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I’ve just finished another Dragons’ Den session with my lovely yr 11 and I’ve had a ball!
It’s a wonderful way to spend lesson time as it gives me a chance to listen to some of the most able students of the year simply speaking. It’s also a brilliant way to assess Speaking and Listening skills as it fulfils all of the necessary criteria for that element of the syllabus.
As usual, some of the students absolutely shine at this exercise and none more than R, who earlier had moved me with his wonderful autobiographical piece on Crossroads (see article by same name).
R’s proposition for the 4 dragons was…wait for it…a pencil case!
O—K I hear you say, so what is so inventive about a pencil case? My thoughts exactly.
For about 5 seconds.
R began his pitch by asking for the Dragons’ indulgence (at this point he stuck a picture of theTARDIS on the board!) as he wanted to take them back to about 1780 something to the time when the pencil was invented.
Having transported us back, he then began the funniest, the most well prepared and polished performance I’ve seen in a long time. He kept us all entranced with his clever manipulation of language and ideas and he fulfilled all the criteria for the highest grade possible.
When R joined my class back at the beginning of yr 10, he was quiet, self-effacing and very unsure of himself. Over time his work became more assured and finally, this year, after telling me repeatedly that he couldn’t do it, and me repeatedly telling him that he could, he said to me only a few weeks ago that he now felt that he could ‘do’ English. This came about when he had made a really stupid error in his mock GCSEs. He didn’t read the question and consequently lost loads of marks. Far from being devastated by his error, which a few months ago he would have been, he came to find me and greeted me with, “Miss, I’ve been a complete plonker.”
When he explained what he had done, before I could say anything other than agree that yes, he was a plonker, he said, with a grin, “Well I won’t do that again will I? And isn’t it a good thing I did it now and not in the summer?”
All I could do was smile and agree. What a difference a few months make! Back at the beginning of yr 10, such an error would have devastated him. Now, he could put it into perspective, see it as a learning experience and, more importantly I feel, he could come and find me, without fear and know it wasn’t the end of the world.
So when R wrote about his Crossroads and told us all about ‘his’ invention of the pencil case, I joined in with the class’ delighted laughter, but also sent up a silent prayer of thanks for letting R see his own potential.
And achieve it.
Before Christmas I gave my lovely yr 11 group and essay to do over the holidays. The title of this opus was to be “Crossroads.”
I wanted the students to think about their own lives, so I told them that they could either write a story about literal crossroads or to think of crossroads as a metaphor for something significant that had affected their lives. I wanted the thinkers of the class to follow the metaphor route so I spent a lesson telling them a story about how a particular series of events formed a crossroads in my own life that made me think differently about things. I then left them to it.
Gradually over the first few days of term the work began to trickle in, but owing to the immense pressure of yr 13 A level moderation I didn’t look at them immediately. Then yesterday I read a story by one of the sweetest natured boys in the group.
It was a story about a young boy who loved to dance. It was his whole life.
“Uh oh,” I thought, “Billy Elliot rip-off.”
But as I read, I realised that this wasn’t that story at all. Yes, there were similarities. But the insidious kind of bullying inflicted on the protagonist by his ‘friends’ was far too real to be fiction. As I read, I knew that I was reading something very special. I struggled to read the story. Not because it was badly written, quite the opposite in fact. It was the gut – wrenching honesty that stopped me. It was intensely painful to read.
A colleague, seeing me repeatedly put down the essay and sigh, asked me what the problem was. I told her that I was sure that what I was reading wasn’t fiction. She asked how I could be so sure so I explained that the kind of honesty in the work couldn’t be faked and that my instincts told me that it was real.
In the next lesson, I gave my student his work back and said quietly to him, “Real?” He nodded and said that he’d changed the names to “protect the innocent (!)” and that it was drama, not dance.
I asked him if things were better now and he smiled reassuringly and the girl sitting next to him linked her arm through his and said, “Of course, he’s got us now…”
I went back to my desk and watched him as he chatted happily to his friend, who I could hear was telling him how great he was. I had to swallow hard as I opened my register.
When he stood, later in the lesson to make a presentation to the class (more of this later), and held his colleagues’ in the palm of his hand, I knew that this boy had done more than beat the bullies, he’d conquered his demons and won
Well, after a long absence (brought about by the frustration of having to close my comments section owing to some moron sending a spam bomb that contaminated my site with obscenities) I’m back.
I have a student in my year 13 class who is both delightful and clever. Over the last twelve months or so he has developed not only a wonderful appreciation of literature, but also an absolutely lovely writing style. However, despite having a wonderful, insightful grasp of literature, he has a blind spot when it comes to language analysis. He understands it, when answering questions in class, he can do it orally, but when it comes to writing it down…that’s another matter. In fact, this student has to resit part of his literature exam as he forgot to include any language analysis in his last attempt. I read his essay when his paper was recalled and it was a good essay, but completely lacking in the analysis area.
Over the intervening months the situation improved, then all of a sudden it started again. All these wonderful, insightful essays, beautifully crafted, but with no analysis of language or structure. Only ideas.
Tomorrow is the re-sit.
An essay arrived yesterday. Beautiful work. Elegant and articulate. Ideas clearly understood. Beautifully conceptualised. No analysis…I could have wept.
We went over the essay with a fine tooth comb. He could see what was lacking. So I asked him why he didn’t write down the analysis and he simply shrugged and said that he didn’t know.
I pointed out that it didn’t make sense as he can do the analysis on Shakespeare, so why couldn’t he transfer the skills across to the Wilde play. (His problem is analysing Wilde’s language).
We spent an hour analysing sections of the play and he went away saying he would work on it.
I have to admit that I felt quite depressed about the whole thing. He’s one of my best and nicest pupils and I could see him not achieving his expected A grade because of this blind spot.
So I found a few lines from the play (a snippet of conversation between two of the female characters discussing the notion of women as property) and wrote out an analysis of Wilde’s use of the word ‘property’. ( It’s all to do with the frequency of the word – four times in as many lines, the alliteration of the words that accompany it, its position in the sentence etc.) and sent it to him.
This morning, he turned up in the English office. He had with him a sheet of paper on which he had written down some ten or twelve extracts from the play, each one accompanied by a paragraph about them.
The first one was, in his own words, “a bit pants Miss.” But as I read down the page I could see that he was beginning to understand the analysis element required, and each successive extract was more closely analysed than its predecessor.
His final choice was simply one line followed by the question, “Inversion?”
“Explain,” I said. So he did. Was the sentence he’d chosen an example of Wilde turning conventional ideas on their heads to make a point?
“Go on,” I said, helpful as ever. He went on to explain that he believed that Wilde had deliberately inverted a statement to create unexpected humour which actually drew attention to what was a serious point… and then came the crunch… and the inversion was created by leaving out a specific word (in this case ‘not’) and that one omission completely altered and undermined the contemporary attitudes of Edwardian England…
At that point, I handed back the sheet of paper and smiled. He’d got it.
The point of this story is not that this student finally grasped a specific technique at the very last minute. No, the point is that rather than shrug his shoulders and decide that he wasn’t going to get it in time and that he’d have to settle for a B, he went away and spent an entire evening struggling to get on top of the thing that was preventing him from acing the topic. He wasn’t going to ‘just make do’. And when he’d spent his last evening doing what he called a ‘blitzkrieg’ on analysis, he then came searching for me, found out when I was free and made damn sure that he wasn’t leaving until he’d spent another hour with Oscar and me. Now that’s dedication.
And that’s another reason why we do it.
Here we are, back at school at the beginning of the autumn term and the first thing that we all did was look at the exam results. I had to find out what Princess had achieved. She got a D in English. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed. After the way she had disrupted my lessons last year, I have to admit that I hoped she’d fail. Petty I know, but the fact that she managed to get an English grade at all after the way she deliberately sabotaged others’ learning left me with a nasty taste in my mouth. So I checked the other student’s grades.
They had all reached or exceeded their target grades.
I was astonished. My poor students, who had put up with Princess’ appalling behaviour, language and attitude for two years had succeeded. They had done well, despite Princess.
I felt a warm glow.
My fears for them had been unfounded. Despite her arrogance and foul mouthed insults, they’d proved themselves better than her.
Well done. All of you, especially Loz (see article of same title) who despite his severe learning difficulties, got two Ds. That’s truly amazing.
My lovely soldier boy got the two Cs he needed to take the next step on his path to be a soldier.
As for Princess’ former partner in crime, she proved that she had truly outgrown her desk mate. She got an A!
Looking back over the last two years, remembering the appalling sabotage deliberately perpetrated on my lessons, I am truly amazed at the success of the class. It gives me hope for the future as it demonstrated that one student might do a lot of damage, but the rest of the class, given the chance, will rise above it.
So I raise my glass of Australian red to you all.
Congratulations to you all and good luck.
It was the end of term. I was tired. The kids were tired. Then my head of department announced that for the purpose of professional development, one of my lessons would have to be observed.
Oh joy! No teacher, however experienced, likes to be observed, as despite the fact that I have a brilliant, supportive and immensely sympathetic head of department, we, as teachers always tend to feel that whoever is watching us is looking for faults. I know this is paranoia, but every teacher knows the feeling.
Anyway, to get back to the end of term. I pointed out that nearly all of my classes were examination classes, so they’d all gone. The only feasable class was the penultimate lesson of the year with my year 10 group.
Earlier on in the term, I’d used the wit of Eddie Izzard in one of my lessons. (It was one of my oral lessons showing the kids how stand up comics work, and the fact that a really polished performance requires rehearsal and preparation. That something that appears off-the-cuff actually isn’t) I’d come to a sort of agreement that I would show more of the vid and some of Bill Bailey’s ramblings as an end of term treat.
Now this is an extremely bright class so I had few anxieties about their behaviour in this observed lesson, and I also knew that I could count on them to help out if things got boring. But I also had my promise to keep. How to combine Izzard and Bailey in a whizz bang lesson when I and the kids were shattered.
I thought long and hard, had discussions with my daughter(who is an expert on the two comics) and came up with the rather grand title of “The Evolution of the Fool” for my lesson. Its grandiose tone amused me and I knew that my head of department would also be tickled by it.
What I did was choose some of the more famous Fools from Shakespeare such as The Porter from Macbeth, Bottom from Midsummer Night’s Dream and a few others; selected lines from their speeches ( the ones that use humour to underline something serious), then chose extracts from one of Izzard and Bailey’s stage shows (Izzard’s hysterical musings on the nature of evil using the notion of an evil giraffe, and Bailey’s funny but deeply insightful comments on fox hunting). I presented the class with the extracts having first listed the duties of the Fool as suggested in a fascinating book about the Corporate Fool. I told them that I wanted to see if there was any link between modern comics and the Shakespearean Fool, and whether the modern comics also fulfilled the role of the Fool.
For a few moments that felt like hours I thought they wouldn’t get it. Then one of the girls, almost leaping out of her seat in excitement yelled, “I get it!”
“What do you get?” I asked, fingers crossed.
“They’re doing the same thing!” she shouted. “Bottom, the porter and the other chap, they’re doing the same thing as Izzard and Bailey, they’re making us laugh, but what they’re really doing is making us think about something pretty major, so it’s like teaching the listener something really important…”
She’d got it. I glanced around the class and saw them nodding in agreement as they read through their transcripts and seeing what she was getting at.
I cast a surreptitious glance at my head of department, who was grinning widely and nodding her head.
Needless to say, I was delighted with the way the lesson turned out and immensely grateful for my wonderfully insightful student.
Before I actually taught the lesson, I wondered if the ideas I had were weird and the product of a tired mind, but the lesson worked like a dream and my class understood something important about the nature of humour and about its use as a powerful weapon for truth.
The tradition of the Fool exists still in the ramblings of comics like Izzard and Bailey. Humour is a powerful weapon and a wonderful tool for teaching. As teachers, it is something we would do well to heed and as the next academic year lumbers inexorably towards us, it’s somtheing I intend to remember.
I’ve been teaching my Yr 12 Literature group Oscar Wilde’s ‘A Woman of No Importance.’
It’s not his best play or the most well known. But it’s clever and it’s funny and an awful lot of
Wilde’s famous one-liners seem to come from it.
The class generally like the play. It’s easy to read and the wit is sparkling and biting. However, I have one student who is convinced that the play has a gay subtext. This weird idea rose from the fact that she learned that Wilde was gay. To prove her point she showed me an extract of the play which she claims a gay friend of hers told her was proof of the play being full of homosexual subtexts. The extract she showed me was of Lord Illingworth (main character) speaking about the power of women and that to get on in society, a man needed their support.
This apparently is a gay sentiment.
When I pointed out that it was actually simply a very insightful and intelligent comment and that Victoria was Queen at the time, she simply told me that I was missing the point!
When I then suggested that in order to understand the play that she needed to get past
Wilde’s sexuality, she told me that I shouldn’t have told her that he was gay!
When I reminded her that this information was actually in the introduction of the text and that anyone studying Wilde would discover that particularly well-known fact about him.
She then said that knowing this affected the way one looked at the play.
So I asked her if knowing that Dylan Thomas spent most of his adult life in an alcoholic haze affected the way one looked at his work. Or did the fact that he was a drunk mean that everything he wrote had a ‘drunk’ subtext? She gave me a very funny look. Of course not, she said. Why not? Because it’s different.
I don’t believe that this girl is homophobic, what she has done is to focus closely on one thing. The result of this is that she has lost perspective on the play.
So I spent two hours last week in an after-school session with her discussing the themes about which Wilde is writing, to get her to regain that perspective and to stop her panicking.
After about an hour and forty-five minutes, she suddenly said, “It’s all linked!”
“What is?” I asked.
“Everything,” she replied. “All the themes are linked. His comments on men and women, politics, hypocrisy, honour, morality….the lot. They’re all linked.”
I cheered; because of course she was right.
What she had done was de-focus. She’d pulled back from this narrow point on which she had focused all her attention and the moment that she had done that, the whole play became clear. She was suddenly able to see the play as a whole. She was able to see that the fact that Wilde was gay was really pretty irrelevant when looking at the point he was making in the play.
It was as if a dark cloud had lifted. She was suddenly smiling as she had finally got past the intellectual block that was blighting her view of Wilde’s work.
I was mightily relieved I can tell you as it’s only a couple of weeks until the ASs!
But then, better late than never I suppose!
I’ve been teaching my difficult Yr 9 group Much Ado for their SATS. It’s a lovely play and even the less able seem to be able to access the story.
But when it comes to understanding the language, it’s another matter.
They really seem to have a problem when it comes to reading Shakespeare’s verse.
These days I ignore the brain dead comments about it not being written in English as I’ve heard them too often and logic doesn’t work on thirteen year olds. However, I decided that I would show them that the language hasn’t changed that much by showing them the most recent BBC version of Much Ado.
It’s an interesting version with a stellar cast and set in a regional news studio. It’s very well acted and the inclusion of Billy Piper (of Dr Who fame) is an added bonus for the hormonal boys.
They found it hysterically funny. It’s a long time since I heard this class laughing out loud at the Bard’s jokes. And despite the modern setting, they were the Bard’s jokes.
I also noticed that they, particularly the girls, were moved to silence by the scene when
Beatrice asks Benedick (Benedict in this version) to kill Claudio (Claude here). Having only recently read the text and also watched Kenneth Branagh’s superb version of the play, they understood the power of the scene.
I’ve heard and read too many criticisms of late of modernizing or even (Heaven forbid!) ‘dumbing down’ of Shakespeare, but to any experienced teacher of the Bard, such versions are invaluable. They don’t take the place of the real thing, but they are a means for less able students to access a part of their culture that otherwise they might dismiss as either irrelevant (‘come on miss he’s been dead for four hundred years!’) or incomprehensible.
Shakespeare wrote for the masses, so surely making the Bard accessible to only the able elite is wrong?
I have a singularly difficult year 9 group this year. As my previous group (mentioned in several entries) was so astonishingly good, finding myself landed with this lot was a bit of a shock to the system. Basically, the problem lies in the fact that about 75% of the class see no reason that they should learn anything and can’t see why the other 25% should want, or be allowed to learn. So it’s been quite difficult. However, the other day I decided that rather than slavishly follow the syllabus I would do something different.
I’ve mentioned before that I have a passion for Sherlock Holmes and regularly attempt to get students to see what I see in the famous consulting detective. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Anyway, I decided that I’d dig out old Sherlock again and attempt to get this year 9 group to read some short stories.
I began with The Crooked Man.
Having opened the lesson with a reminder of who Sherlock and his creator Conan-Doyle were, I began to read. I read as far as the section when Holmes fills Watson in on the details of the case: the murder of Colonel Barclay. This story has all the elements of a classic mystery right down to the murder occurring in a locked room with the key missing…
When I got to this part of the story, I got the class to call out bits of information that they had about the crime and the suspects (at this point the main suspect is the wife). I wrote the information on the board so that it looked as if it were happening in a police briefing room. It was interesting to note who had picked up on the most relevant info…not the brightest kids, but the ones who had learning problems and actually listen to stories. The lesson ended at this point as the bell rang. It was gratifying to see the kids reluctant to put away the books, as they wanted to know what happened next.
The idea behind reading Sherlock Holmes is not only to show them that pre 20th Century literature is actually quite accessible, that the maverick detective and his faithful sidekick are not a recent invention, but also to teach them inference and deduction…something at which old Sherlock himself excelled.
I don’t know how long this class’s interest will hold, but with the help of Jeremy Brett’s singularly accurate and brilliant portrayal of the detective (Granada TV’s wonderful series) I hope they learn something useful…and (I can’t resist it!) “Elementary.”
On Tuesdays I see my year 10 class twice in one day. With any other class this would probably be a chore, but with this group, it’s a real pleasure.
I’d made an agreement with them at the start of the year that in order to make this more interesting we would spend the second of our two lessons talking…or at least doing oral work. I’d told them a few weeks ago, that if they so chose, one individual each session would have the chance to do an impromptu talk, a stand-up or a rant. Anything they liked in fact.
Today, the lesson began with an incredibly impassioned rant by a very articulate fourteen-year-old against pornography and its degrading of men as well as women. I’ve taught this girl for two years but even I was impressed by her articulate argument.
Then we moved on to the main part of the lesson. I divided the class into small groups then gave each group a poem from their poetry anthologies to analyse. These were not poems that they had seen before and I wanted to see how much they could manage without my help.
There was no complaint, they simply got on with it. I wandered around listening to their discussions offering the occasional remark if I was asked. It was absolutely fascinating. There was no casual chat, every student was completely focused on the poetry. The comments varied from, “So Miss, we can’t decide if this woman Salome is a serial killer or a sex addict…the line about the sticky red sheets could mean either…” Or in response to a specific question, “If you take away someone’s title, then they lose part of their identity…is that why Havisham isn’t called ‘Miss’?” It was a real eye-opener. The buzz was amazing. They were really exploring poetry, throwing ideas at each other, questioning thoughts and really getting into the poems. They were doing it in a way that I recognised. It was the way that I teach. It was both gratifying and humbling.
The plan is that each group will report back to the rest of the class and I will fill in any gaps.
From what I overheard, the kids understood the ideas in the poems. (They also showed that they were intrinsically kind and generous in their thinking, as each student seemed to want to think the best of the different persona adopted in the poems, most of whom are actually psychopathic nutters!)
When each group has reported back to the class with their findings my job will be to complete their findings and make sure that they appreciate the poetic techniques used.
This was an experiment on my part. I wanted to see if what I’d taught them about analysis had worked.
It’s early days, but I think, (or hope!) it has.
Today I returned to the Dragon’s Den. Last year, with my previous year 11 group I tried out a speaking and listening exercise based on the TV programme ‘Dragon’s Den’. As mentioned before (‘In the Dragon’s Den’) it worked like a dream, so I decided I’d have another go with this year’s lot. I have to admit that I wasn’t too optimistic, as this year’s group is very different from their earlier counterparts.
About a month ago, I explained to the class what was expected of them (that they think about something imaginary that they could claim to have invented so they could make a presentation about it to selected ‘dragons’). Needless to say, the majority hadn’t given it a second thought. So when I started the lesson today, my hopes weren’t particularly high.
The first speaker wasn’t a disaster. He’d clearly thought about it, and although not particularly well thought out, I was pleasantly surprised. I’d carefully chosen the first team of Dragons, ensuring that at least one of them was articulate and kind. I’d done this to ensure that there would be one person who would hold the team together and be generous enough to encourage the ‘presenter’ to speak, thus ensuring that a possibly reticent speaker would get some reasonable marks as they responded to his questioning. However, although the first speaker was quite good, the second was spectacular.
The boy who spoke next is a boy soldier. Although still only about sixteen he stands tall (hands behind his back, military fashion) and speaks with authority. He’s an astonishingly charismatic speaker and when he gets to his feet, people (including me) listen.
His choice of invention was a new type of waterproof sock! His ideas were imaginative and his delivery assured and hysterically funny. I haven’t laughed so much in class for ages. His presentation fulfilled all the criteria for the top of the highest grade – and he hasn’t had his turn to acquire marks as a Dragon yet!
When the lesson ended, I had a huge grin on my face, as I hadn’t enjoyed a lesson so much with this class since Princess returned. It gave me hope. Hope for those in my class who want to get good grades and in particular for my boy soldier. He’ll make a wonderful adult.