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.

 

 

 

Reading: it’s hard.

If you don’t read, reading can be terrifying.

So, as teachers, I think we can do a lot worse than telling students a few truths about reading. And here they are.

Reading is Hard.

Sometimes, you just don’t feel like it. Your mind won’t focus on the words on the page, instead preferring to contemplate more important things like dinner and that thing that Casey said to Stacey about Tom kissing Lacey. This is normal. Accept it. Sometimes, the things that some bloke or woman you’ve never met before once wrote just aren’t as important as the things going on in your life right now. However, it might do you some good to escape from those things for a bit. So, push on. Set yourself a time goal: I will read for 30 minutes, regardless of whatever vandalic thoughts are trying to break into my brain.

Books aren’t always great, right away.

Don’t expect books to be mind-blowingly exciting right from the off. Sometimes, they just aren’t. Like your favourite TV show, or a new fitness regime, I always recommend ‘giving it three.’ Not three episodes or three weeks, but three chapters. Read the first three chapters and then see how you feel. I’d suspect that, after reading three chapters, you’ll find yourself invested in the plight of the characters you’ve encountered. And you’ll want to carry on. If not? Well, I’m just getting to that…

You don’t have to finish a book.

Life’s too short. If you’re halfway through a book and you’re really not enjoying it, you need to consider this: will finishing the book leave you with a lasting sense of accomplishment that outweighs the drudgery of the actual reading experience? If the answer is ‘no’ then ditch the book and find another. There are lots around!

It’s okay to forget

Great books often have a multitudinous range of characters, settings, and plots. Great books are also often long which renders them impossible to finish in one sitting. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on perspective) the human memory is a complex thing and sometimes you’ll return to a book and realise you’ve forgotten an important aspect of one of the characters. Or, you can’t remember an important plot twist. Or, you can’t remember how the protagonist found himself free-falling through the sky with only a plastic carrier bag to use as a parachute. Forgetting is fine; it doesn’t make you a ‘bad’ reader. Just do what all good readers do: flick back through and re-read. It’s annoying, and time-consuming, but so is life. Deal with it.

Not understanding doesn’t mean you are stupid.

Charles Dickens loves to make me feel stupid. I’ve been reading ‘Bleak House’ for what seems like an eternity. The thing is, at times I  just don’t have a clue what’s going on. And that makes me feel stupid. But, I’m starting to realise something: sometimes, when I read Dickens, I have absolutely no doubt as to what’s happening- it’s clear as day. And actually, the bits where I have no clue as to what’s happening are the bits where Dickens has made things really confusing: he’s addedmore characters than are necessary; he’s used a periodic sentence that is so long-winded ive forgotten it’s original purpose; or, he’s used words that were surely archaic even in the 19th century. I now see Charles Dickens for the writer he truly is: at times a genius; at others, really rubbish. One might reasonably argue that a writer’s job is to make things as clear as possible for the reader. So, just because you don’t understand something you’re reading, don’t immediately declare yourself ‘rubbish at reading’; perhaps, your author is just being a bit rubbish at writing.

Pupil Premium: Change Attitudes; Not Teaching.

The ‘Pupil Premium Gap’ as it’s known, is a problem. Honest, it says so here.

The gap in Pupil Premium students’ attainment is something that all teachers want-or should want-to change. And they are keen to offer solutions to the problem. Here’s a few of them that I’ve heard, or read:

  • Spend more time marking PP work.
  • Ensure that you sit PP students at the end of rows so you can give them more attention.
  • Buy PP students revision guides to GCSE texts.
  • Pay for PP students to go on trips.
  • Differentiate work for PP students.
  • Buy books for PP students.

Perhaps it’s because I work in a distinctly middle-class school but these suggestions have often, no, always, left me inclined to respond: “That’s bollocks.” I’ve always felt that suggestions such as these are part of a big tick box exercise; part of a desire to be seen to say the ‘right thing’ without truly believing in what you’re saying. Like people who proudly tell you they ‘love gay people’ without realising that there’s nothing more homophobic than assuming something about a person based purely on their sexuality.

I have no reason to be so cynical. Or at least, none that I’m consciously aware of. And yet, the solutions listed above, to the Pupil Premium ‘problem’, jar with me. For me, the only solution to closing the Pupil Premium gap is a wholesale attempt at changing attitudes to students from low-income families. As far as I can tell, teachers fit into at least one of the following three categories:

  • More likely to be from middle-class backgrounds than working-class backgrounds.
  • Even when from working-class backgrounds, more likely  to be socially aspirational than not.
  • More likely to socialise with ambitious and  socially aspirational peers, than peers who aren’t ambitious or socially aspirational.

There’s no evidence for this whatsoever. I’ve done no research.All this is based on my own personal experience. There are exceptions. Anyway, I believe that belonging to any one of these three categories will render teachers less able to empathise with students from lower-income backgrounds. Controversial, perhaps. But it might be the truth.

A close friend of mine recently bought me Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book about how disturbingly accurate human beings can be in making ‘snap judgements.’ It turns out, our instincts are remarkably accurate. And that got me thinking. What if I’m right? What if the only way to truly solve the Pupil Premium Gap is a wholesale change to the way teachers perceive Pupil Premium students from low income backgrounds.

In 1998, psychologists Anthony G. Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji, and Brian Nosek developed a test of our subconscious racial prejudices, known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). As I’ve already stated, the test, which you can try here, aims to measure our implicit or ‘automatic’ responses to black or white people. According to Gladwell, 80% of people who have ever taken the test ‘end up having pro-white associations.’ This is regardless of whether they are black or white themselves and regardless of whether they are consciously discriminating or not. In other words, if you are the type of person, white, black or otherwise, who can confidently -and rightfully- state, ‘I am not a racist; I do not discriminate’, this in no way determines that you will not end up with a test result that states that you are ‘strongly predisposed to white Europeans.’ In fact, there’s more than an 80% chance that this is the result you will receive. This doesn’t mean you’re an evil person. It just means that you’ve been brought up in a world where you are bombarded with images of ‘goodness’ being white and ‘blackness’ being bad.

So what does this mean for teaching and Pupil Premium attainment? Well, it means that there’s every chance that teachers-even liberal, caring, nurturing teachers- who constantly bang on about the improving the plight of ‘those poor Pupil Premium children’, could still harbour strongly negative attitudes towards people from low income backgrounds, because the media bombards them with the idea that people on low incomes are worse people than people on higher incomes. (Incidentally, before I go any further, I would dare to suggest that, actually, a lot of teachers are explicitly biased against people from lower income backgrounds; the amount of time I’ve heard the word ‘Chav’ used disparagingly by grown adults is disgusting. If you’re one of these people, stop. It’s offensive.)

Where was I? Oh yes – all hope is not lost! Gladwell discusses evidence to suggest that subconscious biases can be changed. You can read the full thing online; It’s called ‘On the Malleability of Automatic Attitudes’. Nilanjana Dasgupta and Anthony G. Greenwald gave a load of people the IAT. Only, this time, before the participants completed the IAT, they were subjected to a number of images that depicted either a)  images of ‘admired’ black people (e.g. Nelson Mandella, Martin Luther King)  and images of ‘disliked’ white people (e.g. Charles Manson) or b) vice versa. Sure enough, participants that had been subjected to positive images of black people reported ‘significantly weakened automatic pro-white attitudes’ during a subsequent completion of the  IAT test. This effect lasted at least twenty four hours.

Okay, so pro-black attitudes didn’t improve significantly after participants were subjected to ‘admired-black images’, but ‘pro-white’ attitudes were significantly diminished and remained diminished too, 24 hours after initial exposure to ‘admired-black’ imagery. And this does show that attitudes can change. Clearly, more research needs to be done but the implications are huge:

What can this mean for bridging the Pupil Premium gap? Well, there’s a whole new range of solutions to the problem that we might consider:

  • Teachers must be explicitly exposed to stories of admirable people from low-income backgrounds
  • Teachers must be explicitly exposed to high level work from Pupil Premium students, regardless of whether they teach them or not.
  • Teachers must undertake community work that will bring them into contact with people from low-income backgrounds attempting to have a positive impact on society.

It’s worth thinking about.

 

 

Positive Teacher?

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

Here’s a selection of my  first tweets:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David

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

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

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

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

A New Approach to Persuasive Writing.

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

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

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

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

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

Arnold

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is it okay to ‘mate’?

I’m sure my colleagues wince when I do it. ‘Mate’, that is.

To kids on the corridor: “Can you tuck your shirt in mate?”

To kids in my class: “Couldn’t hand the books out could you mate? Thanks.”

To kids I manage pastorally: “Mate, how have you been today?”

Even as I type the above examples, I’m uncomfortably aware of the disapproving shakes of the head that they will inspire.  However, before you all make mental notes that read, ‘DO NOT EMPLOY THE MATEY BLOKE’, allow me, if you will, the opportunity to explain myself.

Although I have a creeping suspicion that I am now, due to the wonders of social mobility,’middle-class’, I like the idea that people might perceive me as working class. Although living 15 or so miles from central London, I came of age in a time and place where mockney ‘geezer’ culture was at an all time high. At eighteen years old I was calling – to my  present embarrassment- girls, ‘birds’ and twenty pound notes, ‘scores.’ Polo shirts were always worn buttoned to the top and the only choice of trainer was a Reebok classic. I learned everything-lock, stock, and barrel- from Guy Ritchie.

For the most part, as time went on, I grew up. Misogynist nouns were shed and the etymology of rhyming slang became more interesting than using it. Five years went by and then, when I became a teacher, I made a conscious decision to re-introduce into my vernacular, some of the mockney colloquialisms I had once decided to outgrow.

So, now I reprimand students by snarling, “Don’t mug me off”. If I’m feeling particularly excited by a class discussion on the banquet scene in ‘Macbeth’ I’ll  refer to Banquo as ‘brown bread’ (dead). And, if I’m in a really good mood, I’ll use  ‘mate’ as a term of endearment to refer to a student. Why would I lower myself so? You want the honest answer? I do it because I think it makes male students like me and I do it because I think it will make male students more likely to do what I ask. And I think it works. In just a short time, I quickly became known as a teacher that is ‘good with  the naughty ones’; in a relatively short space of time I have found myself being promoted into positions of authority where I am given  responsibility in assisting in the reformation of students that display challenging behaviour. Like it or not, I strongly believe that my concious decision to ‘roughen up’ my speech has assisted with this.

But H-dropping, TH-fronting and T-glotalling has its problems. Loads of ’em. Here’s three that spring most immediately to mind:

  1. It makes students-and colleagues- think I’m stupid. One colleague once responded to my saying an FHM article was well written by saying, “You probably think it’s high art, knowing you.” She didn’t know me. More forgivably, a student (not an adult with a degree) asked me, “Why do you speak so stupidly when you write so wonderfully?”
  2. Students feel that me calling them, ‘mate’ means that they can call me the same. This has proved particularly awkward, especially as the students who call me ‘mate’, tend to be those students most desperate to please me.  Telling them that it’s okay for me to call them mate, but not vice versa is a) awkward and b) makes me sound like a hypocritical prick.
  3. As whole-school literacy coordinator, it’s my job to ensure that students have high levels of written and spoken literacy. I constantly question myself: am I undermining all the other work I do in school to improve students’ spoken language.

 

So what do I do to counter these problems?

  1. I’m frank with students. I’ll tell them that I am mature enough to know how and when to adapt my speech and that they, probably aren’t.  If they’re offended I’ll tell them about students (no names mentioned) who call me ‘mate’ in the corridor. Generally, I find they cringe as much as I do in the re-telling of this and they’re content, from that point on, to speak to me as is appropriate: ‘Sir’ rather than ‘mate.’
  2. I’m franker with students. I’ll tell them that I call them ‘mate’ because I want to appeal to them. I want them to like me and I want them to do what I want. I tell them I consciously put these colloquialisms into my classroom talk for these reasons. I believe that if they can see me making concious decisions about how to speak, they will think carefully about their own speech.
  3. I’ll tell students the problems (listed above) that speaking as I do can cause me as a professional. This interests them and again, it gets them thinking consciously about language.
  4. I speak in ‘high style’ far more often than ‘low.’ For every, ‘mate’ there’s the full name of a child. For every ‘brown bread’ there’s a ‘deceased.’ For every sentence that sounds like I’m gabbin’ with me mates in the boozer, there are ten more that sound like I’m writing a dissertation. I model exemplary speech.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

Sharing: It’s Overrated.

It’s not good to share. At least, it’s not good to share when all ‘sharing’ really means is pinching a PowerPoint from a colleague at break-time and droning through it with year 9 later on that day. Because, no matter how ‘exciting’ the PowerPoint-humorous Shakespeare memes or not- if you haven’t put just a bit of heart and soul into it, droning is exactly how you’ll sound, whether you’re aware of it or not. Kids aren’t stupid. In my opinion, this type of sharing breeds laziness.

 

So what led me, two weeks ago, to use a PowerPoint I’d got from someone else? And how did this experience lead to one of the most rewarding lessons of my year so far?

 

It was year 7, last lesson on a Thursday. I’d had a busy week: a stressful meeting with a difficult parent; a school trip, and a faculty ‘health check’ in which I was being observed one day, and observing on two others. Time was at a premium and unfortunately, through what I’m somewhat ashamed to admit was a quite rational though process, I decided that it was my Year 7s that would get the worst of me. So I didn’t plan their lesson on alliteration. Instead, someone else had planned a lesson on alliteration, ‘shared’ it with me ten minutes before I was due to teach and I delivered it.

 

So the plenary question was thrilling: What is Alliteration? The kids that hadn’t a clue were a bit stumped as to what to do at this point, but, on the whole, the majority of the darlings were keen to impress.

 

“It’s where every word in a sentence has the same letter at the start!”

 

This perturbed me: “Well, actually, that’s not strictly true…” The class was genuinely amazed when I explained that, actually, with alliterative sentences, words didn’t have to be next to each other. And what’s more, not every word in the sentence has to have the same letter.

 

“So we’ve had it wrong all these years?”

 

“Erm…yes.”

 

Back to the PowerPoint. Another question on another slide asked students to explain why writers use alliteration. Of course,  everyone in the class, even those who five minutes previously hadn’t known what alliteration was, told me it was used because it was ‘catchy’ for the reader. As I shook my head disappointingly, I noticed that the next slide on the PowerPoint confirmed the students’ limited assessment of alliteration’s usage.  And this is where the lesson became a lesson.

 

Put yourself in the scuffed shoes of those students in my classroom: For the first fifteen minutes of this lesson there’s not been any indicators that the man charged with educating you is human at all; he’s just been frowning as he reads the words on the PowerPoint. He’s been stumbling over the words on the screen; it’s almost as if he has no idea of what information is going to be on the next slide, or if there’s even going to be another slide. And yet, in spite of what must surely be troubling him, the monotony of his delivery suggests he feels nothing. And then, all of a sudden, something happens. A few of you have just eagerly told him that alliteration makes things catchy and his frown becomes a raised eyebrow. And then, under that raised eyebrow something becomes clearly visible. A spark! No, a glint! A wicked glint.  Then it happens. This man utters the immortal words that send shivers through your pre-pubescent spine:

 

“As a teacher, I’m not really supposed to say this, but…”

 

You hear a pin pen drop. It’s yours. You hear 29 other pens drop and maybe a few jaws too. Is he human after all? What’s he going to say? What could it possibly be?

 

“As a teacher, I’m not really supposed to say this, but…but…you’re all WRONG!”

 

The class erupts into laughter at the Basil Falwty-esque delivery of what is surely a wicked thing to tell us. We’re wrong? But the PowerPoint says..How can this be? Why? How? How are we wrong?

 

Okay, so the class wasn’t, strictly speaking, wrong in telling me that alliteration makes things catchy. It does. But there’s more to it than that. Before I fully committed myself to telling this bunch of eleven year olds about alliteration used for emphasis, I took a quick glance behind me at the next PowerPoint slide:

 

COMPLETE THE FOLLOWING USING ALLITERATION:

THREE THISTY THUNDERSTORMS

FOUR FEARSOME FIRES

FIVE FOOLISH FOXES

SIX…

SEVEN…

EIGHT…

NINE…

 

Sod that. I turned the PowerPoint off and told them. I told them all about how alliteration is used to emphasise certain words or ideas. Free from the shackles of the crap PowerPoint, I reached for a GCSE text to give them a clearer idea of what I was bangin’ on about. After giving them a plot overview (without spoilers) of To Kill a Mockingbird, I wrote up my favourite piece of alliteration from any book ever:

 

…a black dog suffered on a summer’s day…

 

I told the students all about the fictional town of Maycomb and they were fascinated. They could all tell me that the words Harper Lee wanted to put emphasis on were ‘suffered’ and ‘summer’s’. Jake (end of KS2 Level 4c) told me that you don’t expect summer to be associated with negative feelings such as suffering so maybe the writer was trying to pique the reader’s interest. Somebody else explained that maybe things aren’t as they seem in the town and this might be significant later on in the book.  Marcus (end of KS2 Level 5c) was able to tell me that the words ‘dog’ and ‘day’ were also alliterative. On telling him I’d never noticed that before, Carlene replied by putting her hand up and asking me, “Isn’t there a phrase, ‘dog-days’, that means the hottest days of Summer?” Blimey. And it went on and on from there. I ended the lesson by getting them to use ‘grown-up’ alliteration that puts emphasis on certain words for a reason. And they did. Since then, one or two of them has told me they’ve asked for To Kill a Mockingbird for Christmas. I did that. Off my own back, and without a PowerPoint that lacked challenge and interesting material. I thought and I delivered and they impressed. But more than any of that, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it at this stage, what pleases me most is this: In every lesson I’ve had with those kids since, they can’t wait to be told they’re wrong.