Messy Planning: Part Two

If you don’t plan lessons, what do you do during your planning and preparation time?

In the first of this series of blog posts, I explained that I rarely employ the use of written lesson plans or presentation software to guide the direction of my lessons. I also asserted that it’s my use of planning and preparation (P+P) time that allows me to work this way.

The short answer to the question that opens this post is: I read. My reading can be split into two sorts: Pedagogical reading and subject reading. Because I spend as much as my P+P time reading, I believe I am a better teacher. I’d even go as far to say that if I spent my time endlessly creating Lesson Plans or PowerPoint presentations during my P+P time, instead of reading, I (emphasis on ‘I’) would be a worse teacher because of it. For me, every slide created is a page not read.

I tend to read with a coffee in one hand, a book in the other, and both feet up, either on a chair or a desk. This makes me comfortable and makes the reading experience more enjoyable. Most of the time, it doesn’t feel like work. I highly recommend others teachers spend their P+P time this way.

But be careful.

In spending your time this way, you open yourself up to suspicion and criticism from colleagues. After all, in this time of austerity and accountability and data and data and data, it takes a brave soul to dare to lounge around with a book, especially when SLT are on the prowl and other teachers are hunched over computer screens organising slide transitions.

Daring to read a book is further perilous because the development of one’s subject knowledge is so often assumed to be something that one does ‘after school’, an assumption which fails to recognise that most teachers are actually humans for whom the prospect of eating and drinking whilst watching a celebrity eat a bollock is far more exciting, after a long day’s work, than reading anything more intellectually stimulating than [insert name of leading British tabloid here].

As I’ve already said, my reading is either pedagogy based, or subject based. Which is lucky, because Robert Coe et al found that ‘the most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning.’ I’d like to discuss each of these types of reading, briefly, and in turn.

Pedagogical Reading

I spend lots of time reading about teaching and learning. This reading material is found either in the form of blogs or books. I’ve read lots, but the reading on teaching, how to teach, learning, and how to learn, that really stands out, without looking at my book shelf, was found in these places:

What if Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? David Didau

Making Good Progress? Daisy Christodoulou

Why Don’t Students Like School? Daniel Willingham

• Andy Tharby’s blog post on The Memory Platform

• Carl Hendrick’s blog on The Semmelweiss Reflex

• James Theo’s ‘The Knowledge’ blog

Spending time, in the school day, to read these has changed the way I will teach forever. That is to say, many of these books or blog posts has improved every lesson I will ever teach forever. Where they haven’t improved my lessons, they have definitely improved me as a teacher, more generally. I don’t think I can say either of these things about any time I’ve spent creating a Lesson Plan or PowerPoint presentation. I want to try and be specific. Allow me to explain:

-What if everything you knew about education was wrong?

Most significantly, this book made me realise the benefits of the testing effect. Because of this book, I test my students every lesson.

-Making Good Progress?

As a teacher, Daisy’s book helped me to design intelligent multiple choice questions that challenge children, whilst reducing my workload.

As a Head of Department, it was this book that helped me to help others in my school get us to a point where we assess summatively just twice across the whole year.

-Why Don’t Students Like School?

Willingham’s model of the memory means that I am always aware of the limits of the working memory, and also the ways that I, as a teacher, can reduce extraneous load to ensure student learning is enhanced.

-Andy Tharby’s blog on the Memory Platform

If Didau’s book taught me everything I needed to know about interleaving, it was Tharby’s memory platform that helped me to incorporate it regularly (twice a week minimum) and easily into all my lessons.

-Carl Hendrick’s blog on The Semmelweiss Reflex

For years people rolled their eyes at me as I cited research at them. This blog made me realise why. And as a result, I’m a little more patient and a little less of an arsehole.

-James Theo’s ‘The Knowledge’ blog

Because of James, now, when I want kids to know stuff, I tell them what I want to know, rather than asking stupid questions or engaging them in silly tasks in the hope that they’ll guess what’s already in my head.

I’ve been to some good CPD. But nothing I’ve ever had spoken to me, spoke to me like the stuff in these books. And unlike speakers, I can whack books on a shelf and open them again and again and again. A PowerPoint slide lasts as long as the memory stick takes to get lost. The stuff in these books stays, even if the books themselves are lost.

Subject Reading

Part of the reason I became a teacher was to indulge my passion for English, so an hour of reading a book around my subject is absolute joy. And it’s a joy that benefits my pupils. Reading around my subject, for me anyway, is not about reading a revision guide or revision website on the text I’m currently teaching. That’s just reading someone else’s reading about the reading. That’s not to say I never do this (of course I do – I teach Emily Dickinson), but what I prefer to do is read the following:

• Literary theory

• Critical essays

• Fiction written by contemporaries of authors we’re reading in class

• Other works of fiction written by the author of the text we’re studying in class

• Non-fiction texts written by the author of the text we’re studying in class

It is this sort of reading that makes me, occasionally, a great teacher.

It is this type of reading that allows me explain to kids, during a lesson looking at Mr Birling, ‘ George Orwell was writing about Mr Birling before Mr Birling was even a thing’, as I whack the following extract from The Road to Wigan Pier under the visualiser:

It is this type of reading that allows me to tell classes, year after year, as we read Act 1 Scene 7 of Macbeth, that the sibilant sounds that permeate the Macbeths’ speech make it sound like they’re whispering. That in fact, what the Macbeth’s are engaging in are the ‘conspiratorial whisperings’ outlined by Kermode in his book, Shakespeare’s Language.

It is this type of reading that allows me show kids extracts from The Grapes of Wrath in preparation for teaching Of Mice and Men.

This is the type of reading that warms.

The information gleaned from this sort of reading kindles fires that are always there, smouldering, just waiting to be ignited by the touch paper of a question from a student or something falling into place where it didn’t before.

Here’s a list of the fires, quietly burning, some for a while now, some begun only recently, just waiting to burst into flames as I teach Macbeth:

• Ellen Terry’s assertion that ‘It is strange that Lady Macbeth should be seen ‘as a sort of monster’, read in an article on the British Library website. ( )

• A.C. Bradley’s statement that, ‘Macbeth gives the impression of a black night broken by flashes of light and colour…and the colour is the colour of blood’, taken from A.C. Bradley’s famous Shakespearean Tragedy

• ‘The clown acts as a bridge between the stage and the audience’, taken from The Cambridge introduction to Shakespearean Comedy

Conspiratorial Whisperings’, a phrase taken from Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language, which has also influenced my own phrase, ‘mono-syllabic splutterings’ to refer to Lady Macbeth’s final angst-ridden prose.

• The knowledge that actually, in asking ‘unsex me here’, Lady Macbeth is not asking to be stripped of her femininity, but rather she is asking almost the opposite: to be the most womanish of women; that is, an old woman. Taken from another article from the British Library (

These nuggets of information, found in books, will reveal themselves, shining, to form the basis of whole lessons, even a series of lessons which opens kids’ minds to perspectives rarely explored in revision guides or websites. As I said in the previous blog post in the series, this is the reading that provides me with the analogies, allusions, explanations, examples, non-examples, and counterpoints needed to ensure kids learn well.

In the next, and final, series of this blog series on Messy Planning, I’ll explain what all this looks like in the lesson.

Messy Planning: Part One

Earlier this week I tweeted one of those tweets I never write to generate attention:

Since then, a number of people have got in touch with me to ask either one of three questions:

1. If you don’t plan lessons, what do you plan?

2. If you don’t plan lessons, what do you do during your planning and preparation time?

3. If you don’t use PowerPoint, what do your lessons look like?

I’ve called this series ‘Messy Planning’ because to some, my approach to lessons seems unorganised and unplanned. As if I rock up to school and just wing it. Partly because I want to convince myself that my methods aren’t as haphazard as they seem to others, partly because I’m sick of people telling me I never plan lessons, and partly in an attempt to reassure other messy planners, I want to answer each of these questions, in three separate blog posts, the first of which begins shortly.

Before I go on though, I want to clarify a few things:

• I have absolutely no problems with people who plan lessons using lesson plans.

• I have absolutely no problems with people who choose to use presentation software in lessons.

• From a teaching perspective, I think PowerPoints can be really bloody useful, particularly if you are new to teaching, or you are a teacher teaching a new topic or subject. The act of learning new information and transferring it into presentation form can be really useful in consolidating information. Also, slides are great prompts for discussion and questioning in class. Of course, the capacity to show diagrams to assist explanations is also very useful. However…

• …From a learning perspective I don’t know if PowerPoint presentations are always really bloody useful. Often, slides are overloaded and teachers lacking in confidence can put unnecessary cognitive load on students’ working memory by reading aloud, information that is there in writing on the slide for students to read. Also, over- reliance on slides can indicate to students a lack of confidence which may negatively impact student-teacher relationships, an important facet of learning.

Anyway. Let’s go.

Question One: If you don’t plan lessons, what do you plan?

Put simply, I don’t plan lessons because learning doesn’t occur in those arbitrary units of time we decide to call ‘lessons’. Students learn different things, at different rates, in different environments dependant on the differing levels of pre-existing knowledge they bring to different lessons depending on the different variables impacting on their different lives at any given moment. Honestly, because of this, planning ‘lessons’ seems futile to me.

I choose to take some of the pressure off. Instead, I focus on the long game which sees the end of a unit of work as its end point. (And even then I keep in mind that the real end point is the end of the year, meaning that even once a unit is complete, I’ll have to keep revisiting that unit’s material in future units.) Below, is a picture of my ‘Brain Bank’ for Year 10’s study of An Inspector Calls:

It contains the most basic information I want all students to know as a minimum. This is the closest I come to writing anything down when it comes to planning. Then, knowing that this is the information I want to impart onto the students, I go into the lesson and begin teaching.

So what do I actually do?

I allow the texts-and the students’ responses to the texts – to dictate the pace and direction of my lessons. I do this because students learn different things, at different rates, in different environments … So every time I begin a new text for study, all I do (after a lesson providing some contextual background) is go into the class and start reading the text. I don’t write down on a PowerPoint slide or on a piece of paper, specific moments at which we’ll stop and do a task. Rarely do I employ the use of pre-prepared diagrams to elucidate understanding. I certainly never approach a lesson with the intention of ‘getting to a certain point’ in the text.

I just start reading.

I start reading the text and what happens in the lesson is determined by what I, as an expert in my subject, judge students to understand or not understand about what we’re reading. This isn’t to say I don’t have a plan. I do; it’s just in my head. For many of the texts I teach, I am now in my fifth, sixth or seventh year of teaching them. I know them inside out. Over the years I have developed a repertoire of analogies, explanations, and allusions to ensure students learn what’s important. I know when and how to draw upon these depending on the level of understanding of the individuals in front of me; I know the quotations to interrogate, the scenes to dwell on, and the critics to cite.

What is it that has imbued me with this power? Well, it’s what I get up to in my free periods, which you can read about in the next instalment. (Clue: It’s not creating lengthy PowerPoint slides.)

Messy Planning: Part Two can be found Here

Iambic Pentameter: A few analogies.

At my school, we spend a lot of time teaching students, across both key stages, about the intricacies of poetic meter. A large amount of this time is concentrated specifically on Iambic Pentameter, the understanding of which is tested in all end of year exams, from year 8 onwards. (In Year 7 we only ask that students know the difference between verse and prose.) Increasingly, I am presented with evidence that this focus is paying off.

This week, a Year 10 student wrote this:

The audience would feel surprised at the witches’ aggressiveness. Unlike other characters in the play that speak in dignified iambic pentameter, the witches speak in trochaic trimeter with a masculine ending. The stressed beat that opens the witches’ chant makes them seem immediately violent…

Rearing its head alongside these moments of impressive sophistication is a misconception that I’ve only recently become aware of. This misconception is the idea that in Elizabethan or Jacobean England, everybody spoke like the characters in Shakespeare plays. That is to say, I have come across students who think that the poetic lexicon of Othello, Orsino, and Ophelia reflects the language of the farmers, merchants, thieves and vagabonds of 16th and 17th Century England.

In the blog that follows I have included some scripted analogies I used in an English lesson today in which I tried to dismantle this misconception and improve students’ understanding of not only the power of poetry, but also their understanding of Shakespeare as performance. (Warning: These analogies do make reference to rap music. I promise you, this is not done in an attempt to be down with the kids. Hopefully, that will become clear.)

So, today I told students:

In Shakespeare’s day, people that visited Shakespeare’s plays, did not speak like the actors on the stage. It’s like when I go to the cinema on a Thursday evening. I might watch a Hollywood action movie, but I don’t come in on Friday and teach all my lessons speaking in an American accent, using one-liners. Can you imagine? (The following is spoken in an American grizzle, Bruce Willis style)“Hey kids. Get out your books. Or…die.”

I then explained:

In fact, many people in Shakespeare’s audience would have had no better grasp of the language and words used by the actors on stage than you or I. The extent to which they understood would have depended, like it does with us today, on the individual’s level of education, vocabulary, and cultural awareness. Many people in Shakespeare’s audiences would have been far less educated than us, so actually it was likely the case that not only did the people in Shakespeare’s time not speak like Shakespeare’s characters, but they wouldn’t have understood it either.

Naturally, I went on:

However, although they may not have grasped all the words, they would have grasped some of them, just as you or I would. Also, they may well have been attuned to the rhythms of speech on stage. Changes of rhythm may have struck them as unusual, or as signifying an emotional change. Let me give you an example. Who knows the Eminem song, ‘Rap God’? Well, you know the ‘fast bit’ of that song? Where Eminem raps at rapid speed? (This can be found here: at 4.26. Do not show to students) Well, when I listen to that song, I cannot hear the words Eminem is saying. But, I can clearly recognise a change in rhythm. A change in what has gone before, not only in that song, but in most of Eminem’s other work. And that change arrests my attention. It captivates me and it speaks to me. It tells me something. So, when the audience is watching a play that is written mostly in iambic pentameter, and then, all of a sudden, three old women come on stage speaking in trochaic tetrameter, that would capture the audience’s attention. It would mark these women out as different, otherworldly, aggressive or malevolent.

At this point a student asked me:

“So, you’re saying that people went to the theatre, just to hear the rhythm and not the actual words?”

I replied:

Not fully. Of course, an understanding of words helps. But the rhythm counts for a lot too. It’s like when you hear a song for the first time and love it. What immediately arrests you is the rhythm. The way the song sounds. It’s only after this that you listen out for the words. You might not get all the words or phrasing, but you enjoy the song. Also, I don’t think you can underestimate the power of rhythm. Two of my favourite rappers are Notorious BIG and Tupac. However, if I could choose to listen to only one of them for the rest of my life, it would always be BIG, because I love the slow, lilting rhythm of his rap. (At this point I did a cringe-worthy rendition of one of the only swear-free verses I know of Biggie’s.)

I’m aware these scripted analogies are linked haphazardly here, but I’ve included them all as perhaps they could be used individually, as analogies to illuminate your own students’ understanding of the nuance of poetic meter on the Shakespeare stage.

Update: I asked the renowned Shakespearean actor and expert, Ben Crystal to read this blog and let me know how accurate I was in my assertions. This is his reply:

Fragile Masculinity

According to Urban Dictionary, ‘Fragile Masculinity’ is a term…

…used to describe a man who has a fragile sense of masculinity for whatever reason. It can be used for someone who tries too hard to fit the male stereotypes in fear of looking too feminine in front of society.

Fragile masculinity came to the fore recently when Piers Morgan mocked James Bond actor, Daniel Craig, for wearing a papoose to carry his baby. Presumably for Morgan, a proper man swings his child by the hair, like someone swinging a bucket of water in a gravity experiment, pausing occasionally only to punch a wall or scratch an oversized bollock. Morgan’s discomfort at Craig’s method of child transportation was declared an indicator of his own fragile masculinity; his manly disdain for the papoose a desperate attempt to compensate for the fact that his masculinity is under threat elsewhere.

The abuse Morgan received was all a little bit embarrassing for me, because I too have been guilty of papoose prejudice in the past. In fact, I have even mocked my own father for his employment of the parent pouch, declaring-and wholeheartedly believing- that such an adornment was an embarrassing symbol of a lack of masculine credentials. Alas, my scorn was not limited to the pappoose. At a recent #WomenEd event I told delegates about how I used to believe that pushing a pram with two hands in the conventional manner was ‘unmanly’ and that the only way to push a pram and retain the slightest inch of credibility was with one hand, arm outstretched as far as possible as if to say (in a very, very, very deep voice), “Yeah, this kid’s mine, but don’t worry- I don’t want it near me ‘cos that would mean I like…er…cared for her. Oops. I mean it.”

The fact is, my masculinity is fragile. I’m crap at so many things I grew up believing I should be good at because I’m a man: football, banter, seduction, fighting. I’m crap at all of that and at times, it pains me so. But, like Morgan, and like many other men, I am able to assert my masculinity in all manner of unpleasant ways in order to make up for areas in which I’m severely lacking.

Granted, it’s hard to feel sympathy for me and Piers Morgan , but there is another, darker, sadder side to the issue of fragile masculinity. Consider Jack. Jack is in Year 11 and he’s a good boy. He’s never received a sanction at school. Apart from once. In Year 7 Jack lost an arm wrestle in tutor time. Naturally, the other boys mocked him and naturally, Jack told them all to “Fuck off” before storming out of the room in tears. Jack was sanctioned and for the rest of his school life he was reminded of the time he cried in Year 7 after losing an arm wrestle.

We can’t mock Jack. Yes his behaviour was irrational. But, at eleven years old, society’s expectations of how he should be are already deeply embedded in him. He should be strong. Losing an arm wrestle was humiliating for him, and crying in front of others boys only made things worse. Sadly, becoming an adult does not mean you are automatically ‘cured’ of the shame that not being manly enough brings. I’ve spoken (or written-I forget) of the shame I felt in feeling fear when I was recently threated by another man. It happened two years ago, but still, it’s something I think about every single day of my life. I still feel shame about the time I was scared.

The shame and humiliation that any man or boy might feel at their failure to live up to their ingrained expectations of what it is to be a man, can have seriously dangerous ramifications. As James Gilligan notes, in his summary of the research into male violence and its links with shame and humiliation:

The basic psychological motive of, or cause of, violent behaviour is the wish to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation – a feeling that is painful and can even be intolerable and overwhelming – and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride.

I think many men will be familiar with this. The feeling of needing to atone for those times you’ve failed to act ‘as a man should’, particularly in situations involving the threat of physical violence to oneself or a loved one.

Gilligan is keen to note that of course, not all men are susceptible to this phenomenon. According to Gilligan, there are certain conditions that make certain men more predisposed to using violence as a means of atonement for earlier failures. These conditions are:

• The individual has not yet developed emotional capacity for those emotions which inhibit violence towards others – namely, guilt or remorse.

• The feelings of shame are so great as to be overwhelming to the point of threatening one’s sense of self. Using violence as a means of preservation of one’s self is the number one priority, superceeding all other alternative modes of action.

• The individivual believes he does not possess the nonviolent means of resolving a given situation.

• Society’s masculine stereotypes are more deeply ingrained in the individual, than in others.

So what am I saying? Am I saying that we need to stop mocking the desperate attempts of many men to assert their masculinity? Not at all.

However, I think as teachers, we do need to be aware that for many of our boys, not living up to masculine stereotypes can have dangerous consequences. We need to think about how we deal with boys who lose the fight, the boys who walk away, the boys who are seen crying. Fragile masculinity should not be seen as something to simply poke fun at because the reality is that for many young people their masculinity is important to them, and it’s this that makes it so fragile. Some things need to be broken. ‘Toxic masculinity’ is one of them. But let’s find a way to take it apart, carefully, systematically, and with considered thought. The alternative – smashing it to pieces- could cause cuts that leave scars.

My Tattoo

Only a few people know this, but I have a tattoo. I got it on a stag-do. It was a stag-do of the kind I’d be uncomfortable with now: it was all aggression, misogyny, macho posturing and degrading chat up-lines. But, I had a great time. So great in fact, that I got a tattoo, emblazoned across the top of my left arm, not just as a reminder, but as a signal to others: I went on a stag-do.

I should point out that this stag-do lasted 32 years and the commemorative tattoo has been 32 years in the inking. I should also point out, of course, that this whole stag-do thing is little more than a clunky metaphor. The ‘stag-do’ is gender socialisation-the way I’ve been primed by my peers, teachers, and the media-to exhibit undesirable masculine traits that some people refer to using the umbrella term ‘toxic masculinity’. The ‘tattoo’ is the way this toxic masculinity reveals itself to me and others through my behaviours, attitudes and beliefs. Like a stag-do tattoo, my toxic masculinity is something largely embarrassing to me now-something there that I try to hide. Conversely, it’s also something that still has the ability to bring a wry smile to my face. Something that makes me feels strong, and powerful. I also have the tantalising knowledge that in certain contexts, if I bear it proudly, it would give me access to things I wouldn’t get were I to keep it hidden. Because all men have this tattoo and men can get you places. They are the inked gatekeepers of this world.

This is the first year I’ve really started to consider myself a feminist, but in becoming so, the tattoo of toxic masculinity doesn’t instantly disappear. There’s no laser in the world that could do that. It’s still there. Let me give you a few examples: I still love listening to rap music that often contains highly misogynist content. Tattoo on show. I still find myself puffing my chest up and staring aggressively at men I consider to be threats to people I care about. Tattoo on show. Only yesterday a colleague told me about a local primary school that had banned ‘The Last Showman’ from being shown in school on account of the fact that the bearded lady’s cleavage was considered sexually inappropriate. Clearly, this is ridiculous, but I explained that in my mind, because of years of watching Baywatch and reading Lad’s Magazines, for me, a woman’s cleavage had sexual connotations. Tattoo on show.


I am doing things a little differently. When I’m not in my car, rapping along to Notorious BIG boasting about his sexual exploits, I cover that tattoo up. A kid asks me if I like rap music, I’ll lie and tell them I don’t like it because of the sexist content. I also recognise that the banning of ‘The Last Showman’ on account of the bearded lady’s cleavage is yet another patriarchal attempt to police women’s bodies. And so, although I admitted that cleavage had sexual connotations for me, I recognise that it needn’t for the current generation and therefore banning this film is contributing to the problem of sexist policing of women’s bodies, rather than solving it. I now recognise that.

I am trying to get rid of this tattoo. I don’t want it anymore. This year I have spoken openly about my distaste for the programme Love Island on account of the way it perpetuates sexist stereotypes. Despite the fact that I love the show, I haven’t watched a single episode this year. This year, I have started crossing the road whenever I find myself walking on the same pavement, behind a woman walking on her own at night-time. I’ve bought copies of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book ‘A Feminist Manifesto in 15 Suggestions’ and handed them to friends and family members. I’ve spoken and written openly about feminist issues. These things are tiny, and I want to do more, I want to have more of an impact, but I am finally trying. Really, really trying.

And trying doesn’t come without complications.

People have suffered far more than I have for the feminist cause, of course they have. I know that. But stuff like this hurts: I’ve fallen out with family members about my beliefs that there is nothing inherently different in boys and girls. Really, really fallen out. I’ve had to become something I hate: a ‘virtue-signaller’- you think I don’t recognise that being all preachy about Love Island, and yet still listening to Eminem is contradictory and hypocritical? Of course I do. Nowadays, I’m permanently questioning myself. I’m nearly always cross with myself. And sometimes I’m ashamed with myself. Like the time last week when I met a guy I knew from the the gym at the pub for the first time. We needed an extra chair so he went and asked for one from a nearby table:

“Hey sweetheart, do you mind if I borrow a chair?”

“Of course you can.”

“Ah thanks darling. Enjoy your day.”

And I just sat there, not wanting to embarrass the guy, and I didn’t pull him up on it. Shame on me, because I think referring to a woman you don’t know as sweetheart is wrong.

And then, when I don’t say something, the next time something like that happens, I feel more compelled to say something in order to atone for past failures. Last week, after the football, I was out with the lads. And by lads I mean friends I’ve known for years. Friends whom I love, friends whom I feel are falling more and more out of love with me, the less I see them, the more I get involved in all this stuff. Friends I want to love me like they used to. When one of the guys said to the waitress collecting our glasses, ‘Well helllooo there,’ I had to say something. And that doesn’t go down too well. I’m becoming the party-pooper. I used to be fun.

It’s not easy being a male feminist, but it’s a lot harder being a female feminist. I know that and I will never forget it.

However, I just need people to remember that sometimes, its uncomfortable wearing long sleeves to cover up a tattoo in hot weather.

Why People* Shouldn’t Watch Love Island.

I love, ‘Love Island.’

Last year, along with the rest of the nation, I watched every spat, sob, and snog with unbridled glee. And I wasn’t even watching it ironically: I genuinely enjoy watching people fall in love. Love’s brilliant, however contrived the conditions under which it develops. Whether those initial seeds of passionate devotion are sown under the dim lights of a candlelit restaurant, across the blue lights of two smartphones, or under the bright lights of prime time television cameras, its all the same to me; as long as people are falling in love, I’m happy. Watching the stars of last year’s ‘Love Island’ argue, bitch and cry their way to romantic bliss was a genuine, heartfelt, heart-wrenching, heart-warming pleasure.

But this year, although I love the show, I’m not watching it. And I’m disappointed with those that that do.

This year, I’m taking a moral stance in not watching it. Here’s why:

‘Love Island’ perpetuates negative ideas about how the human body should look. I’m a 32 year old male and struggle greatly with the fact that I do not possess the marble six pack exhibited by almost all of the male stars of the show. When I imagine what this show must be doing to young peoples’ perceptions of their own bodies I shudder. People who watch this show are adding to the viewing figures of a show that makes some young people feel crap about their bodies.

My second grievance is that the show isn’t diverse enough. I see lots of brown skin, but it is the brown skin belonging to tanned Caucasian bodies. This simply isn’t good enough and it’s not reflective of multi-cultural Britain. People who watch this show are adding to the viewing figures of a show that makes some young people feel that to be desirable, you have to be white.

Casual sex under the influence of alcohol, rife misogyny, and casual use of ‘sex shaming’ (when a person-always a woman- is made to feel shame for the number of sexual partners she’s had) are all major parts of ‘Love Island’. People who watch this show are adding to the viewing figures of a show that make some young people feel that it’s okay to make a woman feel crap about herself simply because she’s slept with what might be considered ‘lots’ of men.

People (usually people who watch the show with the same unbridled glee as I watched last year’s series) will tell me that simply not watching it won’t make a difference. That kids are watching it and therefore as a teacher it’s my moral obligation to watch it so I can support the kids. Well, the only reason kids are watching it, is because it’s there to be watched. The fact is, I can’t reliably call myself a feminist or a person committed to equality and give this show viewing figures. The simple fact is that if nobody watches this show, the show gets cut. I want this show cut.

Many teachers, aggrieved by my so-called ‘virtue signalling’ have explained that the show provides many opportunities to discuss the issues I’ve mentioned above, with students. Opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have arisen. For me, that’s like bringing someone off the street into assembly, beating them to a bloody pulp with a baseball bat, and saying, ‘Right kids. Let’s discuss violence.’ We do not need to subject kids to racism, sexism, and psychological bullying in order to discuss with them, racism, sexism, and psychological bullying.

I’m also aware that I’m full of contradictions. But this is my feminism. I accept that it may be different to yours.

Perhaps I am virtue-signalling. Perhaps I’m simply jealous that this year, I no longer get to gawp over a load of good-looking people arguing and kissing. Or, perhaps, I’m just a little bit right.

*The original title of this blog post had ‘teachers’ rather than ‘people’. I quickly realised that this was little more than clickbait wankery and so have changed it. Teachers are people. This isn’t a teacher problem; it’s a people problem.


#50Allusions Booklet.

I’ve harped on about the importance of allusions for ages. Work by Doug Wise surpasses my own in this field – I recommend you have a read of these here.

Next year, in my department, it is my intention that all students will receive a homework booklet that details 50 stories, idioms, or historical, cultural or religious events that are commonly referred to-or alluded to– in the mainstream media, other literary texts, or every day adult conversation.

My reasoning is two-fold. Firstly, an understanding of these allusions imbues students with a greater sense of cultural capital. However, the primary rationale behind my creation of this booklet is the improvement of children’s literacy. Without an understanding of the basic allusions whose understanding adults take for granted, meaning totally escapes students who have no understanding of where this reference has come from.

For example, if an adult tells a child, ‘You should try being a good Samaritan’, and the child has no idea about the Good Samaritan story, then they won’t be able to take that adult’s advice.

I’m thrilled that many Twitter users have volunteered their time and effort to contribute entries to this book. Here’s a step by step guide on how to contribute:

1. Let me know on Twitter, that you want to contribute, preferably using the hashtag #50allusions, and I’ll tell you what I’d like (I have a list), or I might ask you to suggest some.

2. Go away, and using one of the dropbox files (link below) that have been used already, create a one-page entry.

3. When it’s finished, send me a DM to let me know that you’ve finished, and I’ll send you my personal email address so you can send it my way. I’ll then make it available on Dropbox for all.

I will edit all entries. I will also write the question sections for the final booklet, as I have a very specific idea of how I want the final booklet to look. Of course, you are free to adapt as you see fit for your own context.

Please bear in mind that information sheets should help students to understand different aspects of this allusion. It’s also important that we explain to students, or give examples of, how these allusions are used in every day life. I’m also trying to encourage wider reading of non-fiction texts so any opportunities to provide source materials would be great.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: In contributing to this project you accept that what you send to me can be adapted for my final booklet-which I will make available online- by me. You will have no ownership rights over what you send and will not receive any payment for doing so. You accept that your contribution will be part of a community project, free from any financial interests, intended to improve the education of students and ease teacher workload.

Link to Dropbox file:

The Surprise

The sausage rolls were burnt, but they would do. Stuart, standing back and observing the buffet, smoothed down his ‘Don’t Blame the Cook’ apron and smiled proudly. The mini Yorkshire puddings, filled with creamed horseradish butter and topped with a slither of 32-day aged rare roast beef, were a triumph. And yet, they didn’t detract from the Victoria Sponge, made from his mother’s own recipe, which was the centrepiece of the table, lovingly dusted with icing sugar and punctured with candles that spelt out: ‘Happy 50th Birthday Janet.’ The Cuckoo clock cuckooed four o’clock, so Stuart headed upstairs to change into the suit he’d collected from the dry-cleaners early that morning. The guests would be here soon.

As he glided down the stairs to meet the first guests, Stuart grinned. He’d always stayed away from surprises-they were too messy, too fussy, too wonky-but actually, he now realised he needn’t have worried. His meticulous planning meant that Janet’s surprise party was going to be, he was sure, the talk of the neighbourhood for years to come. The beaming smiles on the faces of the guests-Sue and Alan from the Tennis club, Colin and David from next door, Jason and Beatrice who they’d met on the cote’D’Azur fifteen years ago- as they turned up, laden with bottles of wine and expensive candles, only served to confirm that this would be a surprise party Janet would never forget. Stuart felt as though he had done her proud.

The final guest- Lucy from the bookshop- arrived at 4.32pm. Stuart frowned slightly as he drew a perfectly straight line through ‘Last guest arrival: 4.30pm’ in his notebook, but turned his frown upside down (he loved saying that to the children) as he saw to the next task on his list: Champagne and hiding places. One by one, couple by couple, guests were handed a chilled glass of Champagne (never Prosecco) and then directed to a hiding-place specially chosen by Stuart beforehand. Sue’s recent weight gain meant that she needed lots of space-she went behind the curtains. Beatrice, a recovering alcoholic, was directed to behind the door, well away from the reaches of the champagne, chilling in ice buckets on the table under which Colin and David crouched excitedly.

It was five minutes to five. Janet would be home, as she had been for the past thirty years, at exactly five ‘o’clock. She’d be tired and irritable-as she was getting older, the commute to and from the city was becoming increasingly wearing, but he’d meet her at the door, serene smile on show, hand her a gin and tonic, before kissing her and leading her into the living room where he would rub her feet.

Before getting into his hiding place behind the corner sofa, Stuart made one final check that the guests were perfectly hidden. He saw Sue’s fingers, poking out from behind the curtain and his mind flashed back to the way those fingers felt gripping the hair of his chest two weeks previously, at a hotel in Bath. A reassuring smile from Lucy, as she poked her head up from behind the easy chair made his heart beat: he’d have to feel those lips against his again soon. He smiled knowingly as he saw Beatrice’s tanned arm bent out from behind the door. He gently pushed it back out of view and pressing it affectionately as he did so. She winked back at him and made an obscene gesture her husband wouldn’t have understood.

Janet had found out about the surprise party two weeks before- Sue had blurted it out clumsily during their Sunday morning yoga class. Outside, she strode up the garden path. In her left hand she clutched at photographs she’d been sent that morning from a Private Investigator she’d found online. Slowly and deliberately, she laid each of the photographs out on the doorstep: Stuart leaving a sushi restaurant with Beatrice; Stuart passionately embracing Lucy in the window of a Winchester hotel room; Stuart laying his head on Sue’s shoulders at a race meeting in Somerset.

Happy with the door-step collage of her husband’s infidelity, Janet walked back to the car and fetched a container. Back at the door step, she emptied petrol onto the photographs and sloshed the remainder against the bottom of the oak door Stuart had begged her to buy back in 1989. She took a box of matches from her pocket, lit a match and threw it onto the photographs. Only when the flames began to lick at the door did she let out a snigger.

“Surprise”, she muttered.

Militant Tenderness: Modelling Positive Behaviours in Boys.

A primary school teacher recently got in touch to tell me that he spent yesterday ‘dealing with five 10 year olds hell bent on proving their masculinity’ because one of these boys had questioned another’s masculine credentials. This same teacher went on to explain that these boys ‘can’t occupy themselves anymore with anything that isn’t fighting.’

It’s a depressing state of affairs, and whilst I’m not sure where I stand on the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’, I certainly agree that there is a problem with certain elements of masculinity as a construct. Namely, the way it can point large numbers of men towards a life of physical and sexual violence, aggressive posturing and emotional repression.

Although I’m sceptical of ‘toxic masculinity’ as a phrase, one phrase I do like is ‘tender masculinity’ as discussed in this excellent blog post by Terra Loire. According to Loire, Tender Masculinity is ‘a necessary antidote to our media portrayals of men’ as either hyper-macho meatheads or incompetent buffoons. Loire suggests that if you ask the following questions of a man, and can answer in the affirmative, then he embodies tender masculinity:

• Is he invested in all of his relationships, not just romantic ones?

• Does he express his emotions in a healthy way?

• Is self-awareness a concept he’s comfortable with?

• Does he commit to personal growth?

• Are boundaries something he is aware of and respects?

• Is he unafraid of male intimacy — for instance, can he express affection for male friends without making a gay joke?

Lots of people contact me regularly and ask for advice on how they can combat what they deem to be ‘toxic masculinity’. My answer is this: ‘Militant Tenderness’. Militant tenderness refers to the act of relentlessly and doggedly modelling a masculinity which values kindness, vulnerability and love over the power, violence, and emotional mutism which makes up the toxic masculinity that the media-in all its forms-seems so determined to instill amongst our young people.

So, what does militant tenderness look like? In my classroom it looks like this:

1. Relentless politeness at all times, wherever possible.

I always say please and thank you, at all times. When people answer the register, “Yes Sir”, I say “Thank You.” When guests come and observe my lessons, I thank them for visiting as they leave. When a child thanks me at the end of the lesson, I’ll say, “Thanks for saying thanks! It means a lot.” Because it does mean a lot. Saying please and thank you shows that you are grateful for everything; that you don’t take anything for granted and that you don’t feel entitled. One of the problems of toxic masculinity is misguided feelings of entitlement. By saying please and thank you, as often as the opportunity presents itself to do so, I am showing boys that I respect people, and I value their respect for me. Nothing is assumed. I am owed nothing because I am a man. I am owed something because I am kind.

2. Relentless honesty, at all times, wherever possible.

I try to be as honest as I can with students when it comes to my emotions. Whilst I would never discuss my personal life in any depth, I will openly discuss the feelings and emotions that arise in the context of what’s being studied or discussed in the classroom. If a poem makes me very sad, I’ll tell the class. If a kid makes me look at something in a new and exciting way, I’ll express my childish delight. And, if a kid does a piece of work that’s absolutely mind-blowing, to the point where it makes my heart swell with pride, and my eyes with tears, I’ll acknowledge that fact, frankly and openly. In fact, I’ll intentionally draw the class’s attention to it. I’ll say: “That’s making me well up with pride, that”, and face them, smiling and watery eyed.

I’ll be open about the way topics affect me and if appropriate, I’ll attempt to explain why they affect me that way. A good exemplification of this is when I read the ending of ‘Of Mice and Men.’ Inevitably, as I read the final pages, my voice will falter and waiver with emotion. I don’t try to hide this fact and when the kids notice it, and ask me why I am so affected by the ending of the book I’ll explain to them that I see in Lennie and George, the closeness I feel to my brothers and this informs my emotional response to the end of the novel.

Sometimes honesty can be something as simple as, ‘I like your haircut Jack’, or ‘Ah, it’s good to see you lot this morning.’ The fact is, as a teacher, I need to show my students that it’s okay for a man to feel and to want to express those feelings. Do this whenever you can.

3. Relentless critique of negative aspects of masculinity

Often, I’ll take the time out to poke light-hearted fun at masculine behaviours I believe to be undesirable. Humour comes in handy here. I’ve got a number of go-to routines with this one, but here’s an example the kids always laugh along with.

Me: Nice haircut Jack

Jack: Thanks

Me: Sorry Jack. Didn’t mean to embarrass you. Number one rule of teacher training is ‘never draw attention to a kid by complimenting them’. Thing is Jack, I’ve got no hair, and you have, and I like your haircut. So I’m going to compliment you, right? Why wouldn’t I? Isn’t it weird how some men can’t ever just compliment each other? Last week, I bought a new jacket. And I went to meet my friends in a place that definitely wasn’t a pub, and as I’m standing there with me mates, enjoying a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage, I realise that all my mates are looking at me jacket. And I’m looking at them looking at me jacket. And not one of ‘em says anything! I know they like my jacket. I know they think I look good in my jacket- I mean, how could they not? But not one of them says anything! So we’re in this ridiculous situation where they know that I know that they know how good I look and we all just stand there not saying anything. Until someone breaks the silence with “So…er…football.” I’ve never understood it! If there’s the opportunity to compliment somebody, compliment them! Jeeez….

It makes me cringe, seeing this written out. But the fact is, once upon a time, this was off the cuff. But after seeing the boys in that class agree with me, and the positive impact it had on the way that it had on their behaviour (they began to actually be nice to each other openly), it became a story I fine-tuned and worked on. Find your opportunities to critique masculinity, come up with a personal story of your own to which the kids can relate, and perfect it.

My critique of masculinity isn’t always so light-hearted. At times there are situations when something needs to be seriously addressed. This year, I took considerable time to criticise Mercutio and Tybalt’s masculine posturing, that results in both their deaths.

I’ve also scrutinised-and expressed my outright disgust- at the following passage from A Christmas Carol:

She was very pretty: exceedingly pretty. With a dimpled, surprised-looking, capital face; a ripe little mouth, that seemed made to be kissed–as no doubt it was; all kinds of good little dots about her chin, that melted into one another when she laughed; and the sunniest pair of eyes you ever saw in any little creature’s head.

And this one from Gerald Croft in An Inspector Calls:

She was very pretty…She looked young and fresh and charming

The Dickens case is an interesting one. It demonstrates that all men, however great, are products of a sexist masculinity that needs to be interrogated. What’s key is that students see me – a man- interrogate it.

On the flipside, I have also spent considerable time praising Romeo for his emotional honesty, something which I have written about here. I’m sure that many books, at primary school, contain many outdated masculine stereotypes, but also examples of a new kind of masculinity which is tender. Criticise the former, and praise the latter relentlessly. Constantly.

4. Relentless attention to the language I’m using.

There was probably a time when the anecdotes and questions I used to illuminate a concept were heteronormative. For example, in a lesson on love poetry, I might have asked, “Why might a man write his girlfriend a sonnet?” Now, for everytime I’ll ask that question, I’ll ask another that is homonormative. For example, “Why might a man write his boyfriend a sonnet?”

One of the many foundations upon which toxic masculinity is built upon is homophobia. I want to remove that foundation and I can only do that by chipping away at it as often as possible. Everytime I use homonormative pronouns in the classroom, I am not only chipping away at normalised homophobia, but also demonstrating that I am a man who is tolerant and empathic.

5. Relentless acknowledgement of my own faults.

There are times when I’ve made mistakes and reprimanded a child who didn’t deserve it. There are also times when I’ve found myself engaged in childish tit-for-tat arguments with a student. Every time I falter in this way, I hold my hands up and admit my wrong-doing. If I’ve told a kid off, and been a little too harsh, I’ll apologise to them, directly. If the student was unfairly admonished in front of the whole class, then I’ll apologise to that student in front of the whole class. Boys need to see that men can get it wrong sometimes. But more than this, they need to see that it’s okay to say sorry because saying sorry means I care about people’s feelings.

6. Relentless attention to negative masculine behaviours

It’s tiring at times, but necessary. Every single time a student uses the word ‘gay’ pejoratively; every time a student comments negatively about the way a woman looks; every time a student mocks another student for exhibiting behaviours he considers to be feminine and therefore undesirable. I call them out on it. Relentlessly.

8 Things School INSET can learn from Edu-Conferences

INSET days are often dreadful. An over-paid consultant, who knows nothing about you, your school or teaching for that matter, comes in and tells you how brilliant he or she thinks you all are, before going on to tell you lots and lots and lots about what they do and a little bit about what you should be doing. Then, later on, you are split into groups where you are forced to work with staff you don’t normally work with (Note-there’s normally a good reason for that) as you do some useless mind-mapping exercise in which you come up with ideas about ‘engaging students’ or, even worse, ‘behaviour strategies.’

I know all this because teachers are keen to vocalise their disdain for the INSET they are provided with, in the form of tortured scribblings (scrawled across the back of print-out of a presentation on last year’s progress data), or in the form of venomous rants offered up on the way to the free ham sandwiches.

And yet, in spite of the vitriol invoked by school-centred INSET days, teachers up and down the country are taking the time out of their weekends to attend educational conferences such as #researchED, #TLT, #SASFE, and #NorthernRocks on a Saturday. And they’re not even being paid for it. Nor offered days off in lieu. So, what is it that has teachers attending these conferences in droves when they could be with their kids, or at the football, or in the pub? And what can schools learn from these conferences to improve their INSET provision? Funny you should ask. Because I’ve been thinking about it…

1. Provide Refreshments

It needn’t be anything fancy, but tea, coffee, and slightly more croissants than you think you’ll need will go a long way to making staff feel positive about the day ahead. Teachers like free stuff. Setting them up with a nice breakfast (it’s croissants, so call it ‘continental’) and they’ll feel valued and satisfied. Their brains will be well fuelled and ready to go too.

2. Get a Decent Keynote

If you can help it, don’t spend money on an external speaker. After all, you’ve got a lot of croissants to buy. You might be able to find a big shot edu-tweeter who’ll do it for free (they can be clever and generous, that lot), but failing that, look to your own staff. I’m absolutely dumbfounded by the amount of INSET days in which school leaders look to external ‘expert’ speakers, whilst completely neglecting the expertise of their own staff. In fact, it’s this neglect that goes some way to explaining why INSET provision is so dire: if school leaders don’t engage with the expertise of those at the chalk face, how can they even expect to develop this expertise adequately?

The keynote speech should be informative, research informed and controversial. Wry comments about educational policy always go down well. And, when it comes to looking to someone to be the keynote speaker…

3. Take a chance on someone.

A school that uses teachers on the ground to run their INSET days, rather than the usual members of SLT, makes a powerful statement: ‘This INSET is for you. What you say, think, and do, in our school matters more than anything else.’ There may be someone in Maths who’s an expert in memory; someone in Science who knows loads about setting; someone in DT who can bang on for days about dual-coding. Use these people. School leaders should put time into developing these people, who may be nervous, shy, or even reluctant, as speakers. Show them that you value what they have to say, by helping them to say it.

4. Offer a range of optional sessions.

Giving teachers options will give them the satisfaction that autonomy brings. Giving teachers the volition to choose their own sessions means that they can take control over their own development. It also means they’re less likely to feel that they’ve been subjected to endure training which has little relevance to them. I think it’s reasonable to assume that many schools can afford to run a model that offers 3 sets of 2 sessions in a day. Sessions should cover a range of topics. Try not to make sessions too school or class specific. A lot of the value in Saturday edu-conferences comes from the fact that teachers are required to think about how what they’ve heard might have to be adapted to their own context. After all, ‘memory is the residue of thought’ (see next point) and teachers who are made to think about the sessions they’ve been to, will remember what they’ve heard, for longer.

5. Include the ‘memory is the residue of thought’ quotation from Daniel Willingham in at least one of the presentations.

6. Provide loads of breaks

Human capacity for attention is limited, and whilst teacher’s often take this into account when catering for students, rarely is it applied to themselves. I’ve sat through INSET sessions lasting two hours, without a break. At education conferences loads of time is put aside to give people the time they need to pee, poo, and ponder. Schools should afford staff this time, too.

7. Reject formality.

One of the reasons education conferences are so brilliant, is that they reject the stuffy formality that is often the feature of school INSET days. Conferences like #researchEd, #TLT and #SASFE encourage staff to respond to talks on Twitter as they happen using ‘the hashtag.’ Talk hashtags encourage delegates to engage with the material and also provide speaker’s with useful feedback, and new arguments to consider. They also enable the conversation to continue beyond the session, which is important as often, questions arise, long after the valuable Q and A session.

At #southernrocks18 I was impressed by the organisers’ insistence that delegates move between sessions as and when they see fit. Often, when two sessions run alongside each other, delegates relish the opportunity of switching between the two, half-way through, without worrying about causing offence. Of course, speakers have to buy into this, but actually, particularly when speakers are nervous, this informal approach can be welcome.

8.Go to the pub afterwards

The best conference round ups don’t happen in the main hall. They happen in places where alcohol is served. A visit to the pub allows speakers to decompress, and delegates to ask questions they previously felt too shy to ask. And a pint is always nice after an excellent day’s work.