Sunday, 28 October 2012

In the beginning there was .... a sentence.

This week has been a very busy week for me as it was the school’s talent competition. I organised and hosted the show with the help of some brave and excellent colleagues. We had some judges. We had some brave acts. We had the audience, but how do you start a talent competition? Pyrotechnics are too expensive and too dangerous. Starting with an act would have been too cruel. Therefore, we took inspiration from ‘The X-Factor’; we had some music and some 'Dermot dancing'. So a colleague and I strutted our stuff to Taio Cruz’s ‘Higher’ for a minute.  I think the most accurate way to describe the crime to dancing would be ‘dad dancing’. It was funny, embarrassing, engaging and a whole host of other things. I wasn’t taking myself seriously and it was a kind of message to parents and students: look, this is fun and you’ll never make a fool of yourself compared to your dear teacher on stage.

The opening of most things is important. The opening of a book. The opening of a film. The opening of a lesson. Get it right and you have people hooked and on your side.  Get it wrong and you struggle to keep them looking in your overall direction. It is interesting that there are loads of books on ‘starters’ in teaching, yet very few books on ‘middles’ and ‘plenaries’.  Now, I am not going to bore you with loads of starters I use as there are plenty other, much better, sources for that. No, I am going to share one starter that I use over and over again with different classes. Oh, and it is about openings.

This activity is usually used as a way to start a piece of creative writing. It saves you from those annoying questions about how to start a story after two lessons dedicated to planning it. Also, I use it to look at the opening of a class novel. I print out a sheet with the following sentence openings. Then, I give each student one. It doesn’t take long before they are heads down intrigued by each line.

It winged its way across the blackness of intergalactic space, searching.
(World-Eater, Robert Swindells)

The knife that killed me was a special knife.
(The Knife That Killed Me, Anthony McGowan)

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
(I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith)

I shouldn’t have done it.
(The Monster Garden, Vivien Alcock)

Jimmy knew what was coming, but he was too late to dodge out of the way.
(Jimmy Coates: Killer, Joe Craig)

When I was nine I was an owl.
(The Seventh Raven, Peter Dickinson)

The first time I only saw its face.
(The Ghost Dog, Pete Johnson)

It starts and ends with the knife.
(Jackdaw Summer, David Almond)

It was sick, hungry and a long, long way from home.
(Hydra, Robert Swindells)

Peter Bishop knew that he couldn’t hang on to the icy rock of the crevasse any longer.
(White Out, Anthony Masters)

Lonely, invisible, and still wearing the clothes they had died in: the ghost of four children were in this house.
(Breathe, Cliff McNish)

As Matt watched the rain through the window, the rain watched him back.
(The Chaos Code, Justin Richards)

When he awoke, the room looked different somehow: there was a window where the door used to be.
(Are All the Giants Dead?, Mary Norton)

The horror always came with waking.
(The Visitor, Christopher Pike)

In the middle of the night they came for me.
(The Frighteners, Pete Johnson)

I am afraid. Someone is coming.
(Z for Zachariah, Robert O’Brien)

It would happen again today, Kerry knew it.
(Bully, Yvonne Coppard)

I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon.
(Skellig, David Almond)

I thought werewolves only existed in stories and late-night films.
(My Friend’s a Werewolf, Pete Johnson)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
(Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell)

Funny things were going on inside my school locker.
(The Boy Who Reversed Himself, William Sleator)

The desks were moving.
(Bullies Don’t Hurt, Anthony Masters)

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.
(Mortal Engines, Philip Reeve)

I never had a brain until Freak came along and let me borrow his for a while, and that’s the truth, the whole truth.
(Freak the Mighty, Rodman Philbrick)

When I opened my eyes I knew nothing in my miserable life prior to that moment could possibly be as bad as what was about to happen.
(The Black Book of Secrets, F.E. Higgins)

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.
(The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham)

Then, I simply ask them: ‘Which is the best opening line to a story?’ There has yet to be a class that has all come to the same answer.  Some love the funny ones; others are interested by the violent ones. Overall, it creates a great discussion.

The next stage is to explore what makes them so effective. As a class we come up with a rough set of rules:

·         Refer to something as ‘it’ or ‘they’ to create mystery and hide the identity of person or creature

·         Suggest something bad has happened or is going to happen

·         Use a narrator

·         Describe something ordinary and make one thing odd about it

·         Raise lots of questions

Students then create their own on a post-it note and we read them all out. Thankfully, it stops that annoying ‘How do I start it?’ phase of story writing.  Plus, it gives students a range of sentence structures to copy or adapt for their own writing, saving us from some pretty dull writing.

Depending on the rest of the lesson, I might leave this as a starter or do some of these things to extend the learning:

·         Categorise the openings by genre, impact on reader or effectiveness.

·         Write the next few sentences to one of the openings.

·         Based on one of the openings, write the last sentence of that story. How will they link together?

·         Take one opening and analyse it in great detail.  What questions does it raise? What techniques are employed to hook the reader?

·         Watch an opening to a Doctor Who episode and write down the questions created to hook the reader.

If I have time, I might take them to library and get them to find new openings to add to this list. It gets students to engage with different books and, occasionally, they might even be persuaded to read the whole book.  
I do something similar with the openings of non-fiction texts with Year 11. However, I always mention how writing in an exam is a bit like a date. The first impression is a lasting impression. If they opened the door to some dishy date who’s dressed to impress, then the date will probably go well. If they opened the door to someone scruffy and bored, then there is a big chance things will not go too well.  Therefore, there first sentence must be impressive and free from mistakes. It sets the message and the tone of what they are doing. It hooks people in and keeps them: I am interesting so you can't help being interested in me.

In the beginning was the word. Yeah, maybe. However, I like the image of God looking at an empty nothingness and muttering the immortal words, ‘How do I start this?’ He looks up and there is no English teacher to direct Him.


Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Thing that Should Never be Named

Before I was a teacher, I worked in the building trade and I was responsible for selling concrete and bricks to builders. Before I worked in the building industry, I worked in a call centre for a car insurer. Before the insurance company, I worked in pub. With every job I have had, I have always had the same conversation in a social situation or pub.  What do you do for a living?  Then there would always a quick ‘interesting’ and then the exchange would move on to another topic of conversation. But, teaching, means that this conversation takes a different turn:

Me: Great party?
Guest: So, what do you do for a living?

Me: Umm… teach English.

Guest: Ahh, I loved English at school. What was that book I loved? Let me think about it. Lord of the Nothings. Lord of the Macbeth. Lord of the Amazons.  That’s it: ‘Lord of the Flies’. Bloody ace book.

Me: What do you do?

Guest: Oh yeah and then there is Shakespeare. Well, Shakespeare.

Me: Do you work?

Guest: Yeah we did Hamlet. To be or not to be and all that. Loved it. We had a brilliant teacher and he made us learn the whole play.

Me: Do you actually work?

Guest: I remember the bit at the end and looking at ….

[Exit the teacher]

That is only one scenario that I have often faced. Another comment I get is how brave I must be to teach teenagers. They look me up and down and think I am a 5ft nothing and, therefore, incapable of controlling a class of teenagers. Then, more often than the other comments I get, I get people telling me about their hatred of English at school. It is as if I have to justify why there is evil in the world. Then there are lots of variations of on a theme:

I hate reading. I’ve only read one book in my life.

I can’t spell to save my life.

My handwriting is shocking.

It is as if there is a prepared script for how to talk to an English teacher in society.  Yet, I never get somebody saying their grammar is terrible. People can’t wait to tell others that their mental arithmetic is bad and that they can barely count the change in their pocket. Or, tell people that they have only read two books in their whole life. It is as if reading only two books is a badge of honour to be proud of. Even celebrities flaunt this by getting a ghost writer to write their novel and still manage to make loads of dosh, while boasting that they never read books. What message does this give young people today? 

It seems that grammar is the thing that people cannot mention by name. Nobody says that their grammar is bad, yet they freely, with gay abandon, tell me they can’t spell, they don’t read on a regular basis and they have hand writing that even Bletchley Park couldn’t decode. It is almost as if society accepts certain failings, but will not even touch grammar with a very large and long barge pole. It is like ‘Voldermort’. We can’t speak about it, yet we know it is a problem. In truth, I am a Death Eater. I talk about it often and long for the days when my ‘Voldermort’ rules.

Part of the problem is the ‘Grammar Bully’ - a phrase coined by Marcus Brigstocke in his episode of ‘Room 101’.  (check it out at: A ‘Grammar Bully’ is someone that sets out to highlight all your mistakes in a condescending manner. You can find them easily on Facebook and Twitter. They lurk waiting to spot the slightest typo or error over homophones.  Everybody assumes I am this kind of person. People often prefix a piece of writing with, ‘there might be a few mistakes’. Or, ‘English is not my strong point.' 

It is true the fear of getting it wrong is too much for people. The hidden rules are there to slip a novice up. Pretend it doesn’t exist and it isn’t a problem. A bit like the ‘Fight Club’. First rule of the Inept Grammar Group: don't mention Inept Grammar Group. My main fear, in my NQT year, was that my lack of knowledge of grammar would trip me up in a big and embarrassing way. I felt that everyone, and anyone, was there to spot my mistakes, so I would do what I was confident and secure with. Only later, did I discover that grammar isn’t only my worry, but many others. My last blog generated a lot of lovely comments on Twitter and people said how they too worried about grammar. I think we should make mistakes and make some more. Then, read and read some more. These two things have helped me to go from Muggle to Death Eater in months. I not only enjoy the Dark Arts – I now embrace it.

Again, I have focused on the sentences for some ideas on how to teach grammatical structures. Some are my own and others are things I have picked up along the way.

Visual Learners
Give students different structures like these to help them vary their sentence construction. It adds the puzzle element to writing, so it is a challenge to do. It takes a lot of thought from the writer.

For example: Mark, a widower, prefers to meet people in clubs. (_____, _____, _____________.)

__________ (___________) ________________; _________________________________ .

__________________________________ :____________________.

_________ -________________________________ .

I tend to pick a page from a novel and draw the sentence out like above and students have to fit that structure. This can range from a simple structure to an incredibly complex one.

Starts and Ends
I can’t stand boring writing that always starts with ‘the’, ‘this’ or ‘it’. It is fine once in a while, but used all the time it can make writing pretty boring. Boring writing is not what we, English teachers, want to see. See what students can do with starting one sentence with the last word from the previous one. One benefit of doing this is that you have some way of building cohesion between sentences in a piece of writing. Writing an example has been tricky so I haven’t bothered, have I?

Comma Cheat
 I am probably going to go to English teacher’s hell for what I am going to tell you:  sometimes, I teach less able students about words that are easily linked to commas. Often students struggle with finding where to place a comma, so I tell them that the following words ‘tend’ to have a comma before them when they are in the middle of a long sentence.

                                ___________,but_______________ .             

___________,so_______________ .

___________,which_______________ .

___________,while _______________ .

I think it is a good starting point for level 2 or 3 writers. Then, later I get them to see where else there might be a pause in a sentence.

I think it is also important to teach the rules of specific words. For several years now I have taught ‘connectives’ in fun and interesting ways. Students have learnt how to use a connective, yet they can get it easily wrong. Take the word ‘however’. I regularly see it used incorrectly, so I think it is important to tell students how to use it correctly.

·         It usually is at the start or end or a sentence, near a comma – However,….. or …., however.

·         Used for parenthesis (or comma sandwiches) …., however,…. .

·         It doesn’t usually start an subordinate clause.

Grammar is about rules, but we have to be explicit about what these rules are.

Comma Splices
This is something that I used to be guilty of in my writing. I got into the habit of placing two sentences next to each other and using a comma instead of a full stop. I got into this habit because I was under the impression, as some students are too, that if you can place an ‘and’ there you could use a comma. Now, with more experience, I realise that you can do that with every single sentence. List them all together with a comma. That is usually why I see students using loads of commas but very few full stops.

I tend to teach students about comma splices and explain to them what they are and how they could solve the problem by using a semicolon or a full stop.  The biggest offending words for this are ‘this’ and ‘it’. I get students to look out for these words and check for punctuation near them.

Passive and Active sentences
Another favourite of mine: I tend to be quite physical with this one. Print the following words on coloured paper: the, man, was, attacked, by, and dog. Each word should be large and be on a different coloured paper. Get students to work out the news story. Then, get them to explore how the news story sounds when the words are reordered. Hopefully students will pick up the different reactions the headings could create. 

The dog attacked the man.  (Active)

The man was attacked by the dog.  (Passive)

Finally, I give students, in groups, other selections of words and get them to have a go at creating new sentences.


Fortunately / Unfortunately
Product Details
Image from
Becoming a dad has helped open up a whole new world of sentences. It is surprising how sophisticated the grammar can be in the most simplistic of stories. For students it is a trip down memory lane. For teachers, they can be a great tool for teaching grammar. Last week I was reading the story ‘Fortunately Unfortunately’ by Michael Foreman. It will make a great little grammar starter for students. I will read a bit of the book and get students to play around with this sentence construction.

Fortunately, I am a teacher. Unfortunately, I have to mark lots of books. Fortunately, I have the holidays. Unfortunately, I might have to spend a lot of that time planning and marking. Fortunately, I have wine.

I could go on and on, but I think you can see how this kind of sentence construction could help students writing non-fiction or fiction. Obviously, they wouldn’t use it for every sentence. Pick up a young children’s picture book and look at the sentence construction on the pages.   


Copy a sentence and make it your own

Pretty simple one this. Copy a large and complicated sentence from a text. Get students to rewrite it but change a few words. Then rewrite it again and change a few more words. Finally, they will have a whole new sentence and feel some ownership for what they have done and, hopefully, they will have internalised the structure of the sentence. If you feel the need to, you can highlight the components they need to change. 

 Looking at what is really happening in a sentence
When looking at horror writing with my Year 8s, I spent some time looking at sentences. I wanted students to analyse sentences in detail and think about how they affect the reader. Sadly, the class were too concerned with feature spotting and failed to spot the actual content of the sentence. They found it difficult to summarise what was going on. Therefore, I had to help them with this, but it made it easier for them to duplicate sentences and their layout.  The sentence in question started with a comment of the narrator’s fear. Then it described something sensory and it ended with a thought.  When students saw this broken down for them,  they were able to create their own sentences.

With fear in my heart, I carried on until a low grumbling noise made me stop and I knew this was the moment to turn back.

Tears poured down my face as I walked on and felt the cobwebs crawl on my skin as if dragging me back to safety.


Modal Verbs
I think that we assume that grammar teaching always has to be a written process but I like students to explore speech too. Students, in pairs, have to give each other some advice. It is better if it is something silly like how to get the best backcombed hairdo.  They have one minute to tell their partner the advice. While they say this advice, the other person ticks off from a small list of modal verbs. They then swap around and the other person has a go. Best if the partner doesn’t know what is being ticked off, so vary the modal verbs they are looking at.  


Starting with a clause
bronze,door knockers,doorknobs,faces,iStockphoto,keyholes,locks,wooden doorsI am too logical with my thinking sometimes so I do experiment with logic and take things from a different perspective. In the past I have always taught sentence structure by working through the different stages: simple, compound and complex. Why not try with a subordinate clause first?  Is that what we want students to write more often?

For example:

                                                                 walking to the door


How could we build that into a sentence?

I noticed the figure, walking to the door.

Walking to the door, I knew then that my whole life depended on this moment.

I felt something there, walking to the door, closer and closer to me.


The same clause created three different sentences. I could change the clause around and change the verb and then students could experiment further.


As luck would have it, I wrote the blog last week and this week I found on my desk an article called ‘Making Meaning with Grammar’ by Debra Myhill, Helen Lines and Annabel Watson. It explores how grammar can be used for teaching fiction, non-fiction and poetry. It looks like I have more Death Eaters to help us crush Goveabore  and release the thing that should never be named into the world.  

Thanks for reading and thanks to @Gwenelope for help and support.  
Xris32 / Snape










Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Joy of Grammar

When I started my PGCE course there was one thing in the course booklet that scared me: an audit of my skills. Tucked under one, comic sans-size 12-heading was ‘Grammar’. The booklet casually asked, smoking a pipe and wearing a cravat, to comment on my confidence and knowledge of grammar. My breath stopped. My skin went pallid and I felt beads of sweat forming on my wrinkled brow. Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on your perspective), I am a product of the 90s education system. English teaching, during that time, threw out books about grammar and focused on other aspects that were more appealing to me, like books.  Fifteen years later, I agonised and panicked and worried some more about answering in the booklet in a negative way. In truth, I could spot pathetic fallacy at a hundred paces, but ask me to find the subjunctive and I would have a mental block and start mumbling about how the simile on line ten is so profound and how it is the turning point of the poem. Literature terminology had always been a ‘get-out’ clause. It had been my ace up the sleeve. My top trump.

During the PGCE course and my NQT year, I’d have a grammar book close to hand.  I would clumsily attempt to teach simple, compound and complex sentences.  Yet, my relationship with grammar was that of a long-distant acquaintance I once met and can’t remember their name or hair colour. It was only when I was thrown in at the deep end that I fell in love with grammar. After two years of teaching English and I was made to teach A-level Language. From then on, I was infatuated and in love. I would gaze into a text and enjoy exploring the adverbial phrases or transitive verbs. Phwoar. It was like a coming of age moment. I saw things in a different way.

Whereas I loved the teaching of English Language at A-level, others feared and detested it. It wasn’t real English teaching in their eyes. It wasn’t students reading a novel and immersing themselves in it. They were right because it is something more. Every text was literature to me now.

Therefore, I am going to just share a few things I use to teach students different grammatical structures.

The ….., …… suitcase
Personally, I think writing poetry is one of the great ways to teach grammar and different grammatical structures. It is usually the repetition of the structure with a slight variation. Isn’t that what all writing is?

Recently, my Year 7 class have been describing walking through an attic, inspired by David Almond’s ‘Skellig’ . As a quick part of a lesson, I got students to explore word choice and impact and expand some noun phrases. I gave them the following structure:

The ____________ (object)

The ____________ , ____________(object)

The ____________, ____________, ____________ (object)

The ____________, ____________ and ____________ (object)

The ____________ (object)

Each line described a different object as they were experimenting with different ways to expand a noun phrase. It made some fun lines of description, fun bits of poetry and some ready made phrases for their writing.  

Here's an example:

The antique mirror
The decrepit, dull, dusty painting
The overflowing, battered and lonely suitcase
The abandoned pile of magazines

Under the …..
Type into Google ‘spot the difference’ and you’ll find loads of quick ready made starters of ‘spot the difference’ and a great way to teach prepositions or sentences that start with a preposition.

I tend to start a lesson with a spot the difference. Students spend a little time thinking of where the differences are. Introduce prepositions. Students have to tell me where the differences are by using a preposition. Then, I show them a new ‘spot the difference’ and they have to write the differences down using a preposition at the start of each sentence.

Under the teacher’s nose there is a fly.


If…, then
I tend to use ‘Simon Says’ to teach conditional sentences. I model first for them. Get them to do different activities based on a number of physical features. If you have short hair, stick your fingers in your ears. If you have green eyes, sit down. Then, I get them to write five of their own for another game of ‘Simon Says’.


The more …., the more
This is one of my fun lessons and it is quite simple really. I adapted it from a lesson about punctuation use in a Teachers’ TV video (RIP). It is all about exposing students to a large number of different grammatical structures at once. It helps them to create varied writing and uses a range of sentences for impact.  I tend to use it for drafting creative writing, and, even some bits of non-fiction. It is one of those lessons where students do all the work and they end up retaining quite a lot of sentences structure.

First, you prepare by writing down 15 – 20 different types of sentence structure on A3 sheets of paper. The more varied the better. I tend to jot down interesting sentences, whenever I find one. Then, you place the sheets around the classroom. ‘Writing Exciting Sentences’ by Alan Peat has helped me with examples.  Students have to write a sample sentence using that sentence as a template. As soon as they have written one, they move on to another sentence. At the end of the lesson, I get students to recall as many of the different sentence types. It helps if there is clear name for the sentence structure like ‘personification sentence’ or ‘preposition start sentence’. It is amazing how many they recall, which they can attempt to use in their writing.

Another way I use this is to create a piece of writing that has a clear function. For example, this week I used it for pairs to make a creepy setting. Students had to move around the stations and create a sentence to fit in with the description. Each sentence is varied and each sentence differs from the last.

Oustide….. ; inside
Feeding a sentence a time is another way to make grammar more interesting. When writing, I sometimes have a PowerPoint with lots of slides showing different sentences. Students are to then include that kind of sentence at that moment in their writing.

Statement / Exclamation / Command / Question
Students have four bits of paper and on each one they have statement, exclamation, command or question written on it. The only utterance they can make that lesson is one of those four things. As they use a question, they turn over their paper to show they have used it. It makes for hilarious results as students try to ask for something without it being a question. You might get a student interjecting and exclaiming they are stuck. Or, commanding you to help them.

Grammar Bets / Battleship Grammar
This I got from a friend of a friend and it has been brilliant starter, plenary or something in the middle ever since.  Simply write down 10 sentences down, making sure that each sentence is either grammatically correct or not. Students have to bet whether the sentence is correct or not. They start with an imaginary £5 and bet on the first line. When they have placed their bets, you then ask them for the answer. You do this line by line with students.

I love Battleships but this takes a whole lesson to do. Give each student a grid. They mark down some boats and battleships. Using a very big PowerPoint, students take it in turns to spot mistakes in a sentence. If they spot more than one, then they have more than one missile.

By the way, I am a pacifist and abhor betting, but I love grammar. 

Yoda and George Bush
These two ‘characters’ were invented for grammar lessons. Yoda’s syntax is fun to experiment and play with. Get students to unjumble his sentences to explore how sentences are formed and structured.

"When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good, you will not, hmmm?" Yoda

Type in ‘Bushisms’ in Google and you will get some hilarious mistakes in grammar. Copy and paste and you have an excellent starter. Or, focus on one at a time and you have a simple grammar lesson. Use them as a starting point for further exploration of grammar.
"Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" George Bush 


As an NQT I would spend ages on teaching students about simple, compound and complex sentences. Some would get it; others wouldn’t. What I didn’t get in my first year of teaching was how much more there is to teaching grammar. The National Literacy Strategy, I feel, was very reductive. A lot of teachers taught students what a complex sentence was, yet very few could write a really effective one. I think we should teach grammar that is explicit, but not in a reductive way. I’d rather have a student comment on a conditional sentence than a compound sentence, as there is so much more than you can say about it. A conditional sentence offers the reader an option. A conditional sentence can give you a consequence to your actions. A compound sentence can ….um…um….it – it just adds things together.

Now, I know there is much more to grammar than sentences and sentence structure, but I think it is a good starting point with NQT teachers and PGCE students. For pupils, sentences are the building blocks of the main construction. They are the most important things. And like the infamous book this blog’s title it is alluding to, there are so many different positions and options.  Each one brings a different joy.


Sunday, 7 October 2012

The B-Factor and a spoon full of sugar

This is boring. Three words I can‘t stand being linked together. As a child, I may have even articulated these words together, but, as an adult, a parent and a teacher, I find these three words frustrating and galling. Doing such and such is so boring?  I hate doing blah blah as it is boring. As a teacher, I constantly look for ‘fun’ ways to teach certain aspects of the curriculum. Students often, when questioned and interviewed, want ‘fun’ lessons. Yet, I think this notion of ‘fun’ is a questionable one. Shouldn’t we, as teachers, teach the idea that learning is hard, difficult and occasionally boring at times?

Some students have a complex understanding of success and often they see images of people achieving instant success on reality shows and programmes like ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ or ‘The X-Factor’. The hard work is hidden from audiences. The VT shows a week’s worth of blood and sweat reduced to a soundbite of 10 seconds. We see the trauma of the press reaction or a nasty comment from someone on Twitter but a lot is missing. Where’s the boredom of learning lines? Where’s the boredom of going through the same dance movement over and over again? What they, and we, see is the polished sugary niceness of the performance. It looks effortless. It looks like they have only practised it once, but they have a ‘natural’ talent for performing, when in reality it has taken much more effort. Maybe we need to see the effort that people put behind work and learning.   

Before you start thinking that I am a draconian, tweed-wearing, coffee-breathing stuffy dinosaur of education past, listen to some of these thoughts. Why do some students find revision difficult?  It might be their inability to work independently, or it might be that it is hard to make revising knowledge fun. Why do some students struggle with the leap between GCSE and A-level? It might be that they lack the skills necessary, or it could be their expectations of learning – they think things will be fun and engaging as they always have been in KS3 and KS4. Why do some students struggle at university? It could be that they chose the wrong course, or it could be that the learning isn’t tailored for their interests, but for academic success.

Now, some of these points might be leaps of imagination, on my part, but I do feel that we have a duty to prepare students for life and work. I love teaching, but there are some tough bits, and, occasionally, some dull bits - I am not complaining, honestly. Every job I have had has been the same; some good bits and some dull boring stuff. Real life can be, well, a tad bit boring too. I am not advocating that we sit students on a chair and role play sitting on counter waiting for your shift to finish in three hours, but I think we have to be honest about life and learning. It is not all tap dancing, sunshine and smiles – what do you mean that doesn’t sound like your life?

DSC00240.jpgOne of my best experiences in school, as a student, was very dull, when I think of it. I spent a whole week translating line by line Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’, including the prologue.  I have kept the exercise book because I am so proud of it. It’s full of mistakes and it makes my marking hand twitch, but I loved the whole process. It was painstaking; it was frustrating; it was backbreaking; it was boring. It worked for me and it helped me prepare for university. It showed me how I could achieve something if I worked hard at it. Now, I could have had an experience where I had a section involving laminated cards, a small video, a presentation and a quick word search, but I don’t think I would have got under the skin of the text. I engaged with the language and story in way that, I feel, I couldn't have got any other way. It prepared me for working through Shakespeare plays line by line and Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’. How I ‘get a text’ now is to trawl through it line by line. If only I understood this before: I thought I could watch the video of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and read a few extracts and that would help me with my A-levels – it didn’t.

It is not just teaching that is affected by this cultural shift. How many channels on TV do we have now? Click. I remember the days of four channels. Click. Now we have an endless amount of things to watch a click away. Click. Click. Click. Also, the film ‘Avengers Assembled’ typifies this notion towards boredom and a short attention span.  Bloody great film, but every five minutes it has an action scene or some special effect to make sure you don’t nod off. Compare it with Richard Donner’s sublime ‘Superman’ 70s film and you see a big difference. There are lots of lengthy characters building dialogue scenes it it and the action and special effects tend to be in the background. It is as if CGI is the film equivalent of Ritalin. It stops the audience from misbehaving and moving out of their seats.  It isn’t just films; it’s also TV. Look at a new episode of Doctor Who and you’ll notice the pace of things is phenomenal. You barely have time to notice the plot as one thing happens after another in quick succession.

Where does it leave us teachers? The B Factor or The Boredom Factor. Personally, I think that we have to actively work with students to give them a variety of things. However, I think we should be honest about what learning is: it is hard, difficult and boring. It takes effort, thought and willpower. We shouldn’t propagate the myth that ‘learning is fun and easy’.  A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down. A spoon full of sugar goes together perfectly with a spoon full of nasty, yucky medicine. Maybe, we need to balance the sugar with the medicine. Not every aspect of teaching can be sugary. Some of it needs to be medicine, but we need to be clear about that. You might think this is a heavily disguised attempt to promote chalk and talk teaching and death by textbook lessons – I am not. I just feel that we need to have a balance in our teaching and that the students need to know that the sugar isn’t the main part of learning and how the medicine is the most important part of what we offer. The fix. The cure. The source of their improvement.

I am not sponsoring a Pepsi Zero approach. A sugarless experience. We need lessons to be ‘fun’ at times to hook students in, but it is the spoon of medicine after the fun that is the most important thing as it is challenging, thought-provoking, demanding, effective and occasionally boring.

Right, I  am bored of this and I have some flashcards to laminate, an interpretive dance of 'Of Mice and Men' to prepare and a joke about subordinate clauses to write. Oh, and I am off to find a more interesting blog….

Thanks to @Gwenelope again for editing duties.