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. 

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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. 

There’s More to Life than Teachers.

A blanket of arrogance lies over the teaching profession. 

This blanket of arrogance wrongly assumes that teachers are the only ones who can provide the opportunities and experiences that students need to develop as, at the very least, competent human beings. Only with our encouragement can students learn to be resilient. Only with our guidance will students learn the value of hard work. And only with our gentle prompting will students engage with a diverse range of  differing cultural, religious, and gender perspectives.

For some, this shroud of solipsism, brings a warm feeling of affirmation: ‘I am a teacher and I know what’s best’. However, this blanket of arrogance is stifling us. And we should consider kicking it off.

I recently published a photo of 8 novels I’d be using for an extract analysis unit with my GCSE students in September. The list contained no novels by female authors and I was rightly-and gratefully-brought up on this. But then someone asked about whether I’ve included enough LGBT material. And then someone else questioned my inclusion of The Kite Runner as actually not being as representative of Islamic literature as many teachers (yes, me) assume it to be.  I agonised over all this, and my choices (or non-choices) prompted a twitter debate that lasted all weekend.

All this got me thinking. Whilst I believe it is my duty to provide students with a broad range of literary perspectives from a diverse range of authors, should this be a priority for me as a classroom teacher? I mean, am I the only way students are going to learn about homosexuality? Am I the students’ only way into the murky world of female oppression? Is it my job to explore Islam with my students? The answer to all these questions is, of course, ‘well, er…sort of.’ I must do the best I can. I recognise this. As One highly respected ‘tweacher’ told me: ‘Many kids learn quite bad stuff about ‘diversity’ outside your classroom. Your silence is not neutral.’ I agree with this. But then, someone else on Twitter said, tongue firmly in cheek:  ‘Barking up the wrong tree mate. Teach resilience in school. They can learn about similes and subordinate clauses at home.’ And I get what this person was getting at. My job, as a teacher, is to give kids the best opportunities they can. And, whether we like it or not, exam success goes some way to providing these opportunities. So, do I need to be spending hours banging on about resilience? Do I need to be wasting time agonising over whether the texts I’ve chosen for study are representative of every aspect of what is a very diverse society? Do I need to ensure that inferior texts are given precedent over superior ones purely because they tick a sexuality shaped box? Because, if I spend all my time teaching these things, who’s teaching them metaphors, modal verbs, and mise-en-scene?

Clearly, the answer isn’t clear cut here. It’s about professional judgement and it’s about balance. But, whilst we’re on the subject, I think we’d do well to remember that students have a life outside of our classrooms. And here’s why:

Student Experience

 Hearing you bang on about Oranges are not the Only Fruit isn’t going to be, for most, students’ only meaningful engagement with homosexuality. Nor is a cringe-inducing poetry lesson analysing Jay-Z going to give students any insight into ‘what it’s like to be black.’ The playground has come a long way; you’ll be surprised at how, on the whole, students are far more tolerant of than they were when you were at school. We’ve come a long way since ‘that kiss’ Brookside. Refer to a televised homosexual kiss as ‘that kiss’ now and students would reply with ‘what one?’ You’d do well to remember that some of your students, are already struggling with, exploring, and yes, enjoying  their sexuality. Some of your students already know about Islam because they are friends with real life Muslims. Honest. And some of your students are exhibiting grit and resilience and all that other bollocks every day, day in, day out, in their difficult-or easy- home lives, at sports clubs, even in their online rants about why this band is better than that band. So rather than try and clumsily impose your own, probably outdated, view of what is diverse, or what ‘tolerance’ is, or how students can demonstrate resilience, see what they have to say about it and work from there. The things you agonise over, they may not even give a second thought. But do ask: It’ll show students that you care about them. And they may even teach you a thing or two.

Target Setting and Marking

In a 168 hour week, you might see students for four hours. This means that 100% of your week is just 2.4% of theirs. Because of this life outside of your classroom, it’s unreasonable to expect your students to remember off the top of their heads, the countless number of targets you are setting them week in, week out, let alone act on them, unless you instruct them specifically to check back and do so during any given piece of work. I know schools where students are given three different target grades for every subject. And school leaders genuinely expect students to remember these when there are Pokemon to be caught and punishments to escape. What’s more, the pressure put on teachers to ensure that students care about these targets is, if not outrageous, unrealistic.

As for marking, just stop. A couple of ticks and one SMART target (as concise as you can make it), for one piece of work, per half term will do. Honest.

Parents

This is a tricky one. It’s about low expectations and it’s about high expectations.

Many parents are doing all the things we’re doing. They’re trying to get the buggers to read. They’re clumsily explaining the refugee crisis and they’re dusting off, soothing and encouraging after endless scraped knees. They are. And so, when I hear teachers agonise for hours, martyr-style, over how they can best achieve their virtuous goal of improving the moral and psychological well-being of their students I think this: just what low-expectations do you have of the parents of our students?

But I also think this. Shouldn’t we have higher expectations of the parents who don’t teach their kids to read; who don’t teach their kids that learning to ride a bike takes time and effort; who don’t say it’s okay for a man to kiss a man. Why should the sole responsibility of a child’s well-being rest on our already-weary shoulders? School Leaders need to work harder on bridging the relationship between parents and teachers so that both can work together to achieve the end aim of healthy, well-rounded students that love lots and do nice things.

 

 

You Won’t Find Me- A Poem

You won’t find me in Costa Coffee,One of the NCT crowd,

Clogging up valuable floor space with prams and carry cots,

A seated health hazard,

Legs splayed proudly.

You won’t find me espousing the benefits of breast milk,

Multi-terrain ‘travel systems’ and cranial osteopathy.

Not me.

You won’t find me boring people with tales of the things you once ate but now don’t

Or of the things you once did, but now won’t.

You won’t find me boring people with tales of that one time, 

that one time

You threw up in my face, and someone was there, and we, like, didn’t realise how much sick one baby could produce, and who would’ve thought someone so sweet could produce something so vile, and like, it’s amazing really, cos, like, it was so funny, and you, like, threw up,

And it was so funny

And, and, and…

You won’t find me desperately singing my heart out in front of thirty other parents just to connect with you,

You won’t find me suffocating you in bubble wrap just to protect you.

You won’t find me giving knowing nods to other Dads who pass me in the street

As far as I’m concerned

Our mutual power to impregnate someone we love, doesn’t mean that we should speak.

You won’t find me, daughter, taking you to baby/parent classes,

Just to discuss with boring middle class people what the best moisturising cream for your arse is.

You won’t find me doing any of this.

But you will find me.

Anytime you want me, you will find me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Directing the Journey in An Inspector Calls.

Gaily, possessively

With mock agressiveness

Half serious, half playful

Trying to be light and easy

Staring at him, agitated

Miserably

Laughs rather hysterically

Cutting in, as he hesitates

With sharp sarcasm

Flaring up

Bitterly

Passionately

 

Rather than a series of statement outlining my recent conduct in any number of meetings, the above statements, are in fact a selection of stage directions from J.B.Priestley’s, ‘An Inspector Calls.’ The stage directions, taken from all 3 acts of the play and ordered sequentially, give the reader/producer/director guidance as to how the actor playing the role of  Sheila Birling, Priestley’s symbol of all that the world could be, is to deliver the lines ascribed to her.

Looked at in isolation, the stage directions also provide a useful map of Sheila’s journey from a naïve ‘pretty girl’ to perspicacious young woman: her blithely playful nature becomes quickly tempered with a seriousness that turns to angst, which eventually resolves itself into vehement disgust at her parents’ startling lack of empathy for anyone outside of their privileged elite.

I started off the lesson asking students to consider who the stage directions might ‘belong’ to and explain the reasoning behind their choice. This enabled me to assess their understanding of a range of characters. For example, one student suggested the directions belonged to Mrs Birling and I was able to probe them on their understanding of the play we’d finished reading two lessons before:

“Is Mrs Birling a hysterical woman then? Because the stage directions says ‘laugh hysterically’ “

“Oh…no. But she might do all the other ones.”

“At what point does Mrs B ‘flare up’ then?”

“Well, when she find out that Eric…”

And so on.

After some discussion, and once we’d ascertained that the directions belonged to Sheila, I was then provided with an opportunity to assess students’ understanding of Sheila’s progression through the novel:

Can anyone remember why Sheila might laugh hysterically?

When does she flare up?

Why is she trying to be light and easy and at which point?

Once I’d done this I asked students to draw an arrow alongside the stage directions and ‘map’ Sheila’s emotions at (roughly) each stage. Something like this:

Yum

Realising (halfway through the lesson) that finding quotations for each of these emotions would probably produce some cognitive overload, I then asked students to bastardise their work and reduce these emotions to three broader categories. Like so:

 

CONTENTMENT

TURMOIL

ANGER

Then, I asked students to find a quotation for each of these broader emotions. My instructions were clear:

  1. Don’t simply find the line that ‘goes with’ the stage directions we looked at originally.
  2. Find a quotation that works for you. Ask yourself: Is this the very best quotation that sums up Sheila’s contentment/turmoil/anger at the start/middle/end of the play? In less than a year’s time, in that closed book exam, have I done enough now?’
  3. The quotation must be short enough for you to remember it easily.

Of course, as students were retrieving quotations, I walked round the classroom advising and questioning where necessary.

So, what do I think students got from this lesson?

  • A record of Sheila’s changing emotional state and status throughout the play.
  • Three quotations that sum up this emotional ‘journey’ from contentment to turmoil to passionate vehemence.
  • A greater understanding of the importance of stage directions in theatre.
  • An opportunity to consolidate understanding of plot, and character (both primary-Sheila- and secondary- the other lot).