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,