Category: Literature

10 Ways You Know You’re an English Teacher

A bit of froth for the holidays.  I found myself having the same thoughts I have every Easter break and realised that being an English teacher is part of my DNA now.  It doesn’t matter what position you take in a school, your inner-English teacher never goes away.

  1. It’s the Easter holiday and you are thinking about controlled assessment whilst consuming the last of your Waitrose Easter egg haul.  There are still children who were absent, or who missed an hour or two.  You need to catch them when you get back.  Maybe you can find a way to ring home in the holidays to remind them they need their texts.  Maybe you could go to their house to pin them down and make sure they don’t escape.
  2. You’re panicking because time is going too quickly.  You’ve counted how many weeks, no – days – are left before the first exam. And plotted out what you are going to teach lesson by lesson until study leave. Why is study leave even allowed? Why is the iGCSE so early again?  How many more Speaking and Listening exams do you have to record?
  3. You’ve mastered the art of teaching poetry at super speed.  One poem a lesson? Check.  Two poems if they’re both short? Check.
  4. You are not free on a Saturday morning between now and the end of June.  This is just how it is, right?  Other subjects have this too?  Lie ins?  Who needs lie ins?
  5. You harbour huge resentment against Maths – the subject and the department.  You all face the same pressure in theory.  School is measured by Maths and English – making or breaking a school’s reputation.  But – you secretly feel a superiority that you’re not ashamed of – English has to deliver not one, but two GCSEs in the same space of time as Maths.  Pah. You do it every year.
  6. You pride yourself on not having taught the same curriculum consecutively since 2004.  You don’t understand what Science and Maths are complaining about.  Science has stayed Science.  Maths has stayed Maths.  English, however, is the nation’s political football.  And we know how to handle this.  What are we teaching next term to Year 9 anyway?
  7. You quote Of Mice and Men incessantly.  Eating baked beans. I like mine with ketchup.  Reassuring your partner.  You got me and I got you that gives a hoot in hell about us.  Asking a sheepish question. George…?
  8. You wonder whether there’s any need for a new, Summer term notebook.  You’ve seen a lovely one and you’re coveting much.
  9. You own seventeen copies of An Inspector Calls/Animal Farm/Of Mice and Men/Lord of the Flies and Macbeth.  They are all on your shelf at home and yet you can never find a copy when you need one.  You do have all the copies of every poetry anthology ever published and you’re holding in to them just in case Gillian Clark and Ted Hughes ever come back onto the curriculum.
  10. You know you’re about to embark on the worst part of the year but you’ve realised that it’s like being in labour.  Every year this bit is bloody painful, but when Year 11, 12 and 13 go, you experience a state of bliss that makes you forget.  Then you do it again and it’s bloody painful again.

In all of this, we continue reading, teaching, learning and being the best pedants we can be.  Because we secretly love it.  Even this bit before exams.  Honestly.

Are We Wiping Away Identities? Schools, Integration and Britishness

I haven’t been to a Diwali Festival since I was very young.  I grew up in Leicester, the daughter of a goldsmith who plied his trade on what is still known as The Golden Mile and every year, the Diwali lights would be switched on along that mile.  We would close up the shop once it was dark and weave through the crowds, eating street food and seeing familiar faces. It was a riot of colour with blue, red, yellow, orange light bulbs lining the road as far as the eye could see. For a moment, standing in Trafalgar Square this afternoon at the Diwali Festival, I closed my eyes and I could have been right there – with the same the music and the same dancing –  with my family celebrating a festival that is fundamentally about the triumph of good over evil.

I will admit that one of the standing jokes about me whenever I mention my heritage is: “Are you Asian?”  The joke stems from the fact that I have, over the years, become a not-very-Asian Asian.  I haven’t set foot in a temple since my early childhood, I haven’t learned to write my home language, I haven’t kept up with developing my Gujarati language skills.  I can’t really tell you the meaning of feast days or fast days.  I struggle to remember the stories of my childhood and my heritage.  I have made a life out of rejecting my own culture.

It is only now, at this age, that the real impact of this has hit home.  My grandfather passed away two weeks ago and I didn’t go the funeral.  While I know deep down there were many reasons for this, one reason stands out and points at me. I knew I would find it hard to communicate with people in the language they know and I don’t. I know today that one of the things that is most tragic about this wholesale movement away from my past is the growing gap between me and members of my family – particularly the older generation.  I have chosen at some point along the line to deny myself the language that would connect us.  In forgetting the words, I have forgotten them.  This is something I can now never rectify.

But it is a choice, right?  I chose to be this version of myself.  Why did I choose to be someone who is so far removed from my family in language, dress and stories? What made me move to a more pronounceable version of my name?  The question reminds me of a brilliant quote by the actress Uzoamaka Aduba who plays ‘Crazy Eyes’ in the Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black.  She recounts a conversation with her mother about her name

“So anyway, in grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it. So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”

The word ‘integration’ has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.  My own family used it to describe what they did, arriving here in the 1970s, working, learning English, wearing western clothes.  All things they thought differentiated them from other refugees.  See, even we used the word to praise or punish, to segregate.  That’s how ingrained it was – this idea that to fit in, you had to slough off the things that made you you.  You had to wear borrowed robes.

This week, as part of BBC3’s series on racism in the UK and around the world, I heard the word used again and it stung.  A spokesperson for Britain First said that he didn’t mind the Hindus and the Sikhs, because they had integrated into British society.  He was, of course, referring to these groups in opposition to the Islamic community – one that he perceived to be a threat.  I heard it again when on social media, people applauded Nadiya Begum for being a fabulous model of a Muslim woman in Britain.  One that had integrated, despite wearing a headscarf.  Her headscarf, in fact, has become a national debate.  Can a Muslim woman truly ‘integrate’ while she is wearing one?

And it made me think about what it was that made me erase parts of my identity.  I wanted to integrate.  I wanted to be the person whom the rest of society considered to be ‘good’.  I made the teaching of English my job – and the question is there to be asked: did I do this out of an unconscious desire to present myself as the most English I could be?

I teach in schools where you will meet the most diverse, most multicultural students.  What messages are they getting about their identity?  When English teachers were told to teach Wordsworth instead of Poetry from Different Cultures, what messages did that send to teenagers?  I am responsible for instilling a sense of cultural capital.  Whose culture?  When we talk about Fundamental British Values, whose values?  When I heard a colleague saying once that the Year 10 girls can’t do that dance at Open Evening because the music is Afrobeats and that sends the ‘wrong message’ to prospective parents and then a week later, they’ve been replaced with a violinist, what is that?  When I was told that steel pans were being put away to be replaced by a string quartet, I knew what that meant.  It was too black for a school who wanted to attract a middle class and implicitly white child.

And who can blame a school for trying, right? It’s a market place and the increased commercialisation of education means that schools fight to attract what they perceive to be the most successful students.  That child who will drive up results in inner-city schools.  But in those anecdotes, I hear that’s a very specific type of child.

In there somewhere is a seed of shame.  It makes people of diverse backgrounds feel that their stories are somehow less valid.  It makes young Asian girls, who want to fit in, give up something that is a vitally important part of their fabric.  The colour and joy of Diwali lights in an October dusk.

Exam Season Blues: Why 45 Minutes is Not Enough

Nothing beats the stress and tension of exam season if you work in a secondary school.   For students, exam season is a wake-up call, one of the first moments that they realise there are some situations where only their own brain and effort will get them through.  For teachers, exam season is the culmination of months of hard work.  The children’s futures, the school’s reputation, the views of parents, all of these things prey on the mind of the diligent teacher.

There is a reason why exam nightmares are common, even after you leave school.  Who hasn’t woken of a morning, felt a creeping remnant of humiliation stemming from a dream in which they turned up to an exam naked and unprepared?

Soon, my anxious Year 11 students will file into the building from their ‘study leave’ and fall silent as the exam regulations are read to them.  Some will be unconsciously twisting bits of paper, nerves betrayed by the physical act of shredding their exam timetable or the last few revision notes they made.  Some will be steely-eyed, determined; others merely hoping they make it to the end of the exam having written something, anything that might do them justice.

I look at them as individuals.  It saddens me that so much of their future is determined by exams that don’t necessarily reveal the extent of their intelligence.  Watching Sir Keith Robinson’s fantastic RSA lecture, ‘Changing Paradigms’, made me wonder whether testing our students in the way we do enables them to demonstrate their true potential.  The concept of uniform assessment, influenced by a historical shift towards standardisation for the purposes of national productivity, does not allow for a true reflection of a child’s abilities, particularly when that child falls outside of the ‘norm’.

Take the English Literature exams, recently earmarked for reform after being designated ‘soft’.  Fears that the exam has become too easy means that it will be subject to yet another change, having already been overhauled by the exam boards in 2010.  However exams are viewed by policy advisers, Education Secretaries, the press and the public, only an English teacher can explain that for some students, English Literature exams in any format are extremely difficult.  Only an English teacher, someone who sits with children every day to help them learn the core skills of inference and deduction, analysis, evaluation and synthesis, can explain how an English Literature exam may be problematic in any format for students who come into secondary education with low reading ages.  It is these students who struggle to keep up with the demands of courses that expect them to be able to make complex and adult judgements when the mere act of reading the text can cause embarrassment and frustration.

While most schools’ titanic efforts in raising reading ages are often successful, consider what a child has to do in the current English Literature exam.  Firstly, have an acute understanding of 15 poems, their language devices, structural features and implied meanings.  The criteria for the exam suggests that the top grades can only be achieved if a conceptual response is created.  It is not enough to display knowledge about the poems, they need to conceptualise their response to take into consideration an author’s possible intentions.  Secondly, they respond to an Unseen Poem – a text they have never seen before.  To many, this may not seem impossible.  One sample test paper had the word ‘waltz’ in it.  For inner city London students, despite efforts to increase cultural capital, many will not be familiar with the intricacies of a Bavarian dance possibly dating from the 1750s.  Michael Rosen is particularly lucid on the cultural bias of exam papers when he speaks about SATs papers being designed under the assumption that every child has parents who speak to them about botany and geology, take them to museums and expose them to music beyond that of the current chart.  If a vital key word in a poem relies heavily on the assumption of student’s background, surely we are just perpetuating social mobility issues?

Students are also asked to write about a novel and a play.  Answering a question about whether Inspector Goole is a mouthpiece for J.B Priestley’s socialist message seems straightforward.  As does examining an extract from ‘Of Mice and Men’ for close language details.  As does then relating the content of the extract to the whole novel and then finally, when hands are tired and minds are fraught, linking all of this to what is shown about America in the 1930s.

The issues lies in the fact that each question is given a time allocation of 45 minutes – in the case of Unseen Poetry, a mere 30 mins.  I know that my students understand, with a depth of detail, the finer points of a text, however, can they ever fully show their appreciation in 45 minutes?  How many English teachers have sat at their desks knowing that a child is incredibly bright and articulate, either verbally, or with longer stretches of time to construct an argument, and known that 45 minutes will not ever reveal the real extent of their skill?  A former student of mine was one of the most articulate students I had ever taught – someone, in fact, with huge cultural capital.  However, high-functioning Asperger’s and a slow writing speed meant that he did not really have the chance to shine.

This is not an argument for the dumbing down of English Literature exams, it is an argument for a real and lengthy consideration of the purpose of assessment and who is best qualified to conduct it.  If we expect our students to sit the same assessments, in the same length of time, yes, we do achieve a standardised environment in which students can be measured against their peers.  Whether this is a fair assessment system is questionable.  Our children are not standardised units.  Give them the freedom to demonstrate their abilities, and, as usual, they might surprise us.

The Perfect English Lesson: Not What We Thought All Along!

If there’s one thing English teachers should read before they go back to work on Monday, it is the Ofsted document entitled ‘Moving English Forward’.  It is always interesting to hear what Ofsted inspectors think of any kind of lesson, but nothing really prepared me for the full, unadulterated gamut of emotions I felt whilst absorbing this new missive.  I laughed, I cried, I threw it across the room and hurriedly retrieved it, cradling it protectively in my arms like it was my own child.

English lessons aren’t the easiest things to plan because the study of English is so open to interpretation.  Schools of thought over the years have focused on seemingly opposing approaches – the grammatical, technical, literacy not literature approach versus the creative and therefore nebulous, content and enjoyment-based approach.  This dichotomy can also be named the Michael Gove approach versus Michael Rosen approach.  I don’t think there’s an English teacher that manages to combine these things all in one go on a daily basis.  The sub-sections of English teaching mean that, quite often, planning a lesson becomes an awkward juggling act, trying to equally balance rigour, monitoring, assessment and progress with fostering a love of the text, the spoken and written word.  I love English teachers.  We are conflicted individuals who deal with the most fundamental aspects of society and we do it every day, not without complaint, but with a distinct feeling that if we keep trying to create the perfect lesson, medium term plan, curriculum map, one day it will materialise in front of us.  Then we can retire, or go into consultancy.

Where does the conflict come from?  Well, we didn’t become English teachers because we enjoyed learning about semi-colons and split infinitives.  Most of us, I imagine, came into teaching because we loved our English lessons at school, because we loved reading and because we wanted to help little people love those things too.  Unfortunately, that illusion was shattered for me early because I was told that the most important thing about my lesson (in my head, so much like Robin Williams’ in Dead Poets’ Society, standing on tables and all) was that I should be able to demonstrate that the majority of my pupils were making better than expected progress.  I was told that Ofsted wanted to see pupils making progress, even in the 20 minutes that they might be in my classroom.

No one said anything about making sure that they enjoyed the learning, or that pupils should show depth of understanding.  The de facto position in lesson observations in two out of my three schools has been that progress is a limiting factor – in essence, if progress was deemed to be satisfactory, the whole lesson would be graded that way.  This is not a concept I disagree with, but it did lead to some interesting developments in my own teaching.  I slowly eliminated my guilty feelings about skimming over the surface of a poem so that I could teach students to analyse lexical choices to get a C grade.  I learned to demonstrate progress within 20 minutes, with advice I was given by people much more experienced than I was in the field.  From ‘make a student stand up and recite the learning objective when an inspector walks in’ to ‘subtly engage a student into a conversation about the level they were working at in a lesson’, from ‘stop what you are doing when an inspector walks in and make students check their learning’ to ‘always squeeze in peer or self assessment so you can demonstrate progress’.  The list goes on.

So, this is where I come back to the ‘Making Progress’ document.  Imagine my surprise when the document outlined a lesson that I instantly recognised as being one that I would teach.  Lesson objectives, starter, card sort, identify devices, mini whiteboards, criteria, samples from work, evaluating effectiveness linked to criteria, produce writing, peer assess.  Sounds like my life.  Except, dear people, Ofsted now say that this was not an effective lesson (quite rightly) because it “concentrated on the pace of activities rather than the pace of learning”.  I’m sighing even as I write this.  Was this kind of lesson not inevitable when progress became a limiting factor?  Ofsted, you created the problem you now seek to address. Some may argue that this view of lessons, in particular in English, may not be an Ofsted-generated issue.  Whether or not that was their intention, schools interpreted Ofsted’s wisdom in many ways.  Like Voltaire (and Uncle Ben in Spiderman) said: “With great power comes great responsibility.” When you take into account the anecdotes of feedback from Ofsted inspectors on English lessons, you can’t really deny that fact.  The most recent example at a friend’s school involved an inspector stating that any lesson where the 20 minutes included extended discussion or writing would immediately be graded ‘inadequate’.  This was this year, post January 2012 Ofsted guidance being issued. English Teachers have become used to creating mini English factories, a production line of activities sequenced so that at any point, one can stop and demonstrate progress.

In what I can only imagine is a tongue-in-cheek, aren’t we so funny subsection of the guidance entitled ‘Some common myths about good teaching’ (you jokers, you), Ofsted declare that the reason that the teaching in English has improved but the learning hasn’t, is that teachers do not allow sufficient time for extended reading, writing or discussion.  Poems are taught for their component parts, texts read in extract and personal response jettisoned for the more measurable skill of analysis of words, structure and style.  GCSE skills that lead to C grades, for how else is a school judged other than by league tables that demonstrate only a school’s ability to teach to an exam?

After Ofsted reveal the essence of a good English teaching, my favourite bit of the guidance is encapsulated in the immortal line: “Teachers need to remember that it is unlikely that all these features will be found in a single lesson.”  They are absolutely right, of course.  What is difficult to gauge is a teacher’s individual ability to disregard the last ten years of advice and guidance about what constitutes a good English lesson and go left-field, teach a lesson in which an Ofsted inspector sees students discussing their personal response to a text for twenty minutes or more.  Bravery exists in many forms and one of them is holding your nerve whilst an inspector takes notes on a lesson that goes against all the advice you’ve been given in your career.  Sounds it like it would lead to sweat patches.

If it sounds like I’m throwing down the gauntlet and challenging all English teachers to do this; that’s not my advice at all.  I’m firmly holding the aforementioned gauntlet in my hands, surveying the lie of the land and deciding where to toss the thing.  I think in that time, we should have a few more Ofsted publications to peruse and yet more advice to heed.  Wait and see, people, wait and see.

Right, I’m off to plan the perfect lesson.  See in you in a few hours?

The Literature Pick and Mix – November 2011

It was all so easy back then, when the days were long and there was no school for weeks on end. Back in the days when waking up was the hardest thing to do and breakfast became lunch became dinner, reading for pleasure was an integral part of my schedule – in the way tearing out my hair during Functional Skills English is now. I have not relented, folks. Even if I can only manage a paltry ten minutes before unconsciousness takes me, I have continued on like a trooper.

I do have a confession to make. It’s a small confession in the grand scheme of things. It’s not like I’ve relaxed border controls and blamed a civil servant; it’s not like I’ve fractured the education system by diversifying types of schools so that the aspirational classes don’t have to mix with the great unwashed; it’s not like I’ve broken the economy. No, people. I have become an electronic reader – a Kindle convert, if you like.

It was the iPad what did it – the Kindle App is free and the books ridiculously cheap. You may be looking at your screen in disgust, but we are in the middle of a harsh economic climate and belt-tightening is everyone’s responsibility. So, it is with a heavy heart that I can say that modernity finally defeated me. I’ve been reading to the glow of my Kindle guiltily, swiping pages in a somewhat furtive manner lest one of my university professors appears in my bedroom with a wagging finger and a disappointed expression.

On the upside, I have discovered that you can sample books for free from Amazon. This has led to hours of indecisive fun, downloading books I may never have bought had they been made of trees. The range of titles I have experimented with is startling: ‘The Auschwitz Violin’ by Maria Angels Anglada (in translation, pared back, music-rich writing), ‘Bleakly Hall’ by Elaine di Rollo (a little frivolous for my liking), ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern (made me feel like magic was real), ‘The Hangman’s Daughter’ by Oliver Potzsch (in translation, when the sample ended I felt wrenched back to the 21st century in a most disconcerting manner).

But it is the strange and wonderful ‘Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum’ by Mark Stevens that made me download the whole book, for the total cost of zero pounds and zero pence. I did not pay a single penny for it; I have been absolutely fascinated. Non-fiction is at its best for me when it is telling the story of people; Mark Stevens relates the real-life dramas and circumstances behind the first inmates of Broadmoor. From the artist Richard Dadd, known for his fairy art, to the delusional murderess Christiana Edmunds, we learn about the backgrounds and life journeys that brought the criminally insane inside the walls of the one of the most famous British institutions. The book is a labour of love; Mark Stevens is the professional archivist at the Berkshire Record Office in Reading and looks after the Broadmoor Hospital archive too. It is only available electronically.

Instutitions for the abandoned, ill and insane always provide an uncomfortable glimpse into worlds that reflect the parts of ourselves that are most disturbing. In Ransom Riggs’ beautifully designed ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ (I have seen a hard copy in Waterstone’s and it is lovely), the fantastic mixture of photography and prose is unsettling in the most delicious way. A little boy’s quest to unravel his grandfather’s stories of monsters at a home for children is part fantasy, part psychological exploration and it doesn’t disappoint. Written for young adults, the prose is undemanding – perfect for someone whose brain activity is sluggish and prone to switching off completely. I recommend you read it with the lights off, in the eerie glow of a Kindle. Or a candle.

The also-rans? I was tempted by the lush premise of ‘The House at Riverton’ by Kate Morton. I even went to a bookstore to pick up a copy, but found that Waterstone’s in Enfield clearly have a large Kate Morton fanbase and had run out of that particular book. With the spirit of experimenting coursing in my veins (no, not that kind of spirit, oh cynical ones), I decided to impulse buy another of her brand of historical fiction: ‘The Distant Hours’. I should be racing through it – on paper, it sounds wonderful, ramshackle castle with an unsolved history, creepy old ladies, a World War Two backstory – anyone who knows me knows that this book only requires the addition of some well placed zombies to make it perfect for me. But, reading Morton’s self-conscious and breathless description is like wading through fictional treacle. Oh and Adam Nevill’s ‘The Ritual’ – I downloaded on a Halloween inspired whim and found the most ridiculous final third of a book. Ever.

Anyway, it’s ten past eight on a Sunday night. Enough literary chat, X-Factor is on…