Sunday, 16 December 2018

Mock marking: we have a problem.

When you place the GCSE papers next to each other, you cannot help but notice that students have to write pages and pages of answers for the English GCSE papers. Occasionally, I have heard many subjects talk about how the 6 mark question is tricky because students have to write a lengthy paragraph. At times, for English, it feels like an endurance test rather than a test of knowledge and skill. The papers equate to several essays. GCSE English Language equates to four essays in one hour and forty five minutes a paper. Literature has two essays on one paper and three on the other paper.

But the exams are not only an endurance test for students,  they are also an endurance test for teachers. I’d love to say things are nice and fair in the world of mocking marking, but I can’t. Things are far from fair. English teachers would kill for a quick one word answer question or a table to mark. The only ‘joy’ teachers get is the four mark question and that is a short lived joy, when you have four essays to mark after that question. As a curriculum leader, I will often present leaders and governors with a copy of the exam paper, because I have to clarify what the paper covers and expects. All too often, the common thought about English is ‘write an essay about a story and write a pretty story’. It is gruelling. Gruelling to do. Gruelling to mark. You can see the penny drop on their faces as I turn page after page before leadership teams.  And, then students have to…. and then they have to … and then next they have to… and finally they… You can see that look on disbelief on their faces as they equate the amount of writing a students does with the pain and anguish it takes them to send one simple email to staff.

Yes, I might not have to clean the sinks after a lesson, go out in the cold, rain and snow or even have to explain the complexities of sexual intercourse to young giggling people, but I have to read lots and lots of work and that is considerably time consuming. I’d love to say that the opportunity to read a book in a lesson or watch a DVD version of the set text balances things out. It doesn’t and I think leadership teams need to look at what their English departments do in their schools, because there is a big problem with the marking of English mocks in schools. Many schools are getting teachers to mark four English papers in one exam period. That’s the equivalent of teachers marking thirteen essays per student in a class. Oh, don’t forget to mark KS3 books every fortnight and write some reports.  

I am a big fan of the new style of GCSEs – yes, there is one fan- but I think that they have caused a pressure point in schools. The knock-on effect of binning coursework in English has created a focal point of marking. If you are married to an English teacher, don’t expect to see them in the annual mock months of November and December. There are weeks of marking, in some cases.

The government and exam boards are not helping with the process as the emphasis has always been on students taking the exams in Year 11 and not Year 10, which compounds the problem. The majority of Year 10 is teaching and Year 11 becomes the preparation for the skills. Ultimately, the problem is that English teachers teach two GCSE courses and not one, like most subjects. Oh, and they are double weighted so they are really, really important to the whole school. We are marking double the amount of mock papers.

We need to address the inequality somehow. We are compelled to teach two GCSEs moral and educationally, but we need to shout about how the system needs to support English teachers. Honestly, I would have left my NQT year if I was faced with level of marking I have now for the GCSE papers. It is unsustainable and we need to acknowledge this.

I am in a lucky position that I am supported by the leaders in my school. They understand the marking situation and so we’ll have one paper marked before Christmas and one after. This sadly isn’t the case everywhere and we need to shout out about it. We need to be talking to leaders and teams and see what they can do to help. A shrug of the shoulder is not enough. A ‘well that is how it is’ smile is not enough. We need support and actions. We need schools to acknowledge the level of work involved and support teachers with the workload.

A long, long time ago English departments were given time off the timetable to moderate coursework folders. I want English departments to have that day off timetable again to mark exam papers. This then would start to address the imbalance. Teachers shouldn’t have to work Saturday and Sunday to mark mock papers in time. That’s what is happening. And, I think some teachers are thinking this is normal.   

Workload is a paramount issue in schools and a thorn in the teacher retention’s side. I feel that we need to speak up about it. We have a situation here that is damaging.

I want leaders to engage with English departments and see what you can do to help. Yes, you may want the results, but you’ll not get them when the team is burnt out by the exam marking. The papers might be marked, but the teaching will be mediocre because the teachers are tired and exhausted.  What would your teaching be like if you had to mark thirty sets of thirteen essays in-between lessons?

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 9 December 2018

Fake news: I care more than you do.

There is one thing about teaching that never changes. Teachers care. In fact, they care a lot. They care so much they listen to a lot of crap, attend pointless meetings and do things that neglect their own health, family and friends to make things better for students. I have yet to meet a teacher that didn’t care on some level. That caring might take the form of detailed marking, several unique handshakes with students as they enter the classroom, a Pi shaped cake it has taken the teacher all Sunday to make or just a silent smile.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of ways to show people and students you care. Some visible. Some invisible.

Being a tutor is an interesting experience. I have been a tutor several times and saying goodbye to your students is an interesting one. Occasionally, it became a competition of who cares for my students the most. One teacher makes an award for each student made from a wooden spoon spray painted gold. Another teacher makes each student a keyring with a picture of themselves and the whole class. Another tutor writes a personal card to each student with a lengthy paragraph about their hopes and dreams for them. Not to be out beaten by the others, one teacher does all of these for their group. They don’t want to be accused of not caring enough. Or, for them to think they don’t care. So, they buy them an Easter egg too.

We get ourselves in knots over the ‘caring’ aspect of teaching. We channel it into some bizarre things like displays, worksheets and physical goods. We can easily forget that you turning up to school is caring. For some students that never see members of their family daily, seeing one person consistently in their week is great. Our stability is caring. Our friendliness is caring. Our conversation is caring. Our interest in their work is caring. Our pushing students is caring.   

Twitter has disappointed me over the last few months. I enjoy the symposium of ideas yet it has, lately, become a menagerie of emotions. Ideas and emotions have been twisted together and spat out in different directions. People have attached particular negative emotions on to ideas, so if you think one particular thought you are meant to feel bad. I have seen shaming for thinking a particular way. There have even been names for the different sides of an idea and people have been labelled as being on one side or another, without even consulting with the person in question.

Then, people have added ‘caring’ into the debate. If you care, then you would see X as wrong? Then, we have had people shoving their own children into their arguments. Would you want your own child to have to suffer X? What started as a conversation about writing the date in full has become a full-blown tribal war where teacher’s offspring are being sacrificed to appease the masses? A five minute trawl through Twitter becomes an educational version of ‘Les Miserables’.

The problem is that ideas and people have been fused together. People are not separating the idea from the person. If you think isolation booths / chairs in rows / knowledge aren’t bad, then you are a bad person. Instead of making rational cases why something is good or bad, we get ideas personified as twittering people. I can quite happily dislike an idea, but I like the person on Twitter. This sadly isn’t the case. It seems that people can see past the idea.

We all care and are passionate about things. That’s why we are on Twitter and reading tweets about education. However, that passion and care can be all consuming and controlling. Accusing a teacher of not caring is like accusing a fish of not swimming. We are emotional beings. We are often trying to keep those emotions repressed in the classroom. The output for these emotions are either a partner or Twitter / Facebook. And, growingly I am seeing an output of emotions on Twitter. Things are getting a little bit emotional.

The thing that disappointed me most was the ‘isolation booth’ discussion recently. There were some interesting points made, but added to them was some remarkable emotional vitriol. Instead of an exploration of the concept and the strengths, problems and weaknesses, we got finger pointing and shaming and arguing. I am one of those people who, like most, want to be convinced through reasoned arguments. I am open-minded about things and happy to have my mind changed. However, in that case we didn’t get reasoned and exploratory discussion. We got emotions thrown out left, right and centre. And, the biggest of these was that I must care less because I don’t fully (note the word ‘fully’) agree that they should be banned.  I, like others, was made to feel like an educational Scrooge (Stave 1- wink, wink) and it was shameful.  

English teachers know about the three key aspects of persuasive writing. Logos. Pathos. Ethos. You need all three when persuading people. Sadly, in recent debates we have concentrated on the emotions (Pathos) and forgotten about the logical reasons (Logos) and credibility (Ethos). One thing I spotted was a company offering their services on managing their behaviour was retweeting messages favouring the banning of booths. This, of course, is problematic as they serve to profit from the banning of the booths.  Plus, we had primary school teachers commenting on their use in secondary context and not their use in a primary context. This for me was problematic because it was viewed from an outsider’s perspective.  Yes, we are all teachers, parents, children at some point, but I couldn’t tell you of the educational value of stickle bricks because I don’t use them to teach in a primary school. I certainly could offer a point – and that’s fair in democracy – but I think the credibility of my argument should be transparent. I don’t have experience of stickle bricks but I can have an opinion but it probably isn’t a credible as a teacher who uses stickle bricks. Listen to the primary teacher about stickle bricks.

We need to go back to logical and credible reasoning and move away from the emotional ‘ I care more than you’ arguments. In the classroom, we know we can manipulate emotions. We can make students feel guilty, shame and embarrassment in our classroom, but in the same room we can make them feel pride, joy and encouragement. We are the emotional puppeteers in the classroom. We know that the way we behave, speak and act impacts on the emotional state of the people in our classroom. We can also control how others feel around us. We have a duty to deal with emotions sensibly, humanely and appropriately.    

I don’t care more than you do. In fact, I care as much as you do, so let’s not use that as an argument in education debates. Maybe my caring might not be A3 sized, laminated and photocopied in colour, but be assured my caring is of the same value.

So, let’s not question whether people are caring or not caring. Let’s focus on making people change their minds and not their hearts.

Thanks for reading,  


Saturday, 1 December 2018

'An Inspector Calls' is a play, lovie, darling!

For years, I have really struggled with the exploring and teaching of the genre of ‘An Inspector Calls’. It’s not that I think it is without genre, but I think the genre is questionable and particularly vague.

Yes, the play has the trappings of a murder mystery play. Yes, it has some elements of a ‘well-made play’. But, arguably, there is much about the play that doesn’t fit these types of story, and play. The play does seem like the ending of Agatha Christie novel with the Inspector (Poirot) working through the possible motives for the death and eliminating each character in turn by revealing their connection and motive to the deceased or soon to be deceased. Yet, there isn’t a murder. The play does seem like a ‘well-made play’ because structurally the play works like one. The majority of action has happened before the start of the story and there is a twist at the end of the play. Yet, most ‘well-made plays’ tend focus on characterisation and a woman’s dilemma in love.

For me, this question of genre has really stuck with me. Each time I hear things about the genre of ‘An Inspector Calls’ I wince. It just doesn’t feel right to me. Until, I had a thought about drama and the styles of theatre common at the time the play was written. What if we are looking at ‘An Inspector Calls’ from the wrong angle? What if our obsession with pigeonholing the story has made us forget two major styles of theatre at the time? On one side, you have natural theatre with the likes of Ibsen attempting to recreate realistic people exploring real problems in real time. And on the other side, you have Brecht with Epic theatre exploring unrealistic story telling with real ideas about life and society at its heart.

What if ‘An Inspector Calls’ isn’t actually a naturalistic play but a Brechtian style play instead?  Stay with me on this one. I have quite a few examples to prove the point.

[1] The lighting starts of ‘pink’ at the start of the play and becomes ‘harsh’ when the Inspector arrives.

I have had quite a few discussions with students and teachers on this one, but there is no explicit reference to the colour white, but there is a general assumption that the lighting goes white when the Inspector arrives. We subtly go from a soft, naturalistic colour to a harsh, bright, revealing colour. The colour white is important in Brechtian theatre because white light reveals the truth and prevents things from being hidden. White light ‘illuminates the truth’ – Bertolt Brecht.

I’d be bold to suggest that there is a specific movement between the natural to the Brechtian approach through the lighting. It’s the only lighting effect in the play really. The play opens up as natural theatre and the arrival of the Inspector Goole turns the play into a different type of theatre altogether.

[2] The characters are repulsive.

Personally, I don’t like the characters: I think they are purposefully repulsive and unpleasant. I’d even say that Priestley goes out his way to make us dislike them. Brecht, as he terms it, uses the verfremdungseffekt in his play. A number of approaches to distance the audience. He actively works to avoid any connection the audience can have with the characters. Several devices are used to distance us from the characters and events unfolding. The purpose of this is to make the audience think rather than feel. If people are feeling things for characters, they are not thinking. For that reason, I think Priestley is distancing us from these characters. Eric is surely and snappy. Sheila is smug. Mr Birling is pompous. Mrs Birling is self-righteous. Gerald is privileged. They all have unpleasant characteristics and personality types. All designed for us not to feel. We are made to think about these characters and not feel. There is nothing, if I am honest, for us to connect with the characters emotionally. Furthermore, they are character types rather than ‘real people’. They are two-dimensional. They are ciphers. They are symbols rather than real people. They are there to clearly represent a part of society rather than act as real people.

It comes to something when you empathise with Edna with only a few lines than the whole cast with pages of dialogue.

[3] Eva Smith is constantly changing

Brecht has other known theatre devices to distance the audience from the character, but I say Priestley uses his own approaches to create the same effect. Eva Smith is never on stage. This purposeful omission in the play helps to distance us from the character. She has no face or body in the play. She is an idea. A thought. And, not a real character for the audience.

To aid this distancing effect, we have the character constantly changing. She is a worker. She is a shop worker. She is a lover. She is a soon-to-be-mother. Her identity changes constantly in the play. Even her name changes several times in the play. Therefore, it is understandable when students consider how there could be more than one person. The theory that the Inspector changes the photograph isn’t just one made by the characters in the play, but one that is often discussed in the classroom.  

The recent BBC version of the play was interesting and it highlighted to me this clear distancing effect. The version places Eva Smith everywhere in the story. On the cover. In the trailer. In the opening. In the middle. At the end. She is visible. Therefore, we care and feel for her situation. We feel rather think as a result of this. The BBC version probably gave her own musical theme tune of the film’s musical score. And, we all know what the purpose of music in television is nowadays – a way to make us feel for the characters. Something, I reckon Priestley didn’t want us to do. If we feel, we stop thinking.

[4] How she dies   

Death is never a laughing matter, but there is almost a pantomime approach to death in the story. The way she dies is considerably dramatic and over the top. I am not an expert on suicide in the Edwardian age, but the drinking of bleach, I think, wasn’t a common approach. In fact, I’d suggest out of the options a woman could have used at the time, drinking bleach would be the least obvious one to use. She gets a violent death to avoid sentiment and emotion. Her death isn’t beautiful and  drawn-out (like Dickens’ characters), but blunt, violent and hard to imagine. I’d even say that the ‘drinking of bleach’ is used because we don’t want to imagine that death. We are socially comfortable with visualising some deaths, yet a car crash or a particularly violent death is not one we want to imagine. Therefore, we mentally avoid it.

[5] Titanic

The Titanic is ‘unsinkable’ and there will never be a war are two predictions at the start of the play that make some in the audience chuckle. Their inclusion is always seen as the arrogance of the character and a clear example of dramatic irony. What if their inclusion is actually breaking down of the fourth wall? They are ‘knowing jokes’ to the audience. They make the audience aware that this is a play and a construct and not real life. A bit like when Buffy includes cultural references like Scooby Doo in the dialogue. It is subtle, but it is interesting when looking at the rest of the play, because it doesn’t happen again. We even get several mentions to playwrights:  we have a playwright mentioning playwrights in a play. It is all becoming a bit post-modern.

I’d say that these cultural references are, therefore, purposefully used her to make us aware that this a play and not real life.

[6] Stage directions

I have read quite a few plays in my time and there are very few plays that have the same amount of stage direction that ‘An Inspector Calls’ has. In fact, it is incredibly annoying from a teacher’s point of view, because every line includes precise direction as to how a line should be read.

I studied quite a bit of drama at university and one of the things actors do is work out for themselves how to read a specific line. My drama scripts from university is full of notes on how a line should be said or where I should pause in a line or even when I need to place emphasis on syllable. Priestley has given actors a step by step guide to the reading of the lines. This, dare I say it, could be so that actor doesn’t seek a ‘truthful’ or ‘natural performance’ but a one that is structured and formulaic. It’s an attempt to reduce a natural performance.   

[7] Inspector Goole

For me, there are two type of characters in the play. First there are the symbolic ciphers. The main cast of characters. And, then, there is Inspector Goole. He is a complete contrast to the rest of the cast and, in my opinion, the closest character to a Brechtian character. A character whose role is to tell the story. A character who is designed to make us think. He is the character who turns the story into a parable. He is our narrator. He tells the story.

For years in the classroom, we have debate over the character. Is it a ghost? Is it God? Is it the playwright? Now, I’d say it is a Brechtian character designed to move us away from naturalism. Note how the Inspector stops the emotional journey of characters. We never get poignant, meaningful character moments. Instead, we get the Inspector breaking it up by showing a photograph to characters. Quick show them a photograph before it gets emotional and natural.

The name alone is also cartoonish. It symbolises his unnatural role in the story telling. He isn’t a real person. He is something fantastical. Something of no substance.

Even the Inspector’s speeches and comments throughout the play are largely social comment.

“…but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and a chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives and what we think and say and do.

He is a walking soundbite for political ideas. Is he a realistic character? No. I can’t imagine him having several failed marriages and a drinking problem. In fact, there are very few character touches. That’s because his role is largely the narrator. A narrator who every so often talks to the audience about the political message behind the story.  

[8] Setting the play in Edwardian England

For years, we have taught students that the Edwardian setting is used as a sense of nostalgia and to highlight how the old class structure was detrimental society. What if the selection of a time before war is a purposeful attempt alienate the audience? The world presented in the play isn’t a world that the audience is living in. It is remote from their own experience. It isn’t their daily experience of life. It is incredibly far removed from their own life to be alien. Two World Wars helped to blot that memory.

Plus, the general consensus after a conflict is to look at building the future. A desire to be positive even when the situation is terrible. Instead of focusing on the here and now, or the future, we get a focus on what was destroyed.  After bombing, death, fear and sacrifice, we get a picture of a time when that hadn’t happened yet. The past is distancing the audience from the now. How can the feel for characters who have no idea of the experiences the audience have lived through? Another reason why the audience might find the characters repulsive.   

[9] Pauses

If you are familiar with naturalistic theatre, then you’ll be familiar with pauses. In fact, lots of them. Natural theatre tends to have lots… of… pauses…because real life involves characters thinking, considering and wondering what to say next. In ‘An Inspector Calls’ there tends to be very few pauses. What we have as a result of this is a bombardment of plot points and character’s talking. There’s no room to understand the characters. We aren’t given little character moments. We don’t see Sheila’s unconditional love for Gerald in a small pause after something Gerald says to her. We don’t see those touches that make the characters real. The depth. The subtleties. The tiny nuances are missing. If you want to develop a character, you slow the plot. Therefore, in an attempt, to stop us feeling we are given less to feel about. We get the equivalent of modern day films. We get three acts of CGI storytelling without the slow bits where we understand the characters.

There are just no slow bits.

So, where does this leave us with the play? For a start, I don’t think people to should be citing that the play is Brechtian. Labels are bad. Boo. So, don’t for a start to label the play as Brechtian. I think the play has Brechtian elements, but there are many elements missing too. The key thing I think students need to possibly think about is the audience’s relationship with characters and events on stage. Are we meant to feel something? Or, are we meant to think something? That perspective depends on your opinion on whether Priestley is distancing from events and characters or not.

I studied English and Drama at university - yes, I am one of those people. I think the understanding of Brecht will help teachers to teach ‘An Inspector Calls’. Students don’t need to be quoting Brecht, but if we teach plays from a place of knowledge, we’ll help students to understand drama better.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 18 November 2018

The Tiredness of Spotting Techniques

Happy Mock Exam Season!

I have had the pleasure of marking 120 question 2s on GCSE Language Paper 1 and it has given me some interesting things to think about. One thing, in particular, I find interesting is how students ‘contextualise’ or ‘explore’ a writer’s choice. A large swathe of students struggle with this aspect. For them, they are reliant on spotting rather than discussing. These students will spot the word and then spot the effect it creates and then stop there. That’s it. Then, move on to spotting something else. That pattern is repeated again and again in question 2 and question 3 for a lot of students. 
It seems that we are obsessed with repeating the process of spotting things in English. What do you notice about Dickens’ use of words? What do you notice about the opening? We obsess about spotting things. It is everywhere. In an attempt to address this, I have been getting students to do something more with each point

I gave students this sheet as a discussion tool after we had read the ‘The Tiredness of Rosabel’ exam paper.   

First, I got them to match some things up. Something from each column. It involved colouring in. Then, I got them to explore how they link together. How does this word link to this effect?  

Even some of weakest students were able to make connections between different aspects. Then, we added another question in the discussion. Why?

Why use that word to link to that effect?
Why use that word to convey that idea?
Why create this mood in relation to this idea?

The ‘but why?’ is something students forget. This generated some detailed exploration of ideas. We weren’t stuck on that spotting element because we were exploring. They made some good paragraphs as a result of the discussion. 

Then, as a further point, I asked students to tell me what was missing from the sheet. What would I need to add to it if I was to remake it again? 

I love reusing a resource as many times as I can. So, I used this resource with both Year 10 and Year 11, but then I used again for structure. As a class, we covered up the spot it section and created our own things to spot about the structure.  

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 4 November 2018

Keep calm and keep teaching ideas (A01)

Teaching is a strange thing and it is hard to define what makes things stick in a student’s head when other ideas leave the brain as quickly as someone drinking Sambuca shots - or the even faster way that vomit leaves the body after drinking all of those Sambuca shots.  What do we do with those ideas that really stick?

You can always guarantee that there is one student who tries to crowbar something you taught them once into everything they study. There are students who will direct every lesson discussion to oxymorons or relate everything studied to pathetic fallacy. It is like they cannot let go of that idea. You might be debating Brexit and still the student would pipe up and describe the Brexit as an oxymoron and cite that the change in weather is clearly pathetic fallacy suggesting out changeable nature.

It just so happened that I had one student who obsessed on an idea I had taught them. But, the idea carried on into every single text we taught at GCSE with quite a lot of success. She had developed an interpretation to all of the texts using this idea.

So, what was the seed? Well, the seed was the stiff upper lip. As a class, we were exploring Wilfred Owen’s ‘Exposure’ and I was exploring how the way soldiers were supposed to be stoic and not let events affect them emotionally and mentally. We were discussing the title and how it referred to the soldier’s exposure to the elements, but also the exposing of the reality of fighting in war, revealing what is behind the stiff upper lip. We explored as a class how the stiff upper lip has ingrained itself in our culture and how we compare with other countries. This in turn led to a discussion of Facebook and how we are more open to spill our emotions and feelings to others and how this contrasts to the Victorian attitude that was still ingrained in the soldiers fighting in WW1. We ended the lesson by exploring the significance of the war poets: they weren’t just attacking war, but attacking how society approaches dealing with things. They challenged and attacked the lies.

The lesson ended and so had, I thought, the idea. Then, we started to look at ‘A Christmas Carol’ and within the first lesson a student made a link to Scrooge and the stiff upper lip. She made the point that the imagery associated with Scrooge embodies the Victorian attitude to emotion: hard, sharp, closed and cold. The ‘solitary as an oyster’ got some battering by the symbolism bus too. The oyster’s shells are like the lips of the Victorian person: closed and hard to open. The student then went on to explore the significance of the ending. The cold Scrooge thaws and becomes a warmer, emotional character man. He transforms from businessman to friend. Work represents the place where we see the stiff upper lip regularly. The work and the money is more important than feelings and emotions. That’s why Dickens juxtaposes Scrooge’s business with the home of the Cratchits. Scrooge highlights what happens when we are stoical all the time. It isolates us. It makes us miserable. In fact, the whole story is about making Scrooge’s lips do something.     

We love a connection in English and this connection of ideas between ‘Exposure’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ was incredibly fruitful. But, we didn’t stop there. The student would pipe up during the teaching of these texts:

The Charge of the Light Brigade  - typifies the stiff upper lip

Remains – the damaging effect of the stiff upper lip on us and how it is still a way of thinking today

War Photographer – how we struggle to feel emotions for others because of our obsession on our own lives

Poppies – how it is more acceptable for a woman to express emotion

Kamikaze – how stoicism is part of other cultures

Bayonet Charge -  how we aren’t certain what to think and feel because we just follow orders or the common majority

London – the blind acceptance of a way of thinking

Ozymandias – how the ability to empathise and connect with people caused self-destruction

My Last Duchess – the fear of looking bad and presenting positive outlook on something bad

But, it wouldn’t stop there. When reading ‘Rosabel’ paper, the student would highlight how Rosabel’s behaviour at the start of the extract reflects her following the stiff upper lip attitude. Her journey on the bus with people reflects the common mind-set of the population. KBO. Yet, her desire to throw the hat at the red-haired woman is about her stiff upper lip wobbling. Her emotions are coming to the surface. She can’t repress what she is feeling any more.

We’d then got to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and then there it was again. The way the young people behave in the play reflect that the stiff upper lip is something that is learnt and we are conditioned to think that way. The young people are so spontaneous and forthcoming with their emotions – they gush over everything. This compares to the adults who tend to be a bit measured with their emotion. In fact, Lady Montague is so British she dies off stage. Talk about stiff upper lip. Every part of her body becomes stiff and she politely does it off stage. She doesn’t show emotion. Lady Capulet is another example of this. The men are slightly more different, suggesting that men could show emotion but women couldn’t.

Finally, we got on to ‘An Inspector Calls’. A play which is a whole metaphor for the stiff upper lip. It is telling that the play is set in the dining room. A place that is private and not visible. They can show their secrets, lies, true feelings and thoughts in that room, but they cannot show them outside the house. They must put on a façade that everything is good – great – superb. They must show a stiff upper lip and present a façade to the rest of the world. It is interesting to note that the most emotional characters in the play are Eric and Shelia. Two of the youngest characters. In fact, Eric is struggling to keep the façade up he is resorting to alcohol (Remains).  A connection with ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Young people struggle to be stoical, suggesting age and experience teaches people to control emotions, yet this is seen as a negative in the texts.

Through serendipity we discovered a thread through the majority of texts and, more interestingly, we had a readymade interpretation of the texts. Yes, there is a danger of a student crowbarring the idea in every text, but this made quite an interesting starting point when discussing ideas about the text. There are obvious themes across the GCSE texts we study, but what are the concepts that would help lift up their understanding of the texts. Some are obvious like ‘The American Dream’ for American texts but maybe there are some that we are not so clear and explicit when teaching a text. The stiff upper lip was just something I thought that would be a one lesson idea. However, it spiralled and thanks to a plucky student it kept coming back. It makes me think what concepts that aren’t so obvious that would help a student’s understanding of a text.  

I give it 5 minutes before the student mentions the stiff upper lip in a Year 11 lesson this week.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 28 October 2018

The dust has settled on AQA Paper 1

Now that the dust has settled on the new format for English Language GCSE, I felt it was time to share some things that have worked and helped me in teaching Paper 1. We always run the danger of exam fatigue with repeated exam practice. It is so easy to find papers and walk students through the papers, yet we possibly need to vary things. Yes, the texts might be different, but the questions are the same and that could lead to some predictable, monotonous teaching. We need familiarity with the papers, but we don’t need it to be endless repetition of the same thing. That’s why the following approaches refer to various texts and examples, because we can’t do them for every text, but they give a sense of variety when looking at the exam paper.

[1] The front of the booklet

‘The Tiredness of Rosabel’ by Katherine                Mansfield – 1908

We exploring the title of poems, yet I can guarantee that a large majority of students skipped by the word ‘tiredness’ when hunting for the exam questions. In fact, that ‘tiredness’ is a huge theme of the extract. Miss that and you could easily miss a valuable part of the story.

We spend a good ten minutes exploring the front of the booklet. What could Rosabel be tired of? What could cause ‘tiredness’ in 1908? Who is Rosabel? What do we think the issues facing a woman in 1908?

If you are lucky, the story might be part of an anthology and that gives us an extra title to source meaning from. An example even gives the genre of the text. An important aspect to know, if you are exploring the text and its meaning.

[2] Genre

I’ll be honest: genre is something we need to work on with students. There seems to be a lack of variety of genres in films and television today. We tend to get patterns of similar genres and very little variety. This is, in part, a result of consumer influence. A popular film influences the making of another. Students aren’t getting the variety they might once get.

Recently, we looked at ‘Glass, Bricks and Dust’ by Claire Dean. Before we looked at the story, we explored the fantasy and fairy tale genre. A great opportunity to show a trailer for ‘Labyrinth’ and explore the ideas and answer some of these questions:

What is the reader’s connection to the story?

Which one is more important to the genre character or setting?

What is the most important thing that the writer must describe?

What are the story rules for a fairy tale story?

It helps to have a good understanding of the genre before looking at a story. They see how important it is when a parent disappears. They see the significance of a man appearing.

A trailer for films helps students to get the understanding of genre. Therefore, I try to match a trailer to a story extract, so students can identify the features, but, more importantly, identify how a reader is supposed to react to the text.  


I can see people’s hackles rise already. Hear me out on this one. I am not a big fan of acronyms and in fact I hate them, yet I have used this one for the skills when looking at Question 2 and 3. I don’t use it to write paragraphs. That’s tosh. I use it to help students remember the skills they must use.

Spot it  - a choice made by the writer

Quote it  - a quotation

Effect it – I know, dodgy! How the reader feels  - a sense of …. Mood …. Atmosphere … a feeling of

Explain it  - explanation for the mood and commenting on the subtext – they feel this because…  

Link it – a connection to the rest of story or extract

Symbolise it – what’s the bigger picture here?

We use it to get students to remember that they have to demonstrate other skills when exploring the text. We stress that the SPOT / QUOTE / EFFECT are the basics. The non-negotiables. However, they get few marks for them unless they EXPLAIN / LINK / SYMBOLISE things. Plus, I teach students how they can start with any of them, but there’s no need to follow them in the particular order. In fact, I actively encourage them to start with ‘effect it’ or ‘symbolise it’ as it enables high-level thinking sooner in the writing.

Q2 Example

Spot it  - The writer uses the verb

Quote it   -  ‘oozing’

Effect it   - to create a sense of anger and frustration.

Explain it  - She is fed-up with her life and she wants something different and to escape from the world she is in.

Link it  - The attractive woman in the shop highlights how bad her life is.

Symbolise it – This symbolises the difference between the different classes.

Q3 Example

Spot it  - The writer changes the focus from the bus to the girl with red hair

Quote it   -  ‘eyes the colour of that green ribbon shot with gold they had got from Paris last week ‘

Effect it   - to create a sense of contrast and envy, suggesting to us the sadness Rosabel feels with her life. 

Explain it  - The girl represented what Rosabel wishes she had.

Link it  - The writer focuses on the woman to make us empathise with her situation. We see how she lives and then see how others more fortunate live.

Symbolise it – The drab, unpleasant bus represents her life and girl is the one attractive and pleasant part of her day. 


For us, it has become a planning structure. So when we give students a paragraph, we get students to write S Q E E L S in the margin and get them to think of something to say about the paragraph.

[4] The Subtext

A lot of students really struggle with the subtext of a story. They are obsessed with the obvious features of the story and don’t really address the heart of the story. You could spot a million similes, but unless you know the subtext of the story, you’ll not understand why one of those similes have been used. Therefore, we have been working on jumpstarting the thinking about the subtext.

We give students a list of statements exploring the subtext. Some true and some false. All on one PowerPoint.  Students then have to support these ideas with reference to the text.

Alex fears he is losing control of his life.

Alex is inventing things to worry about.

Alex is trying to avoid the reality of how bad things are.

Alex is struggling to control his life.

Alex has lost all hope.

Alex is fed-up of pretending everything is going to be ok.

Alex just wants to live a normal life.

Alex is fed-up of acting like the adult.

Alex feels he is shouldering the responsibility of a lot of the problems.

Alex has accepted she is going to die.

Alex is insecure and his mother’s illness has brought this to the surface.

Then, we think about anything missing from the list. Is it about something else?

I have really enjoyed this bit, because it moves the analysis to meaning and not choices. We, of course, talk about the choices, but only after exploring the subtext. What has the writer used to show us that Alex is struggling to control his life? A simile of a boat in a storm.

[5] Objects, places and people

Unless we get a really strange extract, the story will always contain objects, places and people. I have seen people offer so many different ways to address the structure question and a lot of them focus on drawing eyes, glasses or random symbols.

I feel it is better to ask students to spot the people, settings and objects in the text. They are the tent poles for the story. Then, they can explore the reason for that object, setting and person at that point in story. This also helps to develop the symbolism of aspects in the text.

This is an example I used with Rosabel this week and it generated the following ideas.

·         Start and end features a purchase of an object with different attitudes  

·         Juxtaposition of violets and egg highlights desires and needs

·         Egg symbolises the frugal and plain nature of her life  

·         Bus and carriage highlight the difference in class and how effortless things are for the rich

·         The red-haired woman contrasts with Rosabel’s brown hair and lifestyle – an impossible aspect to change

·         Jewellers represent a better life and a better job for her – the selling of hats isn’t glamourous – a functional job

·         The woman in the grey mackintosh coat represents the normal customer and making the red-haired woman unique

·         Colour is important in the story. Violets add colour to her life. The red-haired woman doesn’t need colour, as it is colourful enough, so she needs a black hat.  

Plus, when you look at the story you’ll see that the story follows the structure of objects, setting and people, which goes to show that the emphasis from the start is on materialism. The order will change depending on the extract. The more I think about the extract, the more I think the violets are the single, most important structural device in the story. They suggest her attitude towards life. She’d rather look at something pretty than eat a nice meal.

[6] Style

Looking at the style of writing is incredibly important when looking at the story and students needs to pick up in the change of style and explore it. Yes, the objects, people and settings change, but sometimes the writer changes the style to match that.

I get students to see if they can spot where the writing changes. If they can’t, then I offer them this. Then, usually they get the gist of the point. They then explore why the bus is described in such detail and why the conversation with the woman with red hair is featured in the story.

[7] Explain the answers

All too often we are starting with a blank slate with students. It takes time to get to an idea and we are constantly getting them to start from zero. I like giving students the possible answers to questions and get them to explain them verbally to the class. Explain to my why the writer used the word ‘lashing’ to create a violent atmosphere.

Question 2- How does the writer use language to…?

Words / Phrases

       Lashing – violence / dominant force attacking / pain

       Adrift -  helplessness / unconnected / distant / disorientated

       Adrift in a boat – caught in the centre / affected by things greatly

       Pushed –  hesitancy / fear of danger / nervousness

       Bulk – solid / security / strength / consistent / power 

       Spilling in furious waves – anger / hatred / destruction / power / lack of skill / unpredictable 

       Roaring – danger / uncontrollable / monstrous / animalistic

       Pounding – fear / danger / uncontrollable /

       Tangled – confusion / inescapable

In doing this, we help students to develop the language for talking about effect.

[8] The summary sentence

A boy has been struggling to fit in at his new school. His parents have moved from the city to a small country village on the Welsh coast.

The summary sentence of the extract holds lot of choices by the writer and some scope for inferences and empathy.

How would a boy find starting in a new school different to a girl?

What would a person moving from the city to the countryside find difficult?

These things need to be modelled to the students. A reliance on jumping in means that students fail to understand key aspects of the writing.

[9] A paragraph is enough

The boy resumed paddling.  He kicked only every third or fourth stroke; kicking was more exertion than steady paddling.  But the occasional kicks sent new signals to the fish.  The time it needed to lock on them, only an instant, for it was almost directly below the boy.  The fish rose.  Nearly vertical, it saw the commotion on the surface.  There was no conviction that what thrashed above was food, but food was not a concept of significance.  The fish was impelled to attack: if what it swallowed was digestible that was food; if not, it would later be regurgitated.  The mouth opened, and with a final sweep of the sickle tail, the fish struck.

Jaws by Peter Benchley

One paragraph is enough. There isn’t a real need to work through pages of prose. This paragraph has something to say on language, structure, subtext, effect, and even Question 4. Our Year 11s are preparing for their mocks and we’ve been giving them, as a starter, a paragraph and getting them to comment on language, structure and evaluate it.

[10] Finding stuff

Finding inferences can help students build up their understanding and resilience with texts.  We need to work on helping students make those inferences independently and some form of scaffolding is needed.

Rosabel would rather spend her money on pretty things than essential items she needs:

Rosabel cares about her appearance:

Rosabel finds the customers funny sometimes:

There isn’t a need to go through repeated paper after paper. We can be a little bit more creative with how we teach the papers and help students work through it.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 13 October 2018

Taking Tennyson and Owen to the pub for a pint

This week I have been working with Year 10 and helping them start writing poetry comparisons. As a class, we created the following opening comparison paragraph.

Both ‘Exposure’ and ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ show us that the reality of war is death. Both show us that death is inevitable and a part of the life of war. However, ‘COLB’ celebrates death and glorifies the sacrifice the soldiers gave in dying and ‘Exposure’ shows us that death is a process that should be pitied and thought about. As Owen fought in the war and protested about war, it shows a personal and bitter point of view challenging the mentality of Tennyson is his poem. 

Tennyson doesn’t shy away from death in his poem. His constant reference to the ‘noble 600’ and how they are left as ‘not the 600’ is a constant reminder of death. He doesn’t want the death to be forgotten and ‘fade’ away, which is why he constantly refers to the ‘600’ and uses endless repetition. Tennyson doesn’t want them to be forgotten. Although he repeats ‘the death’, he does hide the actual violence and uses onomatopoeias and alliteration to give the sense of chaos surrounding the situation. It is as if the action is so hard to define, as it is here. It is hard to separate one from the other. The reality of war for Tennyson is confusion, chaos and death.  In contrast, Owen’s ‘Exposure’ refers to explicitly death at the end of the poem. However, the whole poem echoes the dying process: a cold, slow, long process of war. A common thought is that war is about action and whilst ‘COLB’ shows us that with ‘cannons to the right’ and ‘sabres’, ‘Exposure’ challenges this idea and gives us the idea that war is about ‘waiting’ for death. The use of long sentences and repetition of ‘nothing’ gives us the sense that not much happens and that soldiers are waiting for death and they’d rather it happened quickly. The wait is a metaphoric death.  ‘Exposure’ is the process before the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. It shows us why the soldiers rush into the ‘Jaws of Hell’ because they have had to wait for ages for nothing. They’d rather do something than wait, even if it means dying. They want to be ‘exposed’ to the danger and rather not wait for it.  

Along the way, I noticed that I didn’t use the words ‘poet’ or ‘writer’ in the writing and it got me thinking.  Instead, the emphasis was actually on the writer’s surname.

Tennyson doesn’t shy away from death in his poem.

Tennyson doesn’t want them to be forgotten.

The reality of war for Tennyson is confusion, chaos and death.

For years, I have been correcting the students who use a poet’s first name. Unless you have shared a pint (an impossibility) with Tennyson, it isn’t polite to use their first name. But, interestingly I haven’t really given the choice between writer and surname much thought. Yet, the above example made me see things differently and think of things differently. 

In the example above, I have mentioned Tennyson as numerous times and I haven’t equally given Owen the same coverage. What could I say if I looked Owen? 

Tennyson doesn’t shy away from death in his poem.

Owen challenges the glory of dying for one’s country.  

Tennyson doesn’t want them to be forgotten.

Owen thinks they are forgotten and the trapped between life and death.

The reality of war for Tennyson is confusion, chaos and death.

The reality of war for Owen is endless waiting and emptiness. 

The problem with using ‘writer’ and ‘poet’ is one of emotional detachment. Being academic in writing is not about being emotionless. Put things down to a faceless, emotionless and genderless noun (the poet) makes everything perfunctory. Tennyson was a living, thinking person made of wobbly flesh and bones. He thought, felt and probably drank tea.

One of the things I am noticing with the new literature is the importance in language precision. Long gone are the days of including X, Y and X and you’ll pass the GCSE. Students need to be able to express things fluently and precise. You can’t rely on bolt on statements or sentence openings. That’s why I think a shift in the subject of the sentences makes a shift in understanding and perspective. It’s more personal.

Owen wanted …

Owen thought …

Owen felt …

Getting students to explore the intent is quite hard, but an emphasis on the surname can help students to do this. We are exploring his (or her, depending on the poem) personal perspective on the idea. How he sees things? 

We can then include emotions and add to the student’s understanding of the intent further.

Owen felt bitter.

Owen felt frustrated.

Owen felt detached.

In fact, I’d be bold enough and say we are that blooming obsessed with the reader and their feelings so much that we neglect the poet and their feelings. We are obsessed with how we feel and forget that the poem has been writing with emotion. 
Then, we can add something specific about what the writer is doing: 


Shying away









Owen is uncovering the reality of war.

Owen is dehumanising soldiers.

Owen is alienating the reader.  

Then, we can just add some adverbs to suggest how Owen is feeling.

Owen is quietly uncovering the reality of war.

Owen is subtly dehumanising soldiers.

Owen is controversially alienating the reader.  


The best students don’t plonk ‘writer’, ‘alliteration’ and ‘mood’ in a sentence and magically create great responses. We need to craft how poetry is written about. We need to teach poetry analysis just as much as we do other skills. It will help too with all forms of analysis. 

So when I sat down for a pint with Tennyson and Owen a conversation started. Tennyson angrily mocked and ridiculed the atmosphere of the pub. For he hated, gastropubs. Owen, on the other hand, respectfully disagreed and boasted that it was one of his favourites.

We need work hard on getting students to think of writers as real people with feelings and thoughts. A01 is one that some students struggle with when writing about poetry. That’s because they are obsessed with the language. The starting point should be the writer’s ideas. Their thoughts. Their feelings. Their perspective. I am seriously considering getting rid of the 'writer’. Not in a hitman sort of way. Just the word. 

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 7 October 2018

The woman who fell to earth, and school

Today marks a big and exciting chapter in the world of Doctor Who. This evening we will see the new Doctor in action. We’ve had clips and snippets, but nothing significant to understand how the new Doctor has been interpreted. Oh and the new Doctor is female.

There’s been a significant discussion over the introduction of a female Doctor. In fact, some it has been purely misogynistic.  The audience didn’t batter a metaphorical eyelid when a villain (Cyberwoman and The Master / Missy) becomes female, yet when you change the hero to a woman, the world stops and spouts tirades of abuse.

An actor who previously played the Doctor raised the point that changing the gender meant that boys were losing a role model and hero. In a world full of musclebound heroes, the loss of a hero that wasn’t ‘typically male’ was an issue to be raised.  

As a father to daughters, I have been really interested in role models for girls. I’d be bold to say that there aren’t many that are clearly defined, visible and obvious to little girls.  If I could have introduced my daughter to Buffy at 5 I would have done. There’s a glut of heroes for boys in a variety of shades and forms, yet for the girls there’s very little. They even put them in groups to help the boys. Hermione Granger, however, has become my daughters’ hero and role model over time.

A big part of the problem is the idea of identification and placing ourselves in the fiction. For decades, the companion has been the audience’s way into the story. They represented the audience. They think and feel like the audience. They’d react as most human beings would do in a crazy situation. If I am honest, my heroes were the companions. I didn’t want to be the Doctor; I wanted to be like the companions – well, not all of them (The 80s). I wanted to live an exciting life and be transported away from the drizzling rain of a coastal town. I wanted to blow Daleks up with explosives. I wanted to explore new worlds. I wanted to save things. I wanted to help others. The hero wasn’t the Doctor. The hero was Ace, Sarah Jane Smith, Jo Grant, Tegan and Romana at different times. Strong, funny people.

One problem with role models and heroes is the gender issue. How often do we site the opposite gender as being a role model? We are obsessed with ‘like for like’ when exploring role models. Boys need male teachers for role models. Girls need female teachers for role models. Why don’t we talk about how women can be role models for boys? Why don’t we talk about how men can be role models for girls? The most influential person in my teaching career was a woman. Yep, not a man. A woman. A head of department who still inspires me to this day. She didn’t save the world and fight aliens, but she was a fantastic leader. What made her a fantastic head of department and leader?

[1] She worked hard and her hard work motivated us to work hard too.

I’ve worked for various managers in business and the one the stands out the most is the manager who felt it was his given right to not work so hard because he had got to the top. The office around him was full of resentment and bitterness, because others were working hard so he could relax and take his time.

[2] She was the calm waters in a difficult storm.

Every problem was met calmly and gently. We’d discuss and talk about it and then explore the solutions. We were never brushed off or given platitudes.  Her calm approach matched how we learnt to deal with things. She set the standard.

[3] Tiny details mattered

She’d ensure that no person was missed out and that everybody had a say. She’d also remember tiny bits of detail about our lives. We were felt we were listened to.

[4] Organisation

She taught me how important organisation is in a department. She had things planned meticulously and well in advanced of events and topics. ‘Be prepared’ was an unwritten rule for her. Plus, she had the neatest office I have ever found in education.

[5] Healthy distance

She was friendly but not a friend. She’d join in conversations, but kept a healthy distance at the same time.

[6] Make and don’t break people

A simple compliment goes a long way. I recall how she praised how I dealt with a student in a class. A little comment like that went a long way. In fact, it made me repeat what I did with other students.  

[7] Laughter

But, I think the biggest thing she taught me was how to control my emotions. I am not an emotional person, but we are surrounded by emotions in schools. Staff. Students. Parents. It’s easy to get caught up with things and be affected by others. She taught me how to deal with things. In any difficult situation, I always think: ‘What would L do in this situation?’ And, for me it has worked. Even this week I asked myself the same question in a meeting.

My role model in education and my professional career was a ‘custard tart eating’ woman.

Tonight, I will watch the new Doctor with my daughters and they might idolise the new Doctor or maybe worship Bradley Walsh’s character. 

One thing I want them to do is think about how everybody can be a hero. 

See beyond gender. 

Be inspired by the person.

Thanks for reading,