Thursday, 29 August 2013

AFL – for better or worse?

There are so many new things or revised old ways in education that I can sometimes get a little bamboozled with things. Added to this is my fear of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ syndrome. People will gush with enthusiasm on Twitter about how something is divine or wonderful, but I am always left with a funny feeling. Is it really that good? Sadly, I have sat in meetings where things have been rolled out as if it is something amazing, when it is simply something old, renamed or blatantly obvious.

AFL has always been one of those grey areas for me. About 8 years ago, my school, at the time, was promoting AFL. I was sat there confused, thinking either someone is having me on, as I thought everyone was doing this; or the new thing is something I don’t stupidly understand. Over the years, I have had similar thoughts over SOLO and other things discussed online and on Twitter. I suppose a lot of it is about putting a term or defining what is natural in teaching on education. SOLO taxonomy is great, but I realised that I had been doing it naturally, but I hadn’t called it by the title or even use those awful terms to describe the different stages. (Sorry, to whomever came up with them. ) I am a science-fiction fan and I love to ‘reverse the neutron flow’ and listen to technobabble on television programmes, but on a day-to-day basis I do not want to sound like a new character from ‘The Big Bang Theory’: one who has no awareness of social conventions and uses words that are only found in dictionary corner of ‘Countdown’.

AFL was one of those areas. I thought I did it, but not like how the people giving CPD were doing it. They were using snazzy things like a plus and minus or a tick sheet. I tried these and they partly worked, yet like most things in education, it might work in one subject, but it doesn’t work with what I am doing now and everything. At the heart of AFL, for me, has always about these two questions:

·         Where am I? (grade, level, number, depending on the politicians in charge of education at the time of reading this blog)

·         What do I need to do to improve?

Like most people, I would photocopy mark schemes or write student friendly schemes for students to mark and level themselves, or each other. This usually worked for me and then I did some experimenting and I quite liked the results. The sequence of events goes like this:

1] Set the task and get students to complete the work. Prior to this, I might have given them some guidance, but very little modelling for a reason: the process uses it.

Write the opening paragraph to a horror story.

2] Show students an example of a good or excellent response to the task. The example used depends on the group or what you are trying to achieve with the piece of writing.

 A single blot on the vast whiteness of the landscape moved and shifted like some gelatinous mass. The blank canvas of the moor was empty apart from the image getting closer and closer. Gentle footstep could be heard amongst the reeds and grass, as bit by bit the image solidified into a man. In the distance, features started forming on the man. A black hat masking his eyes. A long silver object in his hands. A set of lips formed in a grimace with blackened teeth peeping out. It was a man with one thing on his mind: murder.   

3] Then students compare this piece to their paragraph. Usually, I would say the word ‘better’ at this point, but I recently added the word ‘worse’. Students now have to write a few bullet points underneath their own paragraph.

It was a cold, dark night and the field was empty. An owl hooted. The monster was ready for food. Its hunger was the main thing on his mind. It could smell blood. It wanted human blood. 


Better because…

·         I got to the horror stuff sooner.

·         I am clearer about what the horror is.

·         I use a short sentence for impact.


Worse because… 

·         The example zooms in on different bits and paints a big picture of the person.

·         It uses more description.

·         It uses more effective words.

4] Students now rewrite their paragraph with that information. This they can do with a partner.

The field was empty. An owl hooted, as the moon spread its light across the dark night and still grass.  It was hungry. Hungry for blood, flesh, gristle and bone. It would eat anything, as long as it was human. The shadow interrupted the moon’s light on the field. A figure with two arms, two legs and one head, but not it the places where they should be.  

 5] Students now look at mark scheme and look at where they were at the start and where they are now.

I have had some hilarious attempts in the past of students using mark schemes to work out their level. Teachers need moderators, years of practice and examples to help us ‘divine’ what mark a piece of work has achieved. Often, we don’t always agree.  However, we occasionally ask students to work out their level of assessment, yet they do not have the experience of good and bad that we have. They have an inkling, but they don’t have the knowledge. Now, obviously, more time and experience will help them, but I found this ‘better and worse’ approach has helped me, and more importantly, them.  No longer are we looking at the pinnacle of excellence and working out the insurmountable steps they have to complete to get the accolade of success. They judge where they are in relation to other things. I am better than this, but not as good as that.  Who thought the word ‘worse’ would change a simple way of thinking?
I might be doing something akin to ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, but I have found my way of doing it and it works for me. Now, people might say this is simply the plus and minus thing reworked, but I don’t; this is about relationships and the placing of students in relation to the spectrum of marks and ability. It’s all about position. When I was at school, I was ranked in subjects, so I knew if I was good, bad or average. Unfortunately, I wasn’t directly told what I need to do to move from position 112 to 111 in PE (the whole cohort was made up of 112 students.).  Successful AFL maybe isn’t just about the level and the steps to improve, but also about where a student is in relation to others and what have they done right. It isn’t a case of ‘just add a ____ and you are there’, but more a case of ‘that is so good, but add ____ and make sure you keep doing the good thing you did before’.

For better or worse, I am sticking with AFL. But, if the Emperor walks by in his new suit, I think it is better to be behind and worse to be at front.  At least, that way you can laugh at him, because at the front you have to pretend it is great and that he isn't stark naked - in the nude!

Thanks for reading  


Saturday, 24 August 2013

What is the magic word?

I have just returned from a relaxing holiday in Majorca. It was a great holiday and I feel thoroughly relaxed. But, as I was sat on the beach, my brain got thinking. I love to people watch on holiday, as I like to think that I am a failed actor, and that I watch what people do so I could possibly use it for a role I am playing. As I sat contemplating, I spotted ….

The family all wearing the same stripy t-shirt
The toddler covered up by paranoid parents that only his fingers were exposed to sunlight
The parents that sizzled half naked on a sunbed while a poor young child suffered the heat in a pram with a towel covering it
The peacock of a man that walked up and down the beach strutting his stuff, hoping that a female would throw herself at him - none did
The man that sucked in his stomach every time he left the water
The family with the unruly children who apologised for their behaviour but didn’t give sanctions to them
The lilo that was the equivalent of a small yacht that had space for four people
The young couple that exchanged cuddling for squeezing each other’s spots
The tough, hard as a nails, man with tattoos aplenty reading a book about a poor little kitten

So many people. So many stories. However, if I was an entrepreneur and wanted to find a gap in the market, I would consider this: six pack tattoos and by-the-beach-back-waxes. If there was an abundance of something on the beach, it was six packs and hairy backs - but not both at the same time. Admittedly, I am a little jealous of the six packs, but I think there could be a market there. It would mean that wimpy weaklings like me stand a chance of not sticking out like a sore thumb, as others parade their hard work.  

Anyway, one thing made me proud and cry at same time. If you don’t know it, one of my daughters has cerebral palsy, and going on holiday was a big step for us this year. Other families seem to swan off without a care in the world to other countries, but we had to contact airports, organised separate travel insurance, book a suitable hotel and sort out various things. Aside from all that, we had a brilliant time.  My daughter loved the time on the beach and she took a few tumbles, but something great and sad happen on the beach. First: she fell over near a group of twenty somethings who then laughed their heads off. Second: she accidentally stood on a flip-flop that someone had left on the sand by their towel.

The first event is something that happens occasionally and sadly it blights a childhood of growing up with a disability. It is not the worst and it won’t be the last. In fact one of the worse things was on a sports day. A child said to his dad that his team wouldn’t win, because they had my daughter on their team.  Thankfully, I wasn’t there, or I would have expressed, in a polite way, how displeased I was at that comment. However, I do feel sorry for that lad. It wasn’t necessarily his view. Dare I say it; I think the prejudice was all down to the dad. Children are far more tolerant than adults. Children ask questions, where as adults stare and gawp - and form grudges.  

The second incident was the one I am more interested in: my daughter stood, as she struggles to control her legs, on somebody’s flip-flop that was abandoned by a man's towel. She realised that she had done something possibly bad, so she picked up the item and handed it to the total stranger. The stranger didn’t speak English, but she said sorry and even bent down again to pick up the other abandoned flip-flop, thinking that the stranger had lost them both. I watched this in awe, as she did something that made me so proud. I was when more proud when I think I had already been squashed by an eleven year old on an inflated Nemo that morning. The eleven year old just gave a cursory sorry. My daughter wasn't aware of the fact of that I watched the whole event unfold; she just did it without me barking her to say sorry. But, what makes it even better the second bit. She picked up the other flip-flop.

I suppose this week I want to talk about manners. This summer we have people talking about students needing grit, facts, skills – but, you know what? I think we need manners. A couple of years ago David Cameron announced his ‘Big Society’ idea. In a nutshell, people had to pay something back into society by volunteering. Nice idea, but I don’t think it ever really left the ground. We often hear talk of a broken society and how the ‘youf’ of today are lacking something.  But, I think it is our relationship with politeness that needs working on. If people were politer, then the society we live in would be a much better one.

I look to my grandparents for role models of politeness. They are both in the seventies, but they are models of politeness and respect. They would always been respectful and never say a bad word about anybody. They are so lovely, but they don’t scream for attention. They don't always insist that they are write. They don't even demand an apology is something doesn't go right. They don’t demand to be spoken to.  They don’t demand to be mollycoddled. They just wait and say nice things. They live and breathe Paul Grice’s maxims:

Quantity – make your contribution as informative as informative as required for the current purposes of the exchange. Do not make your contribution more informative than required
Quality – Try to make your contribution one that is true. Do not say what you believe to be false and/or do not say that for which you do not have adequate evidence
Relation – be relevant to topic at hand
Manner – avoid obscurity of expression, avoid ambiguity, be brief and be orderly
(Source: )
They know what to say and how to say it. They don’t blurt the first thing that comes to mind. It is funny that I only came across Grice's maxims when I taught A-level English Language. However, they are more important to all lessons and all conversations than just an English Language lesson.

Tom, isn't about time you let Jan speak now? Quantity.
Rick, you haven't read the poem yet. Quality.
Jenny, how does 'Waterloo Road' relate to the character of Curley and the work you are doing now? Relation.
Mark, how can you say that in a more pleasant way? Manner
As a teacher, I know how I spend a lot of my time getting students to follow rules of politeness and adhere to the maxims above. It is hard and difficult, but I think the systems in place work against us. A child-centre approach to teaching has left us, over the years, with the following ideas hidden in our educations system:

·         Lots is good.

·         All contributions are worthy and valid.

·         We love it if students think of crazy and ‘out the box’ ideas.

·         Be the first to say it.

Now, any teacher worth their weight in gold will challenge these ideas from lesson to lesson. But, I think we have a culture that promotes all of these notions. Look at celebrity culture and I think you can relate most of these to it. Lots of attention is good for a celebrity. Every utterance a celeb speaks finds its way into the media and the public sphere. We adore celebrities if they are barking mad. The madder the better. We like the gaga, if possible. Finally, most celebrity are quick to get on the band-wagon of the next best idea.  But, it isn’t just celebrity culture. Look at how people drive. Look at people deal with conflicts. Nobody sits and listens. It is all about who can speak the loudest and who has been wronged the most.  Driving around in a car is like driving around in your own tank. Say what you want and do what you want, because you are impervious to harm. The behaviour in a classroom can reflect this tank-like attitude towards the world.  Look at Aristotle and his view of the world. His placing of the world in the centre of the universe missed some many interesting and varied things. Do we put ourselves in the centre of the universe? If you are a teacher, you don't. Your function is to make others better to further improve and benefit society.

I was unlucky to have a terrible experience in a lift recently. I was waiting for a lady and her child to get into the lift. She spoke to the child like he was dirt. He wasn’t doing what she wanted him to do. (We’ve all been there) She swore at the lad. She called him a ‘shit’ and that she was going to ‘f***ing hit him’ if he didn’t move this minute. Now, I don’t know the full picture and I know how frustrating children can be, but was it really appropriate to swear? Somebody will teach that lad one day and the message he has learnt from his mother is that if you are unhappy and not getting your own way, swear. I am not suggesting that ‘please’ was the magic word here. This might have also been a bad day for this person, but isn't this a sign of a lack of awareness of others? I was listening. My daughters were listening. The shop was listening. Was this person at the centre of the universe and blind to the rest of creation?  

Over the years, I have developed several mantras, but my most recent one is:

The most intelligent person finishes work last and speaks last.

This was born out my frustration of students rushing work to please me by being the first to finish. Furthermore, I was fed up of student saying the first thing that comes to mind. This 'me, me, me' attitude is so draining. Yes, everybody is important and special, but you have to wait your turn. We live in a world that screams, shouts, cries, blurts and wails all the time. The classroom is where we can partly address this. We have to teach this screaming baby how to interact with others. The models they have are not the best ones and with recent events relating to social media, there has never been a more appropriate time to address how students should interact with others.

A year ago, I wrote a blog about advice to an NQT. This year my advice is for NQTs to come up with a set of rules of polite behaviour you expect in your classroom. Because, if there is one thing in teaching I have is learnt is that you don’t ever assume something. Your students may not have the same rules of politeness that you have. What are your rules of politeness? What are your classroom maxims? My go something like this:


·         Wait for the lesson to start, before you ask the teacher what the lesson is about.

·         Talk in a calm and friendly manner to students and teacher.

·         Never raise your voice.

·         Only talk about things related to the topic in the lesson.

·         Give others a chance to speak.

·         Do not dominate a conversation.

·         All requests should be questions rather than commands.

I could go on and on.  Teaching children how to be polite is hard work, but if you look at our reports they show us how important manners are to us. How many reports have you written that say that a student is a polite individual? Having children myself, I know how blooming hard it is getting them to be polite and kind. My children aren't always the most politest of things and it is bloody hard work getting them to be polite. The more of us that raise politeness as an issue, the more polite our little society will be. A kinder place to live in.

When we have got the children and teenagers acting politely, then maybe we could get the adults acting politely.

Thank you ever so much for reading this blog,


Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Through a mirror darkly: How do you teach context?

Teaching is a bit like eating a Cabury’s Creme Egg. Each person has their own way of doing it. Some nibble one bit at a time. Some eat things all in one go. Some eat half and come back later. I think Twitter and blogging are very frustrating, as everyone has a perspective and not everybody can, and will, agree. A few people moan about how some people eat in crazy way; and a select few tut about how others are ‘traditional’ in their way of eating.

I get a little excited when Christmas finishes as from January onwards the creme eggs are on sale. Therefore, for months until Easter my wife and I taste / devour / eat / scoff / ravish the chocolate eggs. My wife slowly eats hers and I, contrastingly, eat mine in one go. We both enjoy the experience, but have different approaches. That’s what can be a little frustrating about teachers on blogs and Twitter. It is the asserting that their way is the right and the best way.  I don’t think for one minute I have nailed eating chocolate eggs (other chocolate eggs are available) or teaching; I just feel if I share my thoughts or ways of doing things I might learn from others.  I am happy to be wrong, but more than happy to question.   
So my question is today: How do you teach context? Each sliver of text we study is a telescope into the world that the writer was writing in. We learn things about life, culture, politics and other enlightening things.  A lot of these come from the book itself and you teach them as you go along. Why are people so mean to Curley’s Wife? Why does Crook’s sleep in his own room? But, occasionally, we need to go a little bit further to understand the text.  
The story we read in class is a pale imitation of the world students know. Some created worlds are close to their own world; others are strangely alien. Some things are obvious and some not.  The Depression reflects the Repression of today in ‘Of Mice and Men’.  I know: A good book doesn’t need explicit contextual information. The sign of a good book is its ability to discuss key aspects of human existence. They surpass the time they were written. They don’t need detailed explanation. But, alongside this might be some complex idea that was only relevant at the time. To fully understand ‘The Merchant of Venice’, you need to know the religious context of the time. To fully understand ‘Julius Caesar’, you need to know that Queen Elizabeth’s life was threatened by assassination plots on a regular basis. Some of these may have been from the Pope, who lived in Rome at the time – where Romans come from and where ‘Julius Caesar’ is set.  Learn the fact that there was a Jewish doctor who was accused of poisoning the Queen and you have a deep understanding of both plays.   
So, what do you do?

Which of the following do you use when teaching the context of a play, novel or poem?

[A]Dig out a sheet photocopied from a book.

[B] Give a lecture on what you brain knows about said context.

[C] Show students a picture, painting or piece of music and like a good food critic get students to infer what this tells us of the time by looking for hints of this and essence of that.

[D] Dust off a video that you found in the stock cupboard that features an Open University documentary that has the colour brown with aplomb.  

At the moment, I am preparing to teach ‘Othello’ for the first time and I have got to that awkward context question, again. I love history and I love referring to it in lessons; however, there comes a point when essays become information dumps. Teaching contextual information alongside a literary text has always been, for me, a tightrope act. Balance one way and all the students do is regurgitate facts about how William Shakespeare might have been gay, or Christopher Marlowe – or even both. Balance the other way and you get students forgetting that text is a product of its time and focusing on how William Shakespeare nicked his plot from Eastenders  and Coronation Street.  Sometimes, I have been successful. Others, I haven’t.

Adrian Beard’s ‘Texts in Context’ has been a great book for me teaching A-level, highlighting that there are different contexts.

Dramatic context

Social Context

Political Context

Gender Context

Religious Context

The problem I find with the concept of context is that there is so much of it. As teachers we have to whittle down what is relevant to the understanding of the story.  Does the colour of Queen Elizabeth’s dress really matter to the plot?

At the start of texts, I produce a poster summarising key contextual points. For example:  

Porphyria’s Lover: Context

·   Victorians didn’t really talk about sex.

·   Women had no power.

·   Women couldn’t leave or divorce a man.

·   It was terrible if a woman had an affair. They would be shunned by society.

·   Victorians were worried about women and their desires.

·   People could only marry a person if they were of the same social class. The rich married the rich and the poor married the poor.

·   Victorians were interested in how the mind works.

·   Most people attended Church on a Sunday.

I give students a list of facts, statements or general opinions of the time. This is produced as a poster and kept in the classroom as a display. It then becomes an aide memoir to students. The repetition and generalisation of Victorians is important, I think, because it then sets up the difference between the student’s context and the context of when the story was written.  It makes for a great starter. How would you change the poster for modern readers?
During the teaching of the text, I will ask questions about the text and ask them to link to what they know about the context. Because these are generalisations, it allows students to form ideas much quicker than specific dates and details. I might at a later stage change or adapt the list, but it makes for a collective grounding of what we know. As it is there at the start, it becomes a part of the daily dialogue in lessons and students learn it better than the infamous context lesson.  The statements are the kind of things students say, so I then work to develop and improve the sophistication of these ideas.
Recently, on Twitter there has been the argument of facts versus skills. In this case, I think it is vital that students have those facts to develop their knowledge of the text. The skills of decoding and understanding of a play go hand-in-hand with the facts of the time. One doesn’t make much sense without the other.

Work out
I am spoon-feeding them, right? No so. After we have read a fair amount of that book, play or poem, I get students to do a bit of circuit training. I set up ten stations around the room; each one covering a different aspect. At each stage there is an article (dense text with no pictures) and two questions. For example:

 What do you think the King’s attitude towards Catholics was at the time the play was performed?

The play was written for the King to watch. Where do we see the King’s views reflected in the play?

Armed with a highlighter, the students visit each section and search for some golden nuggets of information and link them to the play. To spice things up, I might include a picture or extract from another play. However, the emphasis is sifting through the texts. Students have to dig and think for themselves. All the time the emphasis is on ‘relevance’: How is this piece of information relevant to my understanding of the text? They move at this stage from general opinions of the time to specific ideas.

Case Studies 
The great thing about the internet is that you are only three clicks away from a case study or an eye-witness account. Recently, I came across this article from the BBC:


It makes for an interesting point. From reading ‘Othello’, one would assume that seeing a black person in England was very rare. Reading this article would challenge that notion. But, it would also raise the issue of a multicultural England. The play shows us a multicultural society in its infancy. Although Othello is a minority, he is working in a different culture to his own. The simple questions at the end of reading a case study or extract would be:

Does this change our feelings or thoughts about the play?

Context can usually be boiled down to some bite-size facts that we can easily test with closed questions. However, presenting an idea through a case study, for me, is more effective. It is dealing with the ideas and themes rather than the what. How many times have I read an essay that starts with a date or a fact about context? Starting with an idea is so much more meaningful than a dull fact. The idea that ‘Othello’ reflects London with its population provides lots of food for thought. Was Shakespeare for a multicultural society? Was he promoting it?  

I find that my approach seems to work for me, because it doesn’t rely on the facts too much. The information is important, but it is the idea behind the fact that is more important. I have read endless essays that have told me that a student has researched the text very well, but without the connection to the writing and the understanding of the influence on the writing, the student will struggled to succeed.

I have shared with you what I do and I would love to know what you do.  To be honest, I am not that interested in how you eat your eggs though.



Saturday, 10 August 2013

Enid Blyton goes rapping with William Shakespeare

Now that I have exorcised my demons about ‘Romeo and Juliet’, I feel I can start talking about Shakespeare, and, in particular, teaching Shakespeare. Recently, I taught a little Shakespeare unit to a class of Year 7s and, for once, I decided to jazz it up – I mean rap it up.

Before I explain what I did, I need to explain how street I am. In fact, I am so street that council tidy me up every three weeks. I am so street that my stomach is one big speed hump. I am so street that all my clothes have double yellow lines on them. Actually, I am so far from anything being anything remotely street. This has been an influence in my teaching of anything related to rapping. I didn’t touch it with a barge pole.  
Personally, I feel that the ages between of 8 and 12 are crucial in the formation of any street cred or teen identity. Sadly, at that crucial time I was living in Cyprus, playing adventures in the ocean, while my peers in ‘sunny’ Wales were learning how to swear and how to perfect a teenage slouch in readiness for their teenage years. When I arrived back in the UK for the last few months of Year 6, I was like an Enid Blyton character on a day visit to the New York Bronx. It was like two worlds meeting. If only this bizarre juxtaposition of cultures was a fleeting thing. It wasn’t. Therefore, during my teenage years, while my friends were swearing their heads of, I was ‘golly-goshing’ and ‘gee-whizzing’. It was like I missed out the very important meeting where everyone learnt to swear. Sadly, I didn’t have an older brother to imitate and I was left to find my own way of being hip. While friends were experimenting with cider and twenty twenty, I was enjoying lashings of ginger beer, hoping said friends would participate in a midnight feast and solve mysteries.
Then came music. The 90s were a great and bad time for music. During my growing up, I liked dance music and indie music. And, I didn’t feel there was room for rap music. It always felt that it wasn’t for me. I had failed epically with trying to be ‘cool’ with swearing, so I was not going to try to be ‘cool’ with music. As my CD collection can confirm, I didn’t have that much luck with the music either. You will find Babylon Zoo. Proof, that just listening to music in the 90s doesn’t automatically define taste.
Fast forward to today. I have grown up and changed from an Enid Blyton character and matured into an Agatha Christie character – just without the murder. I am quite reserved and emotionally detached. Generally, I talk like a 1930’s radio announcer and hate public displays of affection. Furthermore, my welsh roots are only heard when I mention the words coat, jacket and, oddly, the word: here. All this makes for a great combination. I feel like Boris Johnson if I approach anything remotely cool, with a tiny hint of Tom Jones.
For years, I have heard teachers praise the use of rap in the classroom. I have sat in teachmeets where the enthusiasm has bubbled and oozed out of a teacher as they explained how beneficial it is; I have just sat there with my stiff upper lip, having flashbacks of my childhood.  I hid in the sand until a problem arose: I found a brilliant video to introduce Shakespeare as a rap. I procrastinated longer than Hamlet on this one. Do I use it and make a complete fool of myself? Do I use it as a fun way to introduce Shakespeare that sticks in the students’ minds? Or, do I get them to complete a worksheet? 
I did it. I rapped with the class. And, it wasn’t that embarrassing...much. We learnt the rap from the video and sung it with actions. I learnt something along the way that I don’t think I had really thought about it. The Year 7s were not the best rappers or experts on rapping I had ever seen. They were a bit like me. They thought it was ‘cool’, but they had this self-awareness that they were not skilled rappers; we liked the idea of rapping but we really didn’t have the skills to do it. I was awkward; they were awkward. It was a fun combination.  
Then, we explored the playful nature of rap. We took the famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech and turned that into a rap. We experimented with how to say the words and where to place emphasis, volume or even actions. This is a before and after.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;

To be,
or not to be: 
that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings 
and arrows 
of outrageous 
Or to take arms 
against a sea 
of troubles,
And by opposing end them? 
To die: 
to sleep;
No more; 
and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache 
and the thousand 
natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 
'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. 
To die, 
to sleep;
To sleep: 
perchance to dream: 
ay, there's the rub;

This is just a variation of performance poetry, I know. However, I have found that performance poetry can lack a bit of focus. It can be good, but more than often it isn’t. This way of rapping bits from the text meant that thought was place on how an individual should read it and not a group - often performance poetry leads to a poem being shredded and individual lines shared out by the group. Yes, I know that they ignored and followed the punctuation, but mainly they made it ‘real’. Like a real piece of speech. How would Hamlet rap this? We found that by the playing around with the lines on the page we discovered the constant listing, and the constant use of verbs. Here a thunk to think about: Who is the best Shakespeare rapper? Hamlet? Othello? Lear? Romeo? 

The great thing about this method was that we were looking at the musicality of the writing. Looking at how the beats work. Where there should be pauses? Where things should speed up? For the year 7s, it was fun and different. But for me, it was getting students to engage with Shakespeare’s language without breaking it line by line and explaining what every word or phrase means. It was listening to how the words sound and how it should be read. I could probably write an essay about some of the choices they made, as it added to the overall meaning of the text. Rapping Shakespeare isn’t about a crazy gimmick to appeal to students; it is about listening to how the lines should be read. How many times have we wanted John to channel the spirit of Kenneth Branagh when reading a brilliant line? Sadly, often it has meant that he has only channelled the spirit of the speaking clock instead.  I have heard famous lines read with a deadpan expression that is comical. Murder read like a shopping list. Declarations of love read like a train station announcement.   

Before people think I have gone mad and that I am planning to have every lesson about Shakespeare using a Dido song with another student rapping over the top of it, I am not. Instead, I am going to work on the performance of the text first, sometimes. I will get them to work out how it should be read and look for where the emphasis is. I have already got a lesson planned, where my Year 10s are going to take some of Othello’s speeches and try to read them out as a rap.

It is the cause,
it is the cause,
my soul,--
Let me not name it to
you chaste
It is the cause.
Yet I'll not shed her
Blank verse and prose floats into out teaching when looking at the text, but I feel that this 'rapping with Shakespeare' first approach could lead to the discussion in a natural way.

We always argue that plays should be acted out in lessons, but for an awkward teenager who worries about their voice, appearance and position in the class, it isn’t always the best thing. Because rap has this slightly cool air about it, it means that just by making it rap rather than drama, there is a stronger appeal.

If only I could go back in time to Wales in 1990s with my newfound rapping ability. Who knows I could have been that street to be in ‘The Streets’? Then again, I haven’t perfected the swearing yet. Golly gosh, is that the time – must dash!

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 3 August 2013

Oh my God. They killed Romeo!

I hope you haven’t played that party game of ‘I have never’. The rules are pretty simple: People take it in turns to complete the phrase ‘I have never…’ and if you have, you have a drink, or you have to complete a forfeit. I will go first: I have never taught ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to students. This is where you take a drink now, because I bet the majority of people reading this have, at some time, taught the play. I bet there are schools across the land that only teach ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at GCSE. I have certainly worked in schools where 90% of English teachers teach ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the rest do something else by William Shakespeare.  

I am one of those 10% of teachers that teaches anything but ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Over the years, I have taught ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Hamlet’, ‘Henry V’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ to a variety of students. Even my university days included more of the Bard’s work such as ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘As You Like It’, ‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘King John’, ‘Henry IV Part 1’, and ‘Henry IV Part 2’. You can see I like variety.  In fact, this week I have been studying another play to teach: Othello. I tend to rotate plays every two years to: keep me on my toes; and keep things fresh and new.

Looking at the recent changes in the curriculum, you can see an attempt to remedy this. We now have to study more Shakespeare plays and more than one at GCSE. Why? Possibly because the same one is done time and time again. There exists a problem that has been highlighted before: We tend to teach the same texts again and again at GCSE. Let’s call them the ‘trinity’ of English departments. An Inspector Calls. Of Mice and Men. Romeo and Juliet. I bet there are people that teach these plays year on year and never change them. The beauty of these texts is that they are so bloody good. However, teaching them year on year breeds over familiarity with them. Funnily, a Year 7 brought a copy ‘Of Mice and Men’ to a reading lesson and said that they were told to read it by an older sibling. Also, I have heard of some schools teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’ in Year 8 and repeating it in Years 9, 10 and 11 so, hopefully, something sticks.

Am I a better teacher for teaching the same text several years in a row? Or, is it a safer approach to teaching? I know it works, so I will stick to doing it. Why change it if it works well already? We talk about students focusing on content rather than the skills, when we do it already. We see teaching the play / novel as being content driven rather than skills driven. I have these resources and I must use them. Texts are so good because you can squeeze years of teaching out of a single novel or play.  But, does this over reliance on one text mean that we neglect the skills of a new reader to a text? Or, does it mean that we can hone some skills better?  

Personally, my teaching several Shakespeare plays has helped me considerably in my teaching. I understand his style and techniques better, because I can spot patterns between plays. I understand the mechanics of his plotting better, because I see similar devices used in different ways in his other plays. I understand his themes better, because I have seen them repeated and echoed in other plays. I am better, in my opinion, because I have read, acted and studied a range of his texts. Therefore, I now tend to have a ‘give-it-a-go approach’ to things now. I have never taught ‘Othello’, but I am enjoying preparing and planning for it. Already, I can see connections between ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘Othello’. Firstly, there’s the plotting of Don John and Iago. Then, there’s the use of imagery relating to ‘Heaven and Hell’. Finally, there is the use of Hero and Desdemona: A character presented through other people’s opinions of her. They both don’t save a single kitten, yet they are presented as pure as snow. I am starting to see that ‘Othello’ is a grown-up version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and a less comedic version of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. Yes, I know Shakespeare didn’t come up with the story, but they have a lot of similarities in the ways that they are written.

My insistence of doing different texts has helped me considerably. I feel that I can comfortably handle a new Shakespeare play without fear and worry. Yes, it does take time, but I feel more comfortable with talking about Shakespeare and his writing and his style as I have a breadth of knowledge to work from, rather than the same play. There are so many resources for ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that you don’t need to create anything really. Pick another play and you can be more inventive and creative.

So, what’s my beef with ‘Romeo and Juliet’? When I tell students that we are not going to study the play, I get a few groans and the jealousy starts about how the other groups are watching the dead good film by Baz Luhrmann. There is one reason I don’t go for it: They want to watch it.  This is my same reasoning with books like ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Hunger Games’. Why introduce these to students when they are likely to read them independently? Surely, it is better to introduce them to something new and different. I have saved somewhere a letter from a parent explaining how amazed she was that her son knew a lot about ‘Julius Caesar’. I’d rather be the key that opens doors to literature, than the ticket tout for the latest film.

Another reason: My childhood. Yes, you may call Freud. I had a fabulous English teacher at school, Mr Bic, and he taught me the play. However, even he couldn’t make me connect with the play. In fact, all I can recall is some video with some naked bums in it and me slowly ploughing through the text, wandering what we will do next. I never really connected with it, because I wasn’t part of a warring family; and, I just felt that Romeo and Juliet’s suicides were misguided. Maybe, I am heartless, but I just don’t buy the fact that these characters quickly go from 'stranger' to 'lover' and then to not wanting to exist without the other one. Furthermore, the potion. A potion that mimics death. I am sorry, but I would use everything at hand to see if my loved one was really dead. A mirror. Check her pulse. Pinch her. Bucket of cold water. Plus, what about rigor mortis?

But, the main reason is that I never felt it was a teen play. It does feature some teenagers in it, but I feel that it is an adult’s view of teenagers and how teenagers behave strangely. They fight. They argue. They disobey. They even do the deed. Then, they do a stupid thing like kill themselves. ‘Hamlet’ for me has always been the play for teenagers. A person that questions the world as it is. A person that searches for their position in the world. A person that isn’t happy. A person that has mood swings. A person that doesn’t like what his parents are telling him. I suppose I was more Hamlet than Romeo.  

In September, I will be selling (teaching) ‘Othello’ to my class. First, I will start with the plot of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Then, I will ask them: How would you make a sequel of the story? How could you improve on the story? How could you reimagine the story? Then I will tell them that ‘Othello’ is like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but with more sex, more violence, more realism, more plot twists and a darker tone.

Why the title? It is a reference to ‘South Park. In every episode, the character Kenny is killed. This is repeated every episode.
Oh my God. They killed Romeo!
Oh my God. They killed Juliet!

Oh my God. They killed Curley’s wife!

Oh my God. They killed Lennie!

Oh my God. They killed Eva Smith!

Oh my God. They killed Daisy Renton!

Go on pick another play by William Shakespeare. I dare you to.

Thanks for reading,

P.S. I will learn to love ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as I will be helping to direct it next year.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Mashing-up Literacy

I feel literacy in schools isn’t a major thing when it comes to the amount of work you have to do, as a lot of it is about publicity. Literacy is about PR for an often neglected set of skills that students have forgotten about. I have done a number of things as a coordinator to create publicity in the school: I changed the name of the Library. I took over parts of lessons. I have written to parents. I have given out ‘golden tickets’ for a non-uniform day to any student who presents work neatly. I have even changed how student write the date in their books. However, I knew from the start that I needed some big PR stunts to make literacy an issue and a priority. Stupidly, I had in my mind to do a whole literacy day. Now, the sensible voice in my head was screaming that I shouldn’t do it, while the voice with the devil horns was softly whispering that I should do it. I abhor shouting, so I ignored that voice and listened to the whispering devil.

There is a problem with calling things a ‘literacy day’ as it has the word ‘literacy’ in it. Even Geoff Barton agrees with this issue, as his great book, ‘Don’t call it literacy’, proves. As soon as you call something a literacy day, you lose about two thirds of the school population. Literacy in the students’ minds stands for lots of writing. Therefore, like a Labour candidate, I needed spin, spin, spin. I needed to learn from all those PR agents from the 1990s. I needed to rebrand it. Not New Labour, but New Literacy.

Several months ago, I attended a conference for ‘Outstanding Literacy in Secondary Schools’ and thoroughly enjoyed it - so much that they include my name (Why?) on the literature for the next one – which I sadly can’t attend. Anyway, there I was lucky to meet David Didau, Phil Beadle and Lisa Jane Ashes. For the first time in my life, I felt like a groupie, as I was surrounded by people I read about, or who had written books. There were several interesting talks and one, from Lisa, talked about ‘Manglish’. In it she described how in her school they had changed the curriculum to integrate subjects together. Hence, the title ‘Manglish’: Maths and English.

The idea floated in my brain for several months until my desire to do a literacy day. What if we did a kind of ‘Manglish’ day? What if we did lots of mixes? What if we ‘mash-up’ subjects for just one day? The ‘Mash-up day’ was born. Like ‘The Lion King’, I held up the new-born idea before the SLT and they said ... yes.
It's the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle The Circle of Life

This is how I presented it to staff:

What is a mash-up?

Definition: v. To take elements of two or more pre-existing pieces of music and combine them to make a new song. n. A song comprised of elements of two or more pieces of music.

The Mash-up Day is about making links between subjects explicit. Our students do not always use the knowledge from one subject to help them with the learning in another subject. By forcing connections, pupils will see the benefits of making connections.

·         To develop links across departments

·         To develop students’ ability to make connections

·         To provide a real context and audience for a piece of writing

·         To develop teacher’s confidence at  teaching literacy

·         To think creatively 

·         To get students working collaboratively with others in different year groups

There was quite a bit of confusion over the term ‘mash-up’; however, the teachers were very responsive to the idea, when they had understood the concept. But, where did the literacy come in? Well, the day had a clear structure and this is how it went:

Period 1: Subject mash-up

Period 2: Subject mash-up

Period 3: Written reflection on the mash-up

Period 4: Read the booklet made of their reflections

The mash-ups happened at the start of the day and they were the spring-board for a piece of writing. The writing could be anything stemming from the lesson. However, the writing had a real and genuine audience: the rest of the school. For once they were not writing for a fictitious MP or to the Prime Minister. They were writing for their peers. It was 'real writing' that would be judged by others. This, I feel, added a new aspect to their writing. There was, however, one rule: no names on the written work. At the end of the day, we would all read the booklets and see what others had done.   

The build-up to the day was amazing. I had made sure I had given staff lots of notice, so they could prepare, with time to spare. But during the preparation, you had staff fighting to work with each other. I felt sorry for one member of staff who uttered the words: ‘Who’s left?’. You had staffroom conversations about what mash-ups could be done. People kept chatting about it over the weeks. There was a general buzz as teachers were working together in a way that they had never done before. They were collaborating together and enjoying making a link. It helped, I think, that I didn’t make the connections and left staff to arrange the combinations themselves. Furthermore, as we were at the end of the academic year, there was less pressure, so people felt that there wasn’t major panic about missing valuable time.

The day started with an assembly by me. Prior to the day, I had been very vague about the whole day to students: a love a sense of drama. To start off with, I showed the school a mash-up video courtesy of YouTube and Popdanthology – great video. Then, I used a collection of my daughters’ handbags for a simple metaphor. With some handy volunteers, I got students to hold a handbag and represent a subject. I explained how lessons involve learning things (cue a plastic ball shoved into the bags) and that students often 'zipped up the bag' as soon as they leave a lesson. Today, they had to open those handbags and swap information between subjects. To sum this up, I informed them that the best students bring more to the table when answering question; they add life and other knowledge, rather than just repeat what is told to them.  

The combinations between subjects included:

Penglish – PE and English

Sciglish – Science and English

Frart – French and Art

Tecaths – Technology and Maths

Spanology – MFL and Technology

Half the fun was making up names for these new combinations of subjects. It was infectious as the students liked coming up with their own names.

It was a melting pot of ideas and teaching. The groups were organised via vertical tutor groups and that meant that each class was a mixture of 7s, 8s, 9s and some 10s. Roughly, each class had about 32 students in it, but there were two teachers, team-teaching, in each class.  It worked to build connections between staff and students.

The lessons that people had sounded really interesting and here is just a flavour of some of the things offered:

·         Food and Maths – Making cakes and up scaling the ingredients

·         French and Technology – Designing chocolates and packaging for a new chocolate to be sold in France

·         Maths and Technology – Throwing paper aeroplanes and working out the perfect trajectory for maximum flight

·         Science and English – Experiments with eggs and writing a crazy experiment

·         PE and English – Writing radio commentaries for a game they played in the first lesson

·         French and Art – Researching a French artist and developing French skills through art.

·         French and ICT – Designing a French superhero and creating their Wiki page.

I could go on as there were fifteen different mash-ups across the school. Some combinations were more successful, but as an experiment it produced some fruitful results. And, for me doing it, it was a laugh working with another teacher and doing some English stuff in a Science lesson. Plus, I have a booklet documenting the writing of the day. And, every student got a chance to read what others did in different mash-ups. Oh, they could proofread the work if they spotted any mistakes.

What the students thought?
The students liked the idea. They felt that it made them see things in a different way. Some were that keen that they wanted to mix three subjects at once. A small few thought it would be better if they could work with their friends – mmmm! As part of the evaluation process, the students got a chance to suggest their own mash-ups. Of course, PE was linked to every subject under the sun, but some interesting combinations were made such as:

·         Explore the history by looking at old games from the past;

·         Use Geography in a cooking lesson to explore different cultures and cusines.


My favourite quote of all the evaluations was:

‘It was great because you took a dull subject and made it more interesting by mashing it up with a more interesting subject.’

Staff thoughts
I think a colleague summed up the day when they told me that they really enjoyed it. I think the big thing, a problem in some cases, is that literacy has this big fanfare moment currently and in some ways people might feel that their subject is being neglected as a result. This mashing up of subjects highlighted the equal nature of all subjects. I keep going back to this question: What’s in it for me? That question is the first challenge that people have as literacy coordinators. The mash-up day meant that we were raising the status of every subject and showing students that we are working as a team. Literacy ran alongside every subject. It was and is a team effort.

For me, it was a resounding success. I have heard about other kinds of literacy days, but I am glad we mashed things up. Some of the suggestions I have seen have been quite ambitious and I think this little experiment worked as it was one small step to something bigger. Who knows what we might do next? I might look to Boris Johnson’s PR agent for some suggestions. I might even get a zip-wire and…

Thanks for reading and check out Lisa's blog here for more information on Manglish


P.S.  I am aware that 'mashing' refers to making a cup of tea in Nottinghamshire. Apologies if you came to this blog hoping for some advice on how to make the perfect cup of tea.