My #SASFE17 Talk: Questioning Masculinity 

Just so you know. 

 I am a feminist. This talk is not about women. It is about men. When I say men have it hard, I am not saying women have it easy. When I say men are victims of sexism, I am not suggesting that women are not. When I say that men need help, I am not saying that women should be left to get on with it. I’m telling you this because a false dichotomy exists: this false dichotomy believes that the championing of the wellbeing of one gender is synonymous with the subjugation of the other. This is not the case.

 It all started with whales and penises.

 Once, in a previous school, a set of books was left in the staff room. They were being thrown out of the library and it was thought that maybe the English department would want them. One of these books was titled: ‘Banned Poems: Kids must not read!’ One of these poems was called ‘The Whale’ and it was about a teenage boy, on holiday with his friends, in the swimming pool, and feeling ashamed about the relatively small size of his penis. After we all had a good chuckle at the subtleties of the minnow/whale symbolism, I made a suggestion: ‘In all seriousness though, this could be an issue for some boys. Penis paranoia’, I mean. Everyone went silent. And then someone told me: “Oh shut up. You only like it because you’re a bloke and it’s about cocks. You probably think it’s high art.”

 Another time, I walked into a classroom and had to stand there whilst another teacher encouraged a group of 6th form students to mimic my deep voice. “I’m Mr Pinkett and I’m so tough with my deep voice.”

 I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me, ‘You’ll get the job because you’re a bloke.’ As if the possession of penis is more important than the time, money and effort I’ve spent in trying to make myself a better teacher.  

 Anyway, all this got me to thinking. If this is what I’m getting- a professional- from fellow professionals, what are these professionals doing or saying to the boys that they teach day-in, day-out?

 Now I’ve explained my investment in this topic, I’d like to explain a bit about the current state of masculinity in this country. After that, I’ll go into more detail in a school context.

 As of April 7th 2017, 95% of the UK prison population was male. That is, 95% of the convicted murderers, abusers, and robbers in this country are male. 

 At some point, these men, each and every single one of them, was an innocent child yet to commit a crime. So what is it? Coincidence? Is it coincidence that the 95% are all united in their possession of a penis? Course it isn’t. 

 Part of the problem is biological. Men are more predisposed to violence.

 Firstly, biologically, men have evolved to be more aggressive as violence was needed to compete with other men to mate with females.

 Then there’s anatomy. The average male upper body is 75% stronger than that of a woman’s. Men’s skin is thicker, their reactions are faster, their bones denser. Men are primed for battle.

 Then, there’s testosterone. Testosterone is directly responsible for inducing competitive and violent behaviour. Men have more of it. 

 However, it’s not all biological. Not all men are committing crimes. And not all crimes are violent. It’s interesting to note that cognitively, there is little difference in male and female brains. In fact, according to countless studies, there is no significant difference in the cognition of male and female brains.

 A review study by Janet Hyde states that ‘males and females are similar on most psychological variables.’

 So, biological differences aside, what is the reason behind the fact that 95% of the prison population is male? The very same reason that only 5% of the prison population is female: gender socialisation. These innocent children, who would later on to become murderers, abusers and robbers, are themselves victims. Victims of social masculinity.

 They are victims of a social masculinity which says they should be brave.

 They are victims of a social masculinity which says they should be sexually potent.

 They are victims of a social masculinity which says they should be fighters.

 The artist and sculptor, Grayson Perry, who has recently done a number of television programmes exploring masculinity, got it spot on in his book, The Descent of Man, when he says:

 So what happens when men struggle with the requirements imposed upon them by society’s expectations of masculinity? When they fail to be the brave, sexually potent fighters that society expects them to be? Well, a lot of them, jack it all in.

 

• Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK, with 76% of all suicides in 2014 being men

 

• A man take his own life every 2 hours in the UK alone

 

• Men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women.

 

 These are shocking statistics. Most prisoners are male. Most suicides are male. Clearly, there is a problem with masculinity. And it is a problem that we, as teachers, need to address just as we’d address issues of female inequality, racial prejudice, and religious intolerance.  

Grayson Perry makes another interesting point in his book. He argues that in society we need to actively discriminate against men to ensure total gender equality. This means that women should get jobs that more deserving men should get. I think there’s something in this. True gender equality can only be achieved when everybody is equal. When there is a 50/50 gender split between men and women in terms of job roles and job pay. There is a problem with this though. The problem is, that we are going to end up with a lot of proud men, who are unable to get the jobs they feel they deserve and have come to expect to be rightfully theirs because they are men. This means we’re going to have a lot of angry, upset men on their hands. And this is a problem.

So, as teachers, what can we do to make this transition to a new, less patriarchal age, more manageable for the boys in our case? For the boys who are more likely to go to prison or commit suicide than their female counterparts? The answer is simple. What can we, as teachers, do to combat the effects of biology and society? We need to question masculinity.

In fact, under this umbrella of ‘Questioning Masculinity’ we can break down the areas of questioning. We can:
• Question Ourselves

• Question our Curriculum

• Question our Boys

 

Let’s start with questioning ourselves.

In 1998, psychologists Anthony G. Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji, and Brian Nosek developed a test of our subconscious racial prejudices, known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

The test aims to measure our implicit or ‘automatic’ responses to black or white people. 80% of people who have ever taken the test ‘end up having pro-white associations.’ This is regardless of whether they are black or white themselves This doesn’t mean these people are evil. It just means that you’ve been brought up in a world where you are bombarded with images of ‘goodness’ being white and ‘blackness’ being bad.

This has huge implications when it comes to gender prejudices. Regardless of how liberal or discriminating of gender prejudice we consider ourselves to be, the simple fact is, that many of us must sub-consciously hold gender based prejudices in regards to both females and males. How could it not be the case? The media machine reinforces gender stereotypes every day. So does the world of business and commerce. The fact is, we live in a sexist society and it is inevitable that these prejudices would embed themselves firmly in both our conscious and sub-conscious thought processes.

The research supports this. In a study by Susan Jones and Debra Myhill, it was found that although 80% of teachers sampled said that it was their expectation that boys and girls should get the same results, interviews conducted with these very same teachers showed that teachers actually:

Posit a view of girls as compliant, but posit a counterbalancing view of boys as confidently immature, disruptive, and disinclined towards writing.

In fact:

 A simple tally of comments made of boys and girls, respectively, revealed 54 positive comments made about girls as compared with 22 negative comments, and 32 positive comments made about boys compared with 54 negative comments. Teachers give voice to a deficit model of male achievement.

Ask yourself, have you ever said any of these things about boys?

  • Boys are lazy
  • Boys are immature
  • Boys have worse handwriting
  • Boys don’t value learning
  • Boys would rather be cool than clever
  • Boys are poor readers
  • Boys don’t like sitting down
  • Boys are poor writers

As a male English teacher, I’m acutely aware of other teachers’ tendency to group boys using stereotypes. I hear things like ‘I’ve got a boy-heavy class so I’ll do Macbeth; boys love death.” Another one is, “I’ll do war poetry. Boys love war.” And the ultimate one is: “He won’t read? Give him a book about football.”
It’s all bollocks.

The fact is, all boys love war, death and football no more than all girls love unicorns, baking and pixie dust.

As teachers, we need to be aware of this tendency-whether it’s conscious or otherwise-among practitioners of our profession to be group boys using stereotypes. We need to question the way we are talking about boys and how are we talking to boys.

Going back to the experiment I mentioned earlier, research has shown that participant subjection to positive images of black people did play a part in reducing racial bias. Therefore, reminding ourselves of what boys can achieve academically; thinking about the boys who are quiet and just get on; reminding ourselves that even the most challenging of boys are so, not because they were born with a penis, but because they have suffered elsewhere along the way, will go, I believe, some way to improving the chances of our boys experiencing success.

We also need to question our curriculum.

We need to be aware, that the national picture is bleak. In all aspects of education, boys are behind girls.
So, based on this, let me tell you the first thing we can do instantly:

Ensure that our classrooms are gender equal.

This means, if you are setting by gender, stop. If your bottom sets are full of boys, change that. Take some up and put some girls in. It makes absolutely no sense to put the weakest learners-boys-in classes with a load of other boys. They will learn nothing from one another. Get some girls in there.

I think there’s a problem with our curriculum. I’m going to talk about English now, to illustrate a point which I think can be applied to the wider curriculum and other subject areas.

In a blog post from 2016, I stated the following:

Teachers across the country are so focused on addressing, combating, and undoing the deplorable wrongs inflicted on women in society, media, and literature for centuries, that they’re inadvertently alienating the boys.

In a curriculum that is largely dominated by the works of dead white men, I feel it my duty to challenge sexist representations of women at every opportunity. Some questions I might ask are: 

• Is it okay for the poet to refer to the recently conquered country as a woman?

• Why it is that Curley’s wife has no name? Why is she referred to as Curley’s wife?

• What do you think about the way Juliet is treated by her father?

Such questions are vital. They are vital for one reason: they all lead to a discussion around the fact that women have been unfairly subjugated, exploited, and abused for thousands of years.

And yet, I am increasingly starting to ruminate: What is this doing to the self-esteem of the boys in my class? Is this constant hammering home of the fact that men have treated women unjustly for centuries going to make them like English? Or will they be bored to the teeth of hearing how hard it is to be a woman, without due consideration for how tough it is to be a man?

I teach ‘A View from the Bridge’ to Year 9 and every year, in reference to the tragic ending of the play, I say something along these lines:

“See what happens when you let masculine pride take over? It’s ridiculous. A man dies, for nothing else than masculine pride. It’s stupid; it’s idiotic. It’s childish.”

And, sure enough, the whole class and I laugh in utter disbelief that a grown man could be so infantile. Look how liberal we are! Stupid men! Boo-hiss stupid men!

Let’s consider an alternative comment:

“Don’t you think it’s disgusting that Catherine refuses to consider Eddie’s suspicions about Rodolpho? Hasn’t Catherine considered the pressures society puts on a man to protect those he loves? How unfair of her not to try and understand him!” And yet, nobody ever asks this question? Why? Because men are in the privileged position of being the default setting and the default setting never gets questioned.

I think of other novels I’ve taught over the years. The Great Gatsby. Routinely, Gatsby, as a character, is denounced by female teachers as an idiot; someone who fails to realise that lies and deception aren’t a means to obtain love. Okay, good point, but what about considering this: Isn’t he actually great? He sets himself a goal and he very nearly achieves it. The thing that leads to his downfall, isn’t his own ego, or his own failure to realise what true love is, it’s the whimsical nature of the object of his affections. The fact is, Daisy chooses to spend her life with a racist prick (yes a man), instead of Gatsby. She’s the idiot.

Let’s talk about Rochester in Jane Eyre. He locks his made wife up in an attic. Horrible man. He is routinely discussed in English classrooms all over the land as a symbol of patriarchal dominance. A metaphor for a society determined to keep women quiet. Rarely do I hear anybody discuss the fact that actually, Rochester is forced into marrying someone he doesn’t want to marry because of the social conventions of the time. Rochester begrudgingly embarked on a marriage purely to satisfy the needs of a society that says men need to make sacrifices to ensure success. Which is exactly what Rochester does.

As teachers of all subjects, we need to ensure that we’re not only asking questions that expose racial prejudice and anti-female biases for the crock of shite they are; we need to be ensuring that we are asking questions that put masculinity under the spotlight too.

People often criticise the literary canon for being dominated by men. And this is true. Here’s a list of GCSE English texts that I have taught in my time as a teacher.

• Macbeth

• Romeo and Juliet

• Othello

• Lord of the Flies

• An Inspector Calls

• The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

• A Christmas Carol

All dominated by male characters. True. But virtuous male characters? Not quite. In fact, in these 7 texts alone we have:

• Rapists

• Child killers

• Mass murderers

• Thieves

• Monsters

• Misers

• Adulterers

Yes. The English curriculum is more male-centered. But, all this simply means is, we get more males than females doing shit things to other people. Do we get more male heroes though? Let’s see. This isn’t limited to English. Take History for example. Here’s a list of 10 key historical figures studied at Secondary school. Mostly male. Okay, I’m not great at history, but all these men aren’t all good blokes. They’re not all positive role models.

So what can we do? Schools need to audit their provision. They need to work with subject teachers to find answers to some key questions.

Once this audit has been completed, schools need to adjust their pastoral focus. They need to accept that there are some issues specific to males. And they need to be addressed.

Questioning Them:

A study by Brody and Hall found that at a young age:

Girls become more adept at reading both verbal and non-verbal emotional signals, at expressing and communicating their feelings, and boys become more adept at minimizing emotions having to do with vulnerability, guilt, fear and hurt.

In fact, many studies have shown that girls are more likely to express ‘sad’ emotions, such as the ones above, whereas boys are less likely to. Add this to other studies which have shown that boys use between ten to 30 times less spoken language even before school and we have a lot of boys that a) refuse to acknowledge their ‘sad’ emotions and b) boys who lack the skills to acknowledge their ‘sad’ emotions.

This does not mean that boys are less likely to feel sad.

If boys lack the skill and inclination to discuss the feelings of vulnerability, guilt, fear and hurt, that inevitably plague them, they revel in their assertive emotions. The anger, the bitterness, the cruel ‘banter’.

And some of them even kill themselves.

So here’s what we need to do. We need to move away from a ‘grunt’ culture. When we ask our male students to voice their opinions on a historical event or a religious law or a piece of theatre we need to refuse to accept a grunt or ‘I don’t know’ as a valid answer. In fact, at an early age, we need to ban I don’t know from our classrooms.

If students genuinely don’t know, then we can change the wording off our questions. Instead of saying ‘Why did the Wall Street Crash happen’, we can say ‘Why do you think the wall street crash happened?’ ‘How does Ralph feel when Piggy dies’ becomes ‘How do you think Ralph feels when Piggy dies?’ And so on.

We can also empower students by giving them the vocabulary needed to express themselves. How? Well, first off, reading. Boys need to be reading. Students who read for 20 minutes a day will be subjected to 1.8 million words in a year. Those who don’t will see 8000.

What about the boys who don’t read? Well, they need a whole school programme of carefully designed and explicit vocabulary instruction to be completed in school, during form times, or English lessons. All teachers of all subjects need to be aware of these vocabulary words and they need to be encouraging students to express themselves in them.

I want to finish my talk today by addressing an issue which I think is a disgrace:It’s the language of sex in our schools.

A recent report by the Women and Equalities Committee found that:

• Almost a third of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school.

• 71% of all students say they hear terms such as ‘slut’ or ‘slag’ on a regular basis at schools.

• 59% of females aged 13-21 have faced some sort of sexual harassment at school in the past year.

 I’ve written about this (Dear Boys) and I want to read you it. It’s a message that we need to be telling our boys.

Objectification is the process of making another person feel as though they are less than human; an object to be used as others wish. Women are objectified every day. They are whistled at, and they are grabbed, and they are pinched. Whatever your intentions, making non-consensual physical contact with a woman is unacceptable. So don’t do it. Talking about women as some of you do, using crude and unsavoury sexual language, is also a form of objectification. Stop it.

You’d do well to remember that men are objectified too. When female panelists on daytime chat shows whistle and leer at that geezer from Poldark or Benedict Cumberbatch, they are objectifying him. When Sunday supplements lead with articles like ‘Britain’s Sexiest Scientist’, they are objectifying him. When females say things like ‘come and give us a hand with this muscle man’, they are objectifying men. There’s more to men than their physicality.
This message-this constant reinforcement of the fact that objectification of women is wrong needs to be reiterated again and again and again. But we also need to ensure that our boys are not being objectified too.
The fact is, our boys are biologically and socially primed to be sexual beings. We can make pastoral efforts to change this, but it’s also something we can challenge in the classroom. The way to do this is by challenging the language we hear from boys-and girls-, in classrooms, up and down the country.

Words such as:

• Slag

• Slut

• Pussy

• Gash

• Paedo

• Nonce

• Dick

These words are used as part of student vernacular. This is normalising violent and predatory attitudes towards sex. The fact is, they are used so often and so routinely, it can be easy to overlook them.

Most worrying, for me, is the use of the word ‘rape’ as a verb, used light heartedly, to mean ‘beaten severely.’ As in, I got absolutely raped on call of Duty last night.’ I’ve even heard kids shout ‘Sir! He’s raping me!’ as his friend play fights with him. This needs to stop. As teachers, we need to come down hard on this. Such language needs to have instant and severe sanctions. If this isn’t an option we can take our own direct approach. If I hear a boy, in my lesson, use the word ‘rape’, I take it upon myself to explain, very bluntly, that ‘rape is the forced insertion of a penis into the vagina, anus or any other orifice of another human being who doesn’t want it.’ I’ve found that this normally stops it.

The same goes for the word ‘paedo’ and ‘perv’ and one I hear often: stalker.

Which leads me to a story about a colleague of mine, who once told me she was ‘stalked’ by someone she described as a ‘little perv.’ When I probed further, what I actually found was this. When this colleague was at school, a boy who fancied her, followed her home, but not having the courage to make known his affections directly, posted a letter through her door, explaining his reasons for following her home. A story which began as a sinister tale of a male predator actually turned out to be a story of a slightly awkward teenagers inability to make his affection for the object of his crush known. And I see this happening everywhere. Boys who message girls on Facebook after school are denounced as ‘Stalkers’. Boys who awkwardly stare at someone they fancy are described as ‘perverts’. Boys who date someone in the year below them are mocked as ‘paedophiles.’ And this is from girls and boys.

The fact is, this needs to stop. Trivilisation of terms such as paedo, rape, stalker, and perv only serve to soften the stigma attached to these terms where they are rightfully attributed. As teachers, we need to question boys and girls every time they choose to use a sexualised term. We need to question the girls who denounce their male peers as paedos and stalkers. We need to question the routinely sexualised language that some students aren’t even aware they’re using.  
 

 

 

 

 

Boys and Sexualised Language

Once, at a previous school, a female student came to me to report a boy who had told her, in front of the class, that she’d had a “nice arse.” Sadly, it wasn’t the comment that the girl was concerned with-she was used to this sort of thing from this particular boy-and nor was she really concerned with him being punished- it seemed silly to her that something so routine as female objectification would be punished. No, what I was soon to realise, was that this girl came to me because she was ashamed and she needed to let somebody know.

Her shame-and the tears that followed- stemmed from her reaction to the boy’s comment: she had laughed. In laughing, she believed, she had approved his behaviour and she was now embarrassed and ashamed of this. 

I explained to her that laughter was a perfectly acceptable response and I explained (although, in rather more delicate terms), that a female could be wearing a t-shirt exclaiming, ‘Comment on my body- I’d love you to’ and it still gives nobody-male or female- the right to do so. 

There is a sexual assault problem in our schools. And by assault, I’m not just talking physical acts, from rape to groping to pinching, that come under this umbrella, but verbal acts too: the sexual jibes and the sexualised language that, in some classrooms, has become the language of the lesson; the direct references to female body parts and the infuriating habit possessed by pubescents of finding innuendo in the most innocuous of phrases. 

A recent report by the Women’s and Equalities Comittee found that:

  • almost a third (29%) of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school
  • nearly three-quarters (71%) of all 16-18 year old boys and girls say they hear terms such as “slut” or “slag” used towards girls at schools on a regular basis
  • 59% of girls and young women aged 13-21 said in 2014 that they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year

Sadly, these statistics don’t surprise me. Whilst I have never worked in a school where I’ve been witness to, or heard about, any physical instances of assault, and where incidents featuring direct comments on an individual’s physicality (such as mentioned above) have been extremely rare, I am sick to the teeth of the routinely sexualised languages employed-yes, mainly by boys (not at all boys I hasten to add) in the classroom. In fact, I’m not just sick of it; I’m ashamed by it. 

It’s a confusing time for boys and their sexuality. Society has never really made it okay for boys to assert themselves sexually by means of their appearance; for boys, brash verbalised assertions of sexual preference, potency, and desire are the order of the day. And now, quite rightly, we are trying to drum this out of them. And yet, these same boys, who are repeatedly being discouraged to express their sexual desires and wants are going home to mothers who proudly assert their penchant for that guy from Poldark and their lust for Cumberbatch all over social media. Shows like Loose Women routinely objectify men, and in some schools I’ve worked at, I’ve even seen female teachers proudly display calendars depicting their favourite male objects of desire in various sexualised costumes and poses. There’s a whiff of double standards. 

All this, may point to a reason for the shocking statistics I quoted earlier. As society moves-no, limps- towards gender equality, are women becoming more sexually empowered and men less so? I accept now, that as a man, it would be totally unacceptable for me to ever make reference to a female colleague’s looks, or even express any sort of sexual desire for a female celebrity. And yet, I know that this isn’t the case when the genders are reversed. So, is this disgusting, sexualised language being used by boys as a desperate attempt to reclaim some of that good ol’ macho masculinity? I don’t know, but it’s a theory.

The fact is, the language I’m hearing in some classrooms is appalling. The focus on paedophilia and rape is a real worry. Some boys jocularly dismiss each other as ‘paedos’ or ‘nonces’, when the recipeient of these insults has done nothing even vaguely related to the act of forcing sex upon a minor. “You fancy whatsherface in Year 9? Paedo.” I was recently reading The Yellow Wallpaper and one boy found the fact that the nursery in which the main character resides has chains on the wall meant, “ugh! They’ve bought a paedo house! They’re all paedos!” And of course, some of the others found this hilarious. Clearly, their is fear here. Fear of the very real threat of paedophiles. But the simple fact is, this fear shouldn’t be manifesting itself in ‘banter’ or cheap jokes. Just as boys interest and curiosity regarding sex shouldn’t be manifesting itself in crude euphemisms for the sexual act or crass references to both male and female genitalia.

There is something we can do.

Schools need a two pronged approach. Firstly, boys need to be educated-that is, specifically instructed- in what they can or can’t do. Might I suggest some boys-only assemblies based on the ideas expressed here

Secondly, boys-and girls- of any sexually motivated assault-be it physical or simply verbal- need to be punished severely. It absolutely needs stamping out. Of course, this punishment needs to go hand in hand with an explanation of why what they have said or done is totally unacceptable. In my current school incidents such as the ones I’ve discussed in this blog post are rare because we take a severe approach in the punishment of such acts. Boys are then spoken to individually and embark on a course of monitoring in regards to this area. It works. 

As teachers, we need to become better at picking up on incidences of sexualised language within the classroom and the playground- a part of me worries that in some areas, for some boys, it’s become so routine that we are immune to it. 

I think projects such as this one, mentioned in The Times, earlier this week are also very powerful. Schools need to provide opportunities for boys to explore and express their sexuality in a mature way, free from the vulgarity of the vernacular they’re used to. 

Taking Special Measures in English

After just two months of taking over as Head of Department at my new school, OFSTED visited. We were judged to be, ‘Inadequate.’ This isn’t a blog post about OFSTED. This is a blog post about what I’m doing to raise standards in a school whose socio-economic profile is inconsistent with all surrounding areas. My school is situated in a borough, which is essentially a very large housing estate, in which the number of children living in poverty is higher than all 205 other boroughs in Surrey. We have the third highest number of children Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEETs), and the local area ranks 12, of 206 boroughs, on a list of percentage of people in unemployment. I won’t euphemise, because I have more respect for the students, parents, and staff at my school, but the simple fact is this: I work in a deprived area.
I’m proud of the fact that the otherwise damning OFSTED report, made specific reference to the ‘scholarly atmosphere’ in English lessons. I’m proud because scholarly is exactly what me and my department were going for. Changes to the curriculum were made right from the get-go. Out went ‘Holes’ and in came ‘Oliver Twist’; Out went AFOREST and in came Aristotelian Rhetoric; Out went Autobiography and in came 19th century Gothic Fiction. And this is Just KS3.

But, the vision I have for the English Department- a vision of a knowledge-focused curriculum founded upon classic literary and educational values- doesn’t end here. No, this is where it begins. What follows is a list of things the English Department will be doing next year, to raise the standards, expectations, and enjoyment of English Lessons at my school.

1. Knowledge Centred Curriculum

The phasing out of old schemes of work, with a focus on generic skills and no clear knowledge focus, must continue. Take the now defunct ‘Autobiography’ Unit for example: Nobody knew what it was. A reading unit? A writing unit? What were we actually teaching? Why were we teaching it? In came 19th Century Gothic Fiction- a reading unit with a focus on the literary and linguistic techniques of Pathetic Fallacy and Adjectives, aimed at acquainting students with the syntactical structures of 19th Century Literature, but also a contextual understanding of Victorian Society.

Still, there are changes to be made.

Still languishing on my curriculum is a unit entitled, ‘Poetry from Other Cultures.’ I’m not happy with it. As part of an on-going review process, my department and I need to ask the following questions:

• What are our aims here?

• Why poetry from ‘other cultures’?

• What is an ‘other culture’?

• Are the poems chosen because they imbue students with a sense of cultural capital or just because they’re ‘foreign’?

• What specific literary terms and devices do we want them to take away from this unit?

• Do these build upon what’s been taught previously?

• What vocabulary can we teach in relation to this unit?

The questions go on, but they are questions that, once answered, will result in more focused schemes of work that will provide better outcomes for students.

 

2. Greek Myths and Legends Unit

As part of our on-going quest to raise standards, I have recently received funding to allow me to work with a renowned expert in the field of Classics. In conjunction with Dr Arlene Holmes- Henderson, based at the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford, I will be designing a new scheme of work on Greek Myths and Legends for our Year 7 students. The Unit aims to provide students with the thrill of good story-telling, but also foundation knowledge of myths that are alluded to in other literary works, such as the plays of Shakespeare. I believe that an awareness of classical allusions, quite literally, makes students more literate when it comes to interpreting Shakespeare. A simile that likens a Shakespearean heroine to ‘Diana’ is meaningless if students don’t know who Diana is and what she represents. . The unit also aims to provide students with a wider vocabulary. The word ‘protean’ is better understood with knowledge of Proteus’ story. A focus on Greek and Latin root words should improve students’ ability to decode words for meaning. This is not a Sisyphean task by any means.

3. Multiple Choice Quizzing

Building on the research surrounding the Testing Effect, I want to develop a bank of carefully considered Multiple Choice Quizzes (MPQs) that teachers can use to assess kids’ understanding of key knowledge. MPQs, are ‘top-heavy’. That is, they take some time and careful thought to design, but once done, can be used repeatedly and often, and also take just seconds to mark. MPQs will also enable English Teachers to see what areas of knowledge students are deficient in. This could lead to meaningful specific targets (‘re-read Act 4 scene 3 of Macbeth and list three adjectives Malcolm uses to describe himself’) rather than vague targets based on summative descriptors (‘write a perceptive point in your next paragraph’).

 

4. Live Shakespeare

Somehow, some way, somewhere, I’ve got to get kids seeing some live Shakespeare. Some of the students I teach rarely leave the estate, let alone the town. Somehow, I need to get them into a theatre, bums on seats, watching Shakespeare. This is a must for next year.

5. Getting stuff remembered.

My aim, next year, is to have all quotations needed for GCSE exams, to be remembered by the end of Year 10. I’ve done a few sums, and this means I’m aiming for a minimum of 100 quotations to be learned, off by heart, in just one GCSE year. This is going to be a challenge, but going some way to achieving this will mean that I can spend Year 11 focusing on analysing language. Remember quotations, although valuable when it comes to analysis, are also ‘signposts’ for a text or poem, offering hints or directions as to how the narrative is progressing. Remember quotations, remember plot.

As a teacher, this means increasing my repertoire of memory techniques. I need to be exploiting the forgetting curve, and strategies of spacing and interleaving. I also need to aid students in developing a knowledge of basic memory techniques such as chunking and mnemonics. This, I truly believe, is synonymous with me developing and improving as a practitioner.

I also need to do more at KS3 in the way of getting students to actively practice getting things committed to their long term memory. I’m planning Poetry by Heart Unit somewhere in KS3, ending in an evening in which students recite ‘proper poems’ from the canon in front of peers, teachers, and parents. Can’t wait for this.

6. Isolated and directly instructed Grammar Lessons

A recent talk by Katie Ashford, from Michaela, has left me absolutely convinced that grammar needs to be taught in isolation via the direct instruction method. I can’t wait to get this going next term and working with my department to develop clear, concise, and effective explanations of difficult grammatical concepts. Again, my excitement is partly selfish; yes, this is great for kids, but it’ll make me feel smarter too. I like feeling smart.

7. Booklets

I’m becoming increasingly convinced of the effectiveness of Department made Text Books. Text books, such as those created by RobNQT and The Michaela lot, ease teacher workload whilst also providing clear explanation and anchor points to aid teacher explanations and student understanding. Next year, I want to create a Text Book on Aristotelian Rhetoric. A big job, but a satisfying one no doubt.

My school is in an area of social deprivation. But so what? Our greatest PP strategy is providing students with excellent GCSE outcomes and widespread cultural capital. I only mention it in case anyone reads with the cynical, excuse that ‘this couldn’t be done in my school’. If a school in Special measures can do it, we all can.

 

Hear the one about the dead Queen?

The death of Lady Macbeth used to trouble me.  

Undoubtedly one of his greatest creations, it always struck me as strange that Shakespeare not only denies Lady Macbeth a death that takes place on stage, but also that he goes a step further and denies both Macbeth-and the audience- the time and opportunity to process, confront, and react to the news of the mysterious death. Macbeth simply states that his wife ‘should have died hereafter’ and then launches into a soliloquy deliberating on the futility of life, rather than the grief he feels for his wife. In doing so, Macbeth directs the audience to consider his existentialist crisis also, rather than the death of Lady Macbeth.

In fact, in the ‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ soliloquy, Shakespeare actively encourages the audience to distance themselves from any emotion they might have surrounding Lady Macbeth’s death.

Shakespeare does this through the use of meta-theatre. That is, he makes considered reference to the fact that what the audience are witnessing is in fact, just a play, and not real life.

Eh?

Consider this. In Act 5 scene 3 of the play, the audience bears witness to Macbeth (or the actor playing Macbeth) strutting and fretting round the stage as he realises that the witches’ prophecy is being fulfilled. His raging use of imperatives (‘give me my armour’; ‘Take thy face hence!’; ‘Bring me no more reports’), directed at the last hangers-on of his dwindling army, reveal him to be a man who, actually, in spite of his insistence to the contrary, does indeed, ‘taint with fear’ at the fact that his head is soon to be little more than stopper for the end of Macduff’s sword.

When, in Act 5 scene 5, of the play, Macbeth says that life is little more than a ‘poor player’ (rubbish actor) that ‘struts and frets his hour upon the stage’, Shakespeare, or rather, the actor playing Macbeth, is referencing himself. It’s a joke! The audience has just found out that one of his greatest ever female characters has died and Shakespeare is trying to make the audience laugh. It’s a joke that says, ‘life is like a shite actor that struts and frets across the stage and that’s what I was just doing in that scene earlier remember? Remember? This is a play. And I’m an actor. None of this is real.’

Of course, this is not terrible writing; Shakespeare wants the audience to feel exactly the same as Macbeth does upon hearing of his wife’s death: nothing. After all, killing Duncan cemented the end of their relationship. Other things, like power and greed and the golden round got in the way.

 

 

Learning Objectives: a waste of time.

Recently, I posted the following tweet:


A few people have been asking the reasoning behind my scorn for learning objectives, and I felt it prudent to outline my thinking here, in a blog. So here’s why I think learning objectives are ridiculous:

1. They’re Clunky

Learning is complicated. Really, really complicated. Take metaphor for example. A full and proper grasp on the complexities of metaphor takes years to achieve. It requires  understanding-and retention- of a wide range of abstract concepts and domain knowledge. (Don’t believe me? Look Here).

The idea that learning can be reduced to a single lesson target perpetuates the myth that learning is something that can be visible within the arbitrary units of time we call lessons. 

Take this learning objective for example: 

To understand what a metaphor is.

That’s your aim is it? To have all students in the class ‘understand’ metaphor? Okay, so…

  • What do you mean by ‘understand’?
  • Do they all need to ‘understand’ it today? 
  • What if they don’t?
  • You’ll need to revisit this concept again and again in upcoming lessons- will this be the target then, too? What about other targets? 
  • Do you have enough space on the board to keep writing this learning objective-and new ones- up?

The fact is, the accumulation of knowledge in the Long Term Memory takes repetition, testing, interleaving and spaced practice. These are solid principles based on cognitive theory and the single lesson learning objective does not take these into consideration. 

2.They’re limiting 

As a trainee, I became obsessed with the learning objective. Once I’d spent a disproportionate amount of time coming up with an objective (Does ‘To understand how Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter for effect’ actually mean anything?), I’d then fly into a blind panic whenever a discussion or activity went in a direction that diverted from the learning objective.

What’s rhythm? We don’t have time to talk about that today! We need to understand iambic pentameter! 

What other words feature the prefix ‘pent’? We don’t have time to talk about that today! We need to understand iambic pentameter! 

What does ‘effect’ actually mean and how can you write about it? We don’t have time to talk about that today! We need to understand iambic pentameter! 

3. They facilitate the abomination that is differentiated learning objectives 

‘Must, should, could’; ‘Tricky, Trickier, Trickiest’, ‘Green, Amber, Red’. 

Differentiated learning Objectives are an abomination. They suggest that what is good enough for some pupils, is not good enough for others. They encourage low expectations. Johnny, I want you to do the trickiest objective, but Joe- you probably won’t be able to do it so you stick with the tricky one yeah? Good, stupid boy. 

They also encourage students to take the easy way out. After all, why would you do the trickiest option, when you could do the tricky one and still have time to piss about?

The fact is, you should have the highest expectations of all your students. You just need to accept that whilst Sarah may have a grasp of the root causes of the Wall Street Crash within 10 minutes, for Matthew it may take a while longer. Like, six weeks longer. Learning Objectives- particularly differentiated learning Objectives- by definition, are contrary to this understanding of how learning actually works.

4. They’re a waste of time.

Time spent coming up with a learning objective for your lesson is time you could’ve spent reading something clever.

Time spent writing a learning objective on the board is time that could be spent writing something interesting on the board.

Time spent writing learning Objectives in books is time that could be spent doing punctuation drills. 

5. They’re a stick to be beaten with

You’re being observed and your learning objective states that all students must understand how to use dynamic verbs to create pace in their writing.

Your observer is someone that doesn’t know what a verb (verbs are doing words) is, let alone a dynamic verb and yet, you see them frowning as it quickly becomes apparent that a number of other students don’t know either. But the learning objective says all students must understand. And clearly, they don’t. Not yet, anyway.

Thing is, your observer is only here for twenty minutes and they want to see progress against the learning objective. You’ve set yourself up for failure. Go easier on yourself- abandon the objective. 

Okay, so what?

Hattie said that targeted lessons have a positive impact on student attainment. This does not mean Learning Objectives. What this means is, teachers knowing what they want students to understand within a given time frame (lessons, incidentally, are not a suitable timeframe with which to measure understanding). 

In other words, don’t just rock up and teach anything. Lessons that have been designed with a bigger picture in mind, that have a purpose and a place within a wider scheme of work, are more effective than those that aren’t. So know why you’re teaching metaphor.

Yes, it helps students if they know why they’re learning iambic pentameter. Or the causes of the Wall Street Crash. Or quotations from Genesis. But, rather than wasting time with Learning Objectives, just tell ’em. 

“We’re learning about X today because it’s going to help you with Y next week and one day you’ll be able/need to use it for Z.”

That takes 20 seconds. 

University: Probably the Worst Time of My Life. 

Lying naked, face down and crying onto the scuffed linoleum of the room I refused to call home, I knew then that University was never going to be a positive experience for me. 

I knew then that this thing-something I now take to be a ‘nervous breakdown’- was never going to be the beginning of the end; it was never going to be the lowest point on a road to personal epiphany or glory or intellectual triumph; it was always going to be just that: an eighteen year old boy lying naked, face down and crying tears and snot onto a scuffed linoleum floor.

University was probably the worst time of my life. In the three years I spent there I had a nervous breakdown, ballooned from 14 to 17 stone (in just 8 weeks), and found myself in trouble with the law.

I think that my schooling prior to University was largely responsible for the inadequacy I felt during my time there. In a (yes-cathartic) effort to ensure that other students don’t experience what I did, I’m going to to outline the reasons (as I perceive them) for my time at University being so stupendously shite, before going on to offer a few suggestions as what teachers and schools can do to better prepare students for the kind of University Life that doesn’t make its way onto Facebook statuses and Snapchat Stories.

So firstly, why was it so crap?

  1. The Class Issue

Whether I’m actually working class or not, I identify as such, and my experience at University played no small part in the class sensitivity I feel everyday, in my occupation as a teacher. 

In the four hour car journey from home to University, I went from a world of Tesco Value Basics and Bailiffs to a world of Jack Wills and Gilets. University was a distinctly upper middle class environment and it was entirely new. If 90% of the world’s red trousers are worn by the 10% wealthiest people in the world, then that 10% went to University with me. 

Signs of the enormous chasm of wealth between me and my fellow students were found everywhere: in the brand new sports cars they drove around campus; in the invites to birthday parties held at Scottish castles; in the countless sports society trips to far flung destinations. Even in the lighting. How much money did people have to spend on fucking fairy lights?  

Everyone, everywhere seemed to be richer than I was.

(Of course, this wasn’t true;  I’ve since found out that actually, 68% of my University cohort were from state schools just like me; the rest were from independent schools. However, it should be noted that this is still an unacceptably low percentage, in comparison to national data.)

My own feeling of socio-economic inferiority reveals itself most clearly in my recollection of how my manner of speaking instantly set me apart from everyone else.  Growing up in the suburbs of London, when Guy Ritchie gangster movies and Geezer culture was at its peak, me and my friends all spoke in the Mockney accent that made us feel like the geezers and gangsters we saw in the films we watched and the pubs we frequented. We couldn’t afford the 13 quid it’d take to get us to Waterloo, but we spoke like we’d been born ringing those Bow Bells. At home, calling a fiver a ‘lady’ and a suit a ‘whistle’ like made me feel like Ronnie Kray. At University, it made me feel like Ronnie Corbett. My manner of speaking made me into a caricature: a figure of fun (the working class clown) to be patronised and called upon to invoke raucous laughter by a simple greeting of “Alwight mate?”

I’m not saying that everybody from privileged backgrounds at University actively sought to make me feel worthless. But, what comes with wealth, is a arrogance of a kind that isn’t intentioned. I couldn’t stand the fact that I worked in McDonalds to pay my way, whilst they spent Daddy’s money. I couldn’t stand the pitying looks when I told them I went to Devon during the summer break, and not the Dordogne. I couldn’t stand the way they wore Ralph Lauren shirts as Pyjamas. I hated the way I turned up to every single lecture, and every seminar, regardless, for three years straight, whilst the rich kids mocked me for doing so, proudly boating about the fact they got a first on their latest essay without even reading the book. And still, in spite of their bragging apathy, they seemed to embody a kind of success I could only dream about. 

It was all too much, and my Secondary Education had simply not prepared me to face this level of class difference head on.

2. I Knew Nothing


When I got to University, I had no idea what Socialism was. Nor did I know what Communism was. Or Capitalism. I didn’t know why Right or Left Wing meant. I’d no idea who George Orwell was. I didn’t understand a word of Latin and Homer had all but passed me by. University is both an academic and a political experience. My own Secondary education, or my upbringing, had left me deficient in both these areas. During seminars, I was frightened into silence as fellow students and professors talked to each other using words I could not fathom and allusions I could not access. Everyone seemed to know what everyone else knew, and I remained throughly on the outside. My GCSEs and my A Levels didn’t matter. What mattered was a very specific domain of knowledge- of Cultural capital imbued me with. 
I felt deficient in two areas: wealth and knowledge. As I referred to briefly earlier, this had a hugely negative impact on my mental health. I became depressed and my refusal to seek help eventually ended up in me taking off all my clothes and laying on the floor of my bedroom for six hours crying into myself. I put on lots of weight and I started fighting. Lots of fighting. I was a mess. 
People say that anger is a weakness, but that’s not true. It was anger with my lot, that got me off that linoleum floor and into the gym. It was anger that got me through those three years. I’m still angry now.
I’m angry that my school didn’t given me the cultural capital I needed to compete intellectually with those students from independent schools who seemed to breeze through University life. Even my vocabulary was deficient. At the most basic level, I didn’t even have the words to engage with people on their level. 
I’m angry that I didn’t have the strength to just give up. I was too proud. I didn’t want to let my family down. I didn’t want to admit to all my mates that never went to University, that I’d made a go of it and failed. 
I’m angry that nobody-not a single person, myself included- took it upon themselves to ‘google it’ and read the litany of internet blog posts and articles that routinely condemn the University for the Sloane Square Play Pen it’s notorious for being. Surely someone must’ve known what it would be like.
As teachers in state schools, it’s important that we give students the vocabulary and the knowledge that allows them to compete with their more privilege peers. It’s important that we don’t peddle this poisonous idea that your University years are the ‘best years of your life’, because the truth is, they ain’t , always. Not really.
Personally, my own time at University is still something I look back at with loathing. There’s no sense of ‘being glad I endured it and got through it’. I’m still ashamed of how rubbish it was. As a person, I didn’t cut it there and that’s my failure. 
But, as I teach, one thought drives me. The thought that the kids I teach- the kids in the tracksuits; the kids for whom football is the sport of choice; the kids with the Formica work tops- willwalk into University with a swagger-an arrogance even- that allows them to compete with the ‘best’ of those gilet-wearing, ski resort visiting, gorgeous people who wear the (red) trousers at University. 

A Simple Timeline for English Teachers

The Essential Timeline for English Teachers.

Above, is a hastily drawn Timeline that all students of English Literature could do with knowing. I’ve found that giving my students a basic understanding of the literary periods- and the rough (okay-very rough- a discussion regarding dates etc can be found by accessing this Twitter thread) times during which they occurred has proved valuable, particularly when it comes to context questions such as the Eduqas poetry anthology exam, in which candidates are expected to know the contextual information of 18 different poems, spanning 3 centuries.

Here’s an explanation of each of the movements:

The Industrial Revolution

It’s important that students know that in the mid 1700s, Britain began to become industrialised. The invention of the steam engine, and mechanised textile units, meant that Britain saw a surge in factory buildings and of course, factory workers. Whereas Britain had previously largely been an agrarian society, the Industrial Revolution saw a surge in people moving to cities which is where factories were being built. This, of course, led to a more rigid class system: after all, you needed someone to own the factories (Upper Class); someone to run the factories (Middle Class), and someone to work/be mutilated in the factories (Lower Class). 

The industrial revolution, with all its technological advancements also saw improvements in science and medicine. This was known as ‘The Enlightenment’ and saw a move away from religion and beliefs previously considered outdated towards scientific reasoning and though.  The world was becoming more transparent…

The Romantic Poets

…which really pissed off a group of chaps we now refer to as The Romantics. William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats, and William Blake really hated all this technological stuff. John Keats believed that technological advancement and the scientification (I literally just made that word up) would ‘clip an Angel’s wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line’ (Keats, Lamia). That is, in getting to know how everything works, we are ruining the beauty of it. Kind of like students who used to love books until you made them take part in endless ‘Quotation Explosion’ sessions. In reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the Romantic Poets wrote lots of poems about feelings and nature. They believed in the awesome sense of inferiority one gets when faced with the brutal power of nature. They called this the ‘Sublime’. They believed that getting in touch with nature was the only way people could get back in touch with themselves.

Notable Writers: William Wordsworth, William Blake, John Keats.

The Regency/ Victorian Period
The Victorians thought the Romantics were a soppy bunch. In fact, in reaction to the sensibility of the Romantics, the Victorian Period came just after what I’ll call the Regency Period. This literary epoch saw the introduction of what is known as ‘The Novel of Manners’. The Novel of Manners, rather than being a literary construct focused on the magical and supernatural (such as might be found in the works of the Romantics) was a realistic novel focusing on the social codes of the Victorian period. High on the agenda was social restraint; feelings were a no-no; etiquette and refinement were in. Think anything by Jane Austen. 

Shortly afterwards, came the The Victorian Period proper. This, of course, also saw Charles Dickens’ rise to superstardom. His novels were an angry reaction to the, now all too evident- impact of the Industrial Revolution: poverty, injustice, and crime. 

Notable Writers: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens

The Modernist Period

Victorian literature was all about structures: education, law, government. Those things which make the world run as they should (or shouldn’t be). Then, in 1914, a war started that messed all those structures up a bit. All of a sudden, your government would lead you into war. Your education couldn’t protect you from being shot through the head. And what good was the law, when the crime of war was perfectly legal? The world was turned on its head. Everything people believed was turned on its head. This is reflected in the literature of the Period. Reliable narrators? What good were they before. Get rid. Punctuation? What good was that before? Get rid. Society? What good was that before? Get rid.

Modernist literature saw writers experimenting with weird and wonderful forms. Stories told in reverse. Stream of consciousness. Strange mixtures of prose and poetry. 

And most striking of all? The cynicism. Love was no longer wonderful; it was dangerous. Family was no longer reliable. They f*ck you up your Mum and Dad. The law would no longer protect you; it would kill you.

Notable Writers: James Joyce, F.Scott Fitzgerald, T.S.Elliot
Conclusion

Once kids know all this, ask them to place some unseen poems, or extracts from texts, within a Timeline. May I suggest:

Love is Not All, Edna St Villay. (MODERNIST)

Ode to Autumn, John Keats. (ROMANTIC)

Chapter 1 of Bleak House, (VICTORIAN)

Hope this helps.