Saturday, 30 March 2013

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark: the exam system

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses

Like Hamlet, I am procrastinating too much at the moment:

Three years ago, I pulled my car up to a swanky hotel for an interesting meeting. I was excited because the whole specification for GCSE English and English Literature was changing. I love change. I love change so much that each time I pop to the hairdressers I ask for something new or different. I love changes so much that I change the Shakespeare play I teach to GCSE classes every two years. As I pulled up to the hotel for the free course, I was excited, interested and enthusiastic.  For the past six years, I had taught four different GCSE courses from two different exam boards. The experiences of these courses hadn’t always been positive, so I waited with bated breath for the new specification.  What will the changes be? What new things will I have to do? What will we not have to do anymore?

I wasn’t disappointed. Smaller writing tasks. Interesting tasks. No marking of drafts. Something new called ‘controlled conditions’. A bank of tasks that we could adapt. There were lots of things that had me buzzing with excitement.  The whole thing felt different. It seemed to have a ‘creative slant on things’. It even had a unit on ‘spoken language’ and I instantly adored it, because of my A-level background.  I was sold. This was going to change some of the ways we teach English, I thought, and it was going to help me teach with a closer focus on particular skills. Each assessment had a narrower focus than the previous courses. Each assessment had a clear focus, rather than the previous combination of everything.

About halfway through the presentation, a man asked, ‘What are the grade boundaries?’.  A fair few of us were a little perplexed by our unfamiliarity of the whole marking scheme. Band 1. Band 2. Band 3. Band 4. The idea of working in bands had me a little nervous, but I’d give it a try. The man presenting informed us that the board wanted to move away from the grade culture. This, apparently, would free the teaching to focus on teaching. To be honest, I was in agreement. Mentally, I agreed and signed a contract then and there in my head. The rest of the room nodded their heads in a ‘oh, I see’ gesture. We all worked in schools and we knew how the obsession on grades can destroy effective teaching.  I am a human, yet just knowing the word ‘human’ is not enough to be human.  Knowing you are a C, doesn’t make you understand what a C or a B is. However, collectively we knew we had to have an understanding of what a C was, otherwise somebody back at school would ask us at a later stage. The man asked us to guess where we thought it would be. We replied. He responded in the affirmative, but gave the coda that the exam board could change it, depending on the circumstances.

I left that presentation on a high. No more drafting coursework. Yes! Shorter tasks. Result! Variety of questions, tasks and opportunities. Double yes! Less obsessing on the grades. Woop! Those two years of the new course were a little wobbly but fun. New texts, questions and exams had changed some of my routines. It was hard work, but I enjoyed it. The only problem I had was that the nature of the course meant that things were a bit disembodied. You felt that you moved from one thing to another very quickly. The old style of things meant that you could do a lot more joined up thinking. With this new course there was a lot of spinning of plates, but it was invigorating as a course.

Three years on, I feel duped. That ‘brave new world’ has become a ‘cowardly cruel world’. While we were getting used to not obsessing about the grades, others were. While we were thinking that the controlled condition assessments were not going to be polished as the old coursework pieces, others did not. While we were placing our faith in a system that would grade our students accurately, others did not. There were a lot of machinations going on that my school was not part of. In fact, I was shocked when I saw things mentioned on the TES forum about how the controlled conditions were being run by some departments. It wasn’t the fair process that I was led to believe it was. People had been bending the rules to make sure students got higher marks. Subsequently, I have heard of worse things happening in departments. But, there lies the crux of the issue. Some of this rot had an impact on the national figures. As a result of these higher than expected marks in controlled conditions, the grade boundaries were raised, making my students, who worked hard for their marks, miss out on the grade they deserved. While some students who got grades by dubious methods, got the grades they might not deserve.

We are talking about a minority of teachers and students. Most teachers are like me. We do the best we can with what we have. Who do I blame for the GCSE fiasco? I don’t blame any single teacher. I know the pressures that people are under. I know how tough things can be. I blame the system. The exam system is the poison. It is the problem. We have an exam system that isn’t ‘robust’. That’s my new ‘Ofsted’ speak word at the moment. The controlled conditions elements can be manipulated. The speaking and listening assessments can be manipulated. They are the flawed elements. The exams are marked in isolation and in an objective way. The subjectivity of some of the current elements is its downfall.  It is the poison in the King’s ear. It is killing off the system. It is leading me to doubt what a C, B or A is like. I now look at work thinking: It would be a B last year, but now it might be a C – however, when it gets to the exam it will probably be a D. Ofsted can come in and say to us, ‘You didn’t push these B grade students to achieve their target!’. Our response of ‘we didn’t know what a B looked like’ wouldn’t do.  A data driven culture needs a robust data culture and that is something we haven’t got in the education system. I don’t want a data driven culture, but that is the current way with Ofsted. 

In truth, I am advocating a ban on coursework and controlled conditions. I want it gone now. Today, if possible. Why? Because, I think the integrity of every English teacher needs to be re-established. We work bloody hard. We mark a lot. We do a lot. We plan a lot. We think a lot. I want us to go to the terminal exam system now, because it will help reaffirm the great job we do. Yes, it will mean that there will be an element of ‘teaching towards the exam’, but it means that we can hold our heads up high and say we did the best for our students and that every student is assessed on a level playing field. It will be sad to see some elements go, but I will not miss the student who got his parents to write his coursework essay or the student who copied his essay off the internet. I want my integrity back. Yes, I know that it will not help the girls, who perform better with coursework, but this has been a political 'hot potatoe' in education for decades. Boys underperform = focus on exams (competitive element) . Girls underperform = focus on coursework (time, care element). I want girls and boys to do equally well, but the current system isn't working.

At the moment, I am preparing some students for their GCSE exams. Yet, I am worried. Worried because of this simple question: How can I help a student fulfil his/ her potential if the grade criteria is in a constant state of flux?  And, given the fiasco last year, how are most schools reacting? You not telling me that people are going to sit down and let things happen again. No, they will fight.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The time is out of joint.  Hamlet, I mean Gove, is on the course to turn things right.  However, Hamlet can’t and shouldn’t rule Denmark, as he too is part of the rot. He has become infected. The weeds need to be removed and a new gardener is needed. (I am not suggesting a ‘Hamlet’ style bloodbath; something more humane).

Prince Fortinbras enters stage.

Fortinbras: Take up the bodies: such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 24 March 2013

Comparing poetry

It is snow joke. As I have been stuck in a house for three day, I have been able to do another short blog. This time it is about comparing poetry.

One of the things that drives me mad is the exam board’s insistence of comparing poems in an exam. I hate it with a passion. I don’t think the experience of comparing poems is a bad. In fact, I love doing it. The problem is the assessed element. Get students to analyse texts well and leave the comparative analysis for A-level. I don’t think there is a student that will look back on my teaching of them and go, ‘ere by gum, that Mr C he changed the way I see the world with his making us compare poems.’ It is frustrating that in a lot of English Literature exams students have to compare X number of poems with poem Y and explore how Z is used. If we are honest, most of the time is spent teaching the poems, and then we work on the comparative element. The poems become bundles of knowledge to learn and the teacher slowly ticks off the poems one by one, worried that they will not get through the poems in time. That is me at the moment.

To be honest, I like the ‘unseen poetry’ element of the exam paper. It is a surprise and a challenge. I think it gets students thinking, whereas the ‘comparing poem’ gets them struggling to recall what the teacher told them about the poem. 

Therefore, I thought as I am in the mad poetry rush that is preparing for the exams, I would share with you one of the things I do with poems and comparing. It always seems to work and it helps to cover two poems in detail in one lesson. Oh, and I think Ofsted will like it as it is the students learning for themselves. Along the way, I have also shared a few other things I do.

Starter Stickers
As student arrive in the room, give them a sticker with one line from two different poems. Students sit down and start comparing the poems.

Harry Hill
For example:

I like 'Flags' and I like 'Falling Leaves', but which one is better? There is only one way to find out .... FIGHT!

Students start the lesson by arguing which poem is best. On the board, I list the differences.

Both / However
I teach that students should start there comparison with ‘Both’ and ‘However’

Both 'The Flag' and 'Falling Leaves' are poems that explore death caused by war. However, 'The Flag' shows us how war can be avoided and 'Falling Leaves' shows us how death in war cannot be avoided like the natural cycles of the seasons.

At the start or end of a lesson, students complete a small sheet with the words ‘both’ and ‘however’.

Mini- essays
Rather than write one big essay, give students lots of different paragraphs to write, but with each one having a different focus.

Compare how At the Border and Mametz Wood use imagery to get their messages across.

Write a paragraph explaining what the poem’s messages are.

  • ‘At the Border’  is … Whereas…
  • Two quotes
  • An explanation of the messages
  • Perhaps … Maybe… Might … May
  • A link to a technique

A little bit revealing
This is by far one of my favourite things I do when comparing poems.  I have done it with ‘Poppies’ and ‘Hawk Roosting’ from the Conflict AQA anthology. Throughout the whole process they are comparing the poems.  

Step 1: Reveal the names of the two poets. It helps if one is a female. Students then hypothesise as to how the poet might view conflict.

Step 2: Reveal the title.  Students compare the title. What is similar? What is different?

They might say how both poems are about nature. Or, they might say how one thing moves while the other doesn’t.

Step 3: Reveal the opening stanza. Photocopy them so students can annotate them.

Step 4,5,6,7 and 8: Reveal each stanza and compare each one together.

The Last Step: Students then look over everything they have discussed and select the best points.

I find this very effective in getting students to explore poems. In fact, during the process I become a bit of a note taker – write down their ideas on the board and listen.   It is quite simple to set up, but it can be quite effective. This year I am going to mix up the poems I am comparing.  

Comparing texts is important for students to see the choices writers make and to identify the style of writing. After all, I know I am very short by comparing myself to other men.

Thanks for reading,

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Blogsync 3: A candle in the darkness or a forklift in the library

Why do so many teachers leave after a few years of training?
This is my response to this month's blog synch. Check out more here.

A doctor’s job is finished when the patient is healed.
A chef’s job is finished when the meal is cooked.
A detective’s job is finished when the criminal is arrested.
A mechanic’s job is finished when the car is fixed.
A shop assistant’s job is finished when the shop is closed.
A teacher’s job is never finished.

Before some people reading this assume that I am reducing the whole of these valuable occupations to a mere point, I am not. I know how important these roles are and how complex they are. I also know how they are swamped by bureaucracy. But, generally, when these occupations finish work, they finish work. The doctor doesn’t go home and write a letter to a patient saying how impressed they were with how they behaved in the surgery. The mechanic doesn’t go home and then write a report on how hatchback cars generally underperform in relation to other cars. The shop assistant doesn’t go home and plan a new layout for the clothes as some items are not selling because customers cannot see them. Most occupations leave work at work. Teaching doesn’t. There, I think lies one of the problems for people entering the world of teaching.

What about the holidays? In truth, the holidays are great, but what most people forget or ignore or don’t know about is that the job extends outside of the classroom. On average, I will work past nine o’clock most nights. I will work for a large part of a Sunday planning and marking. It isn’t because I am a slow worker; it’s because the job demands it. If a set of books are not marked, I can’t push the students further. If I don’t plan the lesson carefully, then the class could miss out on a valuable learning opportunity. The holidays are great, but they are where I can get back my ‘down-time’, my relaxing time. Or, the holidays are just another chance for me to do some more work. I’d love a camera crew to follow me for a term and watch what teaching involves. Most people when they have a two week holiday will not do any work. It is a break. It is a chance to refresh their batteries. A teacher will have some marking to do. A teacher will plan. A teacher may even go into school to sort some resources out. This isn’t something that people in other occupations do. They have that mental padlock. It locks as soon as they leave work.

You could be reading this thinking that I have no understanding of ‘real work’. Sadly, I do.  A friend at school once said to me, ‘Is there anything you haven’t done?’. I did not leave university and start a PGCE. In fact, I saw quite a bit of the business world. In fact, I spent years in it. I worked in a call centre for a year, selling insurance. I spent just under three years working for a building firm on a graduate programme. I even spent time in a factory, making boxes. The common thing in all of those jobs was that when the job was done, it was done. I could walk away and live to see another day. I can vividly recall watching the clock tick away with my coat on ready to go home.

Psychologically, the job’s demands are taxing on established teachers let alone anyone new coming into the job.  They don’t know the ropes. The ropes have no end and they are knotted and constantly moving. Some will leave for this reason alone. Another reason is for the benefits. I have friends who earn more than me, and they work at home some days. Furthermore, some of them have something called ‘flexi-time’. They can leave early on a Friday if they need to. Gosh, the grass does sound greener on the other side. Plus, they might get paid a bonus if they do really well. My brother-in-law often gets bonuses of more than £1000. Yeah, but I’m not in it for the money. But, if you are a young career minded person, then all these factors will influence you. It is a difficult job that you rarely get on top of and there aren’t that many perks – unless unlimited supply of lined paper and pens are perks for you.  

So, there are no perks and you have very little free time during term time. You can live with that. The money isn’t that bad compared to some jobs. That is true. However, other jobs have a consistent daily routine. John goes for his daily toilet break at 10am. Jenny always pops out at 11.15am to visit the bank and get sarnies for lunch. In schools, there is a routine, but real life interrupts it. I don’t have a steady day. I know what I am teaching and who I am teaching, but there could be a number of things that stops the flow of the day. There might be a fight a lunchtime. There might be a student crying over something at home. There might be a student being bullied. There might be a fire alarm.  In other jobs, there has been a consistent day. Life didn’t get in the way. So when you are new to teaching, getting used to the ebbs and flows of life in a school is hard.  Wind, snow, rain, sun and hail all have a dramatic impact on teaching and the behaviour of students. Sadly, Ofsted don’t take these factors when judging teaching, as all of these can change the simple routine of a day.

Yeah, but then you have other people with you and it is the people that make the job bearable. I have been at my loneliest I have ever been in teaching.  For twenty one or less hours a week, it is you on your own in the classroom. Yes, you have the students to teach. But, some days you may never see an adult. A like minded person.  When people apply for a job as a teacher, the skills they show off their skills of working with people. Yet for most of the week they will not work with people.  They will work in isolation and separated from other teachers by classrooms. I think humans can deal with most things, if they can whinge or moan about it with some friends. I have in the past. You often have a bad day and you need to offload it somehow. That’s where friends come in. However, you need to find them. Some big schools are so big that these friendships are rarely formed and people don’t feel comfortable because of the pecking order in their department.  If I moan, it shows weakness.

Being on your own isn’t that bad. You always have the students to talk to. As long as the whole school is supportive, you can live with this. But, sadly some are not. There does seem to be a train of thought about ‘sink or swim’ with some NQTs. It is tough. You have to learn the hard way. Speaking from experience outside education, this is one of the most flawed ideas in education. You never give Year 1 students a copy of ‘War and Peace’ to read, because you are separating the wheat from the chaff by doing that. However, I do think in some schools there is this train of thought is going on in some of the decisions. Some of these decisions are made by people who escaped the classroom as soon as they could and became member of 'management'. (Note: I don't think this is the case of all and most people in management) All the nice things are kept for the experienced and established teachers and all the ‘difficult’ things are given to the newer members of staff. How many NQTs are given the low sets? How many NQTs are given top sets? Top sets at times can teach themselves, yet the low sets need several suitcases of tricks for behaviour, engagement that a new member of staff will not always have. I walked out of my job in the building industry because the man in charge of me treated me in exactly that way. Rather than nurture my talents, he gave me every terrible job possible. He sat on his bottom getting fatter and fatter while I did all of his work for him. I left and I have a sense of pride from doing that.

In my seven years of teaching, I have been shouted at, ignored, isolated and insulted by teachers. Thankfully, none of these have taken place in my current school. The teachers may have all been under some pressure. Maybe, they were having a tough time. But, surprisingly, I was too, and their actions never helped me, as a young teacher. The strangest one is the teacher that insulted me. I had just returned from a funeral of a relative, when one of the students in my tutor group told me about the teacher who covered my registration. The students asked where I was. The teacher replied that I had been, ‘involved with something to do with sheep’. Gobsmacked, I stormed straight to SLT, who fudged up the incident by trying to defuse the situation and telling me he meant that I was ‘feeding sheep’.  I got my apology from him (the idiot), but with colleagues like that who needs enemies. There have also been times in teaching where I have witnessed fallouts over sharing cupboards, display boards and the use of set texts.

Why do people leave teaching?  The workload? The perks? The constant changes? The isolation? The management? Very little rewards? The staff? They all may have some influence, but the biggest is about ‘making mistakes’. It is ironic that this blog is called ‘learning from my mistakes’, because I think NQTs and new teachers should be embracing mistakes. Yet, the culture that we have is about producing perfect teachers from day one. I was not perfect when I started. I don’t even think I am perfect now. I am better than I was then.  That is progress.

Sadly, I have been in situations where I have been scared of making a mistake because others would frown at me. They would tut verbally or mentally. I have heard so many times the follow phrase, ‘I wouldn’t do it like that’. When there is a culture of perfection around you it is so hard to think logically.  You start by feeling inadequate and end by feeling inadequate. This is then exaggerated by the fact that you don’t see the other teachers teaching from one lesson to another and see the pratfalls that happen to all teachers. Then, all those other elements I have talked about kick in. The isolation makes it worse. The workload means you can’t see the end of things. The perks of other jobs seem more tempting. The staff are too busy to help and support – one is just plain rude to you. The management dictate a new initiative for you to do. All these then make you ask that one question: Is it really worth it?

Let’s change how we treat new teachers. Share in our mistakes. Explain how becoming excellent teachers takes time. Share the idea that you cannot be outstanding every time and right from the start of your teaching career.  We don’t expect students to master a skill the first time they use it. The GCSE course is a two year course. The idea being that students progress over time. Let’s treat NQTs as being a course. A three. A four. A five year course. At the end of that time, they should be good, excellent or outstanding.  And it seems that I am not the only one to think that as this other blogsync agrees.

Oh, dear must go. Mr Ofsted has arrived:

Mr Ofsted: Hello. I am just going to ask you a few questions. What level are you working at?  
Me: It depends. Sometime good. Sometimes good with outstanding features. Sometimes outstanding when you are not breathing down my neck.
Mr Ofsted: What’s your target?  
Me:  Outstanding. No, ignore that. Brilliant.
Ofsted: Do you know what to do to improve?
Me: Umm, not really.
Ofsted: Ah, let me mark down your teacher as being a bad teacher. This clearly can’t be a good or outstanding lesson.
Me:   Actually, in a way you are the teacher in this case. You tell me what I need to do.
Ofsted: Ummm. Errr. Ummmm.
Me: That’s the problem, is it? How do you quantify something that isn’t concrete?
Ofsted: Ahhh, you haven’t put any PE into this lesson. I will now mark you down.
Me: This is an English lesson.
Ofsted: Yes, but we think you need to have some aspect of PE in your lesson for it to be an outstanding lesson.

I love my subject and that is why I love teaching and I try to put a lot of 'the crap' in a box in my head and just get on with things. From time to time, I do ask myself, ‘Is it really worth it?’. Most days it is, but there is the odd day when it isn’t and that is usually a day when Mr Gove speaks.

Thanks for reading,

P.S. Why a forklift in a library? I think I must be one of the few English teachers that has a licence to drive a forklift truck. Part of my training for being in the building industry was using a forklift. I am still waiting for the moment when I need to step up and use this unqiue skill for an English teacher.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Words, words, words

I love that bit in ‘Hamlet’ where Polonious asks Hamlet what he is reading. Hamlet replies, “words, words, words”. It has recently come to my attention the value of words in other subjects in secondary schools. Initially, I was a bit sceptical about the emphasis on words in departments. People, I originally thought, we barking up the wrong tree with their ‘key words’ and ‘spelling lists’. I was adamant that it was grammar. Grammar was the secret weapon they needed to develop literacy in a lesson.  In truth, it is both words and grammar, and a whole lot of other stuff. But, words play a huge part in the learning.

A colleague of mine has had an epiphany with words as an art teacher. Art is a practical subject and therefore has very little writing, but my colleague has found ways of using words to develop her teaching. She has created a word wall, but this word wall is amazing in what it does. It gives students the words to talk about art. It gives them the language of an artist. It gives them the tools to articulate their ideas in such a way that has transformed their understanding, and in time I am sure we will see the benefits in class. It probably contains lots of obscure words and technical terms? It doesn’t. One part is like a large Dulux chart with lots of names for different colours. Each colour is grouped according to the shade of colour they are. Another part of this display focuses on textures, lines, shapes and other aspects of art.

I am no expert on art. In fact, my only experience of art I can recall in school was when I painted a self-portrait. For ages, I struggled to get the colour right for my skin. It took me so long that each lesson I’d only paint a small section of my face. The end result was that I looked like I had a strange skin disease. To make things worse, my friend then laughed at it and, in a moment of artistic anger, I destroyed the whole thing with some red paint.  My teacher then appeared and told me off.  She sighed and remarked that a typical ruffian would take this lovely opportunity to make a monster.

Anyway, I know that if I go into my colleague’s classroom, I can articulate my ideas about art in a much better way. I could describe a painting in a far more appropriate way. No longer can I just say that the painter has painted a blue vase. I could say it is a cobalt blue vase. That little difference shows skill and understanding.

For this week’s blog, I am going to look at words and how I refer to them in lessons.

Change one word in a sentence and ask students to decide which sentence is better and why.

It was a cold, dark night.

I was a dangerous, dark night.

Furthermore, I give students a list of alternatives a writer could have chosen for a word. The students then discuss why the writer didn’t choose any of the other possibilities.

I have done this recently with ‘Great Expectations’:

I came into Smithfield, and the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me. So I rubbed it off with all possible speed by turning into a street where I saw the great black dome of St. Paul's  bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison. Following the wall of the jail, I found the roadway covered with straw to deaden the noise of passing vehicles, and from this, and from the quantity of people standing about, smelling strongly of spirits and beer, I inferred that the trials were on.

Then, pairs are given a sheet with the following list on it. They explore the choice made by the writer.

Bulging /Lumping / Projecting / Swelling /Sticking out / Expanding

Great /Colossal / Huge /Large /Immense/Bulky

Shameful /Wicked / Disgraceful / Vile /Indecent /Mean

Word lists
The internet is brilliant. Type in some of the following phrases ‘beautiful words’, ‘adjectives to describe characters’ and ‘adverbs’ and you will have an instant resource. I found a list of adjectives to describe a character’s personality. That list has been laminated and is now a brilliant starter for a lesson: students find adjectives to describe a key character in a book we are studying.

Top 5 words
I love doing this. To put it simply, you write one to five on the board. Students are given a text and asked to find the most effective (change this to whatever words you are looking for – emotive / informal / descriptive) words. Then, set the timer for three minutes. They have to suggest words to go on the top 5.  These are the rules:

·         Words can only be replaced by a better word.

·         You cannot use a word that has already been replaced on the list.

·         The teacher decides if the word is better than the one being replaced.

·         Students must give a reason why their word is better than the other one.

After the three minutes, the students with words in the top 5 get prizes or some reward. The
discussions are brilliant and it is incredibly funny and tactical. Students really pour over the book
when they find their word knocked off the list. They become even more determined.

You end up with a lot of discussion on the writer’s choice of words without ever having to wait for a

Dictionary Wars
This is simple. Turn the tables on their side and then lob dictionaries across the classroom. You score a point if you hit someone. I joke. No, this sounds worse than it is. Get students into pairs and give each pair a dictionary. Reveal a word on the board. The pair that finds the word and writes it down first in their exercise book is the winner. It is a fabulous energiser as students compete to find a word first. It can also be a great way to introduce ‘tractors’ in a text we read later in a lesson. As soon as they find the word, they have to say the definition as well. To make it even more challenging, I might get them to say the word in a sentence.

To make it even harder still, I say the word they have to find rather than show the word. That was a great suggestion from a TA and it worked really well.

Word table
I have found this table valuable when analysing poetry and non-fiction texts. Students are looking for patterns in the types of words used and the table helps them to recognise the patterns. Unfortunately, I have lost my original, but here is a rough approximate:


Thanks for reading. I am now going off to read a bit now. "What are you reading?" I hear you say. Words. Words. Words.  


Saturday, 9 March 2013

Deep Reading: Literacy Across the Curriculum

My journey to work takes about twenty five minutes. It should be shorter, but that is down to several things on the way. First, I leave my street and wait at the junction and wait for gap to get through the traffic. Then, I carry on a road for a few miles and then I have to stop for pedestrians crossing. After a few more miles, I come to some traffic lights – one of three I have to sit through.  I wait for them to turn green and then I have to take my time as I join a road that cyclists love. At this point, I have to slow down (not that I am speeding) and be cautious for the lycra clad muscle machines as they swerve all over the place. Now, I travel through some country lanes and either I get stuck behind a tractor or I have to stop to allow a person to get through, as the lanes are so narrow. Then, traffic lights again. A bit where there are speed cameras. A difficult junction. Another set of lights. A junction. Finally, I arrive at school.

My point is: I have a twenty five minute journey that should take me about fifteen minutes. There are a number of obstacles that stop the journey. It isn’t a simple case of going from A to B. Before you imagine that I am a ‘speed demon’ on the road, I am not; I am just using this idea of driving to make a connection to reading. My daily journey to school is not a stress filled one like that great John Cleese film ‘Clockwise’. Anyway, reading in secondary schools can be a bit like my journey to school.

I am obsessed with reading at the moment. My daughters are currently learning to read and I am part of that process. Every night, if possible, I sit with them as they break words down and read simple sentences. I am seeing the results of what the teachers do in their primary school and I am amazed. Months ago they could only recognise their own names and now they are reading line after line. It has been a speedy process. While helping them, I have thought about secondary schools, and how we help ‘the reading process’. Please note that I say ‘the reading process’ and not ‘reading’. I personally think schools work really hard to promote reading. There are so many great things happening to promote books. Yet, and as recent reports and news stories suggest, there might be more we need to do to strengthen the reading process.

As an English teacher, I have a range of things I do to help reading in lessons. I break down texts. I use different reading strategies. I select texts that are suitable for the students. I explore unfamiliar words and their meaning. I do a lot on the understanding of a text, the subtext, the writer’s purpose and how the reader reacts to a text. Yet, I don’t always do enough on that decoding of words - the simple reading of words and linking them together to work out the basic units of sense. Yes, I do it for Shakespeare and some long winded writers, but I don’t always do it for everything students read in lessons. Why? Because, I assume that they have understood it. This is what I think is an issue we need to address in schools. Our assumptions.

We know with the new emphasis on literacy that writing is important. We are now using our writing mats, our sentence starters, our key words and many other good things. But, what do we do to help students with their reading? This is exactly the question I have inferred from Ofsted when they visit. They will also ask the question: How do they support and develop writing? I am sure they have hundreds of questions, but I like to simplify things. There are a lot of good things people do to help with the reading, but I think that we do assume somethings about how the students read. We assume the words they know. We assume the speed at which they read. We assume how they will understand things. We assume that have a certain level of proficiency in reading, yet we have nothing concrete and explicit to back these assumptions with. It roughly boils down to: they are a level 5 so they must be able to do it.

I have taught a wide range of student with various abilities and there is always that surprising time when they don’t know a word or concept that shocks you or alarms you. In truth, it might also be a sign of me getting old. You could be talking to Year 10 about a court of law and then one of the students asks: ‘What’s a trial?’. You then wonder how this student can watch endless episodes of Eastenders and not understand what a trial is. But, it happens. Therefore, I went back to the beginning with one-to-one reading that parents do with 5/6 year olds. I took my class of Year 9 students and did some one-to-one reading over several months and it made some surprising discoveries.

To put it simply, I sat with a student and got them to read to me an extract from a story. They read a photocopy and I annotated another photocopy where they struggled, broke down words or hesitated.  Some were really good and read flawlessly. Some struggled. Some, who I thought would be good, struggled too. It revealed a lot about my assumptions. If they demonstrated understanding at a high level in their writing about a text, then clearly understood the text and everything in it. In fact, that can be far from the case. One extract I read with the students had the word ‘agony’ in it.  A very high number of students struggled to read it out correctly. So, what would they normally do in a class? They would have a strategy to cope. In fact, most of our reading teaching focuses on strategies of how to cope with difficult texts. But, do these strategies fix or mask a problem?

At this point, I am going back to my journey to work at the start of my blog. For some of our students, reading is like my journey to school. They have several traffic lights that stop the flow of thought, ideas and understanding. These traffic lights are words that they are unfamiliar with when written down. They also have to face a cyclist on the road.  These cyclists are usually those long multi-clause sentences that they have to take extra care with to understand. They have to face a tractor that just stops the journey dead. The tractor is one of those words or phrases that without its meaning you can’t get any further. Take the phrase ‘dejà vu’.
Tom was feeling sick as he had a feeling of déjà vu.

Without a teacher, a dictionary or TA, a student will not work out the meaning of sentence; unless they know it, of course. Is it a disease? Is it an emotion? The strategies that we usually employ don’t work in this case.
You could argue that the gist of a text is important, but that isn’t the case when you look at exam papers and text books. Complete understanding is needed for some of the simplest of questions. If students are finding a tractor in every sentence, then their overall understanding is reduced completely. What can we do about it?

Deep Reading
We need to work harder to avoid superficial reading in lessons. I could adopt David Didau’s idea of ‘Slow Writing’ at this stage and consider that we adopt ‘Slow Reading’; however, I think ‘Deep Reading’ is far more suitable.  Most of the students I read with ( and I have done this with a large number of Year 7s this term as well) read quickly and that is generally fine for most, because they get the overall gist and understand the key parts of the text and then that helps them when they read for questioning. However, some students don’t get the initial gist of a text because of these stumbling blocks. They get a picture with the key parts missing. Then, when they approach the questions they struggle as they have the key pieces missing.

That’s why I am thinking of the following before reading a text:

Traffic Lights
These are the words that they might know and use verbally, but they might struggle to read them.  

·        Before reading a text, pick the polysyllabic words and get students, as a starter, to pronounce the words and discuss what they mean. It could also make a great bit of prediction. When they read the text, they know the pronunciation and some of the meaning of the words.

These are the long sentences where you often forget what the start of the sentence was about by the time you get to the end.  

·        Remind students that they have to take more care with the longer sentences. They might have to go a bit slower with these sentences.

·         Sentences that have lots or one of  these  ;/  : /  , / ( ) might need to be reread. 
·        Teach students how to read these long sentences.  

Words that they might not be familiar with.

·         Rather than give the word and its pronunciation like the fanfare usually given to the unveiling of a plaque, show them the word and get them to pronounce it. Then correct them if necessary. If we don’t give them opportunities in simple lessons to explore how to say words, how are we going to help them build their confidence at guessing with words that they are not familiar with?

·         Give them a short glossary of five to eight words.

·         Simplify for the audience.

A Passenger
One-to-one reading. I think we don’t do this enough in secondary. We seem to think reading something aloud in class is the equivalent. I think it isn’t. Personally, I think it can cause more problems than it fixes. It can destroy confidence. Simply, reading to a teacher is so much more effective as it is less public and there isn’t so much of an issue if you correct the student.

·         While students are on task, get one student to do it verbally with you. They could read the text and you question them afterwards. The comments they give you can be written in their exercise book as bullet points. This can be done for the full spectrum of ability and not just those that are weak at reading.

Most of these things I have tried myself and others are things I am currently working on or trialling.
There are days when I wish I had a passenger with me when I am reading, especially when I am reading a Shakespeare play I have never read before. Then, there are road works and a traffic jam that is tailed back several junctions.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 2 March 2013

Shakespeare and I: Teaching Shakespeare

It was only predictable that I would get to Shakespeare at some stage in my blogging career. It just so happens that I am currently planning to teach Macbeth. In my early years of my teaching career, I had some pretty bad experiences of Shakespeare.  Shakespeare can be the source for some of the best lessons; however, it too can be the source of some of the worse lessons.  On one hand I have enjoyed watching a group of rugby lads pretend to be Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, including high-pitched 'Monty Python' voices. Then, on the other hand I have watched time stand still, as students try to read, understand and follow a scene in ‘The Merchant of Venice’.

From the start, I want to say that William Shakespeare is bloody brilliant. Great plays. Great characters. Great ideas, although borrowed from someone else. Great language. And, I do think Shakespeare has a place in the curriculum we teach in schools. The ideas he wrote about are still topical and relevant and they often feature in soaps on a daily basis. Sadly, the language is the barrier. I do feel that the experience of Shakespeare must be, for some of our students, like one of those French lessons where the teacher only speaks in French.  It is not a natural experience and we expect the students to tune in and accept it. At the start of my teaching career, I was told to simply read the play with them and they will tune into the language. Some did; others didn’t, and, to be honest, it wasn’t effective teaching. It was probably like watching a programme on S4C (the Welsh Channel 4) you recognise the odd word, but the rest is incomprehensible. Understandably, they were excited when we started a new topic after Shakespeare. No matter how dull it was.

At the start of teaching any Shakespeare play, I share with students an explanation of how I prepared for teaching that play. I would explain to them how I spent weeks reading the play line by line working out what it means and what is going on. All thanks to my lovely Arden version of the play.  I stress to them that: a) Shakespeare’s plots can be quite complicated; b) we don’t always know the true meaning of every line; c) it is as play so it shouldn't be read cold in a lesson - it should be performed. This shared understanding that 'it is difficult' helps, I think, to put the context that it is hard and not always straightforward. Taking away the ‘solution’ or the right answer, helps to make the reading of the play less of a puzzle and more of a journey of exploration. We work together to work out what is going on and how Shakespeare shows us what is going on. Oh, and how to perform it.

Then we get cracking on. Usually, I do a pre-reading activity which might involve pictures or names or even a list of key events for them to turn into a piece of drama. I might look at the idea of ‘battle of the sexes’ or ‘kingship’, but I always make sure that I look at an idea or thread in the story that will directly relate to them. Whatever I do, I aim to hook them in. After this, we work through the story.  

I always seem to be the one sat next to the Shakespeare-phobic adult  whose heading is spinning watching the play. I patiently explain to them who is who and what is happening every 5 minutes, because for the first-timer there is a lot of swapping and changing in Bill's plays. Therefore, I always make sure I tell the story in some way. Surprisingly, some people suggest in books that we shouldn’t tell students the ending of a story, as they might lose interest. Codswallop! The genre of the story dictates the ending, so most people can predict how the story will end. Plus, if we continue to mystify the story, then it will alienate students from Shakespeare even more. When I was a Year12 student, I studied Hamlet with Mr Powell. We knew how the play ended from the start. With that foreknowledge, we were able to build on our knowledge and learn more. Furthermore, when you have a grasp of the plot it is much easier to talk about character and language, because you aren’t just thinking, ‘Who is that?', 'Is this a comedy?' and 'Where is this going?'.  Oh, and also Shakespeare's audiences knew the ending of the plays before they watched them, because they were famous and popular stories. And, there were several version of the same story by different writers.

To teach the plot, I always do the 'instant' version of the play. The instant ‘Macbeth’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Henry V’ have all become a part of my teaching. Simply, the class act out the whole of the play in a lesson. Most people, I should think use this technique. It is brilliant. The teacher is the narrator. They read a simplified overview of the play, while students act out a ‘dumb show’ version and read out quotes from the play. Easy to make, and a great lesson.

At this point, students will know some key names, key events and a rough idea of the plot. The best starting point for exploring the text further. Then, it is the fight with the language. My lovely friend Gwen has blogged about using insults as a way into language, which is another great way to start. I tend to focus on words first. I once participated in a workshop with the RSC and they gave us a great little approach to looking at the language. It is mirrored by recent blog here.  Simply, you take key words from a scene and look at them in isolation to the rest of the language. Students then predict what the scene is about and what the character / s might be saying.  Furthermore, it makes for some fun when you give students a particular word and they have to say it, or find an action for it, or even act it out. Here's an example from 'Julius Caesar'.
Looking at the words in isolation has really helped me in the teaching of Shakespeare, as the focus is on the meaning from the start and we are exploring what is going on together. Plus, it makes reading the scene easier as it builds in the recognition of words. Also, it helps students to see if the character uses the word ‘kill’, it might mean that he is angry or plotting to murder someone. Therefore, they do not need to know things word for word, but just have a gist of what is going on

Then, the class watch me annotate a scene and copy what I have written on the board. Only joking! No, I do this in a different way. I get students to do some sticking and gluing.

In groups, I give students an A3 extract to focus on. They are then given different sheets of paper and they have to cut them out and stick them to the extract. Through the sticking of the bits of paper, students develop their understanding, knowledge and ability to analyse the language.  They do the analysis in stages. Each stage involves a different coloured sheet of paper. Each group works at a different pace. Some faster than others. I stand at the front of the class and they can only move onto the next stage, when they have completed the previous step.

Step 1: What is going on? Plot
Students match up plot points.


Step 2: What are they saying? Modern English
Students match up modern English to the equivilant in the text.

Step 3: How does the writer show us what the character is thinking or feeling? Language.

Students match up langauge points.


Step 4: Themes

Yep, there is nothing for themes as this is where I want students to be independent with their analysis. Hopefully, by this time students will feel confident enough to spot lines and phrases linking to a particular theme. I get them to highlight where they see evidence of a particular theme.

The Final Product:

The final product is used in two ways. First, I test students on things they have discovered in the next lesson by giving them a clean copy and they have to annotate it with what they can remember. Or, they write down what they think is relevant from the sheet on their own sheet.

I don’t do this all the time and I don’t do it for every extract, scene or page, but I do it a few times to build student’s confidence at digging deep and exploring Shakespeare’s language. It helps me to train students to approach the text in a way that isn’t too reliant on the teacher explaining things all the time, which is the danger with Shakespeare sometimes. Also, it is a nice bit of group work too.
Alas, poor Yorick, I have to go now.
Thanks for reading,