Sunday, 26 August 2012

A letter to an NQT or a letter to my NQT self

Dear Chris,
This might seem unusual, but I have found a hole in the space-time continuum. It was a strange weird thing that I found behind my filing cabinet at school. I also found two old exercise books, and an old AQA anthology and a mouldy apple. Anyway, my hope is that if I send this letter  to you in the past, then I may help to prevent you from making any mistakes and save you from any embarrassment, hurt and pain in your future, and my past. You are about to take your first steps as an NQT. Well done for passing your PGCE year, by the way. The next year is fraught with problems as you circumvent your way through your chosen career path that is teaching. Here are just a few of my tips to help you to deal with people, work and students.

Find the shortcuts
There should be a whole lecture given to this in every PGCE course, or, at least, a free complimentary book to every NQT. It will take you roughly three years to find the shortcuts and it angers me that we don’t talk about them or make them explicit enough. Trust me, you will, as an NQT, become tired and haggard and this is partly down to you not knowing the shortcuts. In fact your ‘tired-o-meter’ will hit 11.  

The shortcuts vary from subject to subject and can vary greatly. For English, a lot of my shortcuts are around marking, or avoidance of marking. I do mark very thoroughly, but in English there is tons of the stuff. At times, it feels as though my classroom is a landfill site. Marking is paramount to students improving, but does every mark a student writes need some form of teacher assessment? There are some activities that could be marked by another student. Or, you could walk around the classroom, as I do, and add comments as they are writing. I sign it and have saved myself some time later.  Could the activity be assessed verbally? You sit down and mark as they present the information. Stickers are a good idea, but don't do it all the time, or parents will think you can't write - not a good sign for an English teacher.
Furthermore, think about the intensity of the marking. Not all work need to be marked thoroughly. Learn to vary your approach to marking. For example: mark the first paragraph for spelling and punctuation and the rest for structure and content. There are plenty more and I think you should ask people what shortcuts they take to make sure they do the job effectively.

Put things into perspective
At the end of the day, teaching is a job, and just a job. It is a different kind of job to others, as you have a big impact on people’s lives and their futures. Some might call it a ‘vocation’, but, for me, I wasn’t visited by the ghost of Charles Dickens telling me my future was in teaching and  to spread the news that ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is the perfect novel. I love my subject and I like talking about books.  However, you/ we are replaceable.  If you move schools, you will disappear from the collective conscience within a few years. It’s sad to think that there isn’t a lasting reminder of your teaching career, apart from the education you have imparted. One thing is clear: we don’t teach to be famous, rich or popular. To put all of this into perspective, two things have happened to me during my teaching career. Spoilers, sweetie.

The first is that a colleague, from the department I was working in, died. They had cancer and the cancer spread very quickly and suddenly. I remember chatting to them about a lesson and then several months later they had died. This had a profound effect on me. I realised that it could happen to me. Secondly, the birth of my daughters, twins, prematurely made me see the job and my role differently. They were born at 30 weeks and placed into incubators. Sitting next to those incubators and a life-support machine made me reassess the way I viewed things. I realised that there were more important things to worry about than whether I had put up a display or where I had placed that folder.

We do deal with some important stuff, but sometimes it is important to think about whether the stuff you are worrying about is really that important or not. Some things you can change. Some things you can’t. I don’t suggest that you become blasé about everything, but when you get to something that is worrying you, think about whether worrying about it will help you or not. If in doubt, off-load it or share it with someone else. Just hearing it out aloud might help you to realise that it isn’t a concern.  These two terrible events shook me and made me realise that my daily worries or problems were minor in comparison to some of the more important things in life.

They’re Busy
Teaching is a busy job. Not just ‘pretending I am working busy’, but really busy. It is amazing how time seems to disappear and you will have finished the term just as quickly as it has started. It is easy to forget how busy other people are. You are trapped in your own timetable and barely see people for longer than five minutes.

Sometimes, we forget things or people. Bare this in mind during your NQT year. People can forget to say ‘Goodbye’ or ‘Hello’. Or, it looks like they are ignoring you. Usually, there is no malice. It’s just that teaching is a very busy job. Once, a Head of Department thanked every member of the department in his beautiful and meaningful leaving speech. He thanked them personally for their support and help over the years.  Unfortunately, he didn’t mention my name. I was a bit gutted, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised it wasn’t a personal thing. He was too busy and in the heat of the moment this slip happened. 

Don’t be offended; think about the pressures the other person is under.  You are under a lot of pressure and so will everybody else be.

Switch off
On the last day of my first year as an NQT, I broke down and cried. I sobbed in my classroom at the end of the day for a good 2 minutes. Not tears of joy. Not tears of sadness. They were tears of exhaustion. I had found new depths of tiredness that I never knew existed. I was so tired because I hadn’t stopped for breath. When I stopped, my body just couldn’t cope and I cried like a wet lettuce.

I think it is so important… no not important – vital that you switch off. Several years down the line, I tend to have set days where I never, ever, ever work. Saturday is that day. It is my day where I do not even think of school. I do what I like and when I like it. I have fun. I watch TV or have some fun with my family. I also have days in the week where I don’t do any work after school. Teaching is a job where there is always something to do. Stop. You will be more productive if you take that time to ‘chillax’ and rest. Don't work for hours after school. Set yourself time limits and stick to them.

Find a friend
Find a friend that will support you emotionally, mentally and physically.  I was lucky to have a group of several young teachers in my school that I connected to in my NQT year, but they were, and still are, the people that got me through the year. They listened, supported and ridiculed me throughout the year and they still do that to this day. Teaching can be like working in Tupperware boxes ™. Each aspect of your job is a Tupperware box ™. They are often sealed tight and it is sometimes just you in there. Hard to see out of because of the plastic.  Everything might be good, but you feel something may be rotten in this box. For example:  one box is the classroom. Another might be your department. I feel that it is always good to have someone outside the box – sorry for saying that old cliche- that could help you.  

That friend doesn’t always have to be in the same department. My BF was a History teacher in my first year and I hated History at school. Find a friend that will help you get a bit of perspective on the job and how things are.

It is not me; it is you!
Whatever is happening to you will be happening to someone else. It is hard to see it, but it is often true. I get frustrated when a teacher spouts rubbish like ‘I have never have a problem with Year 8’. Everybody sometime or another has had a problem with a class, an aspect or a particular student. I think it is important to talk about it. I think some people forget how things are difficult when you are establishing yourself as a teacher, or as a new teacher in school.

I wish I had Twitter and the TES forum when I was training. There are so many people there sharing their problems, so you should feel reassured that it is not just you. However, I’d be careful about what you share in a public domain.

PGCEs tend to make you so reflective and introverted that you start to evaluate the way you breathe in the classroom. Sometimes when things go wrong, it isn’t anything you have done.  Think of the immortal line: ‘It’s not you; it’s me’. That is true. It can usually be not you, and it is them. You might just have to find a way to solve the problem – you have to be the grownup. 
If you make a mistake, learn from it. Try not to make the same mistake twice. Make better mistakes.

Use the strengths of the department
I do this more now than I have ever done before. Each teacher has their strengths and I think it is imperative that you find what those are. In one department you could have an individual who is an expert on drama, Shakespeare, A-level, non-fiction or grammar. If you need help or guidance, go to that person and have a quick chat. It is flattering for them and it saves you time swotting up on obscure things which might not be necessary to what you are teaching.

And, finally...
I am jealous of actors as they tend to only get critiqued on their opening night of a performance. If it is a bad performance they can work on it. Teachers get critiqued every day and every lesson they teach. Each class has thirty wannabe Simon Cowells. There may even be a few sycophantic Louis Walshes.  Unlike actors you can't just improve on that performance. You have do a totally new performance next lesson. Learn to take any criticism and turn it into something positive. Don't wallow; get even. Show them what you are made of. Not every lesson can be your 'Hamlet'. Sometimes, you will have a creaky amateur production. But, overall, you will deliver the goods.
Think of my three 'H's. Humour. Humility. Humanity.  Humour: always look at the funny side of things. Teaching can be hilarious. There are times in my career where I have giggled so much that I couldn't speak. Humility: you will make mistakes and that it is part of being a teacher; we learn so much from getting it wrong. Accept the mistakes and move on. Humanity: remember that you are dealing with people. They have fears, worries, strengths and weaknesses. No two people are alike. They are unpredictable, but that is most of the fun of teaching - How will this group react to this poem?
I am hoping that this letter has got to you in the past. There are so many more things I could give you advice on, but I think these are the main ones. One last thing: I think that you should take a tour around the world in 2011 and 2012. A horrible thing to do with exams. Best out of it, if you ask me.  

Good luck with it all. 

P.S. The lottery numbers for the 25th of August 2012 are 12, 18, 23, 31, 44, 48. Bonus: 40.

Thanks to @Gwenelope for help, support and typo spotting. Please check her fabulous blog at:

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Secs, Lies and Videotapes

Secs, Lies and Videotapes

I see myself as a normal teacher, but sometimes, and that is only sometimes, I think I can help to improve society a teeny, tiny bit. Tirelessly for the last few years, I have been working to improve the cinema experience for all citizens of our fine nation. But what does he mean? Well, we have all been there.  You are watching a very dramatic moment in a film and a voice rips apart the dramatic tension like a cheese grater on cheese. Or, you are trying to follow the convoluted plot of a story and the person behind you starts eating nachos and crunches their way through the whole scene, unaware that a major plot development has been revealed and that the ending will not make sense to a viewer without this golden nugget of information. Therefore, I see it as my way to improve society, by modelling how to behave, and how not to behave, in all kinds of public entertainment venues.

I am, of course, referring to the watching of the humble video in lessons. (For those that are fussy – I mean video in the loosest sense. I include DVD, Betamax, cassette tape, YouTube clips or any other medium of storage for audio / visual material). In the past I have had several people say to me: ‘Watching another video in English today?’. They say this dripping with envy and mistrust. It is true: English does involve watching some videos. However, the experience of watching a video is never simple and easy. Hopefully, what follows will give you some food for thought, or some new ideas.


‘Adopt cinema positions’ is a common phrase in my lessons. It is then followed by a hive of activity as students move chairs, blinds are closed and the lights are switched off.  Then, I say my ‘video mantra’, which involves the follow questions:

Teacher: What are the rules of watching a film in lesson?

Class: Don’t talk and face the telly.

Teacher: Why do we have to do this?

Class: Because Sir doesn’t want to visit a cinema with us in it if we talk.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, they respond. It is obvious, but it sets the tone. The video is the thing to capture their interest. I love films and television and I think in the modern age students are becoming less and less engrossed in a story. It is quite common for most of them to sit watching TV at home with a Facebook on a laptop, while texting a message to a friend and chatting to someone else in the room. I do it at home with Twitter and TV. Therefore, I think it is my duty to help them become engrossed in a story. Take away the distractions.

I think the way we watch things has changed dramatically over the last decade. I think ‘X-Factor’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ have made it acceptable for us to critique programmes as we watch them. Listening to some classes watch a DVD is like having the director’s commentary switched on. They will criticise the special effects, acting, costumes, lighting, music, staging and anything else they see fails below their high standards. Everyone is a critic nowadays. Only one or two people can make an insightful comment like Gary Barlow or Simon Cowell. Sadly, most classes resemble a class full of Louis Walsh – they prefer Wagner over something good. Or even worse – they behave like Mel B and make a negative comment about everything, just to provoke a reaction from people or the teacher.  I think setting the rules for the experience is important. And, if they don’t stop criticising and talking, switch the film off. It is amazing how they quickly modify their behaviour and make themselves the perfect film viewer, when they know the alternative is work.  

Oh, and always have something to do if it fails. Technology likes to make our lives unpredictable.


Make sure you have set the video up beforehand. I once spent a good ten minutes searching for a place on DVD, whilst the class got increasingly restless and agitated. Sadly, the DVD was one of those free DVDs from a Sunday newspaper, which unfortunately didn’t have any chapters or scenes, so I had to fast forward the whole film to find the one bit in ‘Great Expectations’. I turned ‘Great Expectations’ into such a ‘Bitter Disappointment’. Two minutes preparation beforehand saves you minutes of agonising dead time in a lesson. 

Also, make a note of where you have got to on a DVD or video. Don’t leave it up to the students. Certainly use it as a way to recall the plot or events of the video, but have a note. A class full of students can, and will, generate thirty different answers at times. I tend to put a post-it note in the DVD case and just write down the timings. 


Most students are keen to brag that they have seen SAW 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, and that their parents let them. I am very cautious when showing films and the age rating is paramount. If it says 15, I will not let them watch it if they are below that age. You could get their parents’ permission and I think with watching films it is better to be safe than sorry. An overly cautious teacher is much better than an irate parent.

Watch the film beforehand. I know it sound obvious, but it is easy to do. No time the night before? Well, it says it is a 12, so it will be fine. I did that with a documentary once and the f-word was mentioned a few times and caused a few problems and a red-faced teacher.  Furthermore, I run the ‘Film Club’ at school and you’ll be surprised at the amount of swearing or sexual content in a 12 certificate film. You don’t have to censor things, but have a little conversation at the start of the film that stops the class overreacting. Telling them that there is some swearing or nudity stops it becoming a big deal.   


All adaptations of novels are lies. Harsh, I know, but it is true. No matter what film you are watching it is never the same as the original text. It is a director’s viewpoint or the screenwriter’s viewpoint. It isn’t a true representation of the real thing. It helps students to build a picture of the world that the characters inhabit and it might be close to the original story, but it will not replace the original thing – the novel or the play. I think having this concept in your mind is helpful when using an adaptation in lessons.

Two interesting questions relating to this ‘lie’ idea are:

What differences are there between the novel and book?  

Why are there differences between the two?    

The most recent film version of ‘Of Mice and Men’ opens with George on his own in a train after the events of the novel. As we all know Steinbeck’s novel opens with the lovely description of the Salinas River and the local setting. Why should the director lie to us in this way? The cad! Getting students to think about this difference is important to understanding how and why Steinbeck structured the novel’s opening in the way he did.  The director clearly did this foreshadowing at the start of the film to show us George’s pain. It shows us how the events of the story traumatise him and it creates an image of him being lonely and without a companion or friend. Plus, he is travelling alone and sits in the shadows. Added together, these aspects make us see the story in a new light. The novel’s original opening shows us a peaceful setting disturbed by the arrival of George and Lennie, which symbolises how these two characters bring trouble with them. Why should the director show us a different opening to the story? To add more drama? To focus on the characters rather than the setting? To raise questions about the fate of the characters? This all, however, raises questions about the choices made by a writer and a director, and helps students to see meaning behind the choices made.

I am preparing for teaching ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and I am struggling as there seems to be no film version that is remotely close to the original novella. Each director has tried to control the story and I think that is the problem with the story: it has an undefinable story or style or genre. It is like its main character. A mixture of different things. Most directors have added female characters to add depth to the story, which is a very masculine story of a world dominated by men.  Some directors have shown the story as a linear narrative and the audience follow Doctor Jekyll’s decent into Mr Hyde as a simple journey. These choices make me more aware of the choices Stevenson made with his novella. However, it doesn’t help me with my class. It looks like I will be using a creaky BBC adaptation and focusing on the differences. 

Some students find it difficult to separate the ‘lie’ from the ‘truth’ when talking about texts. It is common for students to refer mainly to a film version of a story rather than the original text.  Guns tend to be replace swords in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for many essays, for example. Why do they do this? Visual memory is possibly easier to recall. I think it is my job to make the differences between the ‘lie’ and the ‘truth’ explicit. I should be exploring the differences and discussing why those changes have been made. A possible activity with a Shakespeare text could be to decide on how the story could be modernised. What would you have to change to make it relevant for a modern audience? What time period? Where would it be located? The recent RSC version of ‘Julius Caesar’ is a great example of a modern interpretation of the play with its setting of the story in a politically dangerous climate in an African country.

Sometimes, adaptations are too good. Baz Luhrmann’s version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is so good that students’ memory of the story is clouded too much by this version. That is why I prefer to show a mixture of versions, rather than one version alone. This isn’t helped by a lack of versions available for some stories. However, I quite like the BBC versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Not the recent the ‘Hollow Crown’ season, but the series from the late 70s and early 80s. Why? Well, they are devoid of realism in places. You can see painted backdrops, wobbly sets and there is some awkward direction, but they are clearly a play. They look and feel like a play. Look at any film of a Shakespeare play from the last ten years and you can clearly see they are a film and not a play. Films are often glossy, smooth, musical and realistic, whereas a play isn’t always realistic, smooth or glossy.  Furthermore, I prefer the black and white versions of Charles Dickens’ stories for a similar reason; they make the stories less realistic and more fantastical. Something otherworldly.


A TV coma is the common position for students when watching a video or DVD. They slouch and stare at the television screen and the only life you might see is slight flickering of their eyelids as the subconscious screams for some kind of activity.  It is so easy to make watching a video a passive experience. Sit down, shut up and watch. But, we want their little grey cells to work. Here are some ideas that I have found helpful in getting them to be less passive when watching a video:  

Pause to think and discuss: Stop the DVD and give students a question to answer based on that point in the DVD. For example: how does the director show Brutus’s mental torture in this scene? Or, why set this scene in Julius Caesar’s home?

Questions: Write a set of questions which students answer while watching the film. Try to give them a few minutes between each question, so they don’t miss one question while answering another.

Review it: Thanks to Julie Blake’s ‘The Full English’ for this idea. Get students to review the film and make comments on its strengths, weaknesses and tips for improvement.

Spot the differences: Get students to spot the differences between the original text and the adaptation.

Finally, think about when you are going to show it. I showed a version of ‘Julius Caesar’ period 5 on a Wednesday after a very busy week for the Year 11s, thinking that it would be suitable as they would be clearly tired. Half of them fell asleep. And I mean sleep – heads on desk and eyes shut. The rest were borderline conscious or daydreaming. One student wanted to do lines just to cope with the tiredness. They got nothing out of it. I thought showing a DVD was a rest for them; it wasn’t. They needed to use their grey cells and I assumed they would automatically.

Right, I am off to watch another DVD and enter my own TV coma. 

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Exploring characters in a novel

Exploring Character in Texts - focusing on questions
For the past four years I have been working  as an Assistant Core Curriculum leader of English, or, second in department, for those that loathe business speak being used in schools – I am one who abhors it. My first day was one that I will never forget; all for the wrong reasons. I had spent weeks sorting out my outfit, shirt and tie combination, layout of classroom, SOWs, and many other frivolous things. I was armed and prepared. I had even bought myself a new satchel. Black leather. For satchels are the sign of someone organised and studious, in my rose-tinted world.  
The birds were singing as pulled up into my new school. I was prepared and ready to work, and, make an excellent first impression. I thought I’d just pop to the photocopying room to do some last minute preparation for lessons. The photocopier was working well. I photocopied 25 sheets. Then, I decided to cut the sheets up using the guillotine.  I split the sheets into two piles. Guillotined the first pile in half. Then the second half. Had I ruined the sheets? No. Had I broken any of the machines on my first day? No. Had I covered myself in ink from the photocopier? No. What I had done is probably worse, and, more embarrassing. In my haste to cut the paper, I had guillotined the bottom half of my tie off. Thinking I could escape the embarrassment, I left the room to walk into another member of staff. I was mortified. They looked down at the sad remains of my tie.
Anyway, one of the items on the agenda for my first staff briefing was a health and safety issue. We were instructed to take more care, when using school equipment, such as the guillotine. The whole room looked at me and laughed. I went a wonderful colour of red and smiled.  A colleague told me afterwards that was a great way to make a first impression. She told me that the whole experience made people warm to me in a way that I hadn’t predicted. In fairness, I was probably too focused on my professional appearance, and, as a result  of this accident demonstrated to my new colleague how human I was – I make mistakes and I can laugh at them too.  However, I don't advise people to walk around with their skirt tucked in their knickers or toilet paper stuck to their shoes. There are much better ways to show you are human, or normal.
Where am I going with this? Easy – character. It is sometimes the smallest of things that generates a greater understanding of people, or the world around us. My first few years of teaching 'character' in English was pants. It tended to revolve around a sheet of adjectives to describe a character or their personality and students would find quotes to support their choice. There might have been a bit of analysis of the quotes, but we would finish by looking at what the writer had done. It wasn’t really inspiring and was a bit functional. They got some good ideas, but there wasn’t a level of engagement that I wanted.
In the last five years, I’d say that I have given the character question in English a lot of thought. There tend to be two main questions when exploring a character:

What is the character thinking or feeling in this extract?
How is the character presented in this extract?
There are many more, but they tend to be variations of the same two questions. For example: What is your opinion of the character?  This could be answered by answering both of these questions. Originally, I think I was just too focused on labels to describe the character. Most of my teaching was simplistic and it was focused on finding and selecting words or quotes. It wasn’t really thinking about the character, or how the character was constructed. It was thinking about getting quick answers to the question, and ignoring the detailed thought and understanding that must happen before they answer the question. I always nag about thinking and planning time, yet I wasn’t building it into my teaching.

Therefore, I thought about asking questions that made students think and engage in the character. I selected these questions before they started answering the following question: How is the character of George presented in the novel 'Of Mice and Men'?

What two sides does the character have?
What does the character learn by the end of the novel?
What is the character’s emotional journey in the novel?
What is the character’s weakness?
What is the character’s strengths?

Note that these questions all start with what. This could be changed to a how and the question reordered to make an even more effective question, or a step up once students have asked the first questions:
How do we see the two different sides of the character?
How does the character learn a valuable lesson by the end of the novel?
How does the character’s emotional state change in the novel?
How do we see the character’s weakness?
How do we see the character’s strengths?
These questions are working with character in far more detail than saying that George is grumpy  because he is mean to Lennie. It allows students to think of the whole picture, rather than isolated sections. Furthermore, we could change these questions to introduce the word ‘why’ and have even more challenging questions.  
Why do we see the two different sides of this character?
Why does the writer make this character learn a valuable lesson by the end of the novel?
Why does the character’s emotional state change in the novel?
Why does the writer show this character’s weakness?
Why does the writer show this character’s strengths?
When they have answered these questions a group of students is much more able to answer main question set as they have explored the character in greater detail. They are mainly opinion based questions. Something students are happier to share. We are using their opinions and thoughts and feelings before answering questions about what a character is thinking or feeling, or the presentation of a character.
I think my original mistake was to leave out the thinking time. For me to generate interesting and detailed answers to a character question I need to build in discussion and thought.  I can’t just leave it to simple comprehension tasks, which is what I used to do.
What sort of things do I do now?
These are just a few things I get students to do before they approach a character. Some of them are original. Some of them are old hat. But, I think they are worth doing if you are wanting them to say something more meaningful than Curley is aggressive because he is short.

·       Coins – Students make a ‘coin’ with the character’s head on it. On one side they write characteristics that are positive and on the other side they do the same for negative things. They make a great mobile in the classroom.
·     Tracking their journey – Rather than plot tension in a novel or play, plot the emotional journey of a character on a graph. You could link to tension later., if necessary. If you want to do a quicker version, ask them to write 6 emotions that a character feels in the book.  Place them in the order they appear in the book.
·       Body Language – Give students a lesson on reading body language and analyse a clip from a film for body language.  
·       Creating ‘foils’ – I love looking at the concept of foils in texts. What does placing Curley next to Slim teach us about Curley? Making unusual connections between characters is great fun.

·       Zoom in on one specific thing – look at a specific moment and think of its ripples. In ‘Of Mice and Men’, what does the first appearance of Curley’s Wife show us? What are the ripples from that one moment? What could George have done at that moment to prevent later ripples?

·       Outside the box thinking /Symbolism – What music would Curley listen to? If Slim could paint the bunkhouse, what colour would he pick? Justifying the answer is fun. Why would Slim pick pink? Is it that he is comfortable with his masculinity? Or, could it be he is thinking of making the place more appealing for women? Who knows?

·       Balloon debates – Your hot air balloon needs to lose some weight. Which character are you going to throw overboard? Why them?

To push students further, I sometimes look at stock character types and apply these to the text being studied, so that students can focus more on the role of the character, and see how the writer has used the character. Shakespeare is fantastic for showing how stock characters are used by writers. 'Much Ado About Nothing' has a few candidates for 'the fool'. What might be interesting is thinking about these stock characters in a modern novel? Who is 'the fool' in 'Of Mice and Men'? Is it Curley? Or, does the role of 'the fool' move around characters? This takes the idea of the character further, but I need to provide students with the tools and terminology for discussing this. Tell them the types of character that a writer might employ in a story.

Additionally, I may look at the characters in terms of the overall story. Are these characters three-dimensional or two-dimensional? Is their behaviour predictable? Or, is it unpredictable and three-dimensional? Do the characters in the story change over the course of the story? Or, do they stay constant? Several years ago I taught 'Of Mice and Men' after teaching 'Oliver Twist' and Steinbeck's realism contrasted well with Dickens' satire and comedy. Using a previous novel helped to see the text in a different light. It made a great point of comparison and a way of building and extending their existing knowledge. Through comparison, they were able to learn more about the character.   

The more I think about character, the more I think ‘hot-seating’ is a great task that I don’t use enough in lessons. It makes them think of effective questions to probe their understanding of a character further. Also, it makes them think of the answers to the questions. It makes them more independent about their learning. Getting inside a character’s head will only help them. I think the next time I use ‘hot-seating’ I am going to spend more time on the questions. I will spend a lesson of students getting their questions and drafting and redrafting them. Then, I will get them to stack and evaluate the questions and push them to ask more effective and meaningful questions. David Didau’s brilliant 'The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson' has a really good section on questioning and I think it is a good starting point for this.

So, what lesson have I learnt? Well, two lessons really. The first is to build thinking time with character questions. Spend a large amount of time ‘digging deeper’ into the character and the text’s meaning. The second is questioning. Ask intelligent questions that elicit higher level thinking. Get the questions to push the students and don’t narrow the questioning to focus solely on the end assessment. Oh, and stay away from guillotines when wearing a tie.
Thank you for reading my blog and a big thank you to @Gwenelope for her help and support with this .

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Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Teaching a novel part 2

Reading a novel part 2  
I hate word searches. There, I’ve said it. It is out there. I’m sorry if I have offended you with my venom for word searches, but I cannot stand them. For me, they are up there with whistling, novelty socks and olives. Writing the words ‘word’ and ‘search’ together makes me shudder. Anyway, I have two daughters, identical twins, and I often think about their future. Already I've planned, in my head, a future conversation I might have relating to vetting a future boyfriend. It goes something like this:
Dad: (sternly) So, you wish to date my daughter, do you? [Optional: holding a cat and sitting in a chair ]
Boyfriend: (nervously) Yes….yes.
Dad: (aggressively) Do you like wearing novelty socks?
Boyfriend: What? (pause) Ummm..I don’t know. Maybe?
Dad: Interesting. Do you like to whistle?
Boyfriend: Sorry? Yeah. I mean no. I mean - I have never really thought about it.
Dad: Do you prefer Pinter or Ibsen?
Boyfriend: Who? What? (pause) Are they a band or something? My dad likes them, I think. Haven’t they just reformed?
Dad: (without emotion) Do you like word searches?
Boyfriend: Pardon. Word searches? Like in a book? Circle them? Yes, I think.  I’m sorry – I only wanted to ask if I could have a glass of water.

My daughters are only four years old, but I am prepared for the future. Why have I got this irrational dislike of word searches? Simple: it is all down to the next question.

What do I want them to learn from this novel?
In my last blog I described some of the mistakes I've made when teaching a novel. I left the worst experience out – and it is terrible. It was so bad that I haven’t taught the book since. The book in question sits on my shelf like an unwanted toy. It looks at me all sad, lonely and abandoned. The book is Roald Dahl’s ‘Boy’. A fantastic book. But, I messed it up big time.

I taught the book by reading the book and doing a number of different tasks. Seems straightforward, so far.

Unfortunately , I had to no idea where I was going with the learning or teaching of the book. Mainly, I taught the novel by focusing on what I wanted to do rather than focusing on what I wanted them to learn. There was no real planning or effective thinking. It was the class going from one ‘nice’ activity to another 'nice' activity. Yeah, there may have been some learning somewhere, but I had lost sight of the big picture. They were reading the book and doing some superficial activities that didn’t push them or stretch them. Where was the embedding the learning or building on a skill and making it better? I taught ‘Boy’ like that – with no connection between lessons. No glue. No overview. No big picture. A series of random actvities with the story connecting each lesson together.

I was too busy looking outside the window admiring the view and laughing at the sights, when I should have been steering the car carefully on the road. Metaphorically, I had driven the car into a ditch. Nobody was harmed, but we didn’t get to our destination on time.     
That is one of the big problems with teaching a novel: there are so many different things you could do with it. That is what is so great about teaching English. However, I’ve seen people take their eyes of the road several times in my career. They focused too much on the nice things and forgot to think about the endgame. I trained to be a business manager before I became a teacher and one of the things they taught me was about 'helicopter thinking'. To be successful, a manager needs to think of the team, task and result all at the same time. A manager, for example, would imagine he/she was a helicopter in their role and land on a station, like the task, explore it and then fly up and see the bigger picture.  Now, this might seem obvious in teaching, but it isn’t and it wasn't for me; I made that mistake many years ago with ‘Boy’.

My main advice with all planning is start from the end and then work your way backwards.  I am working on ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and my first point is the essay question I want them to answer for Controlled Conditions.  Now, I am in the process of deciding what they need for the journey to get them to that end point – the essay.
Back to word searches. Word searches are simple. They tend to focus on the skills of finding and locating information. Not that intellectually taxing really. For me, word searches represent this 'frivolous approaching to teaching' that I got and get sucked into. They are easy to make. They keep students absorbed and engaged for ten minutes.  They are fun to do. Unfortunately, they don’t really stretch a student or develop a skill. They might help reinforce key words. They ‘might’ help with spellings, but do they really push them up to the next grade or level?  No.  Rest assured, I will not be saying in my lessons: “Right class, we are going to do a word search on prepositions”.

Chess is more my kind of thing, but I can’t see people using chess to teach the complexities of a subordinate clauses or pathetic fallacy. [Be my guest; give it a try.] Chess reminds me of planning; it is all about strategy and organising things well before the end of the game. Put your pieces in place and the game is won. Your opponent might out manoeuvre you, but you are ready to solve that problem quickly.


I could, and I did with ‘Boy’, skip through a novel and set frivolous tasks with no real foundations for learning or any direction for progress. Before, my lessons included a diary entry from a character, mock newspaper story and a word search. Several years later, I plan my schemes of work like a game of chess. I think of tasks in terms of pawns, rooks, bishops, knights, a queen and a king. I rank the activities. I decide what tasks are expendable, but fun – the pawns. I decide what task is important to do the main assessment well – the king. I think you get the picture.
Next academic year, I am going to teach  ‘Skellig’ to a very able Year 7 class. How might I plan it? This should give you a rough idea.
Final Assessment: create a piece of writing similar to Almond’s description of Skellig in the garage.
Create a telephone conversation between Michael and Mina exploring their feelings and thoughts
Read the poetry of William Blake
Write a letter to school complaining about an issue
Explore how tension is created in different parts of the book
Look at some examples of descriptions of setting written by different authors
Look at some examples of descriptions of creatures / monsters  
Analyse extract from book commenting on how language is used for effect
Transform the description in the garage into a positive one
Comment on how they transformed the description

Write a draft copy of the task

This isn’t the whole SOW, but it is just a starting point. I haven’t been specific about AFs or the techniques I want them to develop, which I will do later.  Mainly, I have prioritised the activities.  I have my endgame in sight, before I even start teaching or planning in greater detail. I know what I want to do. I know what is important. I know what isn’t so important. I know what to leave out, if I want to take a different path. What I have done is some ‘joined-up-thinking’. Horrible phrase, I know. Chess can be, if played well, a slow and methodical process, and the winning move can be planned well in advance of the ending. Chess is the game I would expect gods to play. Tactical. Thinking. Moving people and crafting the future to come.
One day, I will return to ‘Boy’ and teach it. However, it taught me so much about planning and how to plan. I always plan backwards and decide on the relevance of the task I am setting. And, I do enjoy doing stuff for the fun of it, just not word searches. However, crosswords are a different thing!

Thanks for reading.

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