Archive page 3
Blog continues at: http://inspirationalteaching.org
This is the 2006 to April 2009 archive of the blog of Eleri Straker, teacher of children and English. I want my students to truly appreciate literature -- for life. Inspirational Teaching means seeking to inspire students to love the subject first rather than just teaching them to pass exams.
Term has begun. In the same way that it finished. With Princess opening her big mouth. Again.
My first lesson of the term was with my year 11 class with Princess back on the throne. In order to force the class to face up to the fact that many of them are very short on course work I got them to sort out their work folders and to list and tick off completed work. It had the desired effect and panic reigned.
The amusing bit though was Princess’ reaction. She claimed boldly that she had four complete pieces. When I pointed out that this, in fact, was not the case she reminded me of the pieces she’d handed in before she had been excluded (mentioned in ‘Same old, same old’).
When I reminded her that we’d already discussed the fact that her work was plagiarised…she admitted that one was (well, it’s a start), but the other one was her own. So I told her that I’d found the site that she’d used and she told me that I couldn’t have. I asked her if she was calling me a liar and she said that Yes! She was!
I stayed very calm and told her exactly what she had done: found a website, down loaded bits of it, then changed the occasional word. I explained that if I could identify the site, it hadn’t been altered enough and was therefore unacceptable and still plagiarism.
She tossed her head then and said that she expected me now to help her write the coursework! So I calmly pointed out that not only had she not written anything with which I could help her, she had also publicly called me a liar…in front of the whole class. Her response was a shrug and “So?”
I had told the class that after Christmas I would spend time after school with students who wanted to raise their grades. Quite a few were keen to take me up on my offer as they have realised that they need to if they are to pass their exams in the summer. The only condition I placed on this was that the students had to have completed the pieces they wanted improved and that I’d already marked them and given them a provisional grade. I explained that as I had already taught the various texts and had no intention of doing it again, my purpose was to help those willing to work. Seemed reasonable to me and the rest of the class. But not to Princess. Her idea of ‘help’ is for me to do the work and for her to claim it as all her own.
When her friend said that she needed to improve her essay on Sherlock Holmes, Princess declared airily that she hadn’t read the book (or any other book we’ve studied). So I suggested that a good starting point might be for her to spend the weekend reading it. She told me that she had a life and was too busy.
Today was my first after school tutorial sessions. Guess who didn’t turn up.
Next week, Princess returns to the fold.
She was excluded for twenty days for some stupidity or other and teaching the remaining members of my year 11 class has been an actual pleasure.
During Princess’ absence, it has been possible to teach properly. The atmosphere in the classroom has changed. There has been good-natured banter and real learning going on. Over one week, we have managed to review the entire collection of literature poetry for the Mock GCSEs. With Princess present, to get through one poem in a lesson was deemed a success. Students that I believed were the same as Princess, as they seemed equally disruptive, without the poisonous presence of the Chav, have shown themselves to be thoughtful and bright. In fact, Princess’ partner in crime in the lessons settled down to work and achieved a decent B in the Mocks, something that I hadn’t believed possible before.
Over the last eighteen months or so, I have dreaded every lesson with this class, believing that they didn’t want to learn, and that they just wanted to make life as difficult as possible for those of us who were trying to work. Over the last twenty days I’ve learned that the majority of the class actually want to learn and quite enjoy being with me.
Isn’t it sad that one student can be such a destructive force in a class?
What I’m hoping is that the remaining members of the class have noticed the difference both in atmosphere and learning and want this new, pleasant environment to continue. If that is the case, then I hope that it will be they, not I, that force Princess to change her ways.
Peer pressure is often regarded as potentially harmful. This is one time that I hope it will have the opposite effect.
Today I had my eyes opened.
I was teaching my mixed ability year 9 group (and boy, are they mixed ability!)
We’re in the process of studying Much Ado about Nothing and we were reading one of Benedick’s speeches where he swears that he would not marry Beatrice even if she were the last woman on earth. Actually what he says is that he wouldn’t marry her even if she had inherited everything that Adam had owned before he was kicked out of Paradise. Before I moved on I casually asked the class to tell me who Adam was. If there were a pin to be dropped, you’d have heard it. So I looked up and repeated the question, thinking, “Surely not…” But yes. Not one of them knew about Adam and Eve.
I know that church attendance has dropped radically, but surely they must have been told SOME basic Bible stories when they were little? I mean, they do have RE lessons after all. But I was wrong. None of them knew the story, so I told them the tale and because my curiosity had been piqued I said casually, “So if you betray someone…you’ll understand why you might be called Judas?” Blank stares all around. Actually, one girl said that she knew the story and proceeded to tell it. It wasn’t completely accurate, but it was close enough. When she’d finished, someone asked her how she knew, so I suggested that perhaps she might possibly have listened to someone or even, heavens forbid, read a book!
As a basic knowledge of biblical stories is fundamental to the understanding of a huge part of English literature, I asked a few more questions: like what was the significance of 30 pieces of silver, or the crucifixion or the Serpent or Easter…Talk about being a stranger in a strange land! You’d think I’d been speaking Arabic! All the stories that I assumed they knew something about meant nothing at all to them. In fact, one boy even suggested that wasn’t it an amazingly useful coincidence that Jesus had had the foresight to be born on December 25 and to die at Easter…And he wasn’t joking!
When I tell classes these stories, I’m always asked if I’m very religious, a question that I find intriguing. I’m actually just well read. True, I did have a chapel upbringing and you can’t grow up in North Wales and not go to Sunday School occasionally. But that’s not the point. The real point is that to understand the greats of English literature… or even some of the not so greats, you have to have a grounding in religious texts, simply because so many writers draw upon religious symbolism and mythology to create their work. And if you aren’t familiar with the basic stuff, you won’t understand the complex stuff.
So this brings me to my question. What do students learn in RE lessons? I know that they learn about something called “comparative religions”, but surely, if they don’t know even the basics of the religion that is supposed to be the religion of this country, how can they make comparisons? How can we consider ourselves a civilised, educated society if our children are brought up ignorant of the faith and beliefs that stimulated some of the greatest creative minds ever? I’m at a loss to understand.
Anyway, as for the title of this blog, it’s an old verse I was taught when I was little that goes something like this:
Adam and Eve and PinchMe
Went down to the river to bathe…
Then it gets silly.
Your comments... 
Today I was showing my year 10 how to write a film review and as my source material, I used reviews of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film from two different film magazines. My intention was to show them two reviews with very different opinions of the same film. I had introduced them to the notion of an audience, that each review was aimed, and consequently written in differing styles for different readers.
They were highly amused by the cleverly witty commentary from the niche market magazine SFX (whose views they approved of) and slightly irritated by the views presented in Empire that suggested that the film was not as brilliant as they thought it was. Of course, whether or not they agreed with the views expressed in the reviews was not the issue. They soon twigged that it was the language that made the articles interesting. Or, not so much the language as the way language was used. Being a very bright class, they quickly spotted the piratical metaphors used in the SFX review. But one boy, watching me struggle with a particularly long and convoluted sentence in the Empire review, suggested that perhaps I was meant to find it difficult. He argued that as the magazine editor would surely have improved on the awful sentence that I’d just read out…it might have been deliberately bad. He argued that it was possible therefore that, as the article said that the film was long and convoluted and difficult to follow, that the sentence was a metaphor for the film…
After a moment to do a double take at the insight of his comment, I had to agree that he was probably right since no professional magazine would allow such a badly written article…would they? But even if they did, I was hugely impressed that a fourteen-year-old could analyse language so well.
Earlier that day, coincidentally, I was teaching a year 12 media class about film analysis (the other string to my bow) and using an extract from the same Pirates film. One or two students understood the director’s techniques pretty quickly and appreciated the clever use of light and sound… whereas others, one rather arrogant boy in particular, seem to believe that any film made before 2005 isn’t worth the celluloid it’s printed on! I keep having to repeat that the study of film technique isn’t the place for value judgements, yet every lesson, no matter what film I produce for analysis, someone, usually the same boy, mutters, “This film’s really crap.” It’s as if he can’t get his head around the notion that the fact that he doesn’t like a particular film is totally irrelevant when it comes to analysis. Unless he grows out of this habit he will fail this particular module. So listening to my much younger English student’s analysis of the language techniques used in the Empire article some two hours later made me smile…
Perhaps I should suggest that my sixth form media class sits in on my year 10s, they might learn something useful… like humility.
Your comments... 
It’s that time of year again: Halloween. The shops are full of orange and black festive “goodies” and the news is full of how yobs have hijacked the festival and used it to create havoc and misery. So, this morning, I wasn’t surprised to find the news full of the pain caused by kids dressed in ‘Scream’ masks frightening the elderly and damaging property. And the suggestion that the Trick or Treating should be banned. So when I faced my year 10 class I suggested that in their afternoon lesson (I see them twice in one day) they might like to do a speaking and listening exercise in the form of a class debate about that topic. As they are a top group I knew I could expect some decent argument.
And I wasn’t disappointed. At least, not in the quality of their argument and oral work. It was the content of their argument that bothered me.
As I’ve said, they’re a bright group with understanding beyond their years of many issues. However when it came to this topic, they were surprisingly unempathic. I offered them both sides of the argument then let them loose. One girl suggested that elderly people hiding in their homes with the lights off in case anyone called, was a serious overreaction. When I said that surely the fact that these people really are frightened should be enough reason not to do it, I was told that to ban Trick or Treating would be unfair on children who like to go to houses (of complete strangers!) for free sweets. So I asked why I should be coerced into buying sweets for the children of strangers in case the little darlings took their revenge on me by egging my house or damaging my car. I was told that it was only one day out of the year and that I was mean not to supply sweets for these children. When I pointed out that to demand “treats” with the implied threat of retaliation if the sweets didn’t appear, seemed rather like begging with menaces, the student gave me a puzzled, rather pitying look as if I’d completely lost the plot.
I was rather dismayed by this girl’s reaction, as not only was it echoed by a great many others in the class, it also seemed to me that it reflected a general “the world owes me” attitude that I had hoped this high ability group had managed to avoid.
Trick or Treat may have nothing to do with schools, but it does have something to do with education. As an English teacher I feel, that what I do in the classroom should have some effect on the lives of my students when they leave. Part of being an English teacher surely, is to encourage the development of empathy and understanding. What’s the point of studying the greatest creative mind ever (sorry Leonardo, but to a student of literature, Will takes first place!) if the students learn nothing from his humanity and understanding?
I like my year 10 group, but I think that I have my work cut out if they are to grow into thoughtful and caring adults. I know you could say that they are just kids, and yes, they are. But they are also the future ‘elite’ of society, the ones with the brains and hopefully, the university education to enable them to get decent and possibly influential jobs. And as far as I’m concerned, that education starts now.
Over the years, I’ve made the same speech over and over again to my GCSE classes. It’s about plagiarism. I explain what it is and how it incurs serious penalties if the student is found to have done it. And every year, to varying degrees, one or more students try it.
The best one was a few years ago when Macbeth was on the GCSE syllabus and one of my students, a boy who believed that work was for other people, handed me his coursework essay on the Scottish play. I was very pleased as the work was about six months overdue and the exam was getting close. Then I read the essay.
The moment I read the bit about the ‘dark designs of the wyrd sisters’, I knew I had a problem. Had this boy been an A student, I wouldn’t have bothered checking, but the most this character had ever achieved was a D, so I was immediately suspicious. I went on the Web…and there it was. The complete essay. He hadn’t even bothered to alter any of the words; it was just a download. So I downloaded the essay myself and went to find the boy. When I found him I asked him if the essay was his own work.
“Yes of course,” was the reply. So having given him the chance to come clean, I showed him the essay I had just downloaded and asked him how it was that I had found the identical piece of work.
Unbelievably he still claimed the work was original and all his own!
Then on the day that it was announced that coursework would be phased out, owing to students cheating, it happened again.
The Chav princess of my year 11 group, who hasn’t done any work at all for the last eighteen months as, like the boy mentioned above, believes work is for other people, handed me two essays.
As she has claimed of late that she has turned over a new leaf and is now going to catch up, I was very pleased. Then I read the first essay. The language was polished and slick. And way beyond anything Princess could ever manage. So, with a sinking heart, I switched on my computer and did a search. It didn’t take long. In fact it was the first item on the page I sought. Her film review, a media coursework piece, was a download, right down to the pictures. The only thing she had changed was the by-line. Then I read the second essay and yes, that too was from the Web. OK, it wasn’t a complete download like the first piece, but it may well have been.
At the end of the next lesson I asked Princess to stay behind as I didn’t want to embarrass her in front of the class then asked her if the work was her own. She replied that it was, then added that her mum had helped her a bit then blurted out that she hadn’t looked gone on her computer… Of course, as I hadn’t mentioned the Internet her guilt was clear. I explained as calmly as I could that I couldn’t accept the work, as it wasn’t original. In fact, I didn’t even manage to complete the sentence as she tossed her head, told me that she didn’t have time for this and flounced out.
A week has passed since then and Princess still hasn’t done the work. But oddly enough, considering her appalling behaviour of the last year, I feel no anger towards her, only a sort of sad weariness. Princess has little going for her and she is, apparently under parental pressure to get her act together or else… The grade report that will go home next week will reflect the fact that she still has not completed the required work. She will get a hard time from her parents and will have to suffer the consequences. But the work still has to be done.
I actually understand why Princess cheated. I think she was desperate. She knows that she has really messed up and is panicking. So I haven’t said anything. She knows she is in the wrong and I hope that sometime soon she will realise that I haven’t punished her (I don’t need to do I?) and she will either come to talk to me, or, actually hand in some original work. At least, that’s what I hope will happen. I’m going to give her time to do this as I hope she will see this as some sort of saving face. But of course, I could be completely wrong and she will convince herself that the plagiarised work is acceptable.
But it depresses me to think that so many students, both from school and university feel that plagiarism is the way to go if they can’t do, or can’t be bothered to do the work themselves. It’s sad and ironic that most of these students would never, ever steal money or property, yet see nothing wrong in stealing thought.
Some years ago I taught a very singular boy, who, for now I’ll refer to as Harry. He was in the first GCSE class I taught in my present school. Harry was exceptionally tall and gangly, in fact, we had an agreement that when he needed to talk to me, we would find the nearest staircase and I would stand about four steps up and he was to stand on the floor. In that way we could actually make eye contact!
He was a very bright boy and absolutely brilliant orally, but picking up a pen was far too much like hard work so he never wrote anything down. So I believed that he was covering up his limited ability by pretending to be lazy. I predicted that he would achieve a couple of Ds if he were lucky.
However, about a month before the final date for the coursework to be handed in, Harry turned up with an essay on Macbeth (the play for GCSE then) and it was brilliant! He got an A. But of course one piece would not make a decent folder, but then he handed me another essay…then another…and they were all As. I couldn’t believe it. Talk about hiding his light under a bushel! When the exam results came out he had achieved two As!
Harry returned to the sixth form but fell into the same behaviour pattern and was asked to leave.
I heard then that he had gone to the local sixth form college and on to university to study music, his first love.
Ten years later, I’m sitting in the English staffroom when I’m told that I have a visitor, and standing in the doorway is this enormously tall man grinning from ear to ear. It took me a moment, then I recognized him. It was my old friend Harry. Within minutes I’m wrapped in a bear hug! He told me that he had graduated from university with a First, was engaged to be married and, was now, of all things, a teacher!
I was very fond of Harry, he used to make me laugh and impressed me with his insight into Shakespeare. He has overcome tremendous personal problems to get where he is today. When I saw him today, I have to admit to feeling a sense of pride. One of my colleagues commented that I must have made an impression on him if he had sought me out after so long. It’s a nice thought.
Harry has fulfilled his potential and is happy and successful. I like to think that perhaps I had some little hand in that. At least, I hope so.
It’s a new academic year and despite having some decent classes, I was appalled to discover in my first lesson with a year nine group, that among the students was a face I recognised. Sitting in the front row was a small, spiky haired boy I’d met before. In fact I’d met him during the previous term’s ‘enrichment week’ activities when we were working on news. (‘Making news.’) He was the little Herbert that had so offended me with his obscene and inappropriate questioning.
Being the professional I am, I decided to try to forget his previous behaviour and give him a second chance. Surely this boy couldn’t be as revolting as I thought? Well, yes he is.
He sauntered into the lesson ten minutes late, his hands in his pockets and whistling.
Then he opened his mouth.
I’m not easily shocked, you can’t be if you do this job, but the stuff that emanated from this boy stopped me in my tracks. It was like being immersed in an open sewer. Everything I said was accompanied by a sleazy comment. He didn’t even bother with innuendo. Every topic became a target for sexual comparison and ‘jokes’.
Now this boy has the kind of looks that if he were six, would be regarded as ‘sweet’. He’s small with what I suppose is described as a ‘pert’ face. He has bleached spiky hair and walks with a swagger. The girls find him irresistible. And he knows it. Over the years, he has, I think, used his looks to get away with murder, passing off sexual comment as ‘innocent cheek’ or witty ‘charm’. Well, no longer.
His comments are inappropriate and offensive. He’s a sleazy little boy who, if he were a couple of years older, would probably be arrested for disturbing the peace… or something.
What is worrying, is the fact that nothing seems to be done about him. He is being allowed to get away with sleazy behaviour that would get an adult sacked on grounds of sexual harassment.
At the risk of sounding like a boring old fart, I fear that if this boy’s behaviour is not checked, there is nothing to stop him from growing into a dirty old man, ogling young girls and making lewd comments to them. This might sound like an overreaction, but if he sees nothing wrong in making obscene comments in front of a teacher – an authority figure (apparently), why would he find groping girls in the corridor, whether they want him to or not, inappropriate?
It’s worrying that this boy has grown up believing that turning everything into a dirty joke is acceptable behaviour. Why has nobody (other than me and his previous (also female) English teacher) made an issue of his offensiveness?
As I’ve mentioned before, I make a point of introducing older students to Shakespeare’s dirty jokes. But this is in context. This is a way of showing students that Shakespeare knew how to please his audiences. So there is a place for innuendo and blue jokes, but not from the mouth of a thirteen-year-old sleaze, who thinks that because he’s ‘cute’ (apparently!) he can turn everything into a wallow in a sewer.
Your comments... 
Today I began teaching the Long and the Short and the Tall again. It’s a new year and I have a new year 10 group. Well actually, it’s not a completely new group as many of the students are from my lovely year 9 class from last year. They’re a very bright bunch and I’m looking forward to the next two years with them.
Anyway, as I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve taught the Willis Hall play a couple of times before and it’s always worked well with boy-heavy groups. This new class isn’t boy-heavy, but they are very sharp.
After spending half the lesson discussing whether or not war can be justified, we began reading the play. I told the class that I wanted them to read the play as if it were for radio, in other words, to make sure they understood the stage directions and read the words with feeling. I needn’t have worried. They read brilliantly. But what was really interesting, was the fact that they laughed. No other class has found the opening scenes amusing, but this lot did. As the student reading the lead part of Bamforth understood the wit and acid humour of the character, her skilful reading conveyed this cynical wit to the rest of the class. I was astonished. It’s a serious and thoughtful play so I didn’t expect the laughter. But it was right. Bamforth is funny. At least for part of the play. I listened to their reading with pleasure. It was an eye-opener for me to watch my students seeing something in a play that I hadn’t considered before. What was surprising was that they could see and understand the humour in the language used – the language and slang of WW2.
After reading the first act, I asked them who of the seven characters they believed was a liability. It was fascinating to listen to their ideas and arguments. Unlike the previous class to whom I taught this play, there is no one in this group who is in a military training corps, seeing the characters as soldiers, not people, so their reasoning was totally different. They saw the characters as human beings and consequently saw Bamforth as something of a hero, not the liability he quite possibly is. They interpreted his actions in the play as the actions of a decent human being, someone who saw the enemy as a man, not, as Mitchem says, “…something in a uniform and it’s a different shade to mine.”
By the end of the discussion that followed the reading of the play, the students understood Mitchem’s argument and were quite distressed to find that it made sense. Which is quite possibly the reaction that Hall hoped for: things are different in war; humanity has no place on the battlefield and that is its essential tragedy.
I know that my class will do well in English, they have intelligence and insight. They are also thoughtful. To me, this is the most important thing of all, as at the end of the day, English teachers have the skills to help create young people who are not just brilliant academics but also rounded human beings who respect and honour life. My class’s reaction to The Long and the Short and the Tall showed me that they are already half way there.
I discovered the joys of Terry Pratchett’s novels a long time ago. Through the colour of Magic and the light of the Fantastic, I was sucked into the Discworld and have stayed there ever since.
I found in his wonderful character, the redoubtable Granny Weatherwax a superb female role model, and in his finely crafted Commander Samuel Vimes, a character of ‘infinite jest’.
I read Pratchett for pleasure. He makes me laugh with his skilful spoofing of the traditional sword and sorcery fantasy genre and pause to think when I read the philosophical musings and astute social comment of the later books. I never thought however, that in the Discworld I would find a teaching aid.
While working in the special needs department I found myself dealing with teenage boys who were disaffected and bored. Some could not read, at least, not very well. So one day, struggling with one particularly recalcitrant student, I dug into my bag and drew out my battered copy of Johnny and the Dead. (OK, not a Discworld novel, but a story full of the usual Pratchett wit and warmth). I put the book down in front of the boy and began to read.
Gradually the boy was reading alternate paragraphs with me. It was slow and painful, but he actually began to smile at the endless jokes and I knew that half the battle was won.
Over the next few years, Johnny turned up regularly for lessons and the magic continued to work.
I then introduced Wyrd Sisters to a fast pace year nine group. It’s the story of Macbeth and the brighter students find the links with the Bard fascinating and funny. When they read:
“When shall we three meet again?”
“Well I can do next Tuesday,” they see the humour and the fun begins as they start Macbeth-spotting in the novel.
What is really interesting is that I have found that the students that read Pratchett, are often the ones who do well in English. This is probably because reading Pratchett requires imagination and a willingness to not only suspend ‘unbelief’, but to kick it into touch! Pratchett’s prose is closely packed with wit and wisdom and it is only too easy to miss out on the fun by attempting to skim read. Every word needs to be read, as the language is rich with metaphor and magic. The student that manages to read a Discworld novel learns about the use of figurative and metaphorical language, about the stories in literature (Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Phantom of the Opera etc etc…) and all about true storytelling. In fact, one of the books, Witches Abroad, is a fascinating and very funny meander into the essence of stories and how they are created (I can’t read Dracula now without grinning madly when I remember what Pratchett did with garlic and a very angry tomcat).
Of late I’ve taught one of Pratchett’s more ‘child friendly’ books, (The Amazing Maurice and his educated rodents) to year 7 classes. It’s a re-telling of the story of The Pied Piper of Hamelin and works very well along side that poem. But there’s a darker edge to the Pratchett tale. On the surface it’s an enjoyable romp for children, but it’s also a rather edgy, dark tale, sinister enough to appeal to adults. And of course, the fact that the book appeals to both adults and children is the mark of a well-crafted novel.
I’ve read somewhere that the author himself finds it rather bizarre that his work is sometimes accused of being literature, but whatever it is, it’s a good read and a really useful teaching tool and I shall always be grateful that once upon a time I found the Discworld.