Dear Boys

Dear Boys,

It strikes me that some of you need some guidance and advice. Whilst I’ve split my guidance and advice into sections for your convenience, I’d suggest you read everything in order to have the full benefit of my boyish experience.

 

FIGHTING

I am not going to lie to you and tell you that walking away from a fight and being the ‘bigger man’ will make you feel good. Because it won’t. In fact, in my 31 years of experience, walking away makes you feel weak and ashamed. This is because we live in a sexist society which places too high a value on physical strength as a sign of maleness. Walking away means you’re less of a man, and for some of you, becoming a man is all you want to do.

And yet.

Walking away may save your life. Being punched hurts. Sometimes, being punched kills. I’m always reminded of a story in which two boys in Year 9 met at a park to have a fight. One of the boys got punched, cracked his head on the pavement and died. Now the other kid is doing time. That’s two un-lived lives.

I’ll say it once more, because it’s important. Walking away may not make you feel good, but it could save your life.

SEX

It is never okay to call a female a slut, slag, or a tart just because she might be more sexually experienced than you are. People might think that ‘might’ is the key word here but, actually, whether or not a female is sexually experienced is irrelevant so long as she is of appropriate legal age. Nor does it matter how sexually experienced a female is so long as she is of appropriate legal age. The fact is, women think about,  want, and have sex just as often-or as little as often-as you do. Whether a female has slept with a hundred people, only one, or maybe two, all this points to the fact she’s human, just like you.

It’s not okay to joke about rape. Nor should it be used as a verb as part of your banter or vernacular. Rape, when a man is the rapist and a female is the victim, is the forced insertion of a penis into the vagina of a girl who has never, ever deserved it. That’s what rape is.  It’s not a verb for getting beat 15-0 at FIFA like your mate did.

I hear a surprising number of you use the word ‘paedo’, or ‘paedophile’ incorrectly. So let’s be clear: Paedophiles are adults who have sex with children under the age of consent. That is sixteen years old.

16 years old.

Paedophiles are not your mate in Year 9 who fancies Sophie in Year 8, nor are they the teacher that smiles at you when he or she sees you at the school gate. Bandying around terms like ‘paedophile’, ‘perv’ and ‘stalker’ only serve to normalise and trivialise these terms, and paedophiles and perverts and stalkers should never be normal, anywhere, ever.

Whilst, we’re on the topic, staring like a love-sick fool at someone you ‘fancy’ doesn’t automatically make you a ‘perv’. However, if your staring is making another person feel uncomfortable, stop it. Now.  And also, the fact that you once sent a clumsily worded Facebook message declaring your undying affections to someone doesn’t make you a ‘stalker’, either.People use terms like this loosely and if anyone ever calls you ‘paedo’, ‘perv’, or ‘stalker’ and you feel it is not fair, you should report it. It’s not acceptable.

KINDNESS

Chivalry is not sexist; it’s kind. Lift stuff and open doors wherever you can. If people object, don’t get angry; apologise and know that you were only trying to be kind.
GENDER

Jokes about the size of a man’s penis are not okay. Phrases like ‘Size Matters’ and ‘You know what big feet means don’t you?’ all contribute to the idea that maleness is achieved simply by having a big penis. The fact that these phrases are stitched across novelty t shirts like gore, or declared with a wink by girls who watch too much Loose Women, does not make them acceptable. They are sexist. Do not tolerate them.

Being a man does not make you stupid, but daytime TV will try to tell you otherwise. Adverts abound with clownish buffoons whose domestic ability is limited to burning, staining, and failing. The sad irony is that your belief in these gender stereotypes will only help big businesses peddle their products to women, which in turn reinforces the sexist notion that the domestic sphere is the province of the female. Which it isn’t.

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.

P.S.

Be kind.

Speak. Always Speak.

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8 Mistakes we make about Boys and English

Occasionallysome of us get things wrong with boys. Here’s my thoughts, based entirely on my own experience and absolutely nothing else, on the mistakes some English teachers make with boys.

  1. Assume all boys love war poetry.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard English Teachers  say things like “I’ve got a boy-heavy class so I’ll just do loads of war poetry. They love that.” Well guess what; that’s not always true. In fact, rather than ‘loving’ war,  for most boys, war is a totally abstract concept that is no more relatable for boys than the experience of riding a unicorn, whilst baking a cake, in a field of pink roses is for girls.

And yes, boys do play computer games centered around warfare like ‘Call of Duty’. But this means nothing; I grew up with Super Mario and that never made me want to read poems about plumbing, or become a plumber for that matter.

So, my advice here is this: show boys war poetry; they need to engage with war as a concept. But if you want them to really engage with poetry, show them poems about the quotidian events that they can relate to. Like falling in love, arguing with family members, and hating shit.

2. Teaching Macbeth instead of Romeo and Juliet for boy-heavy classes. 

Macbeth’s a great play and should be taught for reasons based on its own merit. But it should never be taught because somebody has assumed boys won’t be able to relate to Romeo and Juliet. And people do wrongly assume that a group of teenage boys could never relate to a character who is a) a teenage boy who  b) falls in love with someone he shouldn’t and c) defies his parent’s wishes, before d) messing it all up and wanting to die such is the excruciating emotional pain he is feeling. Yeah, they’d never relate to that.

3. Hark on about how ‘wet’ Romeo is. 

He kills a bloke. He ain’t wet.

4. Miss Opportunities to Discuss Masculinity.

Another A-Level language lesson on gender with same old sexist Victorian etiquette guides on how women should behave and 1950’s guides to being the perfect housewife. Again, worthy of study, but can we please look at works of fiction-and non-fiction- that perpetuate negative and damaging stereotypes of masculinity. Like anything written by the female newspaper columnists who write for that one newspaper we all love so much.

Ask questions about portrayals of masculinity in fiction texts. Why do you think the men on the ranch think it’s okay to call Curley’s wife a tart? Isn’t Gatsby actually a little bit great? And don’t you feel that Rochester is a victim of  19th century expectations of masculinity?

5. Assume all boys love competition.

Competition is great for the people that win competitions. And generally, the experience of winning a competition is limited to one person. That is, the competition winner. Last place feels really shite. Especially if you’re the kid that’s always last. And there’s always an always last kid. So think carefully about this. Competition’s are worthy and kids need to know how it feels to win and lose. But not every single task needs to be an episode of The Generation Game. Sometimes boys just want to chill and get along with everybody.

6. Assume boys can’t discuss emotions. 

In my experience, the reason boys struggle to discuss their emotions is because people keep telling them they struggle with discussing their emotions. So stop pouring scorn on all of those male protagonists who dare to reveal an inch of emotional feeling. It’s okay for Othello to be jealous; It’s okay for Jack and Ralph to be angry; it’s okay for Keats to mope. Men feel too. Acknowledge that fact and give your boys the opportunity to discuss/write about/read about their own emotions too.

7. Pour Scorn on Dead White Men

The literary canon is dominated by men. But that doesn’t mean those works are any less valid as a result. Encourage boys to engage with the canon positively. Reflect on its male dominance and challenge it with the works of female writers. But challenge doesn’t mean slag it off. The fact is, much of what exists within the canon is there, not because of its male authors, but primarily because of its brilliance. That should not be forgotten.

8. Assume all boys love football

Often the solution to the problem of getting boys to read: buy them a football book. Well, the problem here is this:

For many boys who love football, the last thing they want to do is read about football. Because reading about football is time that could be spent playing football. You’re better off treating boys as individuals with different and myriad interests. Speak to boys and find out about their own specific interests. And just because boys like playing football, it doesn’t mean they want to read about it too. For many boys-and girls- books are about escapism. Books about football only serve to immerse them in a world they already know. Perhaps these boys want to play football at breaktimes but fight dragons and fall in love whilst they read . Perhaps.

Update (03/05/18): I wrote this blog a couple of years ago. As I read it now, I wince at the aggressive tone in which it was written. I never delete old blog posts, even if I no longer agree with the content or if, as is the case with this one, I’m slightly embarrassed by the tone. This is because each blog post is a milestone on the long road of my thinking. And though some of those milestones are crumbling, they’re no less valid as a measure of that road. Anyways, I apologise for two things: 1) the aggressive tone of this blog post, which was clearly borne out of my frustration at what I was seeing at the time and 2) the clumsy milestone-Road metaphor.

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:

METAPHOR

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

ONOMATOPOEIA

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

RHETORICAL QUESTIONS

  • 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)

THEMES

  •  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

Shakespeare and Meaning from Mono-Syllabic Words. 

Coming from a lady who, four acts previously, proudly boasts about the ‘valour of [her] tongue’, the following lines from a Lady Macbeth, now in her pitiful descent into madness, are startling in their violent prosaicness:

Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?–Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.

(Act 5, scene 1)



Of the 56 words in this statement, 50 of them are mono-syllabic. That is, there are 50 words of just one syllable. Compare this to 56 words elsewhere in Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy, act 1 scene 7-a scene  in which Lady Macbeth is positively frightening in her chastisement of her husband:

We fail! 

But screw your courage to the sticking-place, 

And we’ll not fail. When Duncan is asleep,– 

Whereto the rather shall his day’s hard journey 

Soundly invite him, his two chamberlains 

Will I with wine and wassail so convince 

That memory, the warder of the brain, 

Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason

(Act 1, scene 7)

56 words again. Only this time, only 42 words are mono-syllabic. That’s 75% against 89% from act 5 scene 1. That’s a significant (but not the biggest) increase/decrease, depending on your stance, in the usage of mono-syllabic words. The fact is, in Act 5, overcome by guilt for her part in Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth has regressed to a child- like state in which vulnerability, fear, and guilt consume her. The increase in mono-syllabic splutterings reflects this.

Look at the following from Macduff, upon hearing of the slaughter of his ‘wife and babes’:

He has no children. All my pretty ones?

Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?

What, all my pretty chickens and their dam

At one fell swoop?

Choose 28 other words from Macduff elsewhere in the play and get your students to count the mono-syllabic words. Help them to explore for themselves,  Shakespeare’s genius in employing mono-syllabic words to heart-breaking effect. 

Marking PP work first: a sticking plaster for a headache. 

Marking has been getting a lot of attention recently. And rightly so. It’s a huge part of what we do. For many of us, it’s the only thing we feel we can control. After all, ticks on a page don’t dick about when we’re not looking at them.

In this blog post I want to offer a critique of a marking gimmick which, given the national picture on the underachievement of PP students, is becoming increasingly proliferate.

Many schools, in an attempt to ‘close the gap’ (ugh) between PP students and ‘the rest of the cohort’ (ugh again) are offering the following solution:

To help boost the attainment of PP pupils, ensure that, when marking, you mark PP students’ books first.

The reasoning is simple: As time spent marking increases, quality of marking decreases. Therefore, PP students whose books are marked first will get, presumably, more detailed, more accurate feedback.
Of course, this is toxic thinking. Such a policy is wrong for a number of reasons:

Most dangerously, it implicitly suggests that teachers are marking unfairly. It suggests that teachers aren’t intelligent enough to combat the dangers of marking fatigue by spacing their marking to avoid the inevitable decrease in marking quality. I’d suggest that any school Leader that offers this ‘solution’ up as a reasonable response to PP underachievement, would be better off addressing the issue of marking fatigue: Why are teachers marking work at the bottom of the pile less well than work at the top? Why aren’t these teachers aware of the dangers of marking fatigue? What can you do to help teachers adjust their marking practice to prevent this from happening?

Of course, and as I’ve written about here there is the issue of teacher prejudice. There is a very real possibility that teachers, who tend to be more middle class than working class, approach PP work with unconscious prejudices that result in lower grades for PP students. But as I have suggested before, it’s not marking that needs to be targeted; it’s teacher attitudes.

This gimmick also suggests that PP students are deserving of a better educational experience than those who aren’t. Quite simply, it says that PP students deserve a higher quality of marking than non-PP students.
Thirdly, it condones the calculated neglect of the work of non-PP students: “They’re at the bottom of the pile so their work won’t be marked as good as those at the top and that’s okay.” It’s not okay.

Finally, PP funding is allocated on the basis of socio-economic factors. The PP budget is not assigned to students on the basis of the quality of their marking. It’s like prescribing a sticking plaster for a headache. Rather than asking teachers to mark PP work first, schools would be better spent addressing or investigating the real issues behind PP under-achievement. And I would suspect that quality of marking isn’t one of them.

Okay, So You’ve Read it. Now what?

Life constantly serves to remind me that I’m nowhere near as clever as I’d like to be. Or, if I’m more frank, I’m nowhere near as clever as other people. And this gets to me.

Because of this, when selecting books to read, I try to avoid ‘pop-fiction’ at all costs.  In fact, when I think back to the most recent item of ‘pop-fiction’ I did read (Gone Girl), I do so with an acute sense of self-loathing.

I totally accept that my approach to reading is not for everybody; for some people, like when I watch cartoons or football or people, reading is a way to switch off. That’s fine. For me however, as an English teacher plagued with self-doubt, it’s absolutely imperative that I read books which make me feel smarter. It’s vanity in its purest sense but as far as I’m concerned, the upshot is that I may become a better teacher because of it. For me, the reading I do in my spare time is the greatest form of CPD.

I don’t know who tweeted it this summer, but someone wrote something along the lines of, ‘Okay, so you’ve had your amazing CPD session. Now what?’ With this in mind, I thought I’d tell you what I do with my CPD. That is, I want to tell you how I ensure that I glean something from the high-piled books that, alongside the coffee-rings and the coppers, adorn my bedside table like frayed skyscrapers.

Since the last day of the Summer term I have read the following, in this order:

  • How Fiction Works, James Wood
  • Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote
  • Rabbit, Run John Updike
  • East of Eden, John Steinbeck
  • Stoner, John Edward Williams

And this is what, once the last page has been turned and the book consigned to the shelf, I do with these books, in an effort to make me a better man and a better teacher.

How Fiction Works, James Wood

As I read this book, I took an iPhone note on two things that really struck me. These were:

  • Free Indirect Style
  • Metaphors that separate but then connect.

The free indirect style, for those who don’t know, is that subtle blending of authorial voice with that of the character. So the reader is at once, both reassured by the author’s presence, but also allowed insight into the protagonist’s perception of the world as they see it. Wood’s examples will help to elucidate this concept:

An author may write, ‘Ted watched the Orchestra through tears.’ Or, an author may write, ‘Ted watched the Orchestra through stupid tears.’ As Wood states:

The addition of the word ‘stupid’ raises the question: whose word is this? It’s unlikely that I would want to call my character stupid merely for listening to some music in a concert hall. No, in a marvellously alchemical transfer, the word now partly belongs to Ted…What is so useful about free indirect style is that in our example a word like ‘stupid’ somehow belongs both to the author and the character…Thanks to free indirect style we can see things through the character’s eyes and language, but also through the author’s eyes and language too.

This was revolutionary for me. As soon as I’d finished the book, without referring back to Wood’s explanation, I got on Twitter and discussed Free Indirect Style, as I remembered it, with other people. I gave examples and I tried my damnedest to explain it to people who knew nothing about it, in just 140 characters. Also, in every book I’ve read since How Fiction Works I’ve searched for-and underlined- examples of this style. And now, I want to lead some CPD on it, with a view that my department and I can discuss how to teach this complex but effective style to students for use in their own writing. I finished this book 6 weeks ago and it’s still with me. I’m still using it.

Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote.

A student bought me this book as a leaving present and I’ve wanted to thank him for it since I finished it 5 weeks ago. However, I made a conscious decision to let it lie and mull it over. I want to think about the book, let it linger, toss it over in my mind and then put my jumbled thoughts down onto paper (screen). I’ve decided I’m going to email the giver of this book and, because the student is very bright, I’m going to write him a particularly florid email that examines the book in some depth. I can deal with the florid style (thanks to many years spent reading Keats’ letters) but discussing the book intelligently, in a way that doesn’t simply resort to base opinions will be slightly more difficult. So, to achieve this, I’m going to have to think about the book. I’m going to have to revisit certain passages, and I’m going to have to form an opinion or an evaluation that is based on sound evidence from the text and also my awareness of American Literature-and Capote’s work- more widely. As a teacher, I should be practicing this skill anyway. Reading this book and sending this email enables me to do so in a way that benefits the student who gave me the book as well as myself: I’ll enjoy the task I’ve outlined above, and, hopefully, the student-who is far brighter than most his age- will enjoy the discourse.

Rabbit, Run, John Updike. 

Rabbit, Run will henceforth provide the benchmark for how sentences should be written: with absolute beauty and with absolute precision. It’s remarkable. As I focus, more deeply, on ‘Constructing Beautiful Sentences’ with students, it is this book, alongside very few others, that will provide me with the perfect sentences students need exposure to in order to create their own. Look at this:

The flowerbeds, bordered with bricks buried diagonally, are pierced by dull red spikes that will be peonies. and the earth itself, scumbled, stone-flecked, horny, raggedly patched with damp and dry, looks like the oldest and smells like the newest thing under heaven.

This is one of the greatest sentences ever written. Never mind, the expert use of  plosive alliteration to convey a sense of nature’s robust strength; never mind the use of the adjective ‘scumbled’, so evocative, in spite of its lack of any meaning that I can discern. It’s that last bit. ‘The earth…looks like the oldest and smells like the newest thing under heaven.’ Has anything so true ever been written, so succinctly and so beautifully? It’s Updike’s ability to convey that which we all know, but have never thought of that is so compelling here. Wood, author of How Fiction Works refers to this phenomena (as I understand it) as ‘thisness’. There’s so much ‘thisness’ in this sentence and students need to see it.

East of EdenJohn Steinbeck.

All of a sudden, Steinbeck became three-dimensional.Whilst I think Of Mice and Men is brilliant, as I’ve got older, I’ve resented its simplicity. Reading East of Eden, Of Mice and Men’s biggest strength has made itself blindingly clear: its simplicity. East of Eden is, at times, clumsy in its convolution; distracting in its depth. Analysing Of Mice and Men from a narrative and structural viewpoint will be all the more easier now I have something to compare it to, from the same author. I think that’s important.

I must also say that up to this point, in spite of my Church of England primary education, the Cain and Abel story has passed me by. I know it now, and I will make reference to it in the future. Just to sound clever.

Stoner, John Edward Williams. 

Whilst many have championed this book, having recently finished Rabbit, Run I was struck by the total lack of lyricism in this novel. There is a beauty in its bleakness but it lacks the poetry I love in Updike’s prose. And yet. That’s not to say I’ve not gained anything from this CPD. Edward Williams uses the word ‘perfunctory’ seven times in this novel. Which, although annoying, has been useful. I now know what it means and I will teach it to kids. They can use it and so will I.

So, you’ve read it. Now what?
 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s okay to sell your wares. 

I think it’s ok for teachers to sell resources for their own financial gain.

Whilst I myself have never sold anything I’ve created, for some, selling resources may be a necessity. Take this crass example I put forward on Twitter earlier today, for instance:

For a single teacher with three kids to look after, selling a PowerPoint on the use of Metaphor in 19th century literature for £3.49,  may be the difference between his kids eating branded crisps in the playground or risking the wrath of those ruthless playground bullies who look upon store-branded crisps with a scorn that beggars belief.*

This teacher should feel no shame in selling his resources. 

There may also be a teacher who wants to sell her worksheet on Oxbow lakes for 99p so she can put it towards a brand new pair of NMDs. 
This teacher should feel no shame in selling her resources.

Why? 

Because, the job we do-teaching- is noble   within and of itself. That is, if you are giving your all, and doing the very best for the students in your care, from half 8 till half 3, that is honourable and you should feel proud of what you do and what you give. Because you do give during those hours, all the time, constantly.

Going home and selling a worksheet or a SOW or a PowerPoint does not make you greedy. 

Back to the hypothetical Dad of three I mentioned above. James Theobald asked (and I paraphrase), ‘What if this Dad needs resources? Isn’t it unfair that he should have to pay for them? Considering.’

At first I was stumped. I had only considered the point of view of the seller; the teacher who sells resources, rather than buys them. And so yes, I concede, it does seem unfair, considering, that this Dad must pay for knowledge. 

And yet.

In spite of the metaphors we constantly use to equate knowledge with monetary wealth, knowledge isn’t money. 

See, the money needed to feed, clothe and enrich our families cannot be acquired the way money can. A conversation with a colleague will give you a new way of approaching a topic, but it won’t earn you a fiver. A book from a library can leave your mind full of new ideas but it won’t leave you with jangling pockets. A school-funded training course will help you understand how to plan your lessons a little better, but it won’t leave you flush. 

So my advice to the financially struggling teacher who wants to spend money buying resources my advice would be this: talk to a colleague, read a book, listen to an expert. Spend your money elsewhere. And maybe sell something. 

*However crass this example may sound, it’s real.