works including the Monty Python series, feature films, stage shows, and books produced by the Monty Python team. There is then an excellent preliminary consideration of the use of Monty Python in German EFL classrooms with some interesting primary and secondary sources. This is followed by the annoying habit of the series to include a suggestion for two written tests at the beginning of the book. It is no good pedagogical practice to place the tests here as it suggests that the teacher and pupils should be motivated to go through this material in order to pass a test – a much better place would be the end of each volume.
To go back to the author’s preliminary teaching considerations, Engelbert Thaler quite rightly points out that, despite their popularity, there are no major teaching units for any of the Monty Python products. Nevertheless, he also points out that there are several good reasons for using Monty Python in the EFL classroom: British humour, cultural and historical elements, the use of authentic material, interdisciplinary uses, and the "fun" element. Furthermore, the training of the four basic skills and that of viewing comprehension are good reasons, as well as the extensive lexical gains. Because of its cultural nature, the material can be integrated into several teaching units or can be used individually as time permits.
He also mentions the problems, though: the demands of much necessary background knowledge (humour is, after all, a culture-specific entity), the difficulties for the pupils to understand style and unusual vocabulary, plus the problem of analysing humour to death. There are also basic pedagogical problems: the breaking of major taboos (religion, death and sex) and the occasional use of obscenities. Thaler warns the readers that they must accept these less positive aspects if they want to use Monty Python and this model in their teaching. The model attempts to steer a course between these pros and cons.
Thanks to the components being genre-based, there is no necessary sequence intended in this model. Most of the material is for use in Sekundarstufe II, but Thaler points out that three of the songs and three of the sketches could also be used in Sekundarstufe I.
Component 1 deals with five of the best known Monty Python songs: "Christmas in Heaven", "I’m So Worried", "The Meaning of Life", "Galaxy Song", and "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". The basic didactic pattern the author has for each song is the introduction of pre-listening, while-listening and post-reading activities, and this becomes rather monotonous after a while. Nevertheless, the activities themselves do vary, with elements such as text analysis, note-taking, intertextual work, project work; the pupils are asked to give their expectations, find lexical items mentioned in a song, compare a traditional Christmas carol with a satirical rewrite by Tom Lehrer. They are presented with gap texts or jumbled texts. There are creative writing tasks (e.g. "What is the meaning of life for you?"), role play (e.g. "prepare a dialogue on ... and act it out") and project work (e.g. "Check in physics and astronomy books whether the figures in the lyrics are correct").
The second component is structured in very much the same way, but deals this time with five fairly well-known sketches: "Oscar Wilde Sketch", "Bicycle Repair Man", "Ministry of Silly Walks", and "Election Night Special". Once again there are pre-, while- and post- activities, many of which deal with background information (e.g. Oscar Wilde, Superman, or British political election debates), stylistic devices of humour (aphorisms, similes), and language work such as word fields. The pupils are expected to discuss what elements go up to make humour and what makes us laugh (a very important and somewhat neglected feature in EFL); and there are also creative writing tasks, role plays and pantomime. Again, these are varied and didactically useful and relevant activities.
The material to The Life of Brian (component 3) is perhaps not quite so successful, and it is a somewhat ambitious project to deal with the feature film as one component out of four. The aims of the section are not clear, and the reader is left guessing as to why Thaler chose The Life of Brian instead of one of the other feature films. The analysis is kept to a disappointingly very basic comprehension level in the tasks, and there is no attempt to go into film analysis as such, although there is a bilingual list of film termini at the end of the book. An analysis of, for example, the Crucifixion Scene is limited to a gapped summary and (yet again) the text of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", this time in a rather weak nonsense version which the pupils are to correct (e.g. "Life’s a piece of cake when you look at it" or "Always look on the dark side of life"). Here I would have expected at least an analysis of camera shots.
This is improved slightly in component 4, which deals with one segment each from the two feature films The Meaning of Life and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In the "Miracle of Birth Scene", the pupils are made aware of the interplay between setting, atmosphere, sound/music, and characterization, and the pupils are asked what they think the film is poking fun at. However, I wonder how many pupils will really understand the British views on the difference between Catholics and Protestants, or indeed why Yorkshire was portrayed as part of the Third World. The main emphasis of the scene is placed on yet another Python song, "Every Sperm is Sacred", and here again the analysis is basically a matter of comprehension. I personally would have been interested in tasks which look at the profanity of the song and the way in which it breaks a taboo.
The segment chosen from Monty Python and the Holy Grail consists of the first four scenes of the film. Some background information concerning King Arthur and the Holy Grail is at least attempted in the form of a brainstorming session, and then the work on each of the four scenes employs a different type of comprehension activity, including group work, class discussion, written work and individual work. Here again, though, the worksheet concentrates on mere comprehension of the scenes in question: pupils have to reconstruct a defective dialogue, correct "funny statements" (funny = incorrect here), unfinished sentences and statements in a jumbled order. No attempt is made to discuss the humour of these scenes. There is, however, an interesting selection of transfer activities, including discussion, a poetry workshop (e.g. a limerick), a talk show, acting out a duel between Arthur and the Black Knight, websearches on historical background and (at last) a task which asks the pupils to examine the film from a cinematographic point of view (thus the glossary of terms at the back of the book); where the pupils get this knowledge from or how to give them any training in it is sadly neglected.
At this point I would like to discuss the two suggested tests, even though they come earlier in the book. The first test involves viewing comprehension and is based on a sketch which in my opinion is very obscure: the "Anagram Sketch". The pupils are expected to discuss the title, perform a "literary analysis" of anagrams and spoonerisms which occur in the sketch, state what they think the satirical intention of the sketch is and whether Monty Python have found a good ending to the sketch. I doubt whether the components in this model have equipped the average pupil to answer these questions. The second test looks at scene 31 from The Life of Brian, which is basically the crucifixion scene once again. This time, though, the pupils are suddenly expected to choose forms of humour in the scene and to write a composition which looks at questions such as blasphemy, parallels between the lives of Brian and Jesus, or whether or not the film as a whole should be taught at school. It is a pity that such topics and aspects are left to a written test (which no doubt not many teachers will actually use) instead of during an analysis of the film itself.
All in all, one could say that this model is worth consideration. It has some very effective and positive aspects, such as a great variety of different types of activities for the pupils. There has also been at least some attempt to analyse the subject of British humour and popular culture, but I personally would also examine why the Germans find this funny (or not) and what the differences to typical German humour might be. I feel therefore that not all of the ambitious aims of the model have been met. It is a worthy addition to a series of teaching models of greatly varying quality and further models of this kind should be encouraged.
But I have saved the best until last: quite unlike other models that I know from the series, this volume has annotations of the most important vocabulary items – badly needed here – and this is something the series editor might also like to consider. One cannot expect that pupils will know lexical items such as "shagged out", "matey", "until one is blue in the mouth" or "obnoxious" - to name but a few at random. My only criticism is that the author could not decide whether to adopt a German translation or an English explanation – so he mixed them.
The following teaching model combines textual and cinematographic material:
The film Thunderheart is dealt with in two out of five components only. Being put in historical and cultural frames, the production is meant to visualize and to illustrate some problems of Native America in class.