Allusion: Teach It.

I recently awarded an A grade to a piece of descriptive writing that opened with the following phrase:

Last week, in a galaxy not too far, far away from junction 7 of the A3…

This student shunned the drab opening sentences, replete with the terminology of the question, adopted by most of his peers and decided to kick-off with an allusion. A Star Wars allusion.

Now, this allusion to Star Wars tells me a lot about this kid:

  • This kid cares about his audience. He knew that I, as an adult marker, would understand the cultural reference he was making and in making it, he allowed me access to an exclusive club that ‘gets it.’ And that made me feel good. This kid cares for his reader.
  • This kid is intelligent; he has an awareness of culture that stretches beyond the world of what is taught in the classroom, which he can draw upon in order to manipulate people’s responses to the work he produces. This kid thinks.
  • This kid knows how to exploit language for effect: there’s bathos in the way the sentence undercuts the sense of the epic, conveyed by the word ‘galaxy’, with the quotidian reference to a minor A-road in the South East of England. ‘Galaxies’ are beautiful and awe-inspiring; Junctions aren’t. There’s a level of self-deprecation here that is gripping in its maturity. This kid is clever.

Allusion is defined as ‘an expression designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly’ and it’s something we should be getting kids used to in Year 7. Many schools, whether they are aware of it or not, are actually preparing kids for allusion right now. The recent proliferation of ‘Myths and Legends’ schemes of work, popping up on  Year 7 curriculums all over the land, are useful not only in their enjoyment factor, but also in providing students with points of reference to draw upon in their own work. Whether it’s making sense of Shakespeare (who uses classical allusion all the time) or creating interesting creative texts of ther own, allusions can help students to thrive in English.

I teach three different types of allusion: classical, cultural, and literary.  A typical lesson might run thus:

  1. Ask kids to write down everything they can remember about myths and legends from primary school. I normally get something akin to the following:

 

Hercules

Medusa

Icarus

Zeus

Poseiodon

Hades

Minotaur

 

Then, I get students to construct similes or metaphors using these. They can be very basic:

He was strong as Hercules

Slightly less basic:

One needed to be Hercules to lift him.

Or relatively complex:

If someone ever decided to chuck a 13th labour in Hercules’ direction, then passing this maths test was surely the thing to do.

Of course, I provide models of my own examples:

Even by Odysseus’ standards, this was a bad journey.

Cupid took one look at me and retired.

She was the sun and I Icarus. Doomed to fall and doomed to fail.

I had armpits wetter than Poseiodon’s beard.

Classical allusions are valuable, simply because of their cultural capital. Casual references to items of classical mythology reek of intellectual superiority. And anyone can do it, if taught well.

Literary allusions work very well too. Here’s a response I’ve written to an old GCSE language question that ask students to:

‘Describe a time you had to make a difficult decision and explain the consequences of your choice.’

There was no chance of not having to defecate that day. Last night’s vindaloo was my crime and this was my punishment. And now, like Raskilonov, I was plagued with an acute feeling of introspective torment. Why now? Here I was, 7 bags of shopping in hand, and with a Bertha Mason on my hands: something wanted out and it was impossible to keep it in. My eyes scanned the shopping mall, desperately searching for a public convenience-a name which was sounding increasingly ironic. The thing is, I was conflicted: Did I really even want to find a public toilet? Wasn’t every other alternative more attractive? You don’t need to be Holmes (hell, you don’t even need to be Watson) to realise the perils of public pooing: Public toilets are distinctly Orwellian; Unsavoury, nightmarish places where one constantly feels as though he or she is being watched. No chance. Not today.

Of course, I’ve overdone it here, for the sake of example and I wouldn’t advise anyone to cram their work with allusion as I have done here-it must be used sparingly for maximum effect. However, if any of the references above raised a knowing eyebrow, or provoked a wry smile, the allusion has worked! It’s captured you. It’s reached out to you. If that isn’t compelling, I don’t know what is. 

So how do we get to a place where students are able to make the kind of literary allusions I’ve used above?

The answer, of course, is reading. The problem is, not many kids will read to themselves. In Doug Lemov’s excellent, ‘Reading Reconsidered’ the authors champion the art of reading aloud to students. However, too often,  teachers won’t read aloud because there’s no immediate benefit in doing so. It’s the same reason kids don’t read themselves; reading can be slow in bearing its fruit. Allusion can change all that. Allusion is the perfect illustration of the symbiotic relationship between reading and writing.Spend an hour reading to kids. Read them novels with cultural capital; novels that will make them sound clever when they allude to them.Read them 1984, Jane Eyre, or Oliver Twist. Then, give them a creative writing task and ask them to allude to an aspect of the text you’ve read in the previous lesson. For example:

Write a description of a city and use the phrase ‘like Orwell’s Big Brother’ in your opening paragraph.

Write a description of a person and use the phrase, ‘like Jane Eyre on a bad day’ in your answer.

Write a description of how school makes you feel and use the phrase ”that Dickens would be proud of’ in your answer.

Allusion. It works. Try it!

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My first forays into Academic Research.

When I hosted an #engchatuk focused on raising boys’ attainment in English a few weeks back, someone whose opinion I value hugely, tweeted me, and asked in far more polite terms than I could ever possibly hope to convey here, ‘why don’t you stop bangin’ on about how shite we English teachers are with boys and do some actual research into it?’

And so I am.

Today, I attended a day’s induction into the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) ‘Enquiring Schools’ programme. The NFER’s website, which you can access here, describes the Enquiring Schools programme as an initiative which encourages, ‘a fresh approach to teacher development and school improvement built around enquiry-based projects carried out by teachers in school.’ Bloody great.

The programme offers teachers coaching on how to conduct research in areas that they feel will benefit the students in their school. I applied for a place on the programme, citing boys’ attainment in English as my area of interest. People who are familiar with my blog, will know my concern with boys and English. A range of previous blog articles on boys, English, and school, can be accessed by clicking on the following links:

Pervy Boys

Balance for Boys- An enquiry into the English Curriculum

An Insight Into the Male Experience – Are we asking too much of our boys when we ask them to walk away from violence?

Dear PE Teachers- the role of PE teachers in raising attainment of boys in English. 

 Back to today. I began the day with my usual enthusiasm. A text I sent to @willett_gemma at the crack of dawn read, ‘Really can’t be arsed with today. I don’t want to talk to people.’  Turns out, I could be arsed to talk to people, because I did. And the reason I talked to people was because I was thoroughly impressed by them. Not only were my fellow ‘enquirers’-and the people leading the course- thoroughly nice people, but they also wanted to achieve valuable outcomes for students from an evidence-based standpoint. Marvellous.

I’ve never felt comfortable in an academic environment. I still, even to this day, after three (frankly, horrible) years at Exeter University, and four years teaching, feel like a fraud. I don’t speak proper, I’d rather talk about trainers than Game of Thrones, and I don’t think being nerdy is cool, not even in an ironic way. Such are the complexities of my egomania; at times I feel like I know more than anybody; at others I feel like I know nothing. I’m a fraud and everyone knows that if I had a spare hundred quid I’d spunk it on a pair of 90s (that’s Nike Air Max) rather than a box of highlighters and a teacher planner.

Because of all this,  I thought that I’d stick out like a sore thumb today. Everyone’d know more than me and I’d be floundering. Turns out, I was wrong. People had the same apprehensions as I did, and people were frank in their willingness to discuss this fact. The course leaders were excellent in allowing us ‘enquirers’ the opportunity to voice our anxieties, ask questions, and just hammer things out amongst ourselves. Discussion was encouraged. And best of all,  people didn’t roll their eyes, as they usually do, when I said things like, “Well actually, what the research says is…”

I was able to talk to three people today about my concerns regarding the impact of a female-centric English curriculum on the attainment of boys. And not one of them called me sexist. Better still, not one of them saw the mention of boys attainment as an opportunity to state that girls ‘have it far worse’. They spoke rationally to me and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.

As far as the programme goes, the biggest strength of it, as far as I can garner at this early stage, is its honesty.  It doesn’t purport to be something it’s not.  It’s not about research; it’s about enquiry. ‘You are teachers who want to be better; not researchers who want to tell teachers how to be better’ was the gist of it.  The programme is about helping real teachers conduct investigations into education under conditions that take into account the reality of being a teacher-and a student. Yes, one of us might well conduct a piece of research that has global impact. Maybe. But if not, who cares? So long as what we do improve our own ability to teach, and attempts to achieve valuable outcomes for our students, that’s enough.

So, what did I learn? Lots.

I learned that educational research is a tricky business. It’s very difficult to conduct ‘real-life’ research that is easily replicable in any number of different contexts: There are simply too many variables involved. But that’s okay. Accept that fact and move on; something is better than nothing. Any research is a springboard for further research. That is how we progress.

I learned that there are teachers out there who value evidence-based research as much as I do.

I also learned that what you originally set out to research can change dramatically over time for myriad reasons. As it currently stands, my research question runs thusly: ‘How does the use of a masculine-focused approach impact on boys’ attitudes towards English?’

I foresee a three-pronged approach:

  • Public displays of praise and reward via the use of ‘league’ tables that award points based on progress and contribution to class discussion. To be started, completely afresh, each week to make everyone feel that they have a chance of finishing top.
  • A change in the assessment system: students will also conduct, alongside essay based assessments, multiple choice tests on subject knowledge. This is to test the, largely anecdotal, evidence that suggests boys like to ‘be right or wrong’.
  • CPD aimed at teachers which aims to explore different aspects of masculinity and ask how teachers can explore masculinity, and what it’s like to be man, just as often as they explore feminist perspectives.

I must also consider:

  • What do I want to see at the end of the project?
  • Exactly what is a ‘masculine-focused’ approach, and how do I implement it?
  • How will I test the impact of this? Will I use questionnaires? Tests? Interviews? Observations?
  • What will I measure? Atttitudes? Attainment? Engagement?

I’ve included all this, largely because I’m keen to see what people think. Am I talking bollocks? Because that is something I do. Do I need to change my focus? Are there flaws in my proposed areas for investigation?

Do let me know. Please. And thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

TEACHERS NEED STYLE GUIDANCE. NOW.

Following David Crystal’s appearance at the Hay Literary Festival (where he was brilliant, by all accounts), The Guardian published an article outlining Crystal’s view, that ‘Exam board rules on punctuation are wrong, wrong, and wrong.’

In the article, David Crystal criticises the ‘latest guidance’ aimed at teachers, which allegedly bans the use of the Oxford comma.

My first thought was immediately as to the whereabouts of this ‘latest guidance’. The article chooses (conveniently?) to utilise the passive voice and omits the subject from the sentence, thus rendering the task of being guided rather troublesome.  Which is a concern. Mostly because, this year I started teaching an English Language GCSE in which 40% of marks are awarded for ‘technical accuracy.’ So, with this in mind, I really need to know: is the Oxford Comma a goer, or not?

A few other things:

What’s the deal with quotation marks? I instruct my students to use inverted commas to delineate quoted material, but I know for a fact that students, even at KS5, still think it’s okay to chuck speech marks all over the place. Presumably this is because they haven’t been told otherwise by every single teacher they’ve had before me.

And ‘quote’ is a verb right? Because I’ve been telling my students to write, ‘In the article, the writer uses a quotation from Gordon Brown to convey a sense of…’ but I’m quite sure that others are happy with, ‘In the article, the writer uses a quote from Gordon Brown to convey a sense of…’

Going back to The Guardian’s article, there seems to be some ambiguity as to who is to blame for this…er…ambiguity. Is it the fault of the Government, or the exam boards? Let’s start with the exam boards. I teach AQA. I love AQA. They give me qualifications when I need ‘em, and they can be very helpful. But, as far as I’m aware, what they haven’t given me, is guidance on punctuation and grammar.  A style guide is what I’m after. An ‘AQA Style Guide for Key Stages 3, 4, and 5’. Perhaps there’s one about, I thought, and I just haven’t seen it. I asked Twitter:

 Teachers of AQA English. Have you ever seen a document outlining accepted spelling, punctuation, and grammar forms?

As I write, there’s 5 hours left to vote and so far I’ve had 77 responses. 95% of respondents replied in the negative. That is, of 77 English teachers, 73 have never seen any official guidance on what is correct, and what is incorrect, in terms of the SPaG element of the English course.  Granted, this is a really small sample, but that still equates to 2190 students being taught by teachers who, to be frank, don’t know what they should be teaching with regard to SPaG, myself included. Incidentally, of the people who replied ‘YES’, only one of them responded to my pleas for advice as to where they found this guidance, and this she said, was found in an AQA textbook. I’ve not found any guidance in my own AQA textbooks.

I’ve asked AQA for some advice as to where I might find some official guidance. So far, they’ve not replied to my tweet. Serves me right for not wearing a tie in my profile picture. My own search for guidance on the AQA website was fruitless. I could find no official guidance, other than what’s outlined in the mark schemes. Which isn’t very useful. The new English Language specification tells us students must be able to ‘use grammar correctly and punctuate and spell accurately’, but offers no advice as to what is classed as correct.

So that’s the exam boards. Now, the Government.  Guidance on Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar for the KS3 National Curriculum implores teachers to build on the knowledge acquired at KS1 and 2. The expectation of what is to be learned at KS1 and 2 is outlined in this document:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/335186/PRIMARY_national_curriculum_-_English_220714.pdf

The second half of the document, specifically the glossary, is very useful and I urge all Heads of English to do whatever they can to ensure that their staff are familiar with the terms. This can only be a good thing.

However.

Is it fair to ask Secondary Teachers to base their teaching of SPaG on the knowledge that kids should have acquired at Primary?

Is it fair to ask Secondary Teachers to sift through documents aimed at primary school teachers just to find the slightest whiff of guidance relating t SPaG at  GCSE and A-Level?

Is it fair for the government, the exam boards, or whoever, to tell David Crystal the Oxford Comma is banned, and not me?

I don’t think it is fair.

So, this is what I want.  I want exam board guidance on exactly what’s allowed. I want exam board style guides aimed at Secondary Teachers, telling us exactly what’s right and what’s wrong. Who’s up for it. AQA?

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.

However.

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?

 

 

 

 

I Can’t Write.

I can’t write about people who upset me in case I upset the people who upset me.
I can’t write about feelings of extreme happiness in case I sound like a madman.
I can’t write about feelings of extreme sadness in case I sound like a madman.
I can’t write about English because @Xris32 has already done so.
I can’t write about things of which I really, really want to-but simply don’t-know.
I can’t write about reading because time spent writing is time not spent reading.
I can’t write about PE teachers, posters, or anything that may invoke feelings.
I can’t write about individuals.
I can’t write about groups.
I can’t write about the constant pressure to jump through hoops. 
I can’t write about engaging lessons because it bores me.
I can’t write about work/life balance because I’ve 43 books to mark and it’s nearly 8.30.
P.M.
I can’t write about performance related pay because I can’t afford a lap-top.
I can’t write about uniform when my preferred choice of footwear is flip-flops.
I can’t write about progress because to do so would be regressive.
I can’t write about behaviour management in case I make someone aggressive.
I can’t write about Growth Mindset, Attainment 8, Progress 8, PREVENT, SEND, ADHD, G and T, life before levels, life with levels, life after levels, OFSTED or any bloody thing really.
Because I’ve got kids to teach.

Pervy Boys.

 

Recently, I’ve been thinking  about an anecdote relayed to me by a female friend. She told me that she’d once been followed home by a ‘weirdo’ stalker who posted things through her letterbox.

Scary. Shocking. Downright disturbing.

As it turned out, this event occurred when the teller of the story was 14 years old and the thing posted through the letterbox was a note from the ‘weirdo stalker’ (a 14 year old boy in her year group) clumsily apologising for the fact that he’d followed her home. What was initially relayed to me as a story about the sinister actions of a warped individual, actually turned out to be a story about the rather awkward, quite temporary, actions of a 14 year old boy too scared to approach the object of his teenage crush. Little did he know that his attempt to apologise for his awkward behaviour would later be used as further evidence of his dangerous creepiness.

As a teacher, I’ve heard myriad misnomers used to describe boys’ entering the world of relationships. A boy who ‘goes out’ with a girl in the year below is denounced as a ‘paedo’; boys who can’t help but stare at the girls they harbour affections for are derided as ‘pervs’; boys who message girls on social media are automatically deemed to be ‘stalkers.’

I’m not saying that girls don’t need to be vigilant and that there aren’t issues surrounding the inappropriate sexual behaviour of both boys and girls towards one another. These things happen in schools all the time and they need to be firmly dealt with. However, if we, as adults and parents and teachers, allow terms such as ‘paedo’, ‘perv’ and ‘stalker’ to be bandied around inaccurately, the real perpetrators of deplorable crimes such as paedophilia, stalking, and abuse of positions of trust are at risk of not being taken seriously enough. And that is something that should scare us all very much.

I’m too good for this CPD.

I’m great at behaviour management. I rarely have any issues, and, on those rare occasions when I do, I know how to write the appropriate level of sanction into a student planner and record that I have done so in 8 different computer systems. In fact, I’d say that of all the things required of me, behaviour management is a real strength. I’d say that behaviour management is something I’m gifted at. Talented even.

Because of this, I don’t want to sit through any more staff meetings about how to deal with classes that don’t keep quiet. I don’t want to sit through any more staff meetings about how to deal with confrontation. I don’t want to sit through any more staff meetings about how to record detentions in 8 different computer systems. I don’t need it. I know it all.

That’s not to say I’m gifted and talented at everything. I’m not. In fact, there’s a few things I need to work on: I’m not happy with the way I explain onomatopoeia. I keep talking about the Divine Right of Kings when I teach Macbeth without really knowing what I’m talking about. And, I’m absolutely convinced that there’s more to persuasive writing than AFOREST. So, instead of sitting in the hall and rolling my eyes as somebody explains that moody teenagers hate being shouted at, can I work on one of those things instead? I think it’ll benefit the students I teach. I think it’ll make me a better teacher.

I understand your concerns. What if I am faced with a behaviour incident that I haven’t been trained for? What if colleagues who require behaviour training resent the fact that they’re having to take part in training, which I am exempt from? What if I take advantage of your trust and instead spend my time doing a minimal impact activity like putting up display board or marking books?

What if? What if? What if?

I’m a teacher. Thinking about ‘What ifs’ is not the best use of my time. The best use of my time is thinking about what I can do in the here and now to improve the learning of the students under my tutelage. So trust me.

You see,  I teach students who already know a lot of what is being taught. Some kids just know more about particular subjects than others. And you ask me to differentiate for them. You ask me to give them something else to do. You ask me to provide learning opportunities that go beyond what everyone else is doing for their benefit. So, I’d like you to consider the same for me.

Subject knowledge is too often assumed to be something that teachers should work on in their spare time, when the reality is that, after a day’s teaching, many teachers lack the energy or the intuition to do so. Sometimes we just want to watch crap. So, next time a meeting is scheduled, ask yourself this:

 

What can we provide to individuals that will improve the learning of the majority?

Worth a shot no?