Archive page 2
Blog continues at: http://inspirationalteaching.org
Anyone else out there seen the similarity between the villains of the TV programme Eastenders and Macbeth? No? Me neither, until recently.
You’ll have gathered by now that I like teaching Shakespeare. It’s both a challenge and a joy. But to understand literature and Shakespeare in particular, you need a certain amount of empathy. So how do you go about teaching literature to someone with no empathy at all?
This is a problem I came up against recently when I discovered that I had an autistic student in my class.
After coming to terms with the obsessive behaviour, the need for everything to be of a certain colour, the terror of reptiles (reptiles?) and rage if someone swiped one of her ‘treasures’, I then had to find a way to get her to understand enough Macbeth for her to get anywhere in her SATS. Bit of a challenge that, as lack of empathy is often one of the problems associated with autism.
I spent many frustrating hours trying to get through to her and worrying about her with her helper. Then one day her helper told me that she had spent the previous lesson listening to her charge going on about last night’s episode of Eastenders. She apparently knew everything there was to know about each and every character and the plot (which often leaves me completely confused) was as clear as day to her. So I had a brainwave.
I changed the names of the characters in Macbeth to those of the characters in Eastenders and when I asked the student questions about the play I’d say something like, “So if Phil (Mitchell) realises that his secret is about to come out, what do you think he’d do to this guy (his best friend – aka Banquo)?”
There was a moment’s pause then she replied that Phil would almost certainly have his friend killed – if he didn’t do it himself. So I’d carry on with questions that I’d normally ask about Macbeth, like, “Do you think Phil (Macbeth) would feel any guilt about what he’d done?” And so it went on, as long as I placed Macbeth into a familiar environment (in this case, Albert Square) she could understand the play. If ever I forgot and reverted to Macbeth, Banquo and Macduff and placed them in Scotland, she would completely lose the plot altogether.
It was a fascinating learning experience for me and I hope for my student too. It reminded me that not everyone thinks the same way and that as teachers we have to keep finding new ways to get through to our students.
That particular student is no longer at the school, but I am reminded of her every time I teach the ‘Scottish’ play and have to hide a grin as I imagine the Bard’s words in the mouth of a fictional Eastend thug.
The purists might object that using popular TV ‘soaps’ is somehow ‘cheapening’ the work of the world’s greatest mind, but I don’t care and certainly don’t agree. Shakespeare used loads of different techniques to get through to his very mixed audience, so I don’t think he’d mind. And I can live with that.
Over the years I’ve realised that one person’s voice has a bit of difficulty being heard over twenty-seven others. Might seem a bit obvious that. But it’s amazing how many in other ways, intelligent people believe that this isn’t so. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the classroom.
Many is the time I’ve sat, in my capacity as a supporting teacher, at the back of a classroom, watching, as another teacher carries on teaching, despite the fairly obvious fact that no one, apart from me, is actually listening.
It’s a curious phenomenon. It’s almost as if these teachers believe that if they carry on teaching, the information will somehow appear in their students’ brains without the said students actually putting their brains into gear.
I think it comes back to that strange, but not uncommon practice of teaching one’s subject, rather than the children.
When I teach, I do so to a comparatively silent class. This is not because I’m particularly draconian, quite the opposite in fact, but because I see no point in teaching if no one is listening. I refuse to teach if I have to compete with other people. What’s the point of wasting my pearls of wisdom if my class is busy discussing last night’s television or tonight’s date?
So I wait.
I begin my lesson and if anyone begins to talk, I stop. And stare at the offender. Eventually they get the message, shut up and I continue, frequently without commenting on the interruption. It’s amazing how quickly a class will get used to that technique. Within weeks, if not days, even the most awkward class realises that I will not continue with the lesson until I get the attention I require. And worse, if I have to wait too long, I am quite happy to keep the offending class in detention for as long as my mood dictates.
It’s actually a nerve-wracking technique. The first time I tried it, it felt that I’d waited for ages before I got the silence I wanted. (It actually wasn’t forever, it just felt like it!) The next time, it was a bit easier and the next time, easier still. I now find that I can simply stand in the doorway of a classroom and wait. (This is particularly effective with a class who know me only by reputation as “that weird English teacher”, as they don’t know what I’m going to do.)
With a particularly awkward group, I’ve been known to sit down, put my pink Doc Marten- booted feet on the desk, put my arms behind my head and start to whistle. The effect is quite startling and the reaction fairly immediate. Within seconds, the hissed “Shh! She’s waiting!” susurrates around the room followed swiftly by the desired silence. This isn’t magic. It’s perseverance (and in my case perversity!) It’s a matter of keeping one’s nerve. After all, there’s almost thirty of them and only one of me! What makes me keep doing it this way is the simple fact that my voice (despite projection techniques perfected by years of singing in a Welsh school choir!) simply isn’t powerful enough to drown out those of a large number of vocal teenagers. So I don’t bother.
I know that what I have to say in my lessons is actually (usually) worth hearing and could be of use to my students, so I always wait until I can be heard. After all, what’s the use of having all this wonderful knowledge if no one can hear you?
Also, silence is a wonderful thing and when I’ve managed to deliver my pearls to my silent class, it really is golden.
One of the things I used to hate at school was having to speak in class. Fortunately, as I did the old O level system, oral work was something we didn’t have to do very often. That was something the ‘less able’ students did, the ones who did CSEs. As a school child, I didn’t think about this at all, but now, as an English teacher myself, it occurs to me that not doing any oral work in English actually put us more academic types at something of a disadvantage. We had to speak in lessons like French of course, and I remember the cold panic and the sweaty palms till this day.
Today it’s very different, and all students doing English for GCSE are obliged to take part in oral work, or ‘speaking and listening’ as it’s called today. And they hate it.
Out of a class of twenty-eight to thirty, I’ll be lucky to find half a dozen that actually enjoy the experience of standing up in font of their class mates, all teenage angst and spots, in order to make a complete idiot of themselves. Because this is how they feel. All of a sudden, the bravado and cheek disappear in a quivering, sweating mass of helpless fear. Even the class thugs diminish under the unforgiving gaze of twenty-seven teenagers. Terrifying. And I sympathise completely. When I’m feeling kind.
So recently, after a discussion with colleagues over coffee (when we share an awful lot of ideas – it’s that kind of department, no one is selfish with knowledge or thoughts) I decided to conduct a speaking and listening exercise in the style of the TV programme Dragon’s Den. It involved each student making a ‘pitch’ to four other students (carefully chosen by me) in front of the rest of the class. They had to try to sell an idea or a new invention to the four students – the Dragons. The individuals had about two minutes to persuade the Dragons to invest in their ideas.
It was a fascinating exercise, as students I believed would crumble in such a situation, rose to the challenge and blossomed, coming up with some intriguing ideas. But what was a real eye opener was one of the Dragons. This is a boy who is very ‘mouthy’ and actually very articulate when speaking as an individual. I can always count on him to perform brilliantly – as an individual. What surprised me was his generosity. When called on to be a Dragon I assumed that he’d be simply concerned about his own marks, but I was wrong. Faced with classmates who ‘dried’, he was fantastic. He fired questions at them, forcing them to speak and to argue with him. Students who would normally wallow in the low E or F grades suddenly started to perform at a much higher level, determined to stand up to this aggressor. At one point, realising that perhaps he was dominating the situation and wondering if he should back off, he glanced over at me. I gave him a surreptitious thumbs-up, so he continued. Single-handedly, he raised the marks of his classmates. It wasn’t all altruism though, he raised his own grade too. He got an A*. A real dragon in the making.
Today I gave my year 9 students a Seamus Heaney poem to read. About picking blackberries. Not an easy poem, Heaney isn’t the simplest of poets… but he is worth the effort. I gave my class the poem and contrary to my usual practice, didn’t read it to them, just told them to read it themselves and come to some decision about it.
I have to admit that watching them struggling with the verse gave me some perverse pleasure, as I was sure they’d appreciate me more when they found how difficult it was! Anyway, the class was busily arguing amongst themselves about it with one boy declaring loudly that he didn’t get the poem at all. I asked him what the problem was and he said, “Well it’s about these people just picking blackberries and they like doing it…” He was clearly frustrated by what he saw as his own incomprehension.
“Yes,” I replied, “you’re right.” And left it at that. So he glared at me, clearly thinking I was being awkward.
Then another student chimed in with, “Yes, but there’s more to it isn’t there? It’s all happy and light in the first stanza, but in the second bit it’s different…the bit about the mould…the things are rotting, dying…”
Another interrupted, “But look at the use of the word ‘clot’ in the first stanza, it’s a horrible word, it sort of makes me think about blood clots…which can lead to death, so I don’t think it’s as straightforward as it looks…”
A boy at the back of the class jumped in at this point, telling her that he agreed with her viewpoint and that he believed that the whole blackberry picking stuff was really all a metaphor for life…
I just sat in amazed silence. I let them talk and argue and discuss until ‘just picking blackberries’ was almost lost in the interchange of ideas.
Eventually, one of the students asked me what I thought the poem was about. I just shrugged and admitted that I didn’t actually know, but had a suspicion that they might be right. I told them that my knowledge of other Heaney poems made me think that their interpretation might well be correct.
“Anyway,” I added, “in the long run, it doesn’t really matter what I think it means, if you can support what you say, then short of asking the poet himself, who’s to say you’re wrong?”
And this, I think, is what poetry is all about. It’s intensely personal. Just as teaching it is.
Each one of those students came away from that lesson with his or her own view of what Heaney was talking about and each conclusion had been reached through thought, analysis and intuition.
As a teacher there is nothing wrong with admitting that you don’t know the answer. There’s nothing wrong with admitting fallibility. I had told my class that I wasn’t sure what Heaney’s point was and the fact that I could admit it openly encouraged my students to do the same. After all, education is all about sharing information and knowledge. Generally speaking, the teacher is the one with all the facts, but sometimes it’s worth not knowing – or claiming not to know. Because then, the knowledge will come from the students. Between them, through the exchange of ideas, the cut and thrust of argument or even sometimes an inspired guess, it’s amazing what will be learned. And I’m not just talking about the students!
By the way, I do know what the poem’s about. It’s about picking blackberries!
But there’s always more. (probably!)
Your comments... 
I was reading an article the other day about Sylvia Plath and it got me thinking about Ted Hughes and the fact that the women who loved him seemed to die. Or to be more specific, committed suicide. Does it mean that he attracted unstable, vulnerable women or was he just impossible to live with? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, but thinking about Ted Hughes got me thinking about poetry.
I actually like teaching poetry. I love the intricacies of language and form and the fact that nothing is accidental.
I was reading Ted Hughes’ ‘Hawk Roosting’ to a class and as I read it, I remembered ‘doing’ the same poem when I was at school myself. It was in the days of the O level. And I didn’t understand the poem. I answered questions on it in the exam and did very well. But I didn’t understand it at all. I simply wrote what I was told to write. That’s how poetry was taught then. You weren’t expected to understand, simply to learn quotes and regurgitate the notes that the teacher gave you. So I got the required good grades, but it wasn’t my intelligence or intuition that got me the grades, it was my memory.
This is why, many years later, as I was reading Hughes’ poem to the class, I experienced that wonderful ‘got it’ feeling. I understood the poem. Completely. One reason for this sudden illumination was of course the fact that I was so much older. However, the main reason was because I was discussing it with my students. I was asking them for their opinions. Why did the poet use this or that word? Why is it structured like that? This is the usual way I teach poetry. Ask the students and someone, invariably, comes up with a brilliant bit of insight. That way, both the students and the teacher learn. It works every time. It’s a technique that I find works with all literature, whether it be Ted Hughes or Shakespeare. It doesn’t matter if the comments the students come up with are a bit silly or even plain wrong. It should be fun. The English lesson should be an environment where everyone is entitled to an opinion, no matter how daft. This is how we learn. By listening to others and being listened to ourselves. When literature is being discussed or argued about, it’s a living learning process. Had we been allowed to discuss poetry in class when I was in school, and not been afraid of being made fun of or feeling stupid, it wouldn’t have taken me until now to understand ‘Hawk Roosting’!
So I’m going to carry on listening to my students’ take on literature and as the eponymous hawk in the poem says: “I’m going to keep it like this.”
Your comments... 
The other day, I was forcibly reminded of these two stalwarts from my own school days, in a way that made me think that nothing changes.
It was moderation time. That seriously busy time that all English teachers know and love, when life becomes just a pile of exam papers, under which we drown. This was slightly different, as it was A level course work. Despite the amount of work this involves, it’s actually quite pleasurable, as reading the musings of intelligent young people is always a revelation and a delight.
While reading our way down the pile, my colleague said that she was concerned that one of our best students, Chas, hadn’t handed in her finished piece, despite completing and improving on several earlier, practice drafts. Well, the time passed and Chas didn’t hand in the work, the deadline came and went and the pile of essays was sent off to the exam board.
The following morning, a shame-faced Chas turned up to face what she believed would be our collective wrath. She apologised profusely for not handing in the work and explained that she had had two pieces due in that day, one for us, English, and one for another department run by someone who could easily follow in the footsteps of the esteemed Killer of old. When my colleague (and head of department) asked why that was significant, Chas replied, “Well, it’s because he (Killer 2) gets much nastier than you.” Needless to say, we were slightly taken aback by this and for once lost for words.
Chas will be able to enter her coursework later in the year, so she will not suffer, but her words made me think.
Chatting later with my colleague about this, she said that Killer 2 actually got good results from this method. Being unpleasant to the students and frightening them seemed to be paying off. I suggested that this was wrong and that I had no intention of going down that route, particularly with 18year olds. After all, if we have to jump up and down on students’ heads to make them do the work, what will happen to them when they get those brilliant results that Killer 2 is so proud of? When they get to university and because they only work when bullied, fall behind? What happens to them then?
Like my colleague, I am probably, despite appearances, of the ‘old school’. I see no point in bullying students. I don’t want my students to be afraid of talking to me in case I get nasty. Surely as teachers we should be educating the whole student. Not just teaching our subjects. Isn’t it our job to equip student to deal with life and not just to react to bullying? After all ‘to educate’ means ‘to lead’, not ‘to force with threats’.
I believe my old friend English Guy was right. You don’t need to be a bully to get respect – or good results. I like the fact that my students will talk to me in the corridor and will come to tell me if they have difficulty with work I’ve set. I don’t get nasty, neither does my colleague and our results, every year are better than those that Killer 2’s department achieve.
Not that I’m gloating of course!
I’d known Loz for a long time. I’d met him first when he was a babe in arms, then again when he turned eleven and arrived at school. My alter ego for a long time worked in the special needs department of the school, when I wasn’t teaching the English syllabus, and it was in this department that I met Loz again.
Loz was different. He had a very odd learning difficulty part of which meant that he could barely write and when he did, it was almost completely illegible and indecipherable. He was a pleasant, polite boy who was clearly totally miserable in lessons as without his helpers he couldn’t access the information.
For three years I had little to do with Loz, as he wasn’t in my charge, he was just someone I knew and said “Hello” to when I passed him in the corridor. Then year ten came and looking down my list of new students, there was Loz. Knowing of his literacy problems, my heart quailed. English is difficult for most students who lack the aptitude – but for Loz, for whom writing, and possibly understanding, was an insurmountable problem, it seemed an impossible task.
The year began with Loz showing little interest. He sat quietly at the front of the class with his helper, apparently listening, but seemingly not really understanding. His predicted grades were depressingly low and I began to feel that we were not going to get anywhere with him.
Then one day during a class debate (something I do regularly to encourage the class to speak and get less self conscious in public speaking), in response to a question, Loz’s hand went up. It was tentative and shy, almost as if he didn’t want me to notice. “Yes Loz,” I said, “what’s your opinion?” There was a moment’s silence as the class waited, intrigued, as Loz so rarely spoke, then he began, “Well,” he said, “I think…”and then he was off. And I couldn’t shut him up! It was brilliant!
And from then on, I could count on Loz for comments or views on any subject.
But class debates are one thing, comprehending and writing about literature is something else. I needn’t have worried.
Once Loz had grasped the principles of film analysis, he was away. Orally he couldn’t be faulted. His ideas were shrewd and informed. Writing was another matter. I felt sorry for him as I began to believe that despite his oral ability and his undoubted ability, Loz’s final exam grades wouldn’t amount to much.
Then we read JB Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls.” I enjoy teaching this play as I like the ideas in it. It’s great fun to do with a high ability group, as they understand the arguments Priestly presents. Doing it with a less able group is something else. It’s generally fairly successful, as Priestly doesn’t believe in subtlety, so most people get it. Loz seemed fascinated by it. His knowledge of the history and politics of the era is encyclopaedic, as he apparently watches endless documentaries. When I asked the class questions about either the point Priestley was making or the social conditions of the time. Loz’s hand was the first up. Then the writing bit came. The coursework bit.
I was worried about Loz with this. How could he transfer what he knew and understood onto paper without a considerable amount of ‘help’?
His essay was the first in. My heart sank when I saw it. Five pages of A4. Hand written in Loz’s inimitable, indecipherable scrawl. Oh God! So I started.
It took me almost an hour to read. Ploughing through handwriting that makes mine look legible and spelling that is so ‘interesting’ it would make you weep. But after the first frustrating five minutes, it began to make sense. The spelling was oddly phonetic, and once you read the whole sentence, individual words became obvious. Then there was the content. It was interesting. Very interesting. Full of understanding, analysis and thought. For a worrying few moments I actually thought that it wasn’t his work. So I spoke to his helper, read bits to her, after which she said, “That’s what you said in class. The information is what he’s got from listening properly…tweaked in a way that is pure Loz.”
And she was right. This was all his own work. He’s listened and understood and made it his own.
For a student without learning difficulties, this would be a good essay; from Loz, with all his problems, it was brilliant.
I sat Loz down and told him how impressed I was and what I liked about his essay and was tickled to see the slow grin light up his face. Then I told him to go away and type it up. The look on his face was a picture! “But I took ages writing that!” he cried in dismay.
“Yes, I can tell that. It’s a brilliant essay,” I said, then added that it had taken me an hour to decipher (he grinned broadly at that, little sod!). “If your coursework gets selected for moderation,” I explained, “no one will spend the time I did in trying to find out what you’re saying and that would be a real pity as what you say is fantastic.” He gave me a long stare then said that he would do as I ask, as long as he could take it home first to show his mum!
Now when I look at Loz, I no longer feel that sinking sense of despair, because Loz can do it. It will take him more time than most people, but he will do it. And he will probably do it well.
So it was nice to be reminded once again why I do this job. People like Loz make it worthwhile.
I first met Patience when she was eleven. She was small and pretty with long brown hair. What struck me about her in the first lesson I had with her, was her ability to think. Surprisingly enough, this is quite unusual in an eleven year old. Most year seven children are busy trying to make new friends, trying to seem grown up or cool, or just trying to annoy the teacher with their post-primary school lavatory jokes. Patience was different. Cool and composed, she stood out from the crowd in her stubborn refusal to conform to eleven year old norms.
Patience knew all the answers to my carefully aimed questions and if, as very occasionally happened, her knowledge let her down, she would consider me coolly as I attempted explanations, nod wisely, then carry on writing whatever it was she was working on, clearly dismissing me as a slightly annoying, if occasionally necessary inconvenience.
Not that she was arrogant, in fact, quite the opposite. I liked her cool demeanour and her clever mind and over the next three years, we got to know each other well and to understand how each other’s mind worked.
Patience reappeared in my classes in the sixth form. Sitting at the back of the class with her long brown hair, black nails and heavy metal T-shirt, Patience had reinvented herself into a sullen, introspective Goth. My heart, initially lifted by the presence of one I knew of old as a Thinker, sank like a stone as the Goth in my class surveyed me silently through the fringe of dark hair, occasionally grunting in reply to questions directed at her.
For a whole year I watched with growing despair, as the Thinker of old seemed to forget how to think. Then something happened. I have no real idea what it was (though I have my suspicions that it involved a member of the opposite sex!) but suddenly there was a new voice in the lessons. Someone who argued with me. Not the petulant argument of a stroppy teenager, but the reasoned, cool argument of the Thinker. She was back.
For weeks I feared that this return of the student that I knew of old was something temporary, that some day soon I would walk into my Othello class and the surly Goth would be there again. But it didn’t happen. But it did seem that the brain-dead grunting of the past had robbed my Thinker of her ability to produce the A- grade standard that I knew she was capable of. Then Satan and Frankenstein appeared. Not some nicknamed students or pet dogs. The real ones. At least as real as they appear in the books. “Frankenstein” and “Paradise Lost.”
The time to produce A level coursework had arrived and the Thinker had chosen to compare Shelley’s creature with Milton’s fallen angel. Initially intrigued, and not a little concerned at the magnitude of the task – after all, analysing Mary Shelley and John Milton is not the easiest of projects, I approached her essay with not a little trepidation.
It was a revelation. There was not a trace of the surly, taciturn Goth. This was pure Thinker. Reasoned, cool, thoughtful and utterly brilliant. By the time I finished reading the two and a half thousand word exploration, I was grinning from ear to ear. I have never, in my years of teaching English read anything so innovative or thoroughly enjoyable. It reflected a mind full of clarity and joy and, thank God, a complete refusal to conform.
In a few short months, my Thinker will begin a new life at University where, hopefully, she will find kindred spirits to share her clarity and joy in literature. She will love it. But here, at the back of my Othello classes there will be a Thinker-shaped hole. She will be missed.
I’m known in school as the ‘weird one’ or the ‘hippy.’ One lad even suggested to his form tutor, a departmental colleague of mine, that I was probably very strange and lived on my own with loads of cats! This was before he had ever been taught by me. Since then, he has learned that yes, I probably am very strange, but I don’t have any cats. Nor do I live on my own. Oh yes, and I have dogs.
My image as the ‘weird’ or ‘eccentric’ member of the department is actually not accidental. It has been deliberately and carefully cultivated over the years. What makes me ‘weird’ to my unforgivably conventional teenage students, is a refusal to conform. I wear brightly coloured Doc Marten’s boots with long, flowing skirts. I’ve also been known to sing in class (but that’s another story).
My clothes are both comfortable and striking. It means every student knows exactly who I am, and this is a good thing.
My choice of footwear is deliberate. The boots are comfortable (vital if you spend most of your day on your feet, or on a desk!) They are safe, with amazing grips – very useful on wet concrete stairs. And they are, most importantly, distinctive. I know as an absolute fact that no other member of staff wears bright pink Doc Marten’s to school! It’s also interesting that on the very few occasions on which I choose to be tidy and wear high heeled black boots, I am invariably asked by my students if I’m feeling all right, or if I’m in a bad mood. If I ask the reason for the question, I get told that since my footwear is usually brightly coloured, as I’m wearing black, I must obviously be in a bad mood! I think you have to be a teenager to understand the logic of that one!
The long skirts counteract the ‘bovver boy’ image of the boots. But if, like me, you frequently sit or stand on chairs and tables (you can’t do Shakespeare sitting down and be effective!) the long skirts (or trousers if I’m feeling boring) are necessary both for dramatic impact and practicality.
Not bowing to sartorial convention is interesting. It wrong-foots the students. They never know quite what to expect, something that keeps them on their toes. Which is always a good thing.
I’ve been doing the ‘weird’ thing for so long now that I don’t think about it, until a visiting potential teacher comments on it. Then, when asked if I mind that the students find me and my dress sense strange, I tell them that as well as keeping the children on their toes, it is also, in a strange way, somewhat reassuring as they know that their English teacher is weird and there is an odd sort of security in that knowledge.
They all know exactly who I am. I may be the ‘weird one’ or the ‘hippy,’ but at least they know me. And that, surely, for a teacher, can’t be bad.