VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY

VOLUNTEER VACANCY

POST: Telephone coach

WANTED: An educationalist (teacher/blogger/consultant), with a leaning towards a traditionalist or evidence-based approach.

JOB DESCRIPTION: You will be required to take part in a one-off 30 minute phone call with a frustrated teacher who feels increasingly isolated in a world of progressive teaching methods based on little else than intuition.

JOB REQUIREMENTS: The frustrated teacher wants to discuss a number of things with you:

  • Dealing with resistance to research or evidence-based methods because they’re ‘too didactic’ – How do you cope?
  • Time management- how do you allocate time to teaching/planning/reading research/ blogging.
  • Career prospects- is the frustrated teacher destined for a career in a profession resistant to traditionalist methods? Is Michaela the only school that espouses a knowledge-centred approach?
  • Tips on how frustrated teacher can encourage other teachers to share his passion for evidence-based / traditionalist approach to teaching and learning.

If you would be interested volunteering for this post, apply within.

 

In Defence of Similes

Last week, when a year 12 English literature student told me that a simile was “describing something using like or as” I was perturbed. Okay, so they were sort of right. But surely, in an English curriculum where an undue amount of time is given to explicit instruction of what a metaphor and simile is, year after year, writing unit after writing unit, surely a student should be able to tell me more than that.

Strictly speaking, a simile is, as a quick Google search reveals:

 …a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid e.g. ‘Brave as a lion.

 Succint as this definition is, it overlooks one vital point:; a carefully constructed simile is an opportunity. An opportunity to make the reader think about something in a way they’d never thought possible; an opportunity to make a reader understand abstract concepts by making connections to the concrete; and, most importantly of all, an opportunity to make the reader feel something about the quotidian. Because of this, teachers need to go further than simply telling students, year on year, and writing unit after writing unit, that similes are simply ‘describing something using like or as.’

Whenever I teach metaphor or similes, I always ensure that students- whether they’re eleven years old, or seventeen- are absolutely familiar with the three component parts of a metaphor as coined by the critic I.A. Richards. These are: the Tenor, Vehicle, and Ground. We’ll use the following metaphor as a model to explain the concepts:

 

…Juliet is the sun.

 The tenor is the thing being described. In this case, Juliet. It’s easier to remember because ‘thing being described’ and ‘tenor’ both begin with ‘t’. The vehicle is the thing that carries the weight of the metaphor; it’s the thing that the tenor is described as – in this case, the sun. Finally, the ground is the common ground between the two items, or, as I prefer to explain, the characteristics of the vehicle that the writer wants us to ascribe to the tenor. The ground of this simile is myriad:

  •  Juliet is hot
  • Juliet is bright
  • Juliet is in the sky
  • Juliet is a huge mass of incandescent gas
  • Juliet brings life
  • Juliet could be harmful
  • The world revolves around Juliet
  • Juliet is orange

The range of interpretations is huge. Of course, some interpretations are simply wrong. But there are a lot that we can assume to be correct: Romeo does find Juliet ‘hot.’ She is bright in as much as she stands out for him above everyone else at the Capulet party. She is on a higher plane than him, both literally-in her positioning on the stage ‘aloft’, upon a balcony-and figuratively-in that Romeo apotheosises her.  Romeo does feel reborn upon meeting Juliet and sure enough, just as the sun has the power to destroy, so too does Juliet.

Once students are familiar with the terms, tenor, vehicle and ground, discussion and teaching of metaphors and similes becomes more fluid purely because a shared language exisists to facilitate deeper discussion. We can get students to think meta-cognitively about the metaphors and similes they write with questions such as, ‘What is the ground of this metaphor?’; ‘Are metaphors with more ground better than those with less?’ We can prompt students who struggle with creative writing by getting them to list the characteristics of an object they want to convey – What ground of the tenor do you want to get across? Okay, make a list. Now, what vehicles have most of these characteristics? Which fits best with what you want your reader to feel?

 In a lesson context, I’d open the lesson with the ‘Juliet is the sun’ metaphor written on the board. I’ll then write, near it, ‘This is the best metaphor the world has ever seen. Why?’ Once students have discussed and fed back, I’ll then explain the concepts as I’ve outlined them above, and explain that never before has so much ground been covered in so little words. This metaphor of just four words, three of which don’t exceed three letters, has a multitudinous range of interpretations; that’s why it’s the best metaphor the world has ever seen, in my opinion.

 Once these concepts have been embedded, then the hard work can begin. Often heralded as the weaker sibling of metaphor, I like similes because they acknowledge that however something is perceived, a small part of it will always retain an element of its true state: in similes people can be brave as lions but that’s okay; they won’t end up tearing us to shreds because they’re still human. A classroom can be hot as hell but that’s okay; It’s still a classroom- windows can be opened. And, with similes, a young Italian man can be in desperate love with a young Italian woman he perceives to outshine all others , but – because he remembers she is human -he needn’t die due to a blinding devotion that mars his ability to make rational and informed decisions.

A Response to ‘Dear PE teachers’

Yesterday, my controversial blog post, Dear PE Teachers received 3568 views. Considering that my previous ‘Best Views Ever’ was 1018 the day before for the same post, and prior to that 340-something, this was big news.

In light of the  baffling array of responses to the blog I feel compelled to elucidate people’s understanding of the views espoused in the post, by explaining myself. I realise that such an act may be detrimental to the potency of the post’s original message, and I am not unaware of the pomposity of commenting explicitly on my own writing. Just so you know.

I will begin by giving some contextual information regarding the post, which I will follow up with a defence of the use of stereotypes and a response to the view that I present PE teachers as a mindless bunch of goons, incapable of reading and study. Finally, because I lack the maturity to ignore them, I’ll respond to specific comments made by specific individuals.

So, the blog was originally an exercise in rhetoric and little else. Having read Sam Leith’s ‘You Talkin to Me?’, I wanted to write a rhetorical speech that used a classical rhetorical structure as follows:

  1. Exordium
  2. Narratio
  3. Division
  4. Proof
  5. Refutation
  6. Peroration

Primarily, for me, the post was an exercise in speech writing. And speak it I did. Many people are keen to see the post as an act of cowardice: the pestilent peddlings of a weedy English Teacher hiding in the ‘closet warm’ of his classroom, keen to ridicule PE teachers, but too scared to look any of them in the eye and say the things he feels. These people couldn’t be further from the truth. Two days after the blog was written, at a PE Teach Meet organised by @PEClayman, I lugged my 95kg torso (I’m not weedy)  to the front of a hall containing 40 PE teachers, looked them all dead in the eye, and delivered the speech. Whilst some were sceptical of some aspects of the speech, on the whole, the response from these people was positive.

Stereotypes

In his book, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, Daniel Kahneman states that, ‘some stereotypes are perniciously wrong, and hostile stereotyping can have dreadful consequences, but the psychological facts cannot be avoided: stereotypes, both correct and false, are how we think of categories.’ He also goes on to say, ‘It is useful to remember…that neglecting valid stereotypes inevitably results in suboptimal judgements.’ I concede that my blog post does exploit one stereotype: the idea that working class boys love sport. Of course, I understand that this isn’t the case. I know that not every single boy whom can be categorised, according to any number of variables, as ‘white and working class’ loves sport. I’m not an idiot. And if I did believe that students could be so easily categorised I wouldn’t be the brilliant teacher that I am.  And yet, I find it hard to believe that anybody can deny the stereotype is an established one and one that reflects some truth: Generally, lots of working class boys love PE. More so than middle-class students and more so than girls. Generally.  

Furthermore, when one considers the context of the post-the fact that it was a rhetorical speech-which of the following do you consider more effective?

You only have to walk through a school playground to realise that the thing that most working-class boys love, more than anything else, is sport

You only have to walk through a school playground to realise that the thing some working class boys love, more than anything else, is sport. In order to avoid stereotyping I will now read a list of every single boy who replied to the question ‘Are you working class and do you love sport’ in the affirmative. This will take a while. Right, starting with ‘A’: Adams, John, Berkshire; Adams, Sam, Kent. Adams, Tony, Manchester….

Another problem pertaining to stereotypes is my alleged presentation of PE teachers as a sub-class of teachers who lack the intellectual capacity that other teachers have in abundance. Here’s a selection of comments I’ve come across in response to the post:

he is ignorng PE teachers get a degree too so they read books, etc just as he does!!!!!

I teach PE and I infact love books, this article makes me fume. 

It is profoundly offensive to suggest those who teach PE don’t read

And my favourite:

I haven’t read something so discriminatory in a long time. You are making sweeping generalisations which, frankly, are an insult to me and my colleagues. Have you ever left your classroom and visited the PE faculty in your school? If you did, you would probably see our literacy boards, our boards which show what all the PE are currently reading, and if you dare look in a PE exercise book you would see that we develop writing in prose with strategies that have been developed alongside our English colleagues.

I’ve just re-read the post again, and I cannot find a single sentence in which I say PE teachers don’t read. Nor do I say PE teachers don’t have degrees. Nor do I make any reference to the quality of marking in PE teachers books. All this is a classic example of the Straw Man Fallacy in action. People are arguing a case that isn’t relevant. I think the following comment might be responsible for the misinterpretations by all the writers of the comments above:

If you don’t read yourself, start and start now. It’s never too late. 

This is what’s got people confused. They’re taking my suggestion that some PE teachers don’t read (just as I’d confidently assert that some English teachers don’t read) and reading it as: ‘PE teachers don’t read.’ My guess is that the teachers who have chosen to read it this way are actually revealing lots about their own insecurities-and unhappiness- as PE teachers in an education system where PE teachers are often seen as separate from other teachers.

Responses to Individual Comments:

Comment from ‘Rob’:

I haven’t read something so discriminatory in a long time. You are making sweeping generalisations which, frankly, are an insult to me and my colleagues. Have you ever left your classroom and visited the PE faculty in your school? If you did, you would probably see our literacy boards, our boards which show what all the PE are currently reading, and if you dare look in a PE exercise book you would see that we develop writing in prose with strategies that have been developed alongside our English colleagues….

Do you ask for effort grades from other subjects each time you put on an enrichment activity? Is your classroom adorned with images of Mo Farah or Jess Enness inspiring a nation on Super Saturday? Think about the inspirational leadership shown by David Beckham in an England shirt; or his last minute goal against Greece which sent a nation of fans into rapture. Perhaps that might never of occurred if he hadn’t been allowed to play for his team because he wasn’t very good at English?

Dear colleague, I’m sorry for insulting you. Truly. And in answer to your questions, yes, I have left my classroom and yes, I have visited the PE faculty in my school. I didn’t see any Literacy boards at my school, but I concede that I would do were I to have the pleasure of  your generous hospitality at a visit to your school. Your comment, ‘if you dare look in a PE exercise book’ has touched a nerve with me. It’s quite hostile. You should work on that.

I like your use of Epiplexis in the second paragraph. Very impressive. In answer to your questions:

  1. I don’t ask for effort grades from students every time they put on an enrichment activity, but I do ban students from attending trips if they are not behaving in other subjects.
  2. I don’t have images of Mo Farah or Jess Ennis adorning my classroom walls. This is because I am an English teacher and as such, I prefer to have posters about nouns and verbs in my classroom. That’s not to say I don’t discuss sport with my students.  I have studied extracts of Farah’s autobiography with two of my classes though. 
  3. With regards to David Beckham…now you’re talkin’ bollocks. 

 

Comment from ‘Jon Harrison.’:

The key to a student accessing any subject isnt reward and punishment. Thats how you deal with dogs. It is making subjects accessible. And the key to that is communication. If the author as an English teacher has lost sight of that then it reflects far worse on them than on any student. Stop passing the buck, stop waving a white flag, and hopefully you will be SLT in no time.

Firstly, I’d argue that reward and punishment is quite an effective way of dealing with people. In fact, most civilised countries have a systematic process of using these concepts to manage behaviour. It’s called ‘The Law.’ You should read up on it. As for me ‘passing the buck’, please, please, please can you tell me where you got this idea? Seriously. This staggers me.

I should also point out, that I’m not waving a white flag, nor am I planning to. Which, considering the grammatical errors that litter your comments, is probably for the best. 

Comment from ‘PE Teacher’:

Instead of moaning about PE teachers doing a major part of your job for you, do something about it yourself.

I do not hear PE teachers asking English and Science teachers to help with engaging the less able or willing pupils in Pe. No, we look for ways to engage them as much as possible. Might be an idea for you to try that too.

Shut up. 

 

A final Word

I want to reiterate a few points:

  • I do not advocate removing disengaged pupils from PE lessons; I advocate the removal of disengaged pupils from school sports teams

 

  • My vision for the removal of disengaged pupils is not a cold-hearted approach. I envisage a formalised process of reintegration into school teams for disengaged pupils through joint coaching by teachers from a range of subject disciplines. Imagine the following:

 

The Captain of the school football team is removed from the team because he’s been on behaviour report in English and Science and he is not making any changes to his disruptive behaviour. He is called into the PE office and told that he has been removed from the team. A discussion then takes place in which the PE teacher begins, “So, we need to come up with a plan to get you back into that team because we need you. How can I-and your English and Science teachers- help you to improve your behaviour and get you back in the team where you belong? What are you finding difficult? “

 

  • I do not hate PE teachers. I think some PE teachers are great. Just as I think some teachers are great.

 

  • I think PE teachers have more power than ever before in raising the GCSE attainment levels of working class boys.

Dear PE Teachers…

Dear PE Teachers,We don’t talk enough. You see, I’m an English teacher. When we were growing up, as you were feeling the triumph of scoring the winning penalty for the school team, I was enviously penning poems about what that might feel like. And now, as I teach sub-clauses from the blissful warmth of my classroom, you’re out there and shivering and shuffling subs on the muddy gradient we all call ‘the field’. And in the future -if educational folklore has it correct- when I’m still a classroom teacher, you’ll be SLT.

Today, I want to breach the gap between us and bring us together in the aim of achieving one goal. Today, I am not concerned with our futures, but the futures of the students we teach and I’m concerned with the power and the responsibility that you –PE teachers- have now, to ensure that these students have the physical and intellectual means to access the marvellous futures they deserve.

Data released by UCAS earlier this month, reveals that young, white working-class men are 50% less likely to attend University than their female counterparts. A recent report from the Sutton Trust showed that only 29% of white working class boys living in socially deprived areas continue in education past the age of 16. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commision, white working-class boys have the lowest levels of attainment at GCSE than any other social or ethnic groups. All teachers have a responsibility to reverse this trend, but I ask you to consider this: Who has the most power to influence this change: Mrs Smith from Geography who ‘only buys Waitrose’? Mr Jones from History who road bikes around France in half term? Mr Pink from English who eats pastrami and rocket sandwiches? The answer, of course, is none of these. The answer is you.

The link between physical activity and the working class is an age old one. You only have to walk through a school playground to realise that the thing that most working-class boys love, more than anything else, is sport. As PE teachers, you are ambassadors of sport and as a result of this, our young working class boys idolise you. As a casual, and slightly envious, observer of the influence you possess, I want you to know I’m fed up. I’m fed up of fifteen year old captains of sports teams proudly telling me, someone they should want to impress, that they’ve, ‘never finished a book’. I’m fed up of giving detentions to boys, who refuse to engage in lessons, whose blazers are littered with badges that commend them for their sporting achievment. I’m fed up of hearing students – and teachers-, perpetuating the false dichotomy that people are either ‘clever’ or ‘sporty.’ If smart people can become more active, active people can become smart.

So, this is what I ask of you.

Please, stop picking naughty boys for your school teams. Boys shouldn’t be given the opportunity to score tries if they’re not trying in class. If they can’t get themselves to maths, you shouldn’t be taking them to fixtures. If they refuse to exercise their brains, then they shouldn’t be exercising their legs. When making selections for school sports teams, ask students to bring their most recent academic report and check for progress made. If they’re not making progress, they’re not on the team. Alternatively, ask students to bring written statements of commendation from their academic subject teachers. If they’re proving themselves in Science or History or ICT, give them the opportunity to prove themselves on the field.

Get your tracksuited torsos into assemblies and tell students what you’re reading. Tell them about your favourite books and how reading has benefitted you personally. If you don’t read yourself, start and start now. It’s never too late. There’s lots of books out there, and they’re not all sports biographies. Try genres you’ve never tried before and get students to do the same.

Ask students what they’ve learnt in Science.

Ask students what they’ve learnt in Maths.

Ask students what they’ve learnt.  

Fill your mini-buses with books and paint hulking great lines of poetry onto the walls of your changing rooms. Lines from poems such as ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling in which he asserts:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.

 

That’s powerful.

I’m aware that people will tell me that for some students, PE is their only opportunity to shine and depriving them of this opportunity is cruel and unfair. Rubbish. High-achieving students who despise PE don’t get a choice: they have to do PE. Likewise, students who love PE shouldn’t be giving anything less than their best in academic subjects.

I want to finish today by asking you to think about how PE is not only a subject worthy of study in its own right, but also the means by which we can encourage students to achieve in other subjects. The students who love your subject won’t all become athletes. This is not necessarily because they lack the talent to do so, but because they lack drive and determination. Tell your students, if they want to realise their sporting potential then they need to practice persistence and they need to practice resilience. They need to practise what it feels like to try and fail. If you think PE is the only subject which can instill these values in pupils then you’ve never read Shakespeare or attempted balancing an equation or tested a chemical compound for its elements.

I strongly believe that PE teachers are the most powerful teachers we have at our disposal. As an English teacher, I value your subject. I just need your help in getting students to value mine.

 

Making No Sense of it All.

I’ve just spent the past half hour espousing the need for a knowledge-centered curriculum, as opposed to a discovery-centered curriculum based on skills, to my colleagues. I guess I was arguing for a traditionalist approach whilst my colleagues were strictly progessive. They used phrases like, ‘we need to educate the whole child’ and ‘we should be teaching them the skills for real life.’ I realise that my desire to perceive education as belonging to one of either of these two approaches will rankle with some. However, I am at the early stages of my foray into evidence-based practice and educational debate; I need to think in terms of these binary oppositions, for now. Only once I’ve understood these, will I be able to form a clearer, more nuanced opinion. Knowing black and white will give me a clearer opinion of grey. 

Here’s a summary of my thinking:

Above all else, students should be taught knowledge and they should be taught it directly and explicitly. Less time should be given to discovery-learning tasks and the honing of skills; more time should be spent on teaching students as much knowledge as we can possibly teach them in the short time frame we have.

Here’s what my colleagues think:

We should educate the whole child. In real life students don’t need to know what a caesural pause is, but they will need to know how to be resilient. Giving them ‘the answers’ doesn’t teach them anything.

Here’s my argument:

Students that know more will be more able to discover skills, at a later date, the skills needed for the ‘real world.’ Students that know more, will develop skills such as independence, resilience and grit, simply through exposure to advocates and practisers of these concepts in taught instruction. Besides, people that assume that a knowledge based curriculum dispenses with these skills don’t take into account the fact that any knowledge has to be consolidated through post-modelling practice and testing-two things which could contribute to the development of independence, resilience, and grit. If you fail a test on something you’ve been taught, you need to be resilient and independent in your approach to ensure you don’t make the same mistakes again. Furthermore, progressives who advocate a discovery approach are underestimating the opportunities that life outside of the educational environment provides to develop these characteristics.

Here’s what my colleagues said in reply:

Education is real life; we shouldn’t see school and time outside of school as separate. It is damaging to children. Rather, we should be advocating a holistic approach.

 

And that’s as far as we’ve got. For my own good, I want to list things hampering my argument:

• A lack of knowledge; I want to be able to cite studies that contradict my opponents’ argument but lack the know-how to do this confidently and fluently.

• Recognising the truths in my opponents’ statements. For example, one colleague told me, “Everything you’re saying is based on knowledge that you’ve acquired on your own. You’ve developed the skill of self-education.” He’s right, isn’t he? I argued that without direct instruction, I can’t be sure that what I’m teaching myself is correct, but this seemed to hold no sway.

• Lack of clear definitions: Is a discovery-based approach the same as a progressive approach? Is this the same as a skills-based approach? And what is a skill?

• My reputation for being provocative and contrary.

• My desperation for things to be black and white, when in fact they’re probably grey.

• My reluctance to admit this to colleagues.

• My reluctance to admit defeat.

 

 

 

 

Traditionalist Fridges

When people ask why I favour a traditionalist approach, I readily reply with the following crude analogy:

If I’m hungry and I want to be fed, what’s going to nourish me quicker: Discovering where the fridge is of my own accord, or being told, through careful explanation, where it is?

This analogy, I suspect, will infuriate many of you, particularly if you consider yourself to be a traditionalist; It’s too crude. It suggests that traditionalist teaching is a tell-‘em-and-let-them-get-on-with-it approach, which it simply isn’t, despite what progressives might attempt to lead us to believe. And so, in an effort to be more accurate, here’s some better fridge-based analogies you might refer to when explaining the benefits of a traditionalist approach.

Crude Analogy v.1.1: The benefits of the Traditionalist Approach

If I’m hungry and I want to be fed, what’s going to nourish me quicker: Discovering where the fridge is of my own accord, or being told, through careful explanation, where it is, and then tested on the location of the fridge on a number of different of occasions, at specifically structured intervals, with the proviso that if at any point I err in mapping exactly where the fridge is, I am to be given prompts which, offer cognitive discomfort, and thereby help me to access the information I need from my long term memory to enable me to recall the exact location of the fridge in a range of contexts?

 

Crude Analogy V2: Knowledge before Skills.

Imagine you want me to build a fridge. You can pick a particular brand of fridge, such as the Cold-O-Rama 500 and ask me to take it apart. I can deconstruct it and look at all its component parts. This will inevitably ensure that I am likely to have the skills that would enable me to build a Cold-O-Rama 500. But, if I go into the real world and I’m asked to build a Snowbox 3000, I’ll be stuck. I only have the skills to build the Cold-O-Rama 500. If you really want me to build a fridge then tell me as much as you can about as many different types of fridge as is humanly possible in the time frame we have. Let me examine fridges in a range of different contexts. Show me big fridges and small fridges. Show me fridges with chiller cabinets and fridges with ice boxes. Show me fridges with the little white plastic bit for eggs. Show me lots of fridges. Instruct me how to take each of these fridges apart and tell me exactly how each goes back together. Then, and only then, ask me to build a fridge that keeps your crab paste at the requiste 8 degrees celcius.

 

Crude Anaogy V3: Instruction before Discovery.

You want me to build a fridge. You heard somewhere that people work well in groups. So, you put me in a group with 5 other people and you asked us to deconstruct and then reconstruct five different types of fridge. We take each fridge apart and then we attempt to put each of the fridges back together. It takes ages. Like, really long, but, we do it. On our own. Generally, it’s the overbearing people in the group that made most of the decisions about what goes where, but they sounded confident so we went with what they said. And now we have five working fridges. Okay, so one of them makes a loud buzzing sound everytime you open it and the Cold-O-Rama 500 has a handle that doesn’t quite fit. In fact, the Snowbox 3000 has a handle that is the same colour as the Cold-O-Rama 500, but ah well. They work. We had to chisel away at the inside of the Igloo Zx to make sure the shelves fit and the shelves in the iCool are a bit loose. But the fridges work, so who cares?

Balance for Boys.

Last week, in a department meeting, I told my colleagues the following: 

English teachers across the country are so focused on addressing, combating, and undoing the deplorable wrongs inflicted on women in society, media, and literature for centuries, that they’re inadvertently alienating the boys.

Only, of course, the above is what I was trying to say. What I actually said, was far more rambling. In fact, I cringe as I recall making reference to the hypocrisy of the advertising world using scantily clad men to sell yoghurt. As if that was going to help me push my case. So, it’s time to make amends. Here, right now, I’m trying to articulate myself the best way I can: through writing rather than speaking. And what I want to articulate is this: English is over-feminised.  That is why less boys than girls are doing English at KS5 and at University; that is why girls are outperforming boys in exams; and in a more local context, that is why boys may feel that they suffer from lesser support in English lessons as a result of their male-ness.

There aren’t many subjects that explicitly provide students with the opportunity to explore what it is to be male or female, but English is one of them. And, as an English teacher, we are able to facilitate-and, crucially, direct- some quite fascinating gender debates.  I absolutely love challenging students-male and female- who every year, write off Curley’s wife, from Of Mice and Men, as a ‘slag’:

 “Why?” I ask, “Because she’s flirtatious? Aren’t people allowed to flirt? Have you considered that she may just be lonely and, because of the sexist culture she lives in, she feels the only way she can achieve some companionship is through sexual suggestion. Isn’t that appalling?”

In a curriculum that is largely dominated by the works of dead white men, I feel it my duty to challenge sexist representations of women at every opportunity. And yet, I am increasingly starting to ruminate: What is this doing to the self-esteem of the boys in my class?  Is this constant hammering home of the fact that men have treated women unjustly for centuries going to make them like English? Or will they be bored to the teeth of hearing how hard it is to be a woman, without due consideration for how tough it is to be a man?

I teach ‘A View from the Bridge’ to Year 9 and every year, in reference to the tragic ending of the play, I say something along these lines:

“See what happens when you let masculine pride take over? It’s ridiculous. A man dies, for nothing else than masculine pride. It’s stupid; it’s idiotic. It’s childish.”

And, sure enough, the whole class and I laugh in utter disbelief that a grown man could be so infantile. Look how liberal we are! Stupid men! Boo-hiss stupid men! Let’s consider an alternative comment:

“Don’t you think it’s disgusting that Catherine refuses to consider Eddie’s suspicions about Rodolpho?  Hasn’t Catherine considered the pressures society puts on a man to protect those he loves? How unfair of her not to try and understand him!”

I don’t think that many teachers would feel comfortable with stating the above. In fact, I’m not sure that for many of us, such a comment would even spring to mind. Perhaps, as English teachers, we need to start readdressing the gender balance, by planning responses to texts that take into account the difficulties of being a male: Perhaps Gatsby isn’t a selfish, naïve dreamer, but a really, really great man. Perhaps Romeo isn’t as ‘wet’ as all teachers seem so determined to make him appear. Perhaps, the boys on the island do a far better job at surviving than a group of girls would. Perhaps.

With regard to the issue of balance, when I stated, in our department meeting, that the English curriculum is over-feminised, a male colleague replied that no texts that we teach feature a male protagonist with the exception of Jane Eyre. Here’s a list of the texts taught where I am:

  • Frankenstein
  • War Horse
  • A View From the Bridge
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Macbeth
  • The Tempest
  • Twelfth Night
  • The Great Gatsby
  • A Christmas Carol
  • An Inspector Calls
  • Private Peaceful
  • Lord of the Flies

I concur with my colleague’s point. There aren’t enough curriculum texts that a) feature female protagonists or b) are written by women. However, I defend the teaching of the texts above simply  because these are the texts that will imbue students with the cultural capital needed to compete with the 96% of privately educated students who will go on to University after also having studied these texts. That’s not to say things can’t or shouldn’t change. They should. And, as English teachers, we can help to speed up this change:  I believe that ensuring students have an equal balance of ‘male orientated’ (featuring men and written by men) and ‘female orientated’ texts at KS3, the students who study these texts will go on to bemoan the lack of female orientated texts in Michael Gove’s DWM (Dead White Men) GCSSE curriculum. Eventually, these students will become adults and may have the power and influence to actively readdress the lack of gender balance in texts studied in English. Hopefully.

 

When my colleague implied that there was an inherent unfairness in the fact that the majority of taught texts are written by men and featuring male protagonists, he neglected to consider poetry. I have only ever taught the AQA anthology, ‘Moon on the Tides.’ With experience of this only, I’d argue that this collection presents an unfairly negative portrayal of the male gender that may serve to isolate male students. Of the fifteen poems in the ‘Character and Voice’ cluster, three of them- ‘Medusa’ (Carol Ann Duffy), ‘Les Grands Seigneurs’ (Dorothy Molloy), and ‘The Ruined Maid’ (Thomas Hardy)- explicitly, and powerfully, draw attention to the injustices suffered by women at the hands of men over the years: men are respectively portrayed as philanderers, idiotic and cruel, and destroyers of feminine virtue.  A further three of the poems- ‘Ozymandias’ (Shelley), ‘My Last Duchess’ (Browning), and ‘The River God’ (Stevie Smith)- present deplorable portrayals of male personas: men are respectively portrayed as arrogant, murderous, and sexually deviant. Ironically, this is what makes these poems great; in my experience, it is these poems (barring ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘The Ruined Maid’) that students enjoy most and that’s because they ‘get’ them. Students are sadly, all too familiar with the gender stereotypes within them and this sparks some interesting discussion. But one has to ask, what damage is studying such a damning perspective on the male persona doing  boys’ self-esteem and their liking of English as a subject? How can poetry not be ‘girly’ if the best poems are those that reduce men to little more than pantomime villains?

As an aside, I should point out that the anthology has changed. From 2017, we’ll be studying Michael Gove’s DWM anthology. Gone are Carol Ann Duffy’s best poems like ‘Havisham’ and ‘Medusa’, which so powerfully convey the nuances of the female experience, in favour of some of her softer, ‘less feminist’ works. This is an absolute abomination. Things are swinging back too far the other way; we need balance.  The new AQA anthology is now split into two sections: ‘Love and Relationships’ and ‘Power and Conflict.’ Girls and boys you see? I have heard many an English teacher decry, “Boys like war poetry’ and I suspect that this new anthology will encourage many teachers to opt for the ‘Power and Conflict’ section for boy-heavy classes. This is sexist. Boys no more ‘love war’ than girls ‘love relationships.’ War does not capture the experience of the modern male teenager; it’s too abstract. If we’re going to indulge gender stereotypes can we at least credit boys with some humility? Why not teach them poems that focus on the nuances of more quotidian male emotions and experiences, however stereotypical they might seem? How about poems on the first illicit glance at page 3? Or how it feels to lose a fight? Or how girls are absolutely terrifying? These are things teenage boys can relate to and engage with; not war.

I accept the fact that some of what I’ve written may be controversial. And my sense of self is limited by my own experience and my own experience is limited by my anatomy. So, feel free to respond as you please. After all, balance is all I want.