Saturday, 9 July 2022

Narcissus, will you please sit down and move away from that puddle.

Narcissism is something we have a problem with in education. We may have had the course on bias, but there is something deeper that has grown roots in schools, Twitter and society. The comfort in seeing ourselves reflected in others. 

I was not the best behaved student in school. In fact, I was awful, rude and gobby. I was rude to Geography teachers and often sent to the head of Geography at the time to be routinely shouted. I used to graffiti text books. Go to page 13. Go to page 78. Go to page 99: you are a wazzock! I routinely got kicked out of Physics for giggling. I unscrewed the desks in French and then placed the screws in an innocent student’s bag. I also had anger issues. In Year 5, I stopped on a teacher’s foot because I was angry. I think she had a foot operation not so long ago as well. I’m probably the reason why some schools don’t allow open toe sandals. It goes back to 1987 and the Curtis incident. In my teens, I gave a student a bleeding nose because he mentioned something about my wearing glasses.  

For most of my time growing up, I was best described as a ‘handful’. I wasn’t just a handful at school, but I was a pain at home. I’d fight with my brother and father, physically. I may be little, but I can be fierce. 

I then went to university and then … No. It didn’t last. I grew up. I can never really pinpoint why I was such a handful as a child. There was no unmet need that I know of. That was me. As an adult, I’d rather hide in a corner than draw attention to myself. I walk away from an argument. 

Now, as a teacher, I am living in a form of purgatory for my past sins and behaviour. Not really. But, I have to admit that buried in my subconscious is this child. When I see that child reflected in a class and particular student, I understand, connect and see things from my point of view. I don’t teach with them in mind, but I understand them. Over the years, I have met quite a few of these students. I am still in contact with quite a lot of them and true to form they turned out lovely, kind human beings with families of their own but they were a handful when younger. I see myself in them. I understand them. 

But, I know, I am quite alone with this viewpoint. What if your childhood experience was different? What if your behaviour was more Lisa Simpson and less Bart Simpson? In the classroom, who do you connect with? Lisa? Bart? Millhouse? Wendell? Ralph? Dolph?

[Ignore gender: I see Lisa and Bart as two opposing models of behaviour in students. There are many boys and girls that behave like Lisa, and like Bart. For this discussion, I am using Lisa and Bart to characterise the behaviour and not to typify behaviour related to gender.]  

I became a  father and raised two daughters. Two Lisa Simpsons. And, I struggled and still struggle to this day. When they do anything Bart-like, I can cope, but when they behave like Lisa Simpson I find it difficult. I was never like Lisa. 

My expectations and ideas are rooted in something a long time ago. That’s where I think we have a problem. Our expectations in the classroom are linked to the student we used to be. That’s the model for our expectations in the class. We base things on how we behaved as a student. We look at things from how we thought as a student. We see that student as the norm by which everyone must fit. Bart, you need to be more like Lisa. Well done, Lisa.  We even reward Bart when he copies Lisa’s behaviour, because he is fitting the model of Lisa. 

We even have schools dedicated to making Lisa Simpsons and schools who actively work hard to get rid of Ralphs, Dolph, Barts and Millhouses so they just have classes full of Lisas.  There are schools that would have got rid of me, because I wasn’t Lisa. I can handle money excluding me from some schools, but I cannot handle the idea that a school could exclude me because I didn’t fit a narcissistic model of a student. 

It was interesting that I had a conversation about reading and the student's attitude towards reading. I, the only male, had a very different relationship towards reading. I was explaining how my reading as a teenager was largely information based and not about stories. That model challenges the whole idea of reading for pleasure. I read for information and I continued to read as a teenager because I wanted to know more. It wasn’t about feelings. You can attach feelings to the process, but, for me, the process is emotionless. Purely functional. Not about comfort or enjoyment. Yet, the Lisa Simpson model tells students that they should love reading and get lost in the story and characters because Lisa reads books and that’s what happens to her. We tell Bart Simpson that he has to see things as Lisa sees things. Some of you are probably suggesting that I did feel some pleasure on some level, but that is you enforcing your view of the world on to mine. It isn’t pleasure. I was the one reading. It was simply a process. 

The problem is rooted everywhere in education and I’ve seen it spread in discussions and arguments. I’ve seen arguments and threads all to feed Lisa’s viewpoint or her narrative. They work for Lisa so they should work for all children. It worked for me. Didn’t I do well.Therefore it works. The problem with having this narcissistic narrative is that Lisa describes a student with a natural desire, motivation and aptitude towards learning and she has the physical tools and materials to enable her to learn.  All too often, Lisa is the angle of the debate. It works for Lisa so it must work for all. Lisa is the default method.    

I think we have to look away from the reflection. The image of ourselves shouldn’t be the dominant archetype. Yet, I feel, in education we are slowly enforcing binary archetypes on students. Lisa = good. Bart = bad. 

If you don’t think we have a problem, then look at how almost every Secretary of State for Education tries to revert schools to their own experience of schooling. And, look, it worked for them! There are so many Lisas these days. Because, as you’d expect, each different Lisa could have a different experience. 

Let’s step away from looking for ourselves in the classroom and rewarding the students when we see our behaviour, mannerisms, words, phrases, ideas reflected back at us.  We all have a past and let’s not be guided and controlled by it. 

I teach Bart and I teach Lisa. At the same time, I teach twenty eight other students with their own names and their own ways of behaving. I have to actively challenge my own biases. Lisa Simpson is not the factory default for students. They are much more complex.

Thanks for reading, 


Sunday, 12 June 2022

Who do you love? Linking effect to authorial intent

 I have noticed a topic of conversation flare up again: the old PEE debate. A debate that annually pops its head up to enrage people and ensure that people start sharpening their pitchforks. Like some Hydra, as soon as one acronym is chopped to bits and so another one appears. I, personally, have no problem with students having an aide-mémoire in exams. By the time of the final exams, they need quick, short reminders of what to do. The teenage brain panics and forgets some pretty basic things when faced with an exam question. We’ve all seen a student trying to write about Macbeth when the teacher has spent the last two years teaching Romeo and Juliet. It happens. 

The exam boards moan about PEE and other structures. And, to be honest, they have to moan about it because we pay them a lot of money for the exams. They need to give us something for our money.  Plus, if PEE was so damaging, then wouldn’t you think that the Literature exam mark scheme would be written in such a way to combat its use? Band 1 - address the question - point. Band 2 - evidence from the text (a technique). Band 3 - explained response. Change the markscheme and you might have fewer students and schools relying on it?   

The problem with PEE and any other acronym is how it controls thinking, teaching and writing. I think it should be used as a ticklist and not a tool for teaching or structuring writing. Have you made a point? Have you supported your point with evidence? Have you explained your point? Therefore, the acronym should be an aide-mémoire for the thinking. After writing, they should check they have the key threads. What people often forget is that students are not just doing English that week, or even day. The student is probably doing a number of exams. Each exam dedicates its structures and ways to answer the question. Students have to code switch between exams. It is not as simple as writing the same style for every question. It just doesn’t work like that. Plus, the use of acronyms helps free up memory for students. The knowledge we want them to work on and show in the exams. 

Teaching with PEE is the main issue. Having PEE at the heart of how you approach analysis is the real problem. If students are practising writing a PEE paragraph, then when are students exploring the thinking that goes behind these letters? The reductive rather than clarifying drive behind PEE is the crux. Teaching English is wibbly wobbly. It isn’t neat and tidy. Teaching with PEE assumes that it is neat. It forgets how to form an argument. It forgets how structure links to meaning. It forgets the impact of societal rules on people. Instead it simplifies and neatens the thinking. I’d say that instead of worrying about its use in essays, we concentrate on teaching the aspects under those tent poles. Behind a point there is so much to work on. Behind any evidence there is so much to pick out. Behind an explanation there is so much for us to say. If we only focus on the tent poles, we miss out on the rest that is underneath. Teach Literature better and you don’t need to worry, or even care too much about acronyms. Your students will know what to do and the acronym will be a quick reminder to do it. 

With that all in mind, let’s have a look at what is under one of those tent poles. Effect. Largely, students struggle with effect and I have been spending the last year exploring it with classes. A great question to ask students is: Who do you love? Or: who do you hate? This provokes such an interesting response. I tend to get students to write a sentence: 

The audience loves … 

With Romeo and Juliet, I tend to get them loving Juliet, Mercutio, Romeo, Nurse and hating Tybalt, Capulet and Lady Capulet. 

I then ask students to give me a reason for their loving or hating the character. We simply add the word because to the sentence. 

The audience loves Mercutio because 

For this, they usually suggest his bawdy jokes or how he lightens the mood or doesn’t take things seriously. Then, we explore the turning point. What is the reason behind loving the character? What does Shakespeare agree with this character on? 

Shakespeare possibly agrees with Mercutio’s attitude towards life as …

We then look at the wider picture. What is it that Shakespeare is promoting in society with this character? Alternatively, we’d be talking about attacking if it was a character we hate. 

Through Mercutio, Shakespeare promotes how being young should be a time of fun, laughter and experimentation. 

We then look at the opposite of this. Who represents the opposite or anthithesis of this idea?

The audience dislikes Tybalt because he represents the opposite of Mercutio. A man trapped by society’s expectations of him. 

With this, students can go on to explore what Shakespeare is attacking with this character. 

The exploration of ideas is at the heart of teaching Literature and we need to investigate ways to do this more. PEE doesn’t investigate ideas. We need to work on developing structures to help students explore. For me, exploring the audience’s love or hate for characters is a gold mine for thinking. Shakespeare making us love or hate a character shows us what he agrees with and what he disagrees with. Sometimes, it isn’t love or hate in some of his plays. Sometimes, it is about caring for certain characters - especially tragedies. 

I would argue that character is often the single biggest thing in a text which shows us where a writer’s sympathies lie. The characters he/she cares for are the type of people he/she likes. And, those people represent the type of thinking and the type of ideas the writer likes also. A character isn't directly thinking what the writer thinks, but they do show a warmth to that perspective or outlook.

Who do you love? 

Thanks for reading, 


P.S. If you need an acronym. I will give you this one for it. LBRSROR. I think it is catchy.