So... I saw Cats the Movie

5 uses for
in the classroom

Stick with me.  But yes, I went and saw the movie of Cats, the Hollywood treatment of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1980 musical based on T.S. Eliot's 1939 poetry anthology, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.  A bit of background - I had previously seen the stage show and absolutely HATED it!  I appreciated the individual aspects of it - the music is good, the lyrics are fun, the sets are clever, the dancing is phenomenal... but as a whole, it just didn't work for me.  

Flash forward about a decade and this latest cinematic offering has changed my mind (except for a couple of songs that I still can't stand, you know who you are, Rum Tum Tugger).  Don't get me wrong, the film isn't perfect (I refuse to make a pun) but it is fun.  

But why am I writing about it in an education blog?  

Well, I was lying in bed the other night thinking about all of the cats mentioned in the play (if you haven't seen it, it's basically The X Factor for cats, with Old Deuteronomy playing the part of Simon Cowell, that mixed with the first fifteen minutes of Logan's Run) and how they play as whole could fit into the classroom.

And I came up with a few ideas...
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    • The poems are easy to learn  - use them to 'discuss classic poetry'
    • Contrast with Roger McGough's Cats Protection League to add 'contemporary poetry'
    • The idea of justifying your bid to start a new life is a good PSHCe exercise

1. Readers' Theatre / Performance Poetry

The French poet, Paul ValĂ©ry, once said: 'poetry is to prose as walking is to dancing.'  This is a phrase that I have often shared with the children in my class to try to get them to understand the joy of poetry and the freedom it grants the writer and the reader.  One of the ways to encourage them to really appreciate the lyrical beauty of words is to have them perform some Readers' Theatre.

If you've never heard of it, it is simply a recitation of a piece of text (usually a poem).  Split the children into groups and give them a stanza each to perform.  They must decide what the words mean; how they should feel when listened to.  From there, it's have fun; go nuts.  They can choose to whisper certain sections.  They can repeat words or phrases.  They can overlap and interrupt.  The possibilities are endless... which is what makes it so difficult for them.

We all know that modelling is a wonderful way to get children started.  However, I have found it quite difficult to find a good example of this sort of thing.  Enter The Naming of Cats Now, it isn't perfect.  In fact, it's not very good as an example.  But we can still use it.  What it does do is show the children how creepy an atmosphere the cast create by using that half-whisper.  And they do vary the speech patterns a little.  

Wait, why am I showing you a crappy example?  Well, I would suggest that you tell the children that it isn't very good and discuss how they could have made it better.  In my experience, children are far more willing to improve on something rather than create from nothing.

I've done this in that past with A Visit from St. Nick and The Listeners.  It works best if you give the children a day to plan and a day to rehearse and perform.  Record the performances and then review them as a whole class the next day.  Grade on clarity, invention and enjoyment.  Ultimately, they have learned a classic poem by heart.

2. PSHCe with Grizabella

Grizabella is an interesting character in the musical.  She is 'The Glamour Cat' but the Jellicles (the tribe of cats) shun her completely.  In the film we are told that she 'went off with Macavity' - more on him later, suffice it say that it was a bad move on her part.  Interestingly, the literary history of Grizabella mirrors this nicely (and, if you have older children, you can draw that parallel).  Her poem was left out of the original anthology and was, in fact, never even finished.  All we have now is an extract (here) about a cat who was once beautiful and young but is now haggard and old.  

In the show, the cats gather to see who Old Deuteronomy will choose to go to the Heaviside Layer (some interesting science exploration in that name) and be reborn (you see the Logan's Run link?)

We never actually find out exactly what Grizabella did to fall out of favour with the other cats, all we know is that they have not forgiven her (it is Victoria, the new-comer cat who persuades - still not punning - the others to give her a chance).

Here's where the PSHCe comes in.  Display on the board the question 'Have you ever done something that you now regret?'  All the children have.  The lesson will build naturally around how they tried to make amends (if they did); whether they have forgiven someone who offended them in the past, and how they managed to do so.  It could easily incorporate a sort of playground tension cleansing (there's always some).  If yours is a school that requires written evidence of PSHCe, then a simple letter asking for forgiveness would be very sweet.  

Ultimately, Grizabella is given the chance to explain how bad she feels (that's where Memory comes into play); her past is forgiven and she gets to go to the Heaviside Layer (basically cat heaven, I guess?  It's never really made clear).  Could the children bring themselves to bury a few hatchets?

3. Compare classic and contemporary poetry

Part of the (UK) curriculum is to compare and discuss classic and contemporary poetry.  CATS gives us this opportunity.  There are some mischievous cats in the book (Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer and Macavity) and their poems contrast nicely with Roger McGough's Cats Protection League - a brilliantly fun poem about cats demanding food from humans.  All the poems rhyme.  All are tongue-in-cheek.  Eliot's are longer but still manageable.  

I would suggest a simple 2x2 grid exploring what the children like; dislike; any patterns or similarities; any questions that are raised.  This is a wonderful and safe way of analysing poetry.  the children can work in pairs, small groups or completely alone.  To extend, they can compare the cat poems with some dog poems (here are a few - they're not all ideal, number 12 is good for this).  Again, use the 2x2 grid and extend each into a paragraph.  It's surprising how quickly they fall into the idea of using quotes and exploring themes.

4. What makes a villain?

In the musical, Macavity is the villain purely because the show needs some conflict.  When you have no plot - remember, the inspiration was an anthology, not a novel - you have to scrape a story arc from something.  So Lloyd Webber decided that being a 'mystery cat' who is described as 'the Napoleon of crime' was strong enough a character reference to be labelled 'the bad guy.'  

This is a good chance to explore the concept of fact versus opinion, empathy, and write from differing viewpoints.  Using Macavity as a reference, explain to the class that all the cats are scared of him and he is the villain of the piece (remind them that Grizabella was shunned just for associating with him).  Can they find evidence in the poem to justify those claims?

When they have gathered all their evidence, ask them if they are presented as facts or just opinions.  Hopefully, they pick up on certain lines like 'I know he cheats at cards' as suggesting truth to the rumours (although the children might argue that we don't know who is telling us the story, so we can't be absolutely sure).  They might spot that, since 'his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard', he cannot be proved to be guilty.  I think you can have a lot of fun with this, especially if you have some pedantic children who are determined to convince people one way or the other.

When you're all warmed up by looking at Macavity, you can extend the discussion to include famous fairy tale villains (the usual suspects - Big Bad Wolf; Goldilocks...).  If your children are older or up for it, you could look at some grey-area characters and explore the morally dubious fields of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons... is it ever okay to break the law?  Is it ever appropriate to disobey an adult?  If you see people doing things you know are wrong, should you say something?  These sorts of discussions are fantastic.  they don't always yield written evidence of learning, so if you work in a school that demands that, you might want to incorporate a piece of writing explaining why the villain of a story is actually not bad at all.

I had a similar discussion like this with a class of 10/11-year-olds.  We were discussing theft and morality and we got onto the subject of internet piracy.  One child argued that illegally downloading a song from the internet should not be a crime because if they stole a chocolate bar, then it would be physically missing but when you download a song, it is still there; you haven't physically taken it from someone else.  I'm not saying they had a point but you can see how these discussions can evolve.

5. Healthy Eating and Bustopher Jones

To finish on an ironically lighter note, the St. James's cat is fat.  He knows it.  He's okay with it.  He eats from bins.  What a brilliant time to introduce the diet, exercise and healthy eating parts of the science curriculum!  I'm not going to go into it beyond that - it's fairly self-explanatory.  I think it would make for a cute display as well.

I can't leave it at just a quick nod to science though - my first love is English and there is a wonderful English lesson here (good for EAL children, too): Idioms!  Bustopher Jones is a fat cat.  But he is fat because he eats exclusively from (the bins of) the finest restaurants St. James's Square has to offer.  He is fat because he is privileged.  Making him both literally and idiomatically a 'fat cat.'  It's a great chance to teach how this is used as a metaphor for the over-privileged who care little for those less fortunate than they.  Use it as a gateway idiom for other animal-based metaphors - raining cats and dogs; dog's dinner; a dog's life (that one's interesting because most dogs have very nice lives now); top dog (really interesting etymology there - it's not at all to do with dogs!).  

So that's my list.  There are so many more teachable moments through the film - I've not even touched on the music (there is a line in Jellicle Cats that asks 'Can you, as cats can, begin with a C', following which a cat sings a perfect high C.  An example of prosody, punning and spelling!) or the actual composition of poetry.  Too much to unpack here.  I will write a post all about how I approach poetry with children because I love it and I've had a lot of success with it (even in interviews) but not today.

Today, I shall leave it here.  

Thanks so much for reading.  Happy new year, although we've all been back long enough to render the holidays a distant memory by now.  As always, if you like what you've read then please share this blog with your friends; if you don't like what you've read, trick your enemies into subscribing!  Remember to take regular breaks and never forget that you are awesome.

thank you very much

Carl Headley-Morris