Sunday, 21 February 2016

Lord of the PowerPoints - Shakespeare

One PowerPoint slide to rule them all,

One PowerPoint slide to find them;

One PowerPoint slide to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

There is one resource above all I constantly use. Each time I visit Shakespeare I go to this one little slide I made a few years ago. I use it with any year group and usually it is met with a lot of success and fruitful discussions. And, here, for your benefit, it is:

What choices has Shakespeare made for this scene?
       Inside vs outside
        day vs night
        home vs away
        public vs private
        soliloquy  vs dialogue
        action vs inaction
        political vs social vs religious
       men vs women vs men and women
        positive vs negative
        comic vs tragic vs serious
        long vs short
        plot-driven vs not plot-driven
        family vs friends vs enemies vs lovers
        blank verse vs prose vs both 

One small, simple PowerPoint slide and I have had students explore the structure of whole plays precisely and clearly. Recently, we have used it in the analysis of ‘Macbeth’ and the class’ fruitful discussion led us to the idea that Shakespeare keeps alternating between the private and public thoughts of the characters across the scenes. The public scenes tend to me friendly, civil scenes and those are punctuated by scenes of darkness and decay. There are daggers in men’s smiles sand there are daggers and smiles in the structure of Macbeth.

The great thing about this slide is that it needs very little teaching. It is a plug-in and go resource. You know that scene we just read, which of these can you tick off. Then, the important questions kick in:
How does this compare with the previous scene?

Why has Shakespeare made these choices? What is the benefit of this choice?

What choices do you think Shakespeare will make with his next scene?

Like all good PowerPoints, you tend to have another one just in case. Lord of the PowerPoints – Part 2. And here is another one, I use with top sets.

Which words can we use to describe the characters?
       Contrast /juxtaposition 
       Minor / major

A large part of my degree was focused on drama and I relish the chance to teach Shakespeare every year. Yet, each year I use two PowerPoints. Simple, short and without any pictures – because that’s how I ‘rock ‘n’ roll’. Minimum work – I’ don’t even both with a background and go for black text on white slide – maximum output.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 14 February 2016

I am a secret book lover

If there is one thing I am sure of, is that if you force a child or teenager to love a film, book or food, you are more likely to find the child or teenager doing the opposite and loathing it with a passion. I was that teenager. My parents told me I would love Scotland as a holiday destination; I didn’t love it as a teenager – I do now, Kenny! My parents told me I would love ‘Dad’s Army; I didn’t enjoy it as a teenager. My parents bought me clothes and told me I’d love them: I didn’t even let the polyester hit my skin. I refused, rebelled and opposed everything, and anything, my parents deemed as being brilliant. I rebelled so much that at the age of eighteen I had a tattoo. They didn’t love them, so I wanted one.

The latest debate in English is the government’s latest list of books a student should read at secondary school. As usual with anything to do with what books students should or shouldn’t read put out in the public domain it has caused anger and dismay. Some people questioned the relevance of these books. Others praised the quality of books on the list. And, one or two people shrugged their shoulders with indifference. The problem I have faced time and time in teaching is the idea of enjoyment. We have people arguing that the aforementioned books to be used in secondary schools are inappropriate. The initial fear is that students will not enjoy the books and that in turn will prevent students from loving books.

I have always felt uncomfortable about forcing this idea that students will love books. We have phrases banded about like ‘reading for pleasure’ and we ask students to review and rate the books that they have read. Teachers will enthuse about books they love and tell students that they will love the books too. In fact, everything about reading is all shaped around this view of enjoying a book. And, we are peddling a lie. A big fat lie. We are telling students that they must love books. We are telling students, who often do the complete opposite of what their parents and adults tell them to do sometimes, to love books.

Given that it is Valentine’s Day, I think it might be appropriate to talk about the love between you and that someone special, if you have one. I doubt it was an arranged partnership. I doubt your parents were forcing you to go out with that someone special because it will be tough at the start, but you will learn to love it by the end. Typically, relationships are built on experiences. You try it out and if you like it you continue it further. A bit like books. You try and stick with it if you like it. It is the experience.

Last term, I taught ‘Lord of the Flies’ to a group of Year 9s and I said:

I don’t want you to love this book. I want you to experience it and learn from it. But, if you do love it, I will be worried about you, and I might have to contact your parents.

I am a teacher of English and want students to experience books. I am not hung-up about them loving or enjoying books, because in this age of retweets and Facebook ‘likes’ everything has got to be praised or criticised. We have become ‘bi-polar’ in our approach to all aspects of life. Social media makes things simplistic. We either like or dislike things. Where’s the indifference to things? Do you know what, I am neither liking nor disliking this book? I am just experiencing the book. We have, in part, reduced education to about enjoyment. I can recall numerous conversations on Twitter where I have been criticised for suggesting that enjoyment shouldn’t be the main concern for a teacher in the classroom. Teaching shouldn’t be about entertaining students. It should first of all be about learning and that, if we are honest, isn’t easy, fun and clear. The more we focus on enjoyment, the more we negate the learning process. If a student says a lesson is boring, then the focus should be on the student and not the teacher. Why does the student think lessons should be entertaining? Have we given the impression to students that learning is fun and easy?  Enjoyment can be a by-product of learning, but it isn’t the purpose of it. Yet, we are being led this merry dance of conga and enjoyment is at the head of this learning conga. Teachers must, it seems, lead this dance of learning with enjoyment leading this wild and merry path.

Before the ‘What about the children?’ brigade get involved, listen: we are the adults; we know best. By reading, complex books students will learn complex words, sentences and ideas. They will get better. If we pander to their wants and not their needs, then we will give them simple books which are enjoyable and they will learn simple words, sentences and ideas.

My parents took me to Scotland. They knew best. It was and is a lovely country. I was a teenager and I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I do now appreciate the experience. Now, I love it after all these years.  The experience was the most important thing. That experience created the love and enjoyment and not some person telling me to enjoy or love it.  We need to get students experiencing lots of different and challenging books. Lead with our heads and not with our bleeding hearts.

I read books and experience lots of different things when I do, but I never tell children I love readings books. That is just between me and the books.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 6 February 2016

We are all doomed

I am not a big fan of ‘Dad’s Army’. It was thrust upon me as a child and I have yet to wash away the mental scars of being forced to watch it weekly; my father hogged the television and insisted he watched the episode he had seen twenty billion times before. The recent film adaptation has only served to reawaken those memories. My adulthood was not signified by anything other than having my own television and insisting that I did not have to watch any ‘Dad’s Army’ or any dull programme with a truck in it – my childhood was full of joy and trucks. If you have ever met me, you’d understand that trucks and I do not have much in common. Anyway, during those joy free twenty-five minutes of enforced watching of the show, there was one bit that always made me chuckle. The home-guard often got themselves into a pickle and then up pops one voice saying, ‘We are all doomed!’

We are all doomed. I am a bit fed-up of hearing how bleak, depressing and miserable the state of education is. It is doom this. It is doom that. And, I am fed-up with it. I’m that fed up I have felt the need to blog about it. There have been some shocking things that have happened to teaching. I have listed them for ease:

[1] New GCSEs systems rushed in faster than a speeding bullet and so quick that the exam boards are scratting around to find bits of the course on their desks.
[2] Tighten school budgets and limited resources.
[3] A new grading system that is like plucking numbers out the air.
[4] Another system taking grading away at Key Stage Three.
[5] A new system for judging the success of a school called Progress 8.
[6] A shift in emphasis from attainment to progress.

But aside from new GCSEs, limited resources, new grading systems and a change of emphasis, I am still happy. Happy not in the sense of denial and it hasn’t sunk in yet, but generally and genuinely happy. I am not signally the death knell of the state education system yet. Nor am I oblivious to the changes for I am in the centre of the storm, looking at all of these things daily.

Why am I happy? Well, I could go all soppy and say it is the fact that children say they love my lessons – they don’t; it would scare me if they were to do it. In fact, there are several reason why I am enjoying teaching more than ever.

It is about the learning and not the teaching  
The change in lesson observations has had a big impact on me, personally. No longer am I having the equivalent of a yearly ‘driving test’ in teaching. No longer am I getting a cross for not using assessment for learning in my lesson. No longer am I getting a cross for not writing the objective on the board. No longer am I getting a cross for not having a card sort in my lessons. At the centre of lessons now is the learning. Yes, the teacher is integral, but the change in focus from teacher to student has empowered me. It is not what I do, but what they do and how I can get them to do it better or quicker.

It is about learning rather than the doing
When I think to how I was taught to teach English it was heavily focused on ‘doing stuff’. My old schemes of work were crafted around doing stuff. Oh, I haven’t done a newspaper article for a while, so I will get the class to do one. There was some learning, but there was more doing stuff rather than learning stuff.

Now I think I am more focused on the learning than I ever have been before. I used to teach stuff, but I didn’t repeat it or revise it enough to commit things to memory. The whole new wave of looking at memory and making sure students commit more things to memory has enlivened aspects of my teaching. I am looking at models for how to develop memory and suggestions for a lesson model based on memory and a lesson model based on skills. Furthermore, I am looking to speak to MFL departments and use their skills and knowledge to help support the English department.

For years, I think we have constantly been saying, ‘Why don’t they remember…?’. Now, I think we are starting to scratch the surface of that question, or, at least, getting closer to some ways of dealing with it.

The English Collective
When I started teaching, there were very few places you could go for new ideas and resources about teaching English. I used to scour the cupboards and search though dusty photocopies of things. Now, I have daily new ideas and resources to use and thing about. Admittedly, there might be too much stuff out there, but at least there is a collective pool of ideas. Not only that, but the English Collective are solving problems. One person’s ideas feed another’s and the result is a solution.

I feel that there’s a real community of English teachers out there (and I include other honouree members) and we are working together to help, support and guide each other.  

The New GCSEs
The new GCSEs for English have brought with them new texts and new questions. How many times have I taught ‘Of Mice and Men’? It was a nice refreshing change to teach ‘A Christmas Carol’ and it was great to work slowly through the text and not have to worry about getting a bleeding controlled assessment in before the end of term. I do think that people forget that most English teachers are teaching two GCSEs in the time it takes other departments to teach one.

The new GCSEs have also brought us a new set of exam papers with different questions. The enjoyable thing I have found from the experience is that the papers have made me look seriously at how I teach most things. For example, the focus on techniques has made think how I can make sure students remember technical terms. The new focus on justifying an opinion on a piece of prose has led me to explore how I can get students to offer their opinions on books more.

The new GCSEs have made me think differently about things.  

The raising the bar of texts has led to a re-evaluation of texts taught at KS3 and KS4. This term I have started a Year 7 class with George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. This book had always been reserved for Year 9 classes. Currently, the Year 7 class love it, and rightly so, but they love the idea of doing a ‘challenging’ book.

Added to this we have introduced the opening chapters of ‘Jane Eyre’ to Year 7 and ‘Macbeth’ to Year 8 successfully. The students have coped and enjoyed the texts, so much so that I am considering what else I can introduce - we already study several Shakespeare plays and ‘Great Expectations’ in KS3 already.

The use of more sophisticated texts has raised the speed of things and the depth of study. Plus, students have enjoyed it.
I stand by the following mantra: teachers want to teach and students want to learn. The problem is that people and systems prevent both aspects happening. We need to work on making sure teachers teach. The one thing I think is integral to all this is ring-fencing the classroom teachers and protecting them from all the stuff that is happening.  Middle leaders and leaders need to protect the teachers, so they can teach and the students can learn. There is a great problem that the classroom teachers are bombarded, through the media, and sometimes through middle leaders, with new initiatives and criticisms. If I am honest, teachers need to have things filtered out. They need leaders and middle leaders to sift and protect them from the rubbish and the pointless stuff. They need to know only what is important to learning.

Somebody made a comment about how challenging things are at the moment and I responded by saying: yes, it is, but we have a plan and hopefully it will work. If it doesn’t work, we will try a different plan. Pressure is helpful, but it isn’t good all the time and constantly. A teacher will always want the children in their class to succeed. The more pressure you but on a teacher for a class to succeed, the more they will focus on things that are counterproductive. Get them to teach. Get them to try things, but if it doesn’t work, give them something else to do.  

I don’t mean to be glib about the situation, or your particular circumstances, but I think we need to have less of the ‘doom and gloom’ attitude and more of the ‘K.B.O.’ spirit. Yes, we have to do it. If it doesn’t work, then we will try something else. Focus on solutions and not the problem. I love teaching because it gives me endless problems and I have to spend time looking for solutions for the problems. If I spent all my time worrying about the problems, I wouldn’t have the time to work on the solutions. Focus on the solutions and not the problems. I accept the problems and look for solutions and I am quite happy.

We are all doomed. We might be this time, but next time we will try something else instead.

Thanks for reading,