Saturday, 29 April 2017

A pen licence? It is only just a stupid piece of plastic

I am a dad.

A wise teacher once told me that when you become a parent, your view on teaching changes. And, in truth, it does subtly. I feel I understand some parents better. I feel I understand children better. My experiences as a parent has put me in the situations that many students and parents deal with daily and weekly. I have seen bullying, friendship fallouts, a lack of confidence and many more things from the perspective of a parent. That’s not to say that a teacher must have a child to be a better teacher. My goodness, no - I don’t want to spark a quick increase in the national birth rate. Some teachers are naturally astute and empathic and can understand things far better than I could ever do. Having a child just jumped started those dormant empathic tendencies.  

I am a dad and as a dad I was put in a situation that made me think.

I have twins. This week, one twin got her pen licence.

A pen licence is a privilege for students. It allows them to write with a pen, if their handwriting is good enough. Students, in some primary schools, have to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in their handwriting before they get their licence. The purpose of it is to raise the standard of handwriting with a dash of healthy competition.

Being married to a primary teacher, I knew of the pen licence and thought nothing of it. I assumed it was a good idea. As a secondary teacher, I thought it okay and acceptable as it promoted legible handwriting. It must work if lots of teachers do it.
Then, only one twin got her pen licence. And then my thoughts and feelings changed. One child was happy. The other child was in absolute tears. I was faced with a situation I had never been through before. A child crying over a pen. Yep, a silly stupid pen. We have hundreds of the bleeding things at home. I have loads at work too. A pen. But, for a nine year old this pen meant so much more. To her, it was a badge of acceptance. To her, it was badge of her friendship group. To her, it was her social standing in the class. The absence of a lump of plastic had transformed her view of the classroom.

She cried and cried over this piece of plastic. My attempts, as a father, failed to console her. It is only a stupid pen? I just hadn’t got it. All her friends had one except her. She had worked so hard for one.
The use of a dunce hat had been rejected in society a long time ago, but the lack of pen is just another form of that hat for my daughter. She felt stupid, less and different. But, here is the rub. She had a visual cue to show that she was different. Her friends had pens; she had a pencil. For in the eyes of a nine year old, pencils are for babies and pens are for grownups. One simple handing out of a pen changed the social make-up of the class. People on the same level before are now on different levels. She felt stupid, less and different.

I am a dad and a father to twins. One twin got a pen licence. One twin did not. The twin that got the licence was able bodied. The twin that didn’t get the licence was not able bodied.

The daughter, who struggles mentally and emotionally to see herself as equal to her peers because she has a disability called Cerebral Palsy, felt stupid, less and different. My daughter walks and runs differently. She wears different clothes and different shoes to her peers. Now, added to those differences she has another visual sign of being different to others. It is just a stupid pen!
At times, I think is it just me. Am I just sensitive because I have a daughter with a disability? These are some of the following things people have shared with me.

A boy was teased in his class because all his friends had a pen licence and he was the only one in the friendship group that didn’t have one.
A girl would never get a pen licence because she had Cerebral Palsy and she used a laptop.
Dyslexic children never getting a pen licence.
A boy never getting his pen licence throughout his whole time in primary school.

The more I talked about it, the more it alarmed me as a parent. I keep thinking there must be another way to make students write better. My daughter’s world crumbled. Thankfully, she is better now, but it will have an impact on her time in school. But, she will return to the classroom and write with a pencil while her friends and her sister write with a pen. Students are not always of the same ability, but we don’t stick a badge on students that can’t read or write. Only when you look at a student’s work do we see that they struggle to spell, yet a pencil is a badge. A badge that says you are not grow up enough to hold a pen. So if the pen licence is such a good thing, let’s have other licences. For each one, give students a badge.
A badge for reading.
A badge for spelling.
A badge for counting up to ten. 
A badge for writing in sentences.
A badge for using commas.

My daughter might not be ready for the pen licence. That I can handle. However, I can’t handle the impact it has had on our lives. It has upset my daughter, my wife and me as a result of this lump of plastic. Becoming a parents makes you see the tiny ripples and the big waves they make. A pen licence is a tiny ripple but it makes huge waves, emotionally and mentally.
I love primary teachers (I have a ring on my finger to prove it), but I am asking a question as a dad now and not as a teacher: is a pen licence an effective way of improving handwriting?

Convince me, a parent, that a pen licence is worth it. I have only really seen the demoralising impact of it.

Thanks for reading,

Note: I am not questioning or judging any teacher using it in their lessons; I am questioning and challenging the idea and its use.

Friday, 21 April 2017

A novel approach

I was a little bit excited when the new GCSEs were being compiled by the different exam boards. There was a big sell. I recall being at one event where I had representatives from different exam boards telling me about how their course is the right one for me. There was the odd difference, but the main selling points were focused on support and resources. This exam board offered exam papers. This exam board offered online materials. This exam board offered KS3 assessments. I admit I was persuaded by the last one. Ooo. It suggested to me some thorough planning and thought. The sad reality is I got watered down GCSE papers. Should KS3 just be watered down GCSE work? Should we be getting Year 7s to start with the English GCSE papers? After all, five year’s practice will help.

I should imagine the summer will create a big thinking point for teachers, and leaders, to look at how the each year prepares students. The GCSEs are not the only measure for developing a curriculum, but they are unfortunately a measuring stick to judge whether your curriculum is robust, challenging and effective enough. That’s why I think just repeating the assessments in Years 7,8 and 9 will not make improvements. We need some big ideas behind the curriculum. Now, I could become obsessed with the assessment objectives, yawn, and bring them down to Year 7. Come on class. Repeat after me: Assessment Objective One is to… Or, I could get students to read ‘A Christmas Carol annually. Come on Year 7, this is the book you will be studying for your GCSEs; we are going to study it every year until you have fully understood it.

In my school, we have units of work each year covering Shakespeare and Victorian Literature.

Shakespeare goes roughly like this:

Year 7 – Look at the context of Shakespeare’s theatre and the opening scenes of various plays 

Year 8 – Look at Macbeth and the structure of a scene

Year 9 – Look at Much Ado About Nothing / Tempest / Julius Caesar and explore a theme across the whole play

Year 10 – Look at Romeo and Juliet and study every scene in detail 

Year 11 – Revise Romeo and Juliet

We are building up knowledge and experience and confidence with handling of texts. We match this with Victorian Literature over the years to include several different characters from various Dickens novels, Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. Therefore, by the time students start GCSE they have covered Victorian attitudes towards childhood, education, class and poverty.

But, how do we plan for the language GCSEs? That’s a thought that is echoing and echoing in my head. How do we teach and prepare students for this new GCSE? The simple answer: get them to read lots and lots of fiction and non-fiction. But, surely, repeating the same questions again and again isn’t really developing students. Plus, it will make our curriculums dull and repetitive. That’s why this year I tried a different approach with teaching a novel.

This year, with my Year 7s, I am teaching ‘Treasure Island’. I am blooming loving it too. The last sentence of every chapter is a treat. Anyway, I decided to look at the big things:


Occasionally, I get this slide on and get students to explore the relationship between the two. And, we discuss and measure what we think….I think the chapter is mostly about the character. Nah, I think it is about the setting.

And, then, I raise the simple question: Why should the writer focus on this here?

The combination of the two aspects has produced some excellent discussions about the structuring of the story. It has made a group of Year 7s explore some clever structuring of the novel and created some interesting interpretations. They have been able to distinguish between chapters focusing on character and chapters on plot - and some that do both.  

We’ve had discussions on how the opening few chapters are mainly focused on mood and setting. Then, Stevenson introduces a series of chapters focusing on character. One character after another. We discussed how Stevenson presents us with a line-up of rogues, so when Long John Silver is introduced we are glad for somebody pleasant, friendly and not dull to enter Jim’s life. We also made interesting points about how setting is a massive component of the opening, yet the actual ‘Treasure Island’ is thrust to the side in favour of plot. Stevenson focuses so much on atmosphere in the opening chapters, but we get brief and glib descriptions in the middle of the book.

From this approach, I am starting think that we may need to look explicitly at how these elements interact. All too often we separate these elements of texts as separate components. We might zoom in on character. Or, we might focus on ideas or themes. We usually try to link these components at the end. So, how does the writer present the theme of deception? Surely, we need to have these components interacting continually. They are so reliant on each other.

What a writer is doing with setting, character, plot, mood and ideas at any one moment is important? The fact that one is more dominant than another at a specific moment is telling. However, students can’t see that unless we are discuss all at the same time. All too often, we helicopter from one aspect to another. Look at how Steinbeck uses character and setting in ‘Of Mice and Men’. Look at how Steinbeck uses character and ideas. Look at how Steinbeck uses all the components. All at the same time.

So rather than giving Year 7s watered down GCSE exam papers, we should give them GCSE thinking and ideas.

Teach the different types of characters and ways writers present characters.

Teach the way writers use settings for effect.

Teach the way writers create mood in a chapter.

Teach the different ways writers can develop the plot of a story.

Teach the way writers present events.

Teach the different ways writers present an idea.

But, while we are teaching these aspects, we should link them together. The writer has just introduced this character to us, but how does the character link to the setting? Does the character fit in or stand out with this setting? Is the setting important to the character? Will the character change the setting? Is the character affected by the setting? Why should the writer pick that setting?

The following GCSE questions should not be used to death.

How has the writer used language…?

How is the text structured for interest?

How far do you agree…. ?

Lesson 1 in Year 7 shouldn’t be about preparing for GCSEs. We should be focusing on the big ideas and not the small questions. The question might have a massive impact on lots of things in school, but we are simply narrowing the breadth of study if from Year 7 onwards we repeat the exam questions with different extracts from texts.

We have followed a fairly logical curriculum with prose study.

Year 7 - character

Year 8 -  setting

Year 9 -  themes  

Now, I am looking at what aspects I should interweave and explicitly teach over the different years. Teach explicitly aspects of character each year, developing the complexity as we go along. I am possibly looking at something like this:

Year 7 – Types of character / stock characters

Year 8 – Role of characters in narrative / minor or major characters / foils / symbolism   

Year 9 –Realism / development / character arcs / character journey

This is just my first thoughts, but I am sure I will change and reflect as things develop. At the same time, I will look at setting, plot, events, etc.   

I love a good story and English is the best subject for that: we create story tellers and consumers. We should be growing those lovers of story. Those little GCSE questions have the power to warp a big and vast curriculum. Think about your planning for next year. Think about the big ideas behind those questions and ignore those small questions. Teach character or setting and teach all aspects of it. We limit ourselves if we are driven by the question and the exam. How many times have students started an A-level course underprepared because the GCSE focus was so narrow? 
Thanks for reading,


Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The English Teacher's Pub Quiz - Resource: Revision Questions for AQA Conflict and Power Poems

I wrote a blog not so long ago about how I avoided starters now and consistently and constantly revise key bits of information about texts studied at GCSE. The full blog is here.

Well, here are the questions to go along with that. The idea is very simple. The students, after studying the poem, answer the questions. If they can't answer them, we learn the answers. Then, I test students a lesson, a week, month or term later. The revision is constant. The knowledge revised is only a small part of the poem. They represent the tip of the iceberg, but a good tip to cluster other knowledge around them.

Feel free to use and adapt. Note: answers not included! You are all grown-ups and you can work them out for yourselves.

1.What remains intact from the original statue of Ozymandias? 
2.What does the pedestal say people should do when they look at the statue?
3.Where is the traveller from in the poem?
4.What ‘s’ and ‘v’ are used to describe the statue’s face? 
5.What ‘s’ did the statue’s face have?
6.What ‘n’ remains of his legacy?  
7.What typical form of love poetry is used here? 
8.What exaggerated and pompous language does the writer use to show Ozymandias’ arrogance and self-importance?
9.What piece of alliteration is used to suggest show empty and neglected the statue is now?

1.What does the voice see on the faces of people in London?
2.What types of people does the voice describe in London? 
3.What narrative perspective is the poem told from?
4.What ‘I’ and ‘E’ is the phrase repeated three times in the second stanza?  
5.What ‘b’ is used to describe the church?
6.What ‘w’ describes how the voice walks in London?  
7.What contrast is used to show that all types of people are affected in London? 
8.What metaphor is used to show how ordinary soldiers suffered while the politicians were protected from danger?
9.What metaphor is used to suggest that the problem lies in how people think rather than how they behave?

Extract from, The Prelude
1.When and where did he find the boat?
2.What is the voice scared of in the poem?
3.What does the voice do as result of seeing the answer to Question 2?
4.What ‘s’ is used to describe the sound of the lake? 
5.What ‘d’ hung in his thoughts after the experience?
6.What ‘d’ is the last word in the poem? 
7.What animal simile does the poet use to describe the movement of the boat?
8.What is personified to show voice’s awe and fear of nature?
9.What pronoun is used to describe the boat?

My Last Duchess
1.Where does the poem take place?
2.What type of poem is this?
3.What gift did he give her that he thinks she was ungrateful for? 
4.What ‘t’ did she often do? 
5.What ‘c’ is she covered with at the moment?
6.What ‘s’ was a noticeable thing she showed?
7.What two pronouns does he constant use to refer to the Duchess?
8.What piece of punctuation does the writer use to show anger and a breakdown in his thoughts?
9.What euphemism does the Duke use in relation to the Duchess?

The Charge of the Light Brigade
1.How many people were in the Light Brigade?
2.What did the soldiers ride on in battle?
3.What ‘v’ is where the battle took place?
4.What ‘c’ did the enemies have that the Light Brigade didn’t?
5.What ‘H’ is the way the writer describe the place where the battle took place?
6.What ‘s’ did the soldiers have instead of guns?
7.What is repeated at the end of every stanza?
8.What body part is used as a metaphor to describe the place?
9.Give an example of repetition in the poem.

1.What is the poet’s connection to war?
2.What animals celebrate when the soldiers head back to war?
3.What is the weather like in the poem? 
4.What ‘n’ is repeated in the poem several times? 
5.What ‘g’ is used to describe the soldiers?
6.What ‘i’ is their eyes at the end? 
7.What punctuation mark does the writer use to make things seem very slow? 
8.What kind of sentences does the writer use to create an sense of never ending torture? 
9.What pronoun does the writer use to show us that the speaker isn’t alone?

Storm on the Island
1.How did they build their houses to make them prepared for the storm?
2.What has happened on the island in the past?
3.What do they not have to protect their houses?
4.What ‘c’ is the word used to describe how some people might view the sea? 
5.What ‘b’ is the verb to describe the way the storm attacks the houses?
6.What ‘h’ and ‘n’ describes the storm at the end of the poem? 
7.What key pronoun is used throughout the poem? 
8.What simile does the writer use to show how the storm attacks the windows?
9.What piece of alliteration is used to suggest peace and calm?

Bayonet Charge
1.What colour is the hare?
2.What kind of material was he wearing?
3.Who is he fighting for?
4.What ‘c’ is the shape the hare runs in?  
5.What ‘r’ is numb?
6.What ‘f’ is used to describe the way the hare moves?
7.What alliteration is used?
8.What is the last word and image of the poem?
9.What is personified in the poem?

1.How many people were shooting at the robber?
2.What stays on the street long after the death?
3.What is the last image of the poem?
4.What ‘l’ is used to describe the person shot? 
5.What ‘t’ and ‘g’ is used to describe how his body is treated?
6.What ‘p’ is the phrase that is repeated in the poem?
7.What does the writer do to show that this is like a conversation? 
8.What pronoun does the writer use more as the poem goes on? 
9.What does the poet use at the end of the poem to show that the experience is never-ending?

1.Where and when does the opening of the poem take place?
2.What does the mother do to her son’s clothes? 
3.Where does the poem end? 
4.What ‘p’ and ‘v’ does she hope to hear at the end of the poem?
5.What ‘i’ describes how the mother feels when her child leaves home?
6.What ‘b’ is used to describe his hair as a teenager/child?
7.What metaphor is used to describe the child at home?
8.What running imagery, linked to motherhood, is used throughout the poem?
9.How does the poet use punctuation to give us a sense of never ending pain?

War Photographer
1.Where does the poem take place?
2.What colour is the light of the room?
3.Name three places the War Photographer has been.
4.What ‘r’ is how the poet describes England?
5.What ‘g’ is how the poet describes the person in the photograph?
6.What ‘s’ is what the pictures will be printed in?
7.What metaphor does the writer use to describe the photographs?
8.What contrast does the writer use to show us how lucky we are?
9.What religious reference is made in the poem?

1.What different types of paper are referred to in the poem?
2.What might you find in the back of the Koran?
3.What is the last thing the poem mentions? 
4.What ‘t’ is  word used to describe what happens to paper over time? 
5.What three ‘r’s could be found on maps?
6.What ‘p’ starts the poem and what ‘s’ ends the poem?
7.What comparison is used to suggest the changes in life could be more obvious? 
8.What simile is used to show how money controls our lives?
9.What short sentence is used to show how paper can have a concrete and fixed quality?

The Emigree
1.What time of year did she never see in the old city?
2.What is the voice accused of in the new city? 
3.What hides behind the voice in the poem? 
4.What ‘s’ repeated four times in the poem? 
5.What ‘p’ does the voice not have? 
6.What ‘c’ has its hair combed? 
7.What metaphor is used to show us how the voice views her former home? 
8.What simile is used to describe her as a child arriving in a new country?
9.What metaphor is used to describe how the new city treats her?

Checking Out My History
1.What was the voice taught at school?
2.What wasn’t taught to the voice at school?
3.What do they do to his eyes? 
4.What ‘d’ is repeated throughout the poem? 
5.What ‘c’ is the verb the voice want to do with his/her identity?
6.What ‘t’ is the verb repeated often in the poem? 
7.What is missing from the poem to highlight a frustration with control, power and rules? 
8.What metaphor is used to show the importance of Toussaint in the voice’s identity?
9.What metaphor is used to show the significance of Mary Seacole? 


1.What does the word Kamikaze mean?
2.What did he notice when he looked down?
3.Whose boat does he think about? 
4.What ‘d’ is the last word in the poem? 
5.What ‘t’ is described as a dark prince?
6.What ‘e’ wouldn’t meet afterwards? 
7.What technique does the writer use to show us all the things he is leaving behind? 
8.What simile does the writer use to show us how good life used to be for him?
9.What piece of alliteration is used to suggest peace and calm?