Some thoughts about A level reform…

I have followed some of the reactions to the recently-announced proposals for A level reform at a bit of a distance, occasionally commenting but, more often than not, sitting back and assuming that others, apparently more forthright and confident than I, probably know better.

But, increasingly, I find myself at odds with what I’m reading. At odds, specifically, from a subject perspective. I don’t want to restrict social mobility, reduce students’ life chances or apply a reductively revisionist approach. As a teacher, that would surely be foolish. However, as an English teacher, I have never liked the AS level and Gove’s proposal seems, to me, to be good for my subject at least, if not for any others.

Let’s start with the hoop-jumping evil of the Assessment Objectives. I hate them. They are useful as possibilities but as a ‘be-all-and-end-all’ requirement, they reduce literary criticism to a series of box-ticking endeavours. I often read brilliant responses to literature: insightful, exploratory and incisive. If there’s no mention of context though, go to jail, go directly to jail and do not collect any of the marks available for that aspect of work which is, so often, a ‘bolt-on’. Now, I know that Gove’s plans won’t necessarily remove the AOs but my argument is this: if we are essentially testing the same things twice in English, once in Year -2 and once in Year 13, why bother? Why put raw, partially-developed students through a process after one year if we know that they will be better at it after two? If we think they’ll have it cracked during Year 12, what is the point of Year 13 other than to study a wider range of texts?

From my own A level English experience – late 1980s, in a Surrey sixth form college – I know that an AS level result would have restricted my university options. I was a terrible first year A level student: I worked hard but I just didn’t ‘get it’. Following my result of the college’s internal first year English exam my teacher took me to one side (not so far that the rest of the class couldn’t hear though), told me I was stupid and that my dreams of going to read for an English degree would never come true. Quite a special lady, my A level English teacher.

The point is this though: had that result been an AS result, she might have been right. I needed another period of study before I had my moment of epiphany: ‘Ah, so *that’s* how you write about literature’. I don’t think I truly got it until university – I can still picture that moment of revelation, discussing texts in the coffee shop with fellow undergraduates, but that’s another story.

What I think I’ve been trying to say here is that English, for me, is a subject that needs time to percolate, to practise and to perfect. Testing students after one year on the same AOs as will be tested at the end of year two (albeit in different combinations) seems unnecessarily brutal, a measure which suits those who already ‘have it’ or who learn to perform tricks quickly. For this English teacher, a two-year process seems fairer and more conducive to encouraging students to experiment, explore and, perhaps most importantly, to take that leap of faith which good literary criticism requires.  Why do they need to be ready to be tested on that at 17 when there’s every chance that they will be better at it one year later?

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Some thoughts about poetry teaching…

So, as something of a latecomer to the Twitter fold, as more (perhaps) of a lurker than a participant, I watch & learn (& sometimes envy). It feels, as a Pastoral Middle Leader & English teacher of Years 8-13, that there’s a lot of exciting work going on out there, thoughts especially about teaching & learning (or learning & teaching, depending on your preference) but that I exist on the edge of this stuff; I read tweets & blogs by Headteachers, Assistant Heads, ASTs & Heads of Department. What I’m not quite sure about is how many main scale teachers are blogging about their work (I consider myself main scale in this sense as I have no specific Departmental responsibility): is there a gap out there? I’m not talking about ‘a gap for filling’, to borrow, inaccurately, from Owen’s ‘Insensibility’ but, instead, I’m wondering if it might – and I’m thinking more about English teaching here than any other subject – be an issue of space; space & time to think about teaching afforded to those who divide their time between a classroom focus & other responsibilities. Is there such a thing as ‘too close to blog’?

These musings have caused me to digress. It’s 4.24am & I’m awake thinking about my lessons. So I thought I’d share some ideas about poetry teaching. Here we go…
1. I like to encourage students to think of poetry as three-dimensional. It’s so much more than words on a page. I want vision & sound & texture to play a part in their understanding. Poetry is art, so I try to show them its colours, its music & its tangible correlations between content & form.
2. I often encourage students to start with the ‘Who?’, the ‘Where?’ and the ‘What?’ Doing this yesterday with the Extract from Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ (AQA Anthology, ‘Moon on the Tides’) really helped to remove an initial barrier constructed by my Year 11 students who had read it once & thought it ‘hard’. Once they realised it is about a boy, on a lake, rowing a stolen boat, we were off.
3. Starting with structural features, poetic techniques, seems to me a dangerous approach. Subject & meaning surely has to be our starting point: what is happening here? Starting with simile, metaphor, alliteration trains students to technique-spot; instead, I want them to approach those aspects as part of the poem’s fabric. Have something to say about the poem’s meaning first, referring to technique only after a quotation, never before. 
4. As a child of the ’80s, I like to use the music video approach. Those narrative videos, ones which tell the story of the song, can be really helpful when approaching poetry. If you were making a film of this poem, what would be happening? Again, this builds on the questions from (2): who are the characters, what are they doing and where would your film be set?
There’s nothing groundbreaking here. I was in awe of the blog I read the other day with envelopes on students’ chairs & writing a version of the poem before reading the poem (dead shelley’s blog, I think – I’ll try to come back here & post a link when I’m not under the covers, blogging via my iPhone). I think I’m more pedestrian than that. Nevertheless, I do break poetry apart, asking students to illustrate words/images/lines to show colours & textures & shapes; I do have them reading aloud, dramatising the sounds (& sometimes the shapes) of the poetry; and I do, above all, try my best to dispel the myth that poetry is impossible to understand. A significant amount of this dispelling, though, needs to be done at KS3, I think… Get them reading and, perhaps more importantly, writing plenty of poetry… understanding the mechanics from the inside can surely only help students’ analytical skills.
But that’s for another blog…
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Twitter-inspired… thoughts on teaching

I joined Twitter in July 2012.  I’d been wondering for a while if it would help me to stay up to date with bands I like, football scores and other such frippery and, indeed, it did.  What I did not foresee was the power of the ‘Tweachers’ (still not sure I actually like that term) and the multiplicity of blogs, resources and educational tweeting (twittering?) that I would discover.

So, I thought I should have a go.  I’m in the fourth year of my reincarnation as a classroom teacher.  I did six years back in the ’90s before heading back to university for some further study and research, a spell as a part-time university teacher, and some short-term educational support roles.  In the last of these, a mentoring post in North Somerset, I found myself gravitating more often than I should towards the English Department…  and so here I am, back in the classroom and wondering what my next step might be.

I’m going to start with what being an English teacher means to me.  It seems a sensible and safe beginning and may actually help me to tease out why I do what I do.  It is a question I ask more often than I’d like at the moment.

English teaching means reading and writing and sharing and laughing.  It means putting myself on the line at times – as my students put themselves at risk – and exposing my likes and dislikes, my attempts at creative writing along with my students who get to give me feedback and learn what it feels like to comment on someone else’s work, someone they might not expect to be able to question or criticise.  It means sharing my belief that words are the key to a future we might choose, rather than one which is chosen for us.  It means smiling as students begin to believe in themselves as writers, witnessing them pushing against boundaries that, for one reason or another, they perceive even when I don’t want those boundaries in the classroom.

To be an English teacher, for me, is to delight especially in poetry in the classroom.  It’s my favourite part of the job.  When students start to understand the beauty of correlations between content and form, moving beyond a ‘poetry is a difficult riddle and I’ll never get it’ state of mind, I feel the buzz in the air.  It was there today, with Year 11… 

And yet, at times, to be an English teacher feels restrictive and manipulated.  The marking makes me want to cry.  I hate the Assessment Objectives and the hoop-jumping, box-ticking requirements which seem so unnatural, so in opposition to what I feel about my subject.

This has been more of a splurge than a blog.  Not quite a ‘barbaric yawp’ perhaps but not entirely what I thought it would be when I re-opened my blog and thought about using it to join the Twittersphere of teacher-bloggers.  Perhaps I’ll get better.  Perhaps this is me.  Perhaps I’ll just stop.  For now though, this is it.  

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Our own silent disco…

For some reason – I can’t trace the trigger – I was reminded the other day of a moment from the summer of 1996, a moment shared with my oldest friend.

We were in Turkey, having decided to spend two weeks travelling around with the help of a ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebook and a ‘Rough Guide’, using each alternately to choose places to visit, places to stay and places to eat.  It was a brilliant trip – a kind of mini-backpacking experience.

On the day of the ‘moment’ we were staying in Goreme, marvelling at the Troglodyte dwellings and enjoying the twists and turns of paths that would take us, without warning, from an almost Star Wars type landscape into an infinite field of sunflowers.  It was a fascinating place; I’ve never been back but I’d love to…

We’d climbed up from the town (village) and were high on a flat-topped rock, looking out to our left towards the ‘fairy chimneys’ of the dwellings carved into the landscape.  Down to our right was the main road.  Wherever we went, we carried books and walkmen (the chunky musical appendage of the pre-iPod generation).  It was sweltering up there – a potentially perfect place to rest, away from the traffic of the centre and in sight of our extraordinary surroundings.

I can’t recall exactly who started it.  We were both listening to music, cocooned by our headphones and unaware of each other’s tape of choice.  One of us started to dance up there on that rock, initiating a silent disco of her own, moving in time to a beat that only she could hear.  What I remember more clearly is the two of us, up on our feet, dancing and jumping around to our individual playlists, oblivious to everything apart from the heat, the rhythm and the sight of each other swaying and twisting and laughing.

My own recollection is of an immense freedom – that ‘dance like no one is watching’ feeling which removes all sense of inhibition.  It was a stripped back, solitary moment, shared with a person I’d known for almost 20 years.  And then we noticed them.  People in the street below were looking up at the two apparently crazy Western women, silhouetted against the sun, arms spread wide, twirling and whirling for no obvious reason.

How could we stop?  The tracks were unfinished, the dances yet to end.  It would have been easy to sit down, embarrassed, to pretend we weren’t really there but the moment demanded more than that so we continued, undaunted by our audience.

I think I’m right in remembering that shortly afterwards some other people joined us on the rock, not to dance, but to introduce themselves and share their travelling stories.  I’m vaguely aware of conversing in schoolgirl German with them but I don’t remember how the story ends other than the fact that we must have come down from the rock eventually, packed up our things and moved on to the next adventure… 

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I want poetry and music and some laughs…

…so Belle and Sebastian sing in ‘Family Tree’.  And, whilst not in that exact order, so went my weekend.

After a day of house-hunting on Saturday – too tedious to blog about but, nevertheless, ongoing – Bristol beckoned in the evening.  The ‘Sing Out Bristol Summer Sing Out’ was my destination: venue, the Anson Rooms in the University’s Student Union.  Over the years I’ve seen many gigs there: Evan Dando’s Lemonheads, one of Badly Drawn Boy’s wonderfully everlasting shows, a superb and sweaty Ash, and the White Stripes spring to mind…  This one, however, was of a somewhat different flavour and, as such, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

The evening began with the Stepford Singers, a really entertaining Bristol-based women’s choir who made a beautiful sound.  Their enjoyment was tangible and when their final song was introduced I felt sorry that I wouldn’t be hearing more from them.  It was the perfect opportunity to cool off though – the hall was warming by the second – and a welcome cider reminded me of the delights of the Union bar.

Sing Out Bristol are fantastic and from the moment they took to the stage until the resonance of their final notes, the evening was a treat.  The choir – find out more at http://www.singoutbristol.com – is a vibrant group and their varied programme for the evening made for an evening of laughter, poignance and sheer admiration – ‘America’ from West Side Story must be a real vocal challenge and yet it was crisp, clear and captivating throughout.  Time slipped by without even a glance at my watch and before I was ready for it, the finale arrived with both choirs – the Stepford Sisters and Sing Out Bristol – raising the roof.  Personal highlights were ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ complete with dance moves and attendant 1980s nostalgia (how could anyone forget Tight Fit?) and the male ensemble’s ‘Lean on Me’ – a mesmerising soloist was sensitively supported by his colleagues, making for a beautiful texture.

It was great to be back in Bristol again, to see some familiar faces and places, and to share in what really felt like a special evening.  I’ve already got 18 June 2011 in my diary…

What followed on Sunday was a perfect afternoon of friends, poetry and sunshine.  In Reading for the 10th Anniversary Whiteknights Studio Trail, I was party to a moment which I know I’ll treasure: Adrian Blamires, reading from his second collection, The Pang Valley (published by Two Rivers Press).  Both Adrian and his fellow Two Rivers poet, Peter Robinson, read a range of their latest poetry, framed on one side by a dazzling blue sky and on the other by friends, family, poetry-lovers, and a bemused ginger cat with striking eyes.  A friend and colleague of mine, Adrian’s latest book, the follow-up to his 2005 collection, The Effect of Coastal Processes, made an immediate impact when he gave me a copy; poems such as ‘Directions’ and ‘Tennessee Williams’ compelling me to read, and read, and re-read.

I’d been anticipating Adrian’s reading for some time, looking forward to hearing his work; for me, poetry takes on a new dimension when heard, rather than read, solitary.  When read by the poet, it feels possible to glimpse a little deeper, to catch something of the moment of conception perhaps, as voyeuristic as that sounds…

It was, for a while, as if I’d been transported back to a time when I connected with poetry in more ways than as ‘teacher’.  In my postgraduate days, I immersed myself in poetry – it was my day’s work – and for a moment, in that sun-scorched passage of time – I was back there, quenching my thirst.  Adrian read in a way that seemed, to me, characteristically ‘him’.  Having only known him since September last year it feels somewhat presumptuous to claim to ‘know’ him and yet the gentleness, the humour, the erudition and the emotion with which he gave voice to his writing made for a falling-into-place of the setting, the occasion and, perhaps most poignantly, some of those who people the collection.

It was hard to leave the afternoon behind and return to a different reality.  The Pang Valley: a resonance I’d not expected until then…

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The well wrought iron…

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I love the intricacy of this picture; the shapes, the lines.  From the lower curve with its inbuilt arcs and swirls, to the upper fan of straight lines intersecting, this snapshot of the Eiffel Tower tells only a part of the tale.  Standing beneath it, on a cold and monochrome April day, I set it against the pale grey sky, thereby capturing and emphasising its artistry; bold inked geometry gives way to a backdrop awash with lightspun clouds…
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My Desert Island Book…

…would have to be Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.  I first read it for my A Level English Literature course, two years of trepidation at the hands of a teacher who began our relationship with the observation that I’d failed to reach the heights predicted of me in my school examinations.  Another puncture to my already pin-cushioned self-esteem; I’d been gradually convincing myself that those grades wouldn’t matter once I took my place at the local sixth form…

Try as she might, she couldn’t stop me loving English; she couldn’t stop me being excited by the new things I was reading.  And when Wuthering Heights showed me what pre-twentieth century fiction could be, when it took me away from prim ladies and conventional gentleman, I was captivated.

Today, over twenty years later, I still feel a sense of wonder when faced with Bronte’s narrative – non-linear, multiple-voiced, the confident immediacy of the opening line (“I have just returned from a visit to my landlord–the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with”).  The extremes of love and hate, tenderness and violence, life and death that provide the novel’s pulse are, in my opinion, unmatched.  From the wrist rubbed to and fro on the broken pane to the “eternal rocks” of Catherine’s love for Heathcliff, the writing exemplifies Bronte’s brilliance. 

For some time, I read the book again every summer.  I never tired of it… but I did run out of time for re-reading; my bookshelf began to buckle under the weight of unread texts, and so Bronte was put aside.  Nevertheless, as difficult as it would be to discard Larkin, Woolf, McEwan, Keats, Owen, Waters and Longley amongst the others who people my personal library, if I were to be cast adrift on an island with just one book for company, without doubt that book would be Wuthering Heights.  

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