Sunday, 27 March 2016

My thoughts on everything - updated 2017

Updated 01/01/2017

Happy New Year! With another year down, I thought it timely to update my page with the links to all my posts. I roughly write forty posts a year and so even I forget about things I have written over the year.

I thought it might be interesting to let you know the following bits of information:

My wife has yet to read a single page of the blog.

I have yet to make any money from the blog. According to Google, I could make £8 a month if I allowed any form of advertising. I am obviously more stubborn than Doctor Faustus.

I don't like advertising the blog. As a rule I tend to Tweet a post four times. Any more than that and I feel I am after global domination. I am far happier promoting others.

I don't share my blog with my friends and family.

I don't share my blog with the department.  

I write when my daughters are watching television on a Sunday morning. I write it to avoid marking and to avoid watching a Barbie film.


2016 has been an interesting year for me:  I grew a beard; I started to take running seriously; and I started to play football. I have no resolutions for the new year. I suppose I just want to do more of the same thing. Blogging. Being silly. Having fun. Being kind.  Sharing. Helping. Being supportive. Wanting to be better. Not taking myself seriously.

I will continue to write with humour, humility and humanity. The blog is about learning from my mistakes and boy I have made hundreds and I will continue to. I write this blog to think.

Thank you, dear reader, - I wish you a happy and prosperous New Year.  

Xris




On the 31st of July 2012, I published my first ever blog and close to four years later I am still finding things to write about. In total I have written 187 posts. I struggle, however, to find things I have written here. So, as an introduction to newbies or as a reminder of old posts, here's a detailed overview of all the blogs published. Hopefully, it will help people find blog posts easier.

Thanks,

Xris


Reading



Issues with reading strategies - Glossing over the gist and glossaries with Matthew and his ‘Effect T-shirt’
A Year of Reading Dangerously, Slowly, Carefully, Accurately
Should students read for enjoyment? I am a secret book lover

Getting students to summarise a text and make inferences - Summarise, synthesis, simplify or suggest  
Getting students to read more - The force is strong in you

Getting students to understand how Charles Dickens wrote his stories - A lesson on character
Getting students to not give then ending of a novel away - Preparing for the end

Getting students to see the barriers to reading effectively - Deep Reading 
Getting students prepared for reading Charles Dickens - Great Expectations or Bitter Disappointments
Getting over the challenges to reading in modern society - The Reading War
Getting students to read the opening lines of novels - In the beginning there was a ... sentence
Getting student to explore characters in a novel
Getting students engaging with novels part 2 - Teaching the novel
Getting students engaging with novels part 1 - Teaching the novel


Writing

Getting students to be more creative - Tell me why I love Fridays 
Getting students to avoid using clichés - The Cliché Glass Ceiling
Getting students to write better autobiographies - And now for something completely different
Getting students to write more - How much should they write?
Getting students to improve their vocabulary - Vocabulary: oleaginous is the word you heard..
Getting students to use a motif in their writing - What's your motif when writing this story?
Getting students to structure paragraphs effectively - MacGyver Teaching
Getting students to describe a character effectively - Deconstructing character
Getting students to describe a setting effectively - Deconstructing setting
Getting students to experiment with adjectives when using colour - The colour rusty purple and the monochrome world
Getting students to use lists for variety - Let's talk about lists, baby
Getting students to proofread work - 100% Concentration
Getting students to proofread work by reading it out - Listening to the words
Getting students to vary their sentence structures - Death to sentence stems
Getting students to use adjectives more effectively in their writing - The solid, loyal and easily forgotten adjective
Getting students to be more creative with their similes - Progress 5: Effort 1
Example of creative writing inspired by a poem
Getting students to write creative writing with the mood in mind - Sexy Sprouts turn Evil
Getting students to develop their personification in their writing - Personifying the X-Factor chairs
Getting students to effectively peer assess their writing - AFL: better or worse?
Getting students to write with the effect in mind - Bring Sexy Back - Sexy Sprouts 2
Getting students to think better when persuading people - Sexy Sprouts
Getting students to improve their handwriting - Handwriting is nothing to do with literacy
Getting students to write an autobiography - Grammar Detectives
Getting students to write effective dialogue - The Talking Eggs: Dialogue
Getting students to be creative when writing stories - Adventures in story-telling

Getting students to write effective openings/ closings in non-fiction and using parody in writing - More opening sentences
Getting students to write with variety of grammatical structures - The thing that should never be named 
Getting students confident at using sentences for impact - The Joy of Grammar


Analysis of texts  

Getting students to use quotes better - Defragmenting memories
Getting students to develop their interpretations - That essay is missing something.... a metaphor?!?
Getting students to explore the purpose of the text - Where is the love for ideas? Are we too passionate about techniques?
Getting students ready for the exams - Last few bits and bobs before the final exams  Getting students to understand poetry - Blogsync - Orange juice poetry
Getting students to improve their vocabulary when analysing a text - Vocabulary: The Knowledge Awakens
Getting students to be precise with their analysis - Anchor sentences
Getting students to comment on the effect - Say it once more with feeling: the problem with effect  
Getting students to memorise texts and techniques better - Thanks for the memories
Getting students to develop more than one interpretation of a text - Learning to love the humble multiple-choice question
Getting students to develop opinions about texts studied - Jacob Marley's Bowel Movements

Getting students to closely analyse settings in a novel - Novel settings as poetry
Getting students to write academically - Solving the essay problem part 1
Getting students to structure sentences effectively in an essay - Piddle, PEE, Wee

Getting students to be more subtle when writing non-fiction - When will...when will...when will I be subtle?
Getting students to analyse headlines - What's the tone of this headline?
Getting students to compare the effect and language of two texts - Drawing lines in the sand
Getting students to use techniques effectively in their writing - Techniques for dummies
Getting students to analyse headlines and pictures - Cohesion: AQA Unit 1 Exam
Getting students to comment on techniques effectively - What's technique vomiting?
Getting students to analyse syllables in poetry - Poetry: one word, three syllables
Getting students to explore how repetition is used in poetry - History repeating itself
Getting students to improve their understanding a writer's choice of words - Words, words, words
Getting students to analyse texts effectively - Modal verbs, confidence and writing to explore
Getting students to use adverbs to show understanding - Agonising over adverbs
Getting students to make links when reading a poem - My Adventures on the Millennium Falcon


Shakespeare - teaching Shakespeare plays in the classroom

Getting students to spot changing points - What a carry on!
Getting students to write about Shakespeare's structural choices - Lord of the PowerPoints
Getting students to explore the presentation of a character in a play - Exploring the presentation of a character in a play

Getting students confident with exploring Shakespeare's language - Demystifying Shakespeare
Getting students to engage with the rhythm of Shakespeare's writing - Enid Blyton goes rapping with William Shakespeare


Texts Studied



The New GCSE English Exams

The new exam specs made my question some aspects of teaching.


Marking

I clearly had some issues with marking as I have quite a number of posts where I comment on approaches I have used.

‘Post-mortem Marking’ vs ‘Live Marking’
Lots of progress for very little effort - Marking wars

Target setting in lessons - We need to talk about Kevin's work
Progress in lessons - Brilliant effort but no progress
This marking is killing me
Differentiation thirty different ways
Progress, progress, progress
Marking feedback sheets
Much Ado About Marking and Progress

 
General Teaching Issues

These are a mixture of things. Some posts are very specific and others are very general. I could have separated them more, but I think it would have driven me insane as a lot them cover a number of different areas.

Dear Father Christmas...
Behaviour: Homepride Education or melior est canis dominum
Public displays of affection, floating students and roboteacher on results day
Canons to the left of me. Canons to the right of me. Here I am stuck in the middle with you.
Why teaching things in topics ‘might’ be bad? The Path to Academia or making students ‘cleverer’ – Part 2
The Path to Academia or making students ‘cleverer’ – Part1
Not another blog about the KS2 grammar test
Purple Praise: a spoon full of sugar helps the marking go down
Have a nice day in the High-Rise tower, but remember the lifts are broken
Teaching boys - The gender question
Being positive about the current state of the education system - We are all doomed
Why it is important that some teachers say no to new ideas - Why 'no' is a swear word in teaching and Twitter?
Teaching a child with SEN from a parent's perspective - What I want teachers to know about a parent of a child with a disability?
How learning is judged in the classroom - Chimera Measurements
The problem with peer assessments - Uncomfortable peer assessment and the death of 'EBI'
The problem with teaching students grit - Washing the grit, resilience and sand out of the classroom 
How the working environment for teachers has changed - Working 9 to 5 - the way I want to work and still be living

Thoughts on students thinking and essay writing - Making students think

Thoughts on testing in school
Does Bloom's Taxonomy work for English? Blooming Bloom's Taxonomy
The problem with teaching students styles of writing - Frankenstein's Essay
Quick and easy homeworks - The Homework Cheat
Using data in English - What's it all about? Data.
Why I want the SATs back
The Spelling Problem - finding a voice for people
Short term and long term memory - Why don't they blooming remember things?

Thoughts on teachmeets - Letting the drawbridge down
Approaches for Gifted and Talented students in English - Gifted and talented at reading loads of books
Thoughts on Gove changing aspects of the curriculum - P.S. I love Gove
The importance of teaching students manners in the classroom - What is the magic word?
Why I struggle with the teaching of 'Romeo and Juliet'
Mashing-up Literacy
Questioning the quality of reading assessments in school - The emotional reading elephant in the room
Whole school literacy - Literacy for newbies  
Preparing for Ofsted - What's that coming over the hill? Is it Ofsted? Literacy
My reaction to an Ofsted visit - The day a tiger came to breakfast, lunch and tea
My thoughts on political interference in education -  Why I idolise Henry VIII
Guide to parents on improving literacy
The importance of libraries in schools - There's a body in the library
Thoughts on the obsession with progress - Progress -it's all about STEPs
Thoughts on observations - Observations, Burgers and Mystery Shoppers
Thoughts on the exam system - Something is rotten in the state of Denmark: The exam system
Thoughts on why so many trainee teachers leave - A candle in the darkness or a forklift truck in the library  

My thoughts on Gove's selection of texts - Gove's hatred of postmodern literature
Trying to be consistent with a school's approach to literacy
Leader literacy across a school
What is the one thing I think would improve education?




Saturday, 19 March 2016

Anchor sentences


It is that time of year again: exam season. This year I have a group of GCSE students and, so far, they are working between a C and an E. At this stage we have completed coursework folders and completed two full mocks. However, success is slipping away from some of them. Why? For some, it is simply they don’t write enough. For others, it is about a lack of depth in their thinking. Things are, just a little, superficial.
If I am honest, I don’t think teenagers write enough in schools. They don’t write at length in silence. The years of child-centric focused teaching has meant that we struggle to cope with long periods of silence while students are head down writing. In fact, we have turned writing into manageable chunks of work. Manageable for the student and their self-esteem. Manageable for the teacher and their work load. The problem is when faced with the English exam some crumble. I am tempted to photocopy and English exam paper and put it in the pigeon hole of all staff. This is what we need to prepare them for! This is why all students need to write more. For those unfamiliar to the out-going (AQA) exam specification, it contains six questions and for each one students have to write approximately two or more sides of A4 lined paper.  They, in fairness, have to write solidly for two hours. When you have had a curriculum for years of writing for thirty minutes and then moving on to something else, they find this difficult. Our first hurdle is making sure they finish the paper. We will leave this aspect for another blog.

Anyway, the second problem I have is the superficiality of their answers. They are students who are close, but often within a finger’s grasp of the next grade. They keep missing it. On further investigation, I noticed a few things. As students, they can retain a considerable amount of knowledge. Their retention of a range of facts is evident in all pieces of writing. But, then, what is the missing link?
I think wholeheartedly how our students read texts and interact with texts is the problem. They know they stuff; they just don’t read texts effectively. When marking their papers, I noticed time and time again there was a pattern. They were analysing whole texts. All the time they were trying to write about everything. They felt the need to write about the beginning, middle and end all at once. When trying to write about all parts of the text, you default to generalised statements because you can’t cover things precisely. They would be making one point about the opening and the ending at the same time and condensing things together, leaving no room for precise analysis. In a way, this is a reflection of society. The ability to concentrate and focus on one things is hindered by the fear of missing something out. Look at social media. Our fear of missing out is highlighted in some people when they can’t sit still without casually looking at their phone and see if they have had a notification.

What if we built that level of concentration to a focus on one single sentence?
Student struggle to analyse precisely because they focus on everything, so wouldn’t it be better to concentrate their efforts on one sentence?  The sentence would be the starting block. Instead of jumping into whole text analysis, in exams, the starting point is one simple sentence. Of course, they will read the whole text, but their starting point is the perfect sentence. The best sentence. The most effective sentence. Then, the work out from that sentence. Our students struggle because they don’t have a clear anchor to the reading.  

Let’s have a bit of a play with ‘Pride and Prejudice’:   
IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.   

As a sentence it has some interesting points:
·         It is an opinion.
·         It is an opinion that is very confident that it thinks that it is a fact – universally acknowledged.
·         It concerns the desires of men – want of a wife – and not the needs of a man.
·         About the progression in relationships – single man/ wife.
·         The use of ‘IT’ suggests that the writer might see that the opinion as something impersonal.   
·         The use of the present tense highlights how it is a current practice / held thought.
·         The use of ‘must’ suggests that there is no alternative to this thought.
·         The term ‘good fortune’ is vague and unclear so open to interpretation as is what actually refers to. Does it mean money? Or does it mean luck? If so, does that mean unlucky people do not want to marry?


Well, close analysis like this can be fruitful as it anchors thinking on precise detail. Then, the student can then develop that thought by linking to the rest of the text.

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.   

Links
·         It is an opinion.
We see this when Mrs Bennet reinforces the statement consistently in the novel. She sees every man as a possible husband for her daughters.
·         It is an opinion that is very confident that it thinks that it is a fact – universally acknowledged.
It is a statement held by most characters. Happiness it seems is derived from marriage. The story ends with Elizabeth Bennett marring. In fact, we see several men with money marry by the end of the novel.
·         It concerns the desires of men – want of a wife – and not the needs of a man
At heart of the novel is the desire of one man: Darcy. We also see the desires of Mr Wickham.  
·         About the progression in relationships – single man/ wife
Umm.. we have a few weddings.
·         The use of ‘IT’ suggests that the writer might see that the opinion as something impersonal   
Look at the transactional relationship between Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas – marriage can be something transactional
·         The use of the present tense highlights how it is a current practice / held thought
The novel can be seen as evidence for the prosecution.
·         The use of ‘must’ suggests that there is no alternative to this thought
Look at the fear characters have about not being married.
·         The term ‘good fortune’ is vague and unclear so open to interpretation as is what actually refers to. Does it mean money? Or does it mean luck? If so, does that mean unlucky people do not want to marry?
Mr Darcy’s happiness is dependent on one particular marriage.

That was me being silly and using my hazy knowledge of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. But, the one quote, a perfect quote, can work on so many levels. Why are we crowding these students’ brains with so many quotes when three or fewer could be meaningful? Could there be one sentence in each of the main poems a student could learn to the depth of the Mariana Trench. That becomes their anchor to the whole poem. They sit the exam confident with one line. They talk about the whole text but group it with one line.  
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
http://poetry.eserver.org/space.gifNoble six hundred.

Points

·         Repetition of honour shows that we must honour these people more than others. And, we mustn’t forget to honour them.

·         It is an imperative – the writer is angry and demanding we do something – there isn’t a choice for us.

·         The use of ‘six hundred’ is a factual statement and precise about the soldiers. It is specific about the amount who died to make this personal and highlight the point they died when then odds were against them.  

·         The adjective ‘noble’ is the only adjectives to describe the hundred. They don’t need endless words to describe them. One word sums them up. The use of ‘noble’ suggests that they are some form of royalty or having excellent qualities.

·         The use of ‘charge’ instead of ‘fight’ puts the emphasis on the action before rather than the physical battle. The poem doesn’t dwell on the physical aspect of the deaths. He focuses on the causes and the consequences. He is respectful enough to not show us the gory details.



I could go on and on with looking at my anchor sentence. The next step would be to link the sentence to the rest of the text. When we teach students texts, we might zoom in on words or techniques, but most of the time we are doing this whole text reading. For your sophisticated reader, that will be fine. But, for students, who struggle with reading, it is hard to shift between whole texts and parts of the text. Maybe we have to help the less able readers to do this anchoring to a text. Most of us will probably teach by taking extracts from a text and getting students to analyse them. But, what if students had one line about Lennie that they knew in such depth? Surely, when faced with a question they have never seen before, they will be able to look at their quote and adapt it to their answer. Look at the example for ‘Charge of The Light Brigade’. You could use that for most questions in the poetry exam.

For the next mock, I am going to set students to select an anchor sentence in a non-fiction text. For revision for the literature exams, I am going to work with the class and get them to create their own poetry anchor sentences. If we want precise analysis, we need precise thought and decluttered brains. If students revise poetry by learning a shed load of features in the poem, they will just try to repeat all those features. If we give them one sentence they know well, they will have a clear starting.

I’m sailing off now.

Thanks for reading,

Xris  

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Say it once more with feeling: what is the problem with effect?


Last year’s AQA examiner’s report highlighted that a lot of students are struggling to write about the effect of a text. The most able seem to do it with aplomb, but those students wanting to aim for the dizzy heights of success struggle with it. The key question for this, on the AQA paper, is question 4: compare how two texts are written for effect. For a start students have to define and describe the effect of a text. Then they have to identify what the writer has done to create the highlighted effect. Finally, they have to compare the effect and technique in one text to another text. It is all so easy. Oh, and yeah, they have about fifteen minutes to do this.

Historically, our students have always struggled with this question and it seems a national thing, when you look at the exam data. Why do students, in general, struggle with this particular aspect?  Spotting techniques is a doddle for most students. Saying what happened in a text is pretty straight forward, but saying how a reader feels or what the writer is trying to say is far more difficult. I feel there are two clear problems:

Issue 1: students have a limited vocabulary for describing effects.

Issue 2: students lack confidence in their own emotional response to a text.



Hopefully, the following will address some of those issues and offer some possible solutions.
Issue 1: students have a limited vocabulary for describing effects.

When you ask a student to comment on the effect of a device or aspect of a book or poem you tend to get the following stock phrases:

It makes the reader read on.

It makes it tense.

It makes it interesting.

There are various versions of these phrases, but these are the typical generic ones. They are simplistic and reductive. My favourite happens to be the ‘interesting’ one, as I have yet to find a text that hasn’t in some way been written to be uninteresting. All texts are designed to be interesting otherwise we wouldn’t give them to students.

Anyway, the stock phrases are used because they are easy and they relate to absolutely any text. They are generic. A bit like my stock phrases for describing a football match - that last goal in the match was a blinder.  I partly blame the evil and reductive writing triplets of the olden days. You know the ones I mean: ‘argue, persuade, advise’; and ‘explain, describe, comment’. Evil little things. They are emotionless and heartless things that fail to understand the connection a text has with a reader. I read a book last week. According to the triplets, it entertained me. But, it didn’t entertain me; it did something far more important. It took me on a journey of emotions. Yes, but what triplet is it?

Giving students some phrases was a key thing I did this year. The first thing I did was introduce the following phrases ‘a sense of’ and ‘a feeling of’. From examining, lots of past questions, I noticed that successful students uses these phrases when writing about texts. Therefore, when presenting students with a new text, I would shy away from the usual sort of questioning and give students three, usually, examples of these phrases.

Read the poem and select an example of the following:

1: Sense of confusion

2: Sense of isolation

3: Sense of entrapment

The above example was used with a class looking at ‘Belfast Confetti’, but I have used a variation of it with speeches and extracts from novels. The great thing that I noticed was that students carried these phrases and effects on to other texts. They made connections and retained the feelings from the previous one and applied it to the next one. Now, if they repeated that process a couple of times a year, students could have up to sixty plus little effect phrases to use in their writing that crosses different questions.

I found that this approach works much better than the previous one that most, I think, use. Before, I always based the analysis around the technique and then they student has to justify / explore the feeling a technique creates. Why did the writer use that rhetorical question at the end? Ummm. Ummm. It takes a really sophisticated reader to do that quickly. As a result I changed a lot of how I got some of the weaker students to write about texts. The following was a little planning structure I used:

The writer creates a sense of awe by using TECHNIQUE

QUOTE

The writer shows us  - WRITER’S MESSAGE.

As an approach it wasn’t mind-blowing, but it helped students form and articulate ideas. Students readily offered techniques and ideas about the writer’s message. Moving the emotional response to the front of the thinking was helpful for students. In fact, they are quicker at offering feelings about a text now. And, as they are quicker at getting to the feeling of a text, they are happier to zoom in on techniques. For more able students, I get them to find two or three techniques that create the specific feelings. Or, a challenge them with an unusual feeling – a sense of the sublime.



Issue 2: students lack confidence in their own emotional response to a text.

In addition to all this, I produced one PowerPoint slide. It was another slide to be used with every class and at every given moment. It was simply a page of abstract nouns. When looking at a text, I’d have the slide on the in the background. Students would have the slide as a visual cue so that it would help them see or connect the text with particular ideas or concepts.

Now this is why I think we have a problem with some weaker students in classes when it comes to talking about a text. We spend most of our time making things concrete. We give students concrete explanations. We give students concrete examples. We even ask students to detach emotions from thinking in lessons. The recent focus on progress has enforced this idea. We must search for things that are tangible and visible. We must find evidence of it.  All of this has got to affect students at some stage, and I think this is part of the effect problem. Why do some students struggle with commenting on effect? Well, it is a result of a concrete, visible curriculum focused on concrete, visible learning.  I know I sound like I should be wearing a scarf and staring ‘Byronicly’ out of the window at the playground.  

I think in some ways I am lucky because I work in a faith school. For me, there isn’t a day that goes by without a conversation relating to abstract nouns. It is part of the collective conversation. But, do we bring this abstract thinking into lessons? If I am honest, we use it where is relevant. But relevancy doesn’t mean it is consistent. It just means when I think it is appropriate. Therefore, this slide of abstract nouns was a starting point. Let’s read this poem. Which of the words can we attach to the poem? A detailed discussion is usually followed by this.

The problem I think is that we expect students to naturally do this high-end thinking automatically. We forget the big stages that get to it being an automated process. Why don’t students comment openly about the feelings they have for a text? We think it is natural, gut-instinct process. It isn’t. That’s why every book and film review a student writes in school is always dull. It’s because we don’t give them explicitly the tools for comments on the feelings a text creates in us.

We have to be more open with how students respond to a text also. We have to make it clear to students they can like and dislike aspects of texts. Plus, the must say, importantly, what is confusing. As soon as students are open and honest with their reactions to texts, we will start having better discussions and analysis of texts.

Which bit of the text did you like?

Which bit of the text didn’t you like?

Which bit of the text did you find confusing?

Behind each answer to one of those questions is a comment on the effect of a text. We just need to build on it and investigate it. Why did you like it? What did the writer do to make you like it? Why did he/she want you to like that bit and not the other bit?

Changing how we analyse a text and explore a text could help us develop this idea of what is the impact of a text on a reader. I don’t want every student to approach a text in English as if they had fallen in love with poem and they are blindingly obsessed by it. I don’t love every text I teach, study or read, but I do love bits of them. Students seem to think that a response to a text is based on two extreme emotions. You either love it or hate it. Maybe, we need to deal with that aspect in lessons. There are several levels of enjoyment (engagement) with a text and we need to make that clear to students. You can find a poem boring. You can find a poem exciting. It is the ‘what makes it that’ is more important. And the phrases that you use: You can find the poem has a sense of monotony. You can find the poem has a feeling of joy.

Put emotions at the head of the learning.

Thanks for reading,

Xris32  

Sunday, 6 March 2016

The gender question: Boys are made of slugs, snails, competition and puppy dogs' tails?


At some stage in every teacher’s career, somebody has uttered the phrase ‘to engage boys use competitions’ in the teacher’s presence. It might have been in a book, on a blog or in a CPD session. Jim, we have a problem with boys underachieving in school, what shall we do? Let’s give boys points. Let’s make lessons a competition. Let’s give them computers, because boys love gadgets. Let’s give an award for boy who has achieved the most. Because, we all know boys thrive on competition. They live for it. Personally, now I am having a secret competition in my head to see if I can type louder than the clock next to me. Hah! I am louder than the clock. In your face, clock! But, what’s this? My daughters are walking up stairs. Their footsteps are louder than my typing. I give up now… I have lost the competition.
This week, I had a lovely comment about the blog: it was praising the blog and saying how ‘this blogger candidly explores her life as a teacher, giving voice to current issues as well as her opinion’. They read the blog and assumed I was a woman. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the only time this has happened. A few weeks, ago a lovely Australian commented on Facebook about reading the blog and again it was assumed I was female. After a few minutes of despair and insecurity and worry that my writing was too ‘girly’ I found the whole thing hilarious. But, it put a thought in my head: how we assume too much about gender. Did people assume I was female because I was a teacher? Did people assume I was female because I am an English teacher? Did people assume I was female based on my language? Or, was it because I am always talking about my feelings? I simply don’t know.

Interestingly, the question of gender and targeting boys came up in a discussion this week and I kept thinking about this idea of assumption based on gender. There is a national problem with boys underperforming. There has been for a while, and, unless some miracle happens, it is likely to happen for a while. Historically, exam systems have been built up around this problem. Girls are underperforming so let’s introduce coursework. Boys are underperforming so let’s get rid of coursework. Then, we have the curriculum. We have topics designed around boys and with boys in mind. Let’s pick this play because it has murder and death in it – boys will love that! Let’s pick a novel with lots of boys in it. Let’s do this topic on engineering, because boys like engineering, don’t they. We even look at the gender of the teachers, when trying to address the problem.

We amend our whole curriculums to suit boys. The girls sadly don’t get a look in. My new SOW on ‘fluffy kittens and the colour pink’ in English literature is just waiting in the wings. Who hasn’t written somewhere how a SOW, topic or text will cater for boys and underperforming?  We move everything to suit the boys. We look at so many big things to address the gender issue in the classroom. We move Heaven and Earth for the boys. They don’t do anything. Why? Because improving boys’ attainment and progress is far more subtle and complex than we think. Again, we focus on enjoyment as being the key factor. If a boy enjoys this, then logic tells us he will improve.

I was one of ‘those’ boys at school. I daubed graffiti on books. I unscrewed tables and the put the screws in a friend’s bag. I passed notes. I gave a student a bleeding nose because he was picking on me. I was removed from several lessons, such as a Physics lesson for giggling. I had to leave an Art lesson because of my temper. And it started young: I stood on a teacher’s toe in primary school because I was in a bad mood; the teacher had just returned to school because of an operation on her foot. Writing all this makes me sound like a handful – I wasn’t, I promise! So I can personally identify with some students in school. So when asked what can a teacher do to engage boys I go from my personal experience and my experiences as a teacher.

1: Ditch the gimmicks – seeing things as ‘boy friendly’ or not ‘boy friendly’ is setting things to up fail. ‘Boy friendly’ only means that it is friendly to some boys and it will probably be unfriendly for a large population of the class. You wouldn’t give Year 9 students a topic of female nudes in an Art lesson to appeal to boys so why would you do the equivalent in other subjects. Put that Minecraft lesson on William Wordsworth down. And, for god sake, get rid of that football themed lesson for Music.    Teach what needs to be taught irrespective of gender. A boy needs to adapt his behaviour and not we adapt our behaviour for him. Engage all students, but engagement doesn’t mean enjoyment.

2: Don’t talk about the gender issue to students –   You are making the issue and issue and naming the problem. Students, when finding things difficult, put up barriers. Giving students the ammunition of ‘gender bullets’ gives them another barrier, or dare I say it, an excuse. Plus, nothing says we care about students as lumping of them together as one homogenous group. The issue is personal for the students, but naming it and publicly referring to it depersonalises it. How many intervention strategies are metaphorically a huge sign to students saying ‘we don’t really care; we are just doing this for the results’? It is about dealing with the problem personally, not publicly.  As teachers, we can discuss the problem, but be careful with what the student sees. A magician works through misdirection and trickery. It may be a school problem, but is a personal one for the boy. Plus, no two boys are alike. They might be similar, but they will be different somehow. Oh, and it isn’t just the girls who are complex.  

3: Relationships – as a male, the relationships I have with people are equally important as they are to a female. Male bravado hides this important fact and some boys will not admit it. Look at boys in schools and you will see that relationships form a part of the problem and often the solution sometimes. A boy’s relationship with his father is an interesting marker. I know, for me, that this influenced the way I behaved in school. My relationship at home meant I challenged all forms of authority and this spilled into school. I had no respect for it, because ‘it seemed’ to have no respect or time for me. Everybody wants to needed. If not needed, at least respected.

The relationships students have with teachers is important. You can’t manufacture it or simply make it. They don’t need an extra father or mother figure. They don’t need an extra friend. They just need someone that accepts them and all their faults. Someone that eggs them on. Someone whose behaviour and attitude doesn’t change depending on certain conditions. Someone they can please and, occasionally, disappoint, but will still be on their side. Someone who sees things from their point of view.  Someone that genuinely cares. And that person doesn’t have to be male.

4: Connections Everybody wants to feel part of something. Look at the high number of students we teach. How can one student feel part of something when there are such large numbers of people in a school? Points of connection are important for that. I have several students I talk to about television programmes. Each time we meet for a lesson, they raise it up as a point of conversation. Sir, did you watch it last night? What did you think of what happened? That student has a connection. A point of reference to make conversation that is not related to school work. They know that they might be lost in a crowd but when they see me they can talk about it. The connections we make are far more profound than we think. It might be a link to a hobby, an interest, a shared experience, a shared joke or something totally different, but it is a connection that says that student isn't a faceless number.

5: Purpose – This might sound obvious, but I think it isn’t an aspect we explicitly share with students. We, the adults, know the purpose of learning a ‘metaphor’ in English. Yet, when teaching it to students, we tend to miss the big steps about some of the things we are teaching. We are learning about X so you can Y.   
The most able students, and mostly girls, can get the idea that each lesson is supporting them for something in the future. This for me was a problem when I was at school. What is the point of learning French if I am not going to do it for GCSE or later in life? Of course, there is a point, but for boys I think we need to make the purpose concrete, visible.
When do some Year 11 students start to work hard? Near the end. Why? Because the purpose of learning has become alarmingly clear to them. The purpose and the consequences of learning isn’t immediate, clear and concrete enough for students. That’s why we have boy floating or coasting in  the system at KS3. There are no visible consequences. Once a students has a purpose then they start to improve and succeed. Over the years, I have seen a number of students float around because the have no sense of direction and impetus. Why do we give most of our careers advice in Years 10 and 11? Surely, students should be thinking about the direction they are going. Look at primary school. The direction is clear. We are aiming to be juniors. We are aiming to secondary students. Get to secondary school and students are aiming for….? What are Year 8s aiming for? What are Year 7s aiming for?    

6: Praise the middle – All schools do this in some way. The best and the worst of a class get most of the attention. That means there is a big chunk of students in the middle who are generally neglected. If they do a reasonable amount of work, they’ll be left alone. They can hide. I feel we need to praise these students or do more with them.
Why do some boys coast? Because the chasm is too wide. Do something amazing and you’ll be praised? Do something really bad and you get my attention for sure? Boys aren’t as competitive as we like to think they are. Otherwise they’d all be fighting to get into the top sets. Sometimes, they just want an easy life. Doing just enough to avoid being at the extreme aspects of behaviour is all they need to do.  
Make sure there is no middle ground for them to hide in. Praise the middle. That’s where transformation needs to take place.

7: Criticise the behaviour and not the student – We have a habit of personalising all aspects of life. A criticism of my behaviour is a personal attack on me as a person. Separate the two. Show the student that behaviour and the person are two separate entities. I don’t like the way you are behaving, but I do like you. This simple definition has helped me no end with getting quickly to resolve the problem with some boys.

8: Teach concrete and abstract concepts at the same time – There are some aspects of English that are difficult for students. However, I find that as long as there is something concrete to learn, things usually balance out and male students are more responsive. Here are four reasons why an extended metaphor is used. Learn them. Which approach is the writer using here? Who can remember the four reasons why an extended metaphor is used?  The sense of achievement and purpose is easier with knowledge retention.

All the above points could be applied to girls. This is the problem with gender. When dealing with gender we pull out every bit of blue and pink bit of gender stereotyping we can find. Boys are presented as lazy, attention seeking and demanding. Girls are presented as hardworking, conscientious and quiet. I’d say they are both, so let’s stop this rot allowing people to tarnish all boys and girls with the same brush. When gender identity is fluid and undefined, why should we be using outdated and old fashioned views of boys and girls? For men, we have lots of different types of male in popular culture and yet we still have this idea in schools of boys being lazy, silly and attention seeking. A stereotype is lazy thinking. If we are going to address gender in schools, we need some intelligent thinking. But, first and foremost, we must be looking at the student and what they learn and how they learn.    

This boy is made up of playdoh, moisturiser, twigs, wine and the eyelashes of a gazelle. There is very little he is competitive about.

Thanks for reading,

Xris – a bloke, a fella, a man, a person of the male species, a geezer, a lad