D’oh! skin.

19 05 2008

I stayed after school today and worked with four students who are memorizing parts of “The Highwayman” for English class so they can perform it. Normally I work with just two of them, but today two more joined in the fun. Memorization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and it’s not cracked up to be all that much to begin with. Therefore, I was trying to make it as much fun as possible, turning the stanzas into games that we could play to get the kids used to the rhythm and the rhyme.

Here is the stanza the kids were working on:

He’d a French cocked hat on his forehead and a bunch of lace at his chin;

He’d a coat of claret velvet and breeches of fine doe skin.

They fit with never a wrinkle, his boots were up to his thigh;

And he rode with a jeweled twinkle

His rapier hilt a-twinkle

His pistol butts a-twinkle, under the jeweled sky.


Working with ELL kids in the first place is hilarious because of all the questions they ask, and I know (man, do I know) how difficult it is to learn a second language and to speak it in front of others. Sometimes, when we get a wrong sound or a wrong phrase stuck in our heads in that second language, it takes a whole lot to unstick it. To this day I am still unsticking sounds that sound right to me but are so, so wrong. 

This brings us to this afternoon when I answered a series of questions like, “What’s ‘breeches?'” “What’s ‘lace?'” “What’s ‘doe?'” And trust me, when I explained that Alfred Noyes’ romantic literary Highwayman wore a lace tie and pants made of leather, it took a lot for me not to picture him as one of the Village People, though that’s not something I shared with my students; they had enough to picture with the poem, let alone a reference to the group that made “Macho Man” a recognizable tune.  In any case, I asked the group of three to stand in a row and I told the first student to start saying the first line of the stanza from memory and then I’d stop him and make the second boy complete it, and then so on until we’d gone through the stanza a number of times. It made sense to me: repetition, completing a line, keeping up with the rhythm.

And so here’s what it sounded like:

Student 1: “He’d a French cocked hat at his forehead and a bunch of lace on his chin…”

Me: Stop. Okay, now YOU go.

Student 2: Uh, so, “He’d a coat of, uh, claret velvet and [pause] and breeches of finedoeskin…”

Me: Stop. You two do it over.

Students 1 & 2 would repeat the first two lines until they flowed more smoothly.

Me:On his forehead.” Stop. Okay, start over with you, Number 2.

Student 2: “He’d a French cocked hat at his forehead…”

Me:On his forehead.” Stop. Go Number 3.

Student 3: Oh, me? Okay, where’d he leave off?

Me: Start over. Listen, please. Go, Number 2.

Student 2: “He’d a French cocked hat at his forehead…”

Me: Go Number 3.

Student 3: Okay, “and, uh, a lace of fine doeskin.” 

Me: No, that’s okay. Try again.

Student 3: Okay, “and, uh, something about skin finedoeskin, what’s that? um, a lace of chin. Something of skin finedoe skin.”

Me: No, no it’s: “and a bunch of lace at his chin.”

Student 3: Okay. Okay. 

Me: Say it over, just that line.

Student 3: Okay, Ms. C.  “…and a bunch of finedoeskin.”

Me: No…!! It’s “and a bunch of LACE at his CHIN!” 

[At this, I made hand signals to show lace being bunched at my neck like a tie, and pointing to my chin afterwards.]

Me: Number 2, why don’t you start from the beginning of the line?

Student 2: Okay. “He’d a coat of claret velvet…”

Student 3: “…and a bunch of lacefine doe skin.”

[At this point, all of us are biting our cheeks so hard to keep from laughing that there are pools of blood collecting beneath us. I am trying to come up with ways to trigger my student’s memory about the sounds and the words knowing how awful it must feel to keep making the same mistake but also how often I have done the exact same thing: the sounds stuck in my throat like they were cotton balls that I couldn’t choke out if I wanted to. Oh, my heart was just aching for my kid, but he kept at it and was so determined to do it right. I nearly cried with compassion for him.]

Me: Okay, one more time. Let’s get this right!

Student 3: “He’d a…a coat of claret..ah..velvet…and…ah….ah…”

Me: “a bunch…”

Student 3: “a bunch of…”

Me: “lllllll….aaaaa….”

Student 3: “bunch of llllaaaaaace…on his doeskin chin!”

Me: [eyes watering with tears of laughter] Okay, okay. I think we can study some more another time. Practice, practice. That’s all I can say. You did well! 

Student 3 picked up his things and began to walk out of the room. I walked faster in front of him on my way out, and when I turned around to see what he was doing, we almost crashed into each other. 

Student 3: [laughing] Oh, Ms. C! I didn’t even see you!

Me: [laughing] I know! What’s going on?

Student 3: I was thinking you were claret velvet. You look like claret velvet.

Me: But…that’s a fabric.

Student 3: Oh, I don’t know. Bye bye, Ms. C!


Have I told you yet how much I love these kids?!





3 responses

20 05 2008


21 05 2008


You don’t know me, but I’ve been lurking for a month or so – I thought I’d come out of hiding to post a comment.

I remember memorizing this poem in grade 8. Every student in my class had to perform a version of this poem (boys and girls were paired together). One of the boys read “He’d a French cocked hat on his forehead” as “He’d a French cooked hat on his forehead”…. The whole class broke into giggles. I still remember that, 15 years later!! Glad to hear that you’re continuing to teach this poem!!


P.S. Loreena McKennitt has a version of this poem that she’s put to music – it’s beautiful, you should check it out if you can!

21 05 2008

Hi Jen! Glad to see you’ve stepped out of the land of lurkers! 🙂

I was on YouTube the other day and found McKennitt’s song as the music for an Sims animation. It was awesome. I love it because it’s the Sims and my kids love the Sims, and also because I love Lorrena McKennitt’s voice. I saw her in concert over a decade ago and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

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