A Compendium of Explanations

Solid explanations are the foundations of teaching. And yet, rarely do I talk with other teachers about how they explain tricky-or even simple- literary and linguistic concepts. And it’s to the detriment of my students. Take Onomatopoeia for example. Here’s my explanation of it:

It’s where words sound like what they describe. You know? Bang? It’s word that describes a sound and the word sounds like that sound?

Perplexed looks all round.

So, in this post, I will begin to compile a list of explanations, mini-narratives and anecdotes that teachers all over the land use to help elucidate and illuminate those slippery concepts that underpin English teaching. I’ll start us off:


  • A beautifully simplistic explanation of metaphor, that may appeal to the more logical students in the room, runs thus: X = Y (via @PositivTeacha)


  • Rember to spell it with ‘Ono-Mari-peeing on everyone is awful.’
  • And then read this: http://buff.ly/2f9hWXQ


  • If anybody has ever told you rhetorical questions don’t require an answer, they were lying to you. Every question requires an answer; otherwise, why ask them? I prefer to think of rhetorical questions as questions designed to make someone think of an answer  rather than give it literally. For example, if you tell me the dog has eaten your homework and I ask, “Do I look stupid to you?”, my intention isn’t that you reply “Yes.” Rather, I want you to think “Er…actually that does seem a bit lame. Perhaps I should tell the truth here.” Or take this example: if you walk past a bus stop and there’s a poster asking, HAVE YOU HAD YOUR SNICKERS TODAY?, you’re not expected to rush home and bang out an email or a letter to the Snickers factory explaining “No, sorry”, or “Yes, it was lovely thanks.” But, you are expected to think “I haven’t- maybe I should buy one” or “Yes and it was lovely. I should buy one more.” (via @PositivTeacha)


  •  Topic- what’s the poem about? Theme – what’s the poem *really* about? (via @MrStavely)
  •  if a story or novel was talking to you, what subjects would it be covering or discussing? (Via @msfrielvarndean)

Your turn. Any concept you like!

To put forward an explanation for this post, please add to the comments section, or get in touch via Twitter at @positivteacha

Teachers Awards: Who’s Missing Out?

My attendance at a recent Year 11 Leavers’ Assembly prompted me to compose the following tweet earlier this week:

Any leavers’ assemblies, anywhere, giving awards to teachers for teaching stuff? Or is it the pastoral efforts that get all the Milk Tray?

This characteristically cynical tweet from me, @PositivTeacha (it was never meant to be ironic), was driven by the realisation that, at my school, it was only the teachers who’d made pastoral impact to students’ well-being that received all the plaudits,  all the candles and and all the Bayliss and Harding.

Awards were given to form tutors for continued support in building community spirit within form groups, and across the year group. One particularly philanthropic teacher was rightly awarded for striving to provide continued support to students going through difficult times. Of course, the pastoral Head of Year was also commended for her work supporting a year group who had experienced a number of difficulties over the course of their 5 years at Secondary School. One teacher even got an award for organising the Year Book.

All of these awards were duly deserved (okay-not the Year Book one) and the public acknowledgement of these teachers’ efforts was a gesture that, whilst kind, couldn’t come close to repaying the emotional cost to the teachers who provided this excellent-and vital- support to students.


I’ve never lent emotional support to a child. Not really. I’ve gone to Heads of Year to report suspicions and whatnot, but I’ve never been comfortable with the Mother Teresa thing. It’s just not me. And, as such, I was never going to receive any award at this assembly.

Neither is Mr Smith.

Mr Smith is frustrated at the fact that CPD always has a pastoral focus. Because of this, he has to take time out of his own schedule-time that could be spent with his own kids-to brush up on his subject knowledge. Last year, he spent three weekends reading ‘Grapes of Wrath’ just so he could teach the context ‘Of Mice and Men’ better than he did the year before.

Mrs Jones isn’t getting an award either.

She had to cancel her private tutoring just so she could run school intervention sessions on the iGCSE for students on a C/D borderline. It took her eight hours of after school sessions and cost her £240.

Mr Harris didn’t sacrifice anything. No sob stories here. He just read books. He read books about learning and books about English teaching and books about Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Narrative Frameworks, day in, day out, just so he could teach better. He spoke to people about what he’d read and even when they rolled their eyes, he kept speaking about the things he’d read about.  He kept speaking because he wanted the kids to learn more. He didn’t care whether the kids were going through problems at home, or if they were questioning their sexuality, or if they were experimenting with drugs. All he cared was that all students felt smarter, after meeting him, than they did before they met him.

Pastoral support is vital for the well-being of students and teachers who provide pastoral support to students deserve  public acknowledgement of their efforts. But they do get paid for it. It is their job. So why do teachers not get the plaudits they deserve too?





Positive Teacher?

When I first set up my ‘Teacher Twitter’ handle (?) about two years ago, I opted for the name ‘@PositivTeacha‘, the idea being that-in reaction to the startling amount of negativity which seems to be endemic in teaching-I’d post a daily Tweet that would serve as a reminder to me and my followers (all 6 of them)  as to why we do the job we do.

Here’s a selection of my  first tweets:


Watched yr8 talent show last week. Now, when I hear Jessie J on the radio, instead of ripping my ear drums out with bare hands, I smile.

Only 2 girls turned up for 1st day of KS4 writing club today. That’s 2 new people who’ll laugh at my jokes out of politeness. Still counts.

Helped a year 12 student to come up with an idea for her Media Studies coursework. The idea was a bit shit; now it’s a bit good.

Student got a D in an essay last week. Told her how to improve. Made her rewrite. She complained. Rewrite: A grade.

Playground duty today: played keepie uppies using some litter with the ‘naughty’ Year 9 boys. Had fun. Smiling, the loser put litter in bin. 

Now, whilst there’s a sunny outlook that underlines all these tweets, it’s fair to say that the 675 I’ve posted since these initial 5, haven’t necessarily been so overtly positive. Why? It’s not because I’ve become miserable (I always swore to myself that I’d never be the teacher that counts down to the holidays and I’ve remained true to that). And my tweets aren’t doom-laden. However, they are:

  • Sarcastic
  • Wittily Sardonic (thanks @nataliehscott)
  • Cynical
  • Stupid
  • Nonsensical
  • Critical

Why has this happened? I think it’s simply because I’ve become more aware of the complexities of learning and how children should or shouldn’t be taught. And a lot of education is full of a lot of shit.

Anyway, the other morning I was trying to ingratiate myself with the Twitterati by intruding on somebody else’s conversation and Tom Bennett, in response to a sycophantic, but sincere,  comment in which I praised an article of his replied, ‘Wow. You really ARE positive.’ And then I remembered: @PositivTeacha. I’d genuinely forgotten that that was the Twitter handle (?) I’d signed up with all those years previously.

I’m rambling. And I want to be positive. So here’s three quite specific things that have made me feel good, so far, this year.


David is a Year 10 student who, in National Curriculum levels, is probably still, after 3 and a bit years of solid education, intervention and support, is working at a 3a/4c. He struggles with writing, and reading, and speaking. And yet, in spite of this he remains, the most enthusiastic, the most resilient, and the funniest student I’ve ever met.  His sheer enthusiasm for any subject is nothing short of inspiring. On school trips, he’s not interested in knowing whether there’s a Nandos nearby, or if we can stop off to get sweets. Concerning himself with trivial matters such as these would only potentially get in the way of him finding out, from the tour guide,  how Shakespeare plays were performed in the 16th century, or of him hearing the line he’s heard so many times in class, being delivered by a real-life actor in a real-life theatre on a real-life stage. Learning matters for David.

Because of David’s lower ability, a hormone deficiency that renders him less physically mature than the other boys who tower above him, and some quite severe speech difficulties,  he does not have many friends his own age. That’s not to say he’s not loved by students in the school; he is. In a rather touching (although occasionally condescending) way, students clamour to be high-fived by him as he walks past them in the corridor. However, probably because of all the support stuctures he’s had in place over the years,  David simply seems to be more comfortable in the company of adults. He’s often seen chatting with the caretakers, and all the dinner staff, in a school of over 2000 students, know him by name. Everyone knows him by name.

This term, and for the first time in his life, David read a book, from front to back, for pleasure. Knowing his predilection for all things Super-Hero, it was not an accident that, upon him visiting me for one of our regular chats on ‘What would you do if you could travel through time’, David found me flicking through a brand new copy of Marvel’s graphic novel, ‘Civil War.’

“What’s that?” he asked. Hook, line and sinker. It took him two months to read it, and my brand new copy of one of my favourite graphic novels now looks like it was chewed up and spat out, as well as read, but David read. What’s more, he wants to read more. And that was me that did that.

A New Approach to Persuasive Writing.

Teaching persuasive writing to Year 11 used to go like this for me.

  1. Teach AFOREST (Anecdote, Fact, Opinion, Rhetorical Questions, Emotive Language, Statistics, Tricolon).
  2. Show students old exam question
  3. Get students to come up with 6 reasons for or against argument laid out in question
  4. Get students to write essay-remind them to whack in some AFOREST every now and again.

Awful. Just awful. But now, and I’ll go into this in more detail in a later post,  I’ve completely changed the way I get students to write persuasively.

My inspiration has been Sam Leith’s ‘You Talkin to Me?’ and Mark Forsyth’s ‘Elements of Eloquence.’  The books, which deal with the art of rhetoric as their subject, have revolutionised the way I teach persuasive writing.

The results have been better structured, more mature, more interesting pieces of work from my Year 11s. And that was me that did that.


Arnold is the (made up) name of a student I teach. He’s a pleasant student who tries hard and smiles a lot because he’s polite and because he enjoys my lessons. About four weeks ago, Arnold stopped smiling. I picked up on it straight away and at the end of the lesson,  I asked him if he was OK. Arnold told me he couldn’t talk about it because he’d cry if he did and he didn’t want me to see him cry. Sensing his embarrassment, I told him that there are people he can speak to if he wants, and he nodded. I asked him if he wanted me to mention anything to his Head of Year and he said, “no.” Assuming Arnold’s sadness was nothing more than a schoolboy bust-up or an ‘off-day’, I made the decision not to tell his Head of Year unless his sadness persisted.

And sure enough, next lesson, Arnold was fine. In fact, Arnold was back to his usual self for a week or so. But then he was sad again. This time I told Arnold that I had to make a decision, as an adult and someone who was responsible for his well-being. I told him I was worried about him and that I would be speaking to his Head of Year.

His Head of Year had never had to speak to Arnold about any pastoral issues in five years. She was surprised to hear my concerns: “But he’s always smiling isn’t he?” Turns out, no. Arnold isn’t always smiling at all. Recently there have been problems at home and many of his friends are experiencing problems in their home lives too. Arnold is always there to support his friends; they love that he’s always smiling. Problem is, with all the stress at home, and all the problems his friends are having, nobody really has the time to smile at Arnold. And this upsets him. A lot.

Arnold has been to a councillor now and it turns out he might have a few serious issues he’s going to need to work out himself too.A doctor is involved. The other day,  I received an email from Arnold that said, ‘Thanks for your help. I wouldn’t have said anything to anyone so I appreciate what you did Sir. I hope it’s not going to be awkward in English now.’ That last bit is heartbreaking. Of course it isn’t awkward in English now. I laugh and joke with Arnold just like I always have and he’s smiling a lot more than he has been recently. And that was me that did that.

Disclaimer: ‘And that was me that did that.’ Yes, I know it’s not all about me. Yes, I know I’m not the only one that impacts these pupils’ lives. But I DO, do a lot and I SHOULD be proud of that fact. After all, it’s so I could do a lot that made me become a teacher in the first place.