Sunday, 25 September 2016

The assumptions we make about quiet, obedient females and the noisy, confrontational males

I walk into the room, holding a soap box. I place it in the middle of the room and step on it. I begin:

I am going to be incredibly honest: I felt incredibly uncomfortable this week when I typed for a document that, in English, we study boy-friendly texts. Why did I feel uncomfortable? Well, I felt uncomfortable for several reasons.
One: In my heart I know Macbeth isn’t a play we teach because of the boys; it is a play we teach because it is clever, engaging and rich in language and techniques.

Two: I worry that education is being driven solely by and for boys.

Three: I am a father of two quiet, friendly girls who, I think, are lost in the education system because they are female and they are quiet; their success is assumed because they are female.  
There is a national issue with girls outperforming boys. I don’t deny it is an issue and I don’t deny things have to be done about it.  But, I tend to think it is something more complex than the explicit things we do in lessons. A book choice is not the answer. Making lessons visual and active is not the answer. Picking topics boys like is not the answer. It has to be the culture. The culture the boys exist in is the key driving motivator for change.

The problem with an over-emphasis on boys is it neglects girls. It is a common joke my daughters have about the Friday star of the week. Their primary school has a number of naughty boys, as viewed by my daughters, featured as ‘star of the week’. In fact, some are regular stars, and, they then go on to bully kids in the playground for the rest of the week, according to my daughters. To be honest, the stars hardly fluttered between exceptionally bright and over performing students and naughty boys, and occasionally, naughty girls. The curse of being a teacher and a parent is that you see through systems. My daughters were employed by a previous teacher to befriend all new students, which they did with aplomb because they are kind and friendly. Did they get the praise for this? Not really. But, the teacher relied on this approach again and again. Every time a new child appeared in the class, my daughters were asked to look after said new pupil. While my daughters did this, Tom got a star for being quiet for one day. The parameters for behaviour in boys and girls in not equal. Girls are generally praised for exceptional work. Boys are praised for behaving appropriately. There are two measuring sticks for boys and girls.
Now, I don’t think for a second this is isolated to one classroom, one school. I think it is everywhere. It permeates our culture. We are more likely to praise boys for their behaviour and the girls for their work. Is it any wonder that girls perform better nationally if all we are praising boys for is their behaviour?   I am more concerned about how there is a large proportion of girls who are neglected in our system and that’s because they are the nice, quiet, obedient students in the system. Every leader should be challenging both sides of the coin. Focus on one side and you neglect half of the school population. If SEN students were being ignored, there would be an uproar.  Yet, I think girls are heavily ignored, neglected and forgotten in all aspects of education. It is assumed they will succeed and it is this assumption that happens daily, weekly, month that is dangerous. Because girls don’t take a teacher’s attention, time and energy as much as the boys do, they are assumed to be doing well.

The more I think about the gender issue, the more I think it is something cohesive that is needed to address things in the secondary schools. Personally, I think the cohesive element is a careers focus. There was one boy in a previous tutor group who really embodies this aspect to me. From Year 8, he had it in his head that he wanted to be a dentist.  Throughout Years 9, 10 and 11 he kept this thought at the centre if what he did. It motivated him. It drove him to work and succeed. This was a boy motivated to succeed.  He had a clear goal.
I am conscious that the careers’ education in schools is a mixed bag. I have yet to see it done successfully. It can be non-existent, sparse or misdirected. A child with a clear goal is a child with direction, yet we often lead that direction to the students and their parents. The assumption that a student knows what they want to do in life lies at the heart of most schools. Over the years, the boys and girls I have seen underperform have underperformed because they didn’t have a clear pull and a relevant push.
For me, growing up in a small, parochial coastal town was the pull. I wanted to escape. I worked hard to escape and escape I did. That drove me as a male teenager. I wanted out and that’s what I worked hard to do. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in the town I grew up in. There was very little push. My parents didn’t push me. The school didn’t push me. For example, the career’s advice told me to be an archaeologist.  All I knew was that I wanted to escape. The geography pushed me in a way.

Schools are pushing academically but are they pushing students to the end goal. Boys, especially, are goal orientated but our goals are different. A teacher’s goals are academic progress and attainment. A student’s goal should be their future. Are we too narrow focused on the teacher’s goals and not the student’s goals? It is assumed that a teacher’s goal and a student’s goal are one and the same thing. When I look at exam performance, a student with a clear idea of their future goal performs much better than a student who isn’t clear about their future. A teacher knows a grade C can open doors, but that is meaningless to a student unless they know what doors are opened for them, and, importantly what doors are closed to them.

So, when I write my intervention plan for boys, I have scribbled out the point that books are ‘boy-friendly’ and instead I am focusing on how in the subject and in the school we can improve a student’s view of the end goal of education. What do they want to be? What do they want from school? How will the work in English support their goals? How will we get students thinking about their end goal after school in Year 7, 8, 9 and 10? Let’s not leave it to the last minute, when often the damage has been done already.

A boy who knows what they want from school succeeds.

A girl who knows what they want from school succeeds.

A student who knows what they want from schools succeeds.

Let’s stop the assumptions about gender in schools. A quiet girl is equally as important as the noisy boy. Let’s stop the assumptions about a student’s goal. Let’s ask them in Year 7, Year 8, Year 9 and Year 10.

I am stopping making assumptions about students. I am asking Year 10 what they want to do when they finish their GCSEs. Then, I will go on to the other year groups, finding out what they go to school for. I could use all the boy-friendly books and teaching methods in the world, but they are all pointless unless I address the issue of the ‘push’ and ‘pull’. What will push students to succeed? What will pull students to succeed?   
A culture of education for a purpose is needed. We have to work harder to show the purpose of education.

 I pause. I step off the soap box and lift it up. Slowly and silently, I walk out of the room.


Sunday, 18 September 2016

The Cliché Glass Ceiling

The following is a piece I wrote for a lesson this week:

The dark, gloomy, scary, haunted room was cold. It had a spooky and eerie atmosphere. I could smell rotting flesh. The floorboards creaked under my footsteps. I saw blood dripping from the ceiling. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck tingle and a shiver down my spine. It got colder. My teeth were chattering so hard you could hear them.

BANG. My heart stopped. My heart literally stopped. A book had fallen on the dusty floor.

I continued to walk even though my legs had turned to jelly. I was scared.

Suddenly, my hand was grabbed by something or someone. My heart skipped a beat. I saw the zombie’s face and its teeth and …

… and I woke up. It had all been a dream.

I am currently exploring horror and ghost writing with my Year 8 class. This week I placed this extract on the board. It was based on several suggestions from some helpful teachers on Twitter.

It is quite common for us to use texts to model excellence, but here lies the problem with this extract. For some of our students, this extract could represent excellence, because clichéd writing suggests a level of understanding. Clichés are the basic components of writing. We could easily accept the clichés here because they are relevant to the context. For some of our weaker students, we want them to use some of the clichés so at least some of their writing looks and sounds like the real thing. Otherwise, we might end up with hundreds of conjunctions and endless attempts to scare the reader. For other students, there is a cliché glass ceiling and it is hard to break when writing. Avid readers are able to break through it, but others struggle. It is the jump into creativity.

The problem is how we treat the clichés. We often say what we don’t want. We don’t often say why we don’t want them or it.  Yes, it is predictable and obvious, but there is often more behind it.  Instead of saying ‘it had all been a dream’ is bad for an ending, say why it is so bad. It is terrible, because it insults the reader. They have spent the whole story investing in things and you smack them in the face by saying there was no point reading the story in the first place. A dream undermines the work of the reader and writer. Plus, it is a simple resolution. It says, I don’t have to explain and resolve things for you.

Take these other examples:

Why is ‘suddenly’ not shocking for the reader?

Why doesn’t the word ‘spooky’ make a setting spooky?

Why isn’t ‘heart stopping’ heart stopping for the reader?

A discussion on these choices not only make students explore the technical choices made but explore the alternatives.     

I could smell rotting flesh.

This could be transformed into….

I could smell something unpleasant, repulsive and hard to define.

I get students to rewrite the extract and make it original. They keep the structure as much as possible, but avoid any form of cliché. But in doing so, they know what the problem is with the original phrase. The new bit of writing in some cases is not as important as the discussion and thinking that takes place. The new GCSEs need a more sophisticated understanding of how and why texts are written in the way they are. Therefore, we need a better understanding of the thought processes involved in writing. That’s why we have to spend much more time in KS3 exploring why a word, phrase, sentence or technique is used. A regular discussion of choices is needed in the classroom. Why did the writer use a cliché in that line? In fairness, we need students to talk more about the choices and the reasons behind the choices. 

There is a glass ceiling of clichés in writing and I think we have to teach awareness of it and teach how and why it should be broken.

Thanks for reading,

P.S. See Mark Roberts for more blogs on clichés.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Paper 1: Why we might need to place more emphasis showing and telling in lessons?

Another academic year and yet another attempt to understand the new GSCE English Language exam from AQA. Again, I am looking at the structure question and also the opinion based question 4.

For years, decades and millennia we, English teachers, have taught students to ‘show and not tell’ when writing. The interesting thing is that we have undersold this valuable lesson. We have produced – I know I have – reams of flowery, purple prose. Students have ‘shown’ me so much in their writing my eyes have bled. I have had to lie down with a migraine afterwards. I have had to watch a blank wall just to return to sense of normality afterwards. For ages, we have informed students to see that showing is good and telling is bad. Yet, I think we have missed a very important lesson. Why on earth would a writer show something when they could tell it instead? Marley is dead.

I am working my way slowly, very slowly, through the ‘The Rhetoric of Fiction’ by Wayne C. Booth at the moment and the first chapter happens to be on how writers use ‘showing and telling’ in their writing and it is incredibly complex and varied.

For this blog I am going to focus on two opening lines from Margaret Atwood’s ‘Stone Mattress’.

[a] The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant.

[b]At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.

Looking at these two sentences, we could easily describe [a] as a showing sentence and [b] as a telling sentence. Yet, there’s something more about them than Atwood wanting just show off more and just telling it as it is. We have always seen telling to be an inferior way of writing. There has been a sense of snobbery about it. If a student focused on telling a story, they’d struggle to get a Level 5 (old money) in KS3 yet many writers employ it continually in their novel. In fact, thrillers and airport thrillers live and breathe the telling method.

When exploring telling and showing with prose extracts this year I am going to teach them the following points.

Writers tend to show to…

       Focus on the experience

       Create an atmosphere

       Make the reader feel they are part of the story

       Suggest things and hint things

       Make the reader make judgements and opinions

Writers tend to tell to…

       Focus on the plot

       Tell the story quickly

       Make the reader understand the events quickly and clearly


       Show the reader what that writer wants us to think or feel

[a] The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant.

Atwood here is clearly focused on the atmosphere in the opening sentence. The opening part is structured on the senses – the freezing rain – which then contrasts with the happy custom of throwing rice at a wedding. We then have the person throwing the rice described as ‘some unseen celebrant’. The casual use of ‘some’ makes the person seem unimportant in the writer’s eyes. Although the word ‘unseen’ usually has sinister undertones, it isn’t bad as the person is defined as a ‘celebrant’. They are clearly there to celebrate.  

The writer focuses more on the atmosphere than the people.

The writer describes part of a wedding.

The writer shows us that the fact it is rain at this time is important.

As first sentences goes, it is your typical attempt to engage the reader by placing them in the narrative. They are experiencing it. Freezing rain. Shining rice. An unseen person in the background. We are positioned on the text. We are expected to feel.  We are expected to search for meaning or relevance of each bit.  

[b]At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.

Atwood keeps the focus on Verna’s thoughts and the events she is part of. She had no intent to kill in the past, but clearly something has happened to make her kill. The emphasis here is clearly on the plot. We are not positioned in the events of the story. We are observers. Helpless observers. But, what is really important here is that we are told a truth. An authorial fact. We are to accept the writer’s word that she didn’t plan to kill the person. By telling this fact we are engaged in the dilemma and the possible events leading to this fact.

The two stories start in different ways. The way they start is important when looking at the structure of the stories and evaluating if they are effective in what they set out to do. Both are intending to engage the reader. One is about immersing the reading in the experience of the characters as they were positioned in the story, experiencing the story as it happens. The other is about quick engagement in a dilemma or plot. The fact that one takes more concentration than the other is intentional. But, the fact that writers control the story telling is a paramount thing we need to teach students. There are many ways to tell a story. We need to show that there are different approaches and maturely explore the reasons behind the choices. One approach I have used in the past is the simple reveal of a sentence at a time:

[1] I once saw a bloke try to kill himself.

[2]I’ll never forget the day because I was sitting in the house one Saturday afternoon, feeling black and fed-up because everybody in the family had gone to the pictures, except me who’d for some reason been left out of it.

[3]‘Course, I didn’t know then that I would soon see something you can never see in the same way on the pictures, a real bloke stringing himself up.

[4]I was only a kid at the time, so you can imagine how much I enjoyed it.

Source: On Saturday Afternoon by Alan Sillitoe 

This opening is great for the way it starts with the authorial fact of person attempting suicide. A short, almost casual sentence is made even more casual by the word ‘bloke’. Then, the writer goes on to ‘show’ the day and the man ‘stringing himself up’. Then, comes the ending with the voice ‘telling’ us he was a kid, which makes the previous sentences more shocking. The structure looks like this telling / showing / telling.

Writers both show and tell in their stories. We need to train students to recognise and highlight the different bits and see where there is telling and where there is showing. This shift between showing and telling is probably the most important structural choice a writer makes. I could spend ages looking at how a writer foreshadows aspect, but if the student can’t tell the difference between showing and telling in the writing then a large component of understanding and insight will be missed.   

We need to spend more time focusing on this showing and telling aspect rather than any other aspect, because when a student understands why a writer is telling us something instead of showing us something, they will be telling us something meaningful. Searching for a text for list of structural techniques, I think, is rather meaningless. Staring with highlighting which bits are showing and which bits are telling is probably more effective. Then, when you get to question 4 and when you are looking, say, if the characters are convincingly portrayed, the students focus when the characters are shown. This will then, hopefully, move us away from students repeating the content. How does the writer show us the setting? How does the writer show us the characters? How does the writer show us the threat of violence? A focus on showing and telling from the start would help us with this.

Thanks for reading,


The following are first lines from Margaret Atwood’s ‘Stone Mattress’.

       The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant.

       Reynolds bustles into the living room, carrying two pillows.

       Every morning at breakfast Jorrie reads the obituaries in all three of the papers.

       What could be done with me, what should be done with me?

       The next thing is that his car won’t start.

       “I had a dream about Zenia last night,” says Charis.

       At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.

       The little people are climbing up the nightstand.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

That first blooming lesson and bleeding learning names

I have taught many first lessons in my time. In fact, I have taught more than a decade’s worth of first lessons. And, I have tried everything and anything to start off with the right foot. This week and next week lots of teachers are spending time thinking about how they are going to place their newly bought Clarkes’ shoes in the classroom.  

In the past, I have started with a quiz, a list of rules, bingo, dance, drama, signing a contract, ice-breakers, some activities so students learn more about each other, an activity so students learn something about the subject, a writing task so students can show me something about their personality and many more.

Why is it that the first lesson with a class has become such a weighty thing? It has become an important all singing and dancing phenomenon. It has become all glitz and fizz. I recall one colleague who spent thirty minutes of the first lesson learning everyone’s name. The message it conveyed about the teacher was that the teacher was very smug at learning names. I just know the teenage Chris would be there sitting thinking, why do I need to sit through this? I have been at school with this kids since primary school.

Next week, half a week will be wasted in lessons while the teachers get to know the students. There will be students who will spend half a week waiting to learn something new while a teacher shares their love of kittens with the class. There will be students having to listen to a teacher work out the difference between Wayne Thomas, Wayne Tomkins and Wayne Jackson. There will be students having to listen to the bleeding, sob stories of how a teacher never had a pen at school, so that’s why he is teaching the blighters in front of him today so they don’t have to suffer as he once did. There will be students having to listen to the teacher boast how they have a PhD and their first book is coming out in December.   

The first lesson introduction is the biggest waste of education time known to man. In primary school, it is a different picture. However, secondary schools have this hidden waste of time, energy and name labels. Over the course of a few days, teacher after teacher feels the need to connect with the class and learn names.

We all want to make a good impression, but do we give our subjects the best first impression? I don’t buy that the first lesson is the most important lesson. Relationships are built up over time. You can’t connect with people instantly. Look at how politicians try and fail with that one particular aspect. You’ll not learn anything meaningful from that first lesson if you focus on making connections. You might learn that Britany likes kittens and has seven of the cute fluffy kittens at home. You learn that Bradley like killing little creatures. The result of learning those two facts is that Britany and Bradley will not make a suitable couple in the future and it is best if they don’t sit next to each other.

I build relationships and connections with people through shared experiences. I learn about the students through watching them participate in different experiences in lessons. I understand Martin’s frustration at always jumping the gun. I understand Carl’s wicked sense of humour because he always asks the same question of a text. I understand them because I experience the same things as them.

I am terrible with learning names; I am useless at it. I live in fear I might bump into people in public as I lack the ability to keep and hold a name in my brain. My worst experience was as a student teacher. I had the misfortune to introduce a teacher to another student teachers. I couldn’t remember either teacher’s name. Hi… this is… and this is …. I think you’ll get along. Over the years, I have got better at learning names. I just struggle when there are fifteen Jordans and seven Olivias. Oh, and there is always that one student who isn’t that there is different way to pronounce their name. Sir, you need to put the emphasis on the e. Okay, Ben.

Anyway, over time, I have learnt that I learn the personality first and then attach the name. Of course, I use seating plans, but I learn the person first and then the name. I know it sounds a bit wishy wash, but for me it helps. Teaching is a complex thing and a minefield of egos, fears and worries. Rush in and you misjudge the person. Being friendly to students in the first lesson and giving them a nickname might be great, but it is also thoughtless. The girl you nickname smiler for their inability to smile or laugh at your jokes could be having a tough time. You would only know things like that over time.  

So before you put pen to paper or switch on the laptop, think. You will learn more from your students by getting them to work instead playing crazy games involving paper, glue and newspaper. A relationship is developed over time and not instantly. If your only concern is getting the students to like you, change jobs. Some might like you. Some might not. The fact that they like you or not is pretty immaterial. The important things is respect. A relationship is about respect. You’ll not get respect by reciting everyone’s name. You’ll not get respect by sharing your hobbies. You’ll get novelty value. The teacher equivalent of Wagner! Respect is all about time and how you behave.  It isn’t about which foot you put first or what colour socks you wear.

Here’s my lesson plan for the first lesson:

Good morning. I am Mr Curtis. The beard is real. It’s here to stay. You know the rules.  Now open the book.

Thanks for reading,