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,