Sunday, 7 August 2016

Canons to the left of me. Canons to the right of me. Here I am stuck in the middle with you.

What books should be studied in schools? That one, single question is enough to divide people. Teachers. Schools. It is like the ultimate pub discussion. Pick one list over another and you neglect a huge group of people. Where are the females on the list? Ahh, you must hate women! You are trying to repress their voices, you nasty little person.

The problem with a canon, a list of books, is its purpose. It seems to have a mystical and magical purpose in society. Some see it as a source of harmony. Some see it as the glue to unite a nation. Some see it as a flag representing what makes our nation great. Some see it as a personal Jimmy Cricket, whispering into the soul of a child. That’s why people get so passionate about it. Politicians remove books from the canon based on these notions. Teachers get angry.

The canon doesn’t reflect society
There is an expectation that the canon should reflect modern society and culture. My family is Welsh and short so I am disappointed that the cannon doesn’t have many Welsh texts featuring short people. Modern society is complex. A list that reflects our modern world will need to be constantly changing and fairly proportional. Soaps try to emulate modern society, yet they often fail badly. Eastenders is a reflection of no world I know. It isn’t even a reflection of London. It is a watered down version of what we ‘think’ it is. It is a flavour of the modern world. A soap might deal with modern people but they don’t deal with modern situations. I have yet to see a teacher working all the hours God sends in a soap, worrying he is neglecting his family.

If we were to make a list of books for students to read based on the current ethnicity (I could only find statistics dating to 2011) then a canon should look like this:

86% White

2.2% Mixed / Multiple Ethnic Groups

7.5% Asian

3.3% Black / African / Caribbean / Black British

1.0% Other Ethnic Group


Of course, this will change and will continue to change. Then, if it is to reflect modern society, we should have books from different genders, sexual orientations, classes and gender. We also need to consider having a text relating to Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and other commonwealth states. Therefore, the complexity of creating a list to reflect society is complex. We have so many different rich and different elements in society that is hard for a list of books to achieve. The inclusion of one element will negate another element of society. No cannon can accurately reflect society as it is constantly evolving and changing.

I think half our problem is to do with our understanding of what a canon means. There are two main definitions: 

1.     NOUN

1.     a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged:

2.       a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine

You see I don’t see canon as a list of sacred books; I see it as a general rule to judge others against. The canon is the starting point to judge others. They aren’t the holy, sacred books of perfection. Instead, they are the starting point to compare with others.

The canon should help students find a voice
The other argument I have heard about the canon is that the canon doesn’t help students to find their voice. Or, find a text that speaks to them. This is the one argument I really struggle with. I find it a little bit too mystical for my taste. The book that really ‘spoke’ to me was ‘Jane Eyre’ and the bit the resonated with me was the bit where Jane was stuck in the wilderness. It really struck a cord. Why? I don’t know, but it did. Now, obviously my teacher knew me very well so they decided an orphaned, Victorian, governess unlucky in life would talk to my soul. Of course they didn’t. The magic wasn’t created by a teacher who picked a book to speak to me. The magic was that some tiny bit in a great story was profound and meaningful, and affected me. A moment I go back to, time and time again. Either, I was a corseted Victorian lady in a previous life, or good literature makes connections when others don’t see them.

One person I have argued with about the canon was that it limited and stopped people having a voice. I politely disagreed. It might have been an issue in the past to make sure that students experienced others in the same situation as them, but there is this marvellous thing called the internet, where student can now see and communicate with others in the same situation and circumstances as them. Those voices are out there for young people on blogs, Youtube videos and other media platforms. There are hundreds and hundreds of voices. There are even Facebook groups for them. In my day, that wasn’t an option. You were closeted in more ways than one. That’s why the books chosen were probably more important in the past than today. So, any notion that a canon is restricting a child develop a voice is complete hokum. Society is about hundreds and hundreds of voices communicating daily through Facebook and Twitter. One silly list in a classroom is not going to oppress the voices out there. There are thirty different voices. Unless you read thirty different texts, you are not going to hit everybody in the classroom. You will probably appeal to one voice and neglect twenty nine others in your quest to speak to a child’s soul. 

When does putting someone on the list become tokenistic? I see society from a disabled person’s point of view. I have a daughter who has to use a wheelchair. Because of that one single thing, I see how society tries, and the key word is tries, to include disabled people in society. All too often it is tokenistic. Oops. We need to tick off the disabled demographic. True, they are included in lists, but they are never presented as full, rounded people. Often, disabled people are presented as people to empathise with or usually feel sympathy for. The inclusion of a disabled person in a story is usually to hit people with the ‘under-dog’ story. My daughter has endless exposure to stories about sympathy inducing disabled people and that affects her mind-set. I don’t want that to happen. Because disability is tokenistic in films, stories and soaps, she can’t identify with these people. I don’t want her to equate disability with failure, fear and challenge. The Paralympics did the exact opposite. They shown disabled people as achieving, fighting, competing and succeeding people. That’s the message I want.

We could all add some other elements to the canon of texts, but wouldn’t it be tokenistic. The books would be there on principle and not merit. It would be paying lip service to it and not actually dealing with it properly. Take the lack of female voices in the canon. Would adding a few female authors change things? Or, would it just be a superficial activity? Things would be studied because someone has been told to study it. For me the best approach, is to integrate things. I teach texts from the canon and then introduce texts for comparison. Look at how this voice presents it. How is it different? Why might their view be different? Oh, it is written from a woman’s point of view – I didn’t see that.
Is the problem also that we are too sensitive to things? We are too conscious about gender, ethnicity and class that it  is at the front of our minds. Surely, the text is important and that gender, ethnicity and class are incidental things. If we obsess about gender, then the text isn’t a text but a badge of ideology. It stops being a story, a poem, a play, but a calling card for our own ideological persuasion or someone else’s. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is oppression in books in the mind of the reader?
If we define texts by gender, ethnicity, religion and class, then we too are defining people by their gender, ethnicity, religion and class. Equality is seeing through these defining features. A story is a story. It might not be your kind of story, but it will inform you of other peoples' lives. Plus, by learning about others, you learn something about yourself.  We, after all, define ourselves in relation to others.

Banning books  
The great thing about the English classroom is that we don’t ban books. They disappear from circulation but we don’t ban them as other countries do. If we did ban book, then I’d agree we have a problem with the canon as it would be fully prescriptive. We don’t ban books so we can and should use other books and authors in the classroom. And, that is down to the school and the teacher.

You might say that Chris, but surely the exam boards are limiting the choices by favouring the canon? Fair point. But, I think the selection of text by the exam boards is down to ease, accessibility and consistency. We could have one exam board studying Latvian love poetry and another focusing on novels written by Welsh pig farmers. The point of judgement must be consistent, clear and transparent. The new GCSEs at least do that to a point.

We need to stop wittering on about a canon. It is the starting point to judge other texts against. The dead white males are there, but do you know what? They are there to compare to other texts to judge and compare against.  My job as a teacher is to open doors and make the sparks of connection. If we think a list of books is limiting us, then the problem isn’t the list, it is the teacher. I teach the classics, featuring dead white males and I will break out to read extracts from Alice Walker or Thomas Gunn to judge against the classics. Our students need more and more good quality texts.

One argument we often have about the canon is that it isn’t relevant to things today. Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ has so much relevance to today: an elite few prey on the weak, poor and vulnerable in society and blame them for the evils of society. It is common experience that can translate to all parts of society – a minority as a victim in society. Relevant to today?

A classic book teaches us something about the past, something about today, something new and something we didn’t know about society and ourselves. Why is Shakespeare read in so many different counties? Why are his plays performed in every country? It isn’t because he is a dead white guy; it is because he writes about the experiences we all experience. He doesn’t write about his unique, narrow perspective; he writes about the experiences that connects us together as humans. We all love. We all hate. We all make mistakes. We all have faults. We all laugh.  If you cut us, do we not bleed? We all bleed so maybe we should stop looking at the canon as dividing us and maybe see how it unites us. Cut it and see if it bleeds like others.
Thanks for reading,

Saturday, 16 July 2016

‘Post-mortem Marking’ vs ‘Live Marking’

Again, I am writing about marking. Anybody, would think I have some deep-seated psychological issue with marking books. I don’t, honestly. But, I do have some concerns over how marking is presented to teachers, parents and students. Not too long ago, teachers were viewing the verbal feedback stamp as an alternative to marking books. Now, I am seeing several schools approach marking in terms of no-written feedback, which is fine for them, if they like that sort of thing; however, that is just one approach that a school is using for their specific context. Their school is different to mine. Each school is unique. Just because it works in one specific context, it doesn’t mean it works everywhere. Twitter and the Internet are great for teaching ideas, but they are not the elixir of ‘outstanding teaching’.  Do this and every Ofsted report will smell of roses and be tinted with a lovely lavender perfume. It is what you do with the ideas that is probably the most important thing. Recently, there have been a few ideas that I have thought quite detrimental to the education to children in the classroom.  So, using ‘comparative judgement’, I read something else and forgot about the other crazy, barmy, stick-twigs-up-your-nose idea.  

I am not rejecting their approach, or am I saying it is barmy, but I am taking from my perspective and exploring how it will not work for my school, or my subject. I applaud schools for trying it out, but I also applaud schools who have thought it is not for them.

Issue 1 – self-awareness
I have watched endless episodes of reality television such as ‘X-Factor’ to know that the human being is capable of deluding itself beyond reality. I want to be the next Madonna says a wannabe hopeful. They then manage to sing every note that has been absent from all Madonna’s catalogue of songs.  

Marking is Simon Cowell. It is the dose of reality some people need. It isn’t public or humiliating, but marking is directing the student to see the errors of their way. I have seen endless students write what they think is a brilliant description of something, and the reality is far different. A person’s perspective can blurred, misshapen and vague and they miss out the obvious. Marking is another perspective. A perspective of someone in the know.

Issue 2 – the purpose of the marking
Who do we mark for? Seriously, I need to ask that question again and again. The sole purpose of marking is to improve the child. Then, why is the teacher always at the centre of the marking? Looking at all the marking practices we have adopted over the years, all I can see is that marking has changed because of the teacher’s needs. Verbal feedback and highlighter marking were invented to reduce the marking load of teachers. They were not invented to make the student’s experience of learning better. They were invented to stop a teacher having a nervous breakdown, because an SLT had a ludicrous expectation of what should be in an exercise book.

Giving students no written feedback is about reducing the workload of teachers. It is not about the experience of learning. In some contexts, it might work, but for me it will not. I see the impact of my comments. For me, marking has always been in layers. Layer one: what the student needs to do to improve. Layer two: what everybody in the class needs to do to improve. Layer three: what certain groups of people in the class need to do to improve. Some approaches focus on one layer only and that for me is a problem. Surely, the student with very little self-awareness will think the feedback doesn’t relate to them and so it will not be effective.

Issue 3 – what will you be judged on
Our exercise books are the most important things in the classroom for judging the quality of learning. Now, that Ofsted and SLTs no longer grade teachers, they need something to quantify or check quality. The books are the new measuring stick for learning. Your interaction with a student is evident in the books. Oh, hang on. You did mark their books, didn’t you? What? You did, what? You told the whole class feedback. But, surely, you mark something.

An exercise book shows what the student has done, what the teacher has done, what the student has learnt and what the teacher has taught. Remove the teacher and you put all the emphasis on the results. You will be judged on results and results alone.

Issue 4 – the rewards     
I like that tie. Have you done something with your hair? Have you lost weight? It is amazing the interactions I remember and the interactions I don’t remember. The right comment at the right moment lifts the soul. I know me writing ‘WOW!’ next to a great piece of work has had an impact I can’t measure. The time I have spent writing a comment praising a student has been time well spent as it has secured and developed the teacher / student relationship.

Marking is an individual process. It is between the student and me. It is an interaction. Remove it and you better speak to the student. Even the quiet introvert one or the mute one.

Issue 5 – subjects
Each subject needs a different kind of marking. When there is a clear right and wrong answer to a task, feedback is easy to administer as a whole class. In English, there are so many ways to respond to the one, single question. Presenting this to a class is difficult. You could have done this… You could also have done this… Additionally, you could have done this…

I understand how Maths, for example, could be a subject where marking could be reduced and even removed. Students could mark their own work. Patterns can be highlighted in class feedback. Examples can be modelled. Again, there is a clear right and wrong in Maths.

English is much harder, and I think MFL is too, to reduce marking. Experts pick up on the expert things. Novices aren’t experts yet, because they have too many gaps in their knowledge or they haven’t been through all the processes fully. John, read Tom's Spanish writing and correct all the mistakes. John can’t do it because he doesn’t know all the spellings or verb tenses.

My solution
So, what have you done? My solution, and it is something I have done this year with numerous classes, is a bit old-school but it has reduced my marking considerably outside the classroom. I still mark assessments every term and I occasionally mark books outside the classroom. That is where I feel the solution is: outside / inside the classroom.

This is what I do. I set students to write and while they are writing I mark their books. To be fair, I don’t get to every student, but I get to about five or ten, while they are writing in one hour. And, it makes a huge difference to the final output. I sit at a student desk and read the work and mark it with the student. They are next to me and I do quite a bit of chatting with them and I write comments as I go along. It goes something like this:

That first sentence is a bit pointless. Get rid of it. Try starting with something more abstract. Now, that paragraph there is brilliant. Repeat what you are doing there again and again.  I see you picked up there what I said last lesson. Look, you are not developing your ideas here. Remember, that’s the problem with your writing: you start off well and then you forget to develop and extend you thinking. Use this sentence structure to develop this idea. It could also mean…
I think you get the idea. Their book is awash of marks, scribbles, ideas and directions. It was fun. When I have seen two students or more, I might spot a pattern and stop the rest of the class and teach them or remind them about the aspect. With this approach I have had my best improvements in student progress.  Why?

1.       Students engage in the feedback there and then.

2.       The feedback is relevant and immediate.

3.       The feedback is given at the point it is usually needed most – when the student is working.

4.       The feedback is personal.

5.       The feedback includes examples and I can model, if necessary.

6.       The feedback can be used to develop the whole class.

7.       The feedback is appropriately differentiated.

I could go on and on about the benefits of this approach, but I use it again and again with classes. All you need is a pen and a desk. Oh and students.
Our problem with marking is how it affects teachers. They sit on their own reading books and marking them. They watch the pile slowly dwindle and they count them down. The marking always happens at the end of the process. We mark the product and not the process. What if we shifted the marking to the process? Mark the process and not the product.

We want to change the way students think, yet we offer them advice post-mortem. They have had the thought. They have done the thinking. Is it any wonder students don’t improve? We don’t tell them at the right time.  Telling a student he got the wrong end of the stick, after the work, isn’t very helpful to him or her.
I haven’t taken many books home this year, but I have marked quite a lot of books. I get around five students in a lesson, but over the term I get to all students at least twice. I love marking now that I am focusing on teaching. All too often, it was focused on reactions. I reacted to their work. They reacted to my comments. I then reacted to their updated work. I am engaging with their work in a meaningful and constructive way. I can see when they are getting it wrong and what I need to do to correct things. Next week, or next lesson, isn’t the best time to tell a student when they are going wrong. The best time to ensure change is when they are thinking. After all, how often as teachers have we moaned about students not acting on our guidance.   

Because things aren’t real until it has a name, I have called it ‘Live Marking’. You can stick with your old ‘Post-mortem Marking’ and I  will keep my ‘Live Marking’ – it smells so much better. Oh if you are part of the highlighter clans such as  'Yellow Box Marking' and 'Tickled Pink Marking', you can still use them - this time you are not painting a corpse!   

Thanks for reading,