Sunday, 24 September 2017

The Rules of Poetry

There was a moment this week when I was talking to a class about free verse and its benefits for poetry. During it, I had a thought. A thought about rules. How important it is to understand the rules of a particular poem? Whether a poem is free verse or not, there is still a set of rules guiding the writing. Not having rhyme is a rule. Not having a regular rhythm is a rule.

I have analysed ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ umpteen times and I thought I’d view it differently. I thought I’d view it from a set of rules. I started with a few rules and then things snowballed.


1.       Sound effects are repeated three times

2.       End each stanza with the ‘six hundred’

3.       Visual details are repeated twice

4.       All dialogue starts with ‘Forward, the Light Brigade’

5.       The last verb in first fours stanzas is ‘rode’

6.       Verbs are paired when action takes place

7.       Stanzas three and five repeat the same five lines at the start

8.       The first word in every line is stressed

9.       One word in the whole poem is three syllables long

10.   All words, apart from one,  in the poem are one or two syllables long

11.   Dactylic diameter used throughout

12.   The number of times the imperative ‘forward’ is used matches the number of times the imperative ‘honour’  is used at the end

13.   Exclamations are followed by questions at the start but this is inverted at the end of the poem

I could go on and on looking for rules. This, by no means, is an exhaustive list. But, when you have rules down on paper you can start exploring the meaning in greater detail. What is the significance of a rule? (Incidentally, you have some rules to help them create a poem.)

Rule 13 – Nobody questioned the orders until after the event. Therefore, the last stanza reflects that need to question first before action. The poem subtly wants a change in the structure of the military organisation.

Rule 9 – Battery is the one three syllable word in the whole poem drawing attention to the key difference between the light brigade and their enemy.

Rule 1 and 3 – Greater emphasis is placed on the sound effects rather than the visual aspects to give a level of distance and confusion. The events are heard more than they are seen. Reflects how the public experienced

Rule 12 – The poet replaces the officer giving orders at the end of the poem. His commands equal that of the officers in the event.

These aren’t definitive interpretations, but they present a starting point to enable a focused discussion of the poem. Tomorrow’s lesson with my Year 10 is about the Ted Hughes’ rules in ‘Bayonet Charge’.  

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 17 September 2017

Analysis in GCSE Literature and GCSE Language is a chimera

Historically, as a school, we have done better in English Literature than English Language. Surprisingly, this year we saw the complete opposite. Now, I’d like to partly blame the dodgy ‘Romeo and Juliet’ question, but there is more to it than first meets the eye. When reading the examiner’s report, it seems that the analysis was the problem for many schools and ours. For me there seems to be such a difference in the level of analysis expected and, more importantly, the type of analysis. Whereas analysis was fairly consistent before, this time it is quite different.

GCSE English Language
Paper 1

Question 2 – How does the writer use language to…  
Highly technical
Emphasis on terminology
Emphasis on effect
Closely analysing the extract on a word or sentence level

Question 3 – How is the opening structured?
Content driven
Low emphasis on terminology
Emphasis on effect
Whole text analysis  

Question 4 -  How far do you agree with the statement?
Content driven
Emphasis on terminology
Emphasis on effect
Whole text analysis

Of course, different papers and different questions have a different emphasis. However, what alarms me the most is how the types of analysis is constantly morphing on just one paper. Use terminology for this question. Don’t use it for this one. Refer to the content in the question here. Don’t mention it there. So, when you are trying to develop analysing skills, it doesn’t help when the exam paper isn’t consistent with a view of analysis. Analysis just doesn’t mean the same thing in all the questions.
Look at the GCSE Literature exam and you see a completely different view. The examiner’s report is repeatedly that the students’ analysis was too narrow and detrimental when the students analysed things on a technical level and identified the word class of quotes. According to the examiner’s report, the extract doesn’t need to be analysed in fine detail. In fact, it seems that the extract hinders students, reading between the lines of the report. Now, here’s what I am at odds at: on one GCSE paper the examiners want students to be technical and zoom in, and one paper doesn’t want students to be technical and zoom in. I am at odds with this, because we, well most of us, teach both GCSEs to sets at the same time and in the past there has been a bit of consistency. We could feel reassured when teaching one GCSE we were subtly supporting the other. At the moment, I am starting to feeling I am working with two different churches and two different belief systems.

I am having to teach students to analyse things differently and actively teach them to approach it differently. We are going Protestant for Literature and Catholic for Language.
So, what is my approach for Literature? Well, this is the one we are trying for this year. It is a structure for planning a response to a question. I present it as an inverted triangle. The point at the bottom being the extract.

Read the question – ignore the extract
1:  Big ideas – inferences / inference words / abstract concepts
2: Shakespeare teaches us ….
3: Elizabethans felt….
4: Whole play – start/middle/end
5: Scene
6: Extract – language

I should imagine thousands of students in the summer started their planning with the extract and there lies the problem. We you start with an extract first you are automatically limiting the level of thought. You are looking for the answers in the text and that, honestly, where the problem lies. The answers are not in the extract. Evidence is in the extract, but not the answers. In fact, I am getting students to ignore the extract. In lessons, I am hiding the extract until the end of the planning.

Let’s take this question:
Starting with this exchange, explain how you think Shakespeare presents the way young men view love.

1:Big ideas – life-changing / romanticised / perfection / unreal / beyond the physical realm
2: Shakespeare teaches us how young men see love as a spiritual experience which transforms them and dominates their life.  
3: Elizabethans were deeply religious and viewed their spiritual life as more important than their physical life.
4: Start – Romeo meets Juliet for the first time and refers to her as saintly and worshiping her
   Middle – The wedding is a spiritual uniting of souls
   End -   Romeo kills himself so his soul can be united with Juliet

As the play develops, we move from the physical world to the spiritual world.
5: Scene: In this extract from Act 1 Scene 1, Romeo explains his love for Rosaline to Benvolio.
We see how not all men behave in the same way. Benvolio questions this behaviour. Romeo is consists in his view of love. Similar approach with Juliet. Benvolio a foil for Romeo.

6 : Extract: Language
Well, in that hit you miss: she'll not be hit
With Cupid's arrow; she hath Dian's wit;
And, in strong proof of chastity well arm'd,
From love's weak childish bow she lives unharm'd.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold:
O, she is rich in beauty, only poor,
That when she dies with beauty dies her store.

·         Repetition of the idea that she isn’t attainable

·         Reference to ‘saint’

·         Linked to gods – beyond the mortal realm

Note: This is a structure for planning a response and not a structure for writing a paragraph, so do not get any crazy ideas like this could be a structure for a paragraph. That idea is hideous.

And, so far, so good. The key thing is hiding the extract. For years, we have started with the extract, but in the church of GCSE English Literature, you need to save it for the end, when thinking and planning. I know Vygotsky wouldn’t like it, but going from the concrete to the abstract hinders students with analysis, because they struggle to shift to abstract thinking when they have something concrete before them. Students see the extract as having the answers. Therefore, they’ll obsess over the extract. In fact, the extract is the least important thing.

Analysis means something different in every question.
Imagine if we expected a different method to solve algebra in every question on the Maths exam paper.

Let’s have a bit of consistency.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 10 September 2017

When did we start narrowing education?

With all this conversation on curriculums and the newfound scrutiny on schools’ curriculums, I am thinking about the content of the lessons in our school.  Is the curriculum good enough? Good enough for what? Students? Jobs? University?  The two words commonly linked to curriculum are ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’.

What if the whole education system is responsible for this narrowing of content? Not nasty exams.

It is interesting to know that an old ‘university’ education was as broad as they come. The Latin word ‘universitas’ means ‘whole’.  Although there was some focus on a specialism or topic area to become a specialist, the content was a range of subjects including religion, astronomy, theology, medicine and much more. It truly was a universal education. Now, look to today. Can we really consider our education to be truly universal?

The narrowing of our education system is everywhere. Take the following:

1: Year 6 students are assessed on writing, reading, Mathematics and spelling, punctuation and grammar.

2: Year 9 students take options for Year 10 – reducing the number of subject areas.

3: Year 12 students reduce subjects to three or four areas of focus.

4: University students reduced the subjects to one or two subjects.

5: Post graduate students then focus on one subject and narrow it down to one aspect of that subject.

Is that a universal education? Is that making broad minds? You see: we have a system that explicitly and implicitly narrows our knowledge. Yes, you may learn lots of stuff, but it is narrowed knowledge. Knowledge good for one purpose only.

We know that the narrowing of our curriculums have been partly influenced by results and league tables. Look at how English and Maths are reported with everything, so the curriculum is narrowed a lot of the time because of them. Stop mentioning ‘including English and Maths’ and you will not have whole schools moving heaven and earth to improve English and Maths. They might even try to improve everything, including English and Maths.

Ahh, Xris, well that’s where you are wrong: we have introduced the Ebacc. Yes, the Ebacc does in part combat this narrowing, but you still have subjects not included in the Ebacc. And, don’t get me started on the Progress 8 buckets.

At every step, there is explicit or implicit narrowing of the education system. But, there is also social narrowing too. Parents are great, but some actively help support narrowing of the curriculum. Take some of these comments:

Why should my child study French?

He's never been good at Maths; he’s always been better at English and literacy.  

One comment might be generated by some misguided xenophobia. The other one is probably more prevalent in schools: the acceptance that you can’t be good in every subject. And, this is the biggest lie. Students are fed a lie that is culturally acceptable to be stronger in one area (Maths, English, Science) because the greatness in that one subject is great enough to smother the weaknesses out of existence. He’s useless at Maths, but he is fantastic in English. Shucks, he just has a brain for English. He’s a bit like me – I am no good at Maths too.

Our culture has created this problem for us. We see endless images of people who are good at one thing. Success has become the fruit of one niche area. We see people successful as being really good in specific area. A footballer is good in football. A business man / woman is good in business. A singer is good at singing. Success is presented through the specialism in an area. Young people are seeing the repeated message again and again: you only need to be good at one thing to be successful. When you see that, it is easy to see how students narrow their own educations. They select the subjects that they are good at and focus on them. They neglect the subjects they are not successful in. After all, you only need to be good at one thing to be successful in life.

Year 10 and Year 11 are the years where schools spend most of their time try to stop students narrowing their focus and get them to broaden their focus and concentrate on other subjects. Some schools might go: ‘To hell with it, let’s focus on English and Maths.’ Others might go: ‘Get the buckets filled.’ I think it is so hard to stop this ‘self-narrowing’ of curriculum by students because they have had the following messages and points:

SATs told them they only need to worry about English and Maths.

Parents told them they had problems with Maths too.

Teachers told them they had to do a subject because the Government wants students to do the Ebacc.   

Colleges told them they only need four Cs and a 4 in English.

The Government told them they need a 4 in English and Maths or they will need to resit it again.

So is it any wonder a Year 11 student narrows their revision and focuses on one or two subject. Almost everything is telling them to narrow down their studies. When subjects are viewed as being more important than others, then it is understandable why students select what and what not to focus on.   

We need to work on making every subject equal in the eyes of parents, students and teachers. A student will start to see every subject as important when we treat it as equally important. Maybe we need to go back to the old days and build up this idea of universal education. However, this is hard to do when the whole system is built and designed to narrow things. Even Maths and English have been narrowed down. That narrowing is symbolised in the names of the subjects. There are so many disciplines in English that the word ‘English’ does not do enough to reflect the subject effectively or truly.

I love the concept of the Renaissance man (or woman). The idea of being good in several areas. Or, at least trying to be. We should be forcing students to be polymaths. I’d like to think I am one, because the opposite of a polymath, according to an online dictionary is a goof, an ignoramus, a nitwit or a clot.

In our attempts to improve things, we have erroneously made them good at something rather than everything.

Rather than teach students about grit and resilience, let’s teach them the importance of excelling in all things, rather than one. Let’s focus on the whole rather than the parts.

Thanks for reading,