Archive for the 'teaching' Category

A Brief Epiphany

June 29, 2021

I took a book down from the shelf: The Engineer of Human Souls, by Josef Skvorecky. It’s my choice for next month’s book group discussion and I realised I’d need to re-read it myself, as well as inflicting it on my colleagues. That will be the sixth reading, according to my records. I don’t mind: obviously it’s one of my favourites, for many reasons, and yet it wasn’t on my ‘time to revisit’ list. Slight disconnect in my thinking, choosing it, perhaps.

But at the same time came a moment of sudden clarity, of revelation. How fortunate I am, have been, in that I have spent pretty much my entire life engaged in reading books, something I fell in love with as soon as I learned how to do it.

I don’t mean I haven’t done anything else: I’m happily married, I’ve fathered and helped raise a family, travelled Europe quite a lot, gardened, listened to music and so on. But my whole life is inseparable from reading, and it was wonderful to see it like that, all of a sudden.

I read my way through the school library, Stamford Public Library, studied literature for O Level, A Level, for a bachelor’s degree and researched for two master’s degrees. I taught English language and literature for my entire working life. I’ve written study guides about literary texts, and I’ve maintained this blog – about reading and literature – for over ten years. And now, happily retired, I have all the time I want to read, when I want, what I want. I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to buy any and all the books I want and need.

What more could a person ask for?

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching

March 16, 2021

     I’ve wrestled a couple of times with this ancient Chinese wisdom text and felt I’d not really got anywhere: I know it’s partly a cultural thing, in the sense of how my mind has been trained/ trained itself to think over many years, and not finding it easy to tune into the elusive, enigmatic and contradictory ways that eastern sages present their ideas. So, when I discovered that Ursula Le Guin had done a version, I thought perhaps she might succeed where other translators had failed, as far as I’m concerned.

I found her version – and she’s careful to make clear it’s a version, not a translation – more readable, less archaic and arcane in language, and therefore somewhat more accessible, and she provides helpful glosses and explanatory notes on the page as you read, as well as more detailed information at the end.

And yet, as I read through, I still found myself with questions: how, exactly, am I meant to be reading this text? Through from start to finish? Much more slowly? Chapter by chapter? This isn’t by way of a complaint, more of a realisation that I don’t (yet) have a frame of reference from which to access the book.

Some chapters are much more accessible – I think – than others. I have the impression of an ideal being put forward, which is not attainable though to be striven for, but then at other points I’m reading common-sense, practical hints on how to face life. So what, exactly, is the purpose of the book? At the moment, it seems, the intention is to have the reader slow down, and reflect on their life, how they live it and what they get from it, as well as what they offer others.

Having found Le Guin’s approach more accessible, I shall continue with the Tao, alongside other ancient works of wisdom that have in different ways supported my reflections on life: Socrates many years ago made the point I’ve always cherished, that the unexamined life is not worth living. And the one thing I took away from this reading was something of a revelation about my life and career as a teacher, à propos of Lao Tzu’s point about not hoarding: teaching for me was always about giving and sharing the amazing stuff I’d learnt…

Simon Palfrey: Doing Shakespeare

January 17, 2021

     Here’s a book which I acquired shortly before I retired from teaching and finally got around to reading. But I couldn’t really deduce the who the target audience was meant to be. Not school students, perhaps undergraduates, maybe English teachers quite early on in their career? I tried really hard to engage with it, but found myself frequently skimming rather than reading intently, as I gained the impression that here was someone trying hard to teach his grandmother to suck eggs. And I recognise that to find it over-thought and over-explained was more than a tad unfair…

Palfrey writes from the perspective of a reader of Shakespeare, rather than a watcher of the plays, and tries to make the case for that approach: I can accept that far more people may read him rather than enjoy the plays in the theatre, but we live in an age where recorded performances of many kinds are now readily available. From his premise flows the argument that the reader can, and does, focus more closely on Shakespeare’s use of language, and an insistence on the reader focusing in more depth on how the playwright uses words; I can’t argue with this last point. But writing a general work on how to read Shakespeare more closely does not seem to work very well, and I frequently had the impression of a man trying to nail jelly to a wall.

As the book progresses, the clarity of the author’s focus on the details of how Shakespeare uses language so effectively does develop usefully, supporting the obvious point that in the pace, flow and audience involvement in a performance of a play so much will inevitably be missed. And there is the important idea that a Shakespearean audience would have listened differently from ourselves nowadays, and have tuned in to a great deal more of the vast range of wordplay and wit; it’s useful to be reminded of this and have it exemplified. But four pages to unpick the ranges of meaning in one line from Macbeth is over the top, I feel.

Palfrey is constantly shifting between what I found to be revelatory insights, and the blindingly obvious; in the end, what he’s on about is the multiplicities of meaning available in Shakespeare’s plays, which I knew already. And so I come back to my original two points: who is the book for, and my unfairness in this piece.

I earned my bread and butter teaching Shakespeare in schools for the best part of 30 years, and found that it was possible to awaken students to the variety of Shakespeare’s language and its intensity, and some of the levels and shades of meaning, but that this was always in the context of studying the totality of a single play, reading it several times, and watching it in the theatre or failing that, in a recorded performance. It was a strange exercise, rather like removing the layers of an onion, in the sense that the better they knew and understood a play, the more the students would be tuning into its language along with so many other facets.

Perhaps it’s the attempt to show all of this, using so many of the plays, in one book, that I found most frustrating.

First World War poetry: some help for students

January 14, 2021

I’ve noticed that a great number of people are looking up what I’ve written about First World War poems, and deducing that many of them are students who are preparing these poems for exams or assessments.

Do you need to write an essay about poetry? Here are some ideas to think about, and get you started. They are based on an idea of mine which I used when teaching, called the staircase. It only has three steps, and the idea is that the higher you get up the staircase, the more credit an examiner is likely to give you.

Step one: What is the poet saying?

This is the bottom step, the easiest to do, the one that will get you some marks but not move you very far up the mark scheme. It’s like understanding the plot of a novel. What is the poem about? What happens in the poem? What is the story of the poem, if you like. You are showing that you understand. Bear in mind that you will get very little credit merely for telling the story, unless that’s all the question asks you to do. If you do need to re-tell what goes on in the poem, other than perhaps a brief account at the start of an essay, make sure that you do this for a reason, connected with a part of the question you are answering.

Step two: How does the poet say it?

Now you are getting on to the second step, the real stuff. It is a poem, after all, not a novel or a play, and you are beginning to recognise this and explore detail, in particular acknowledging the poet as an artist or a creator who has set out to do something specific. You are thinking about how it all works, considering the tricks of the poet’s trade as they craft and create their poem.

You will be looking at form, at structure, at language. You will be finding various poetic techniques. The form is a poem, simple as that, although you may also recognise it’s a particular kind of poem, a sonnet for instance. Structure may involve looking at what kind of sonnet it is and how the different parts work, or it may be about looking at what happens as the poet moves through different verses in her/his poem: do they move on through different aspects of their subject?

You may notice rhyme, rhythm, metre. If you read the poem aloud (in your head, in the exam room!) does it move slowly, or quickly? This is the pace of the poem: does it make a difference to how you feel? What might the poet be wanting to do? Look for other poetic techniques. Are words repeated? Is there assonance, onomatopoeia anywhere? What effect do these techniques have? Notice pauses: are they in the middle of a line? At the end? Do the lines run on (enjambment)? What difference do these techniques make?

Again, you won’t get much credit for technique-spotting on its own: you need to say what the poet achieves by using the things you have noticed. Do not worry if you don’t have time to mention everything; there may well be too much. Go for what seems particularly effective to you.

Step three: How well does the poet say it?

This is the hardest part, the top step: your personal response to the poem and the poet’s (hard) work. Remember that there is no law that says you have to like a poem, to like every poem. But whether you like it or you don’t, you do need to try and explain why…

Go into detail. Say what you like and don’t like; explain why; give evidence – a short quotation – that shows the examiner what you’re on about. Don’t be afraid of you reactions to a poem: the examiner likes this part, and there are marks to be gained for a well thought-out and expressed opinion.

More thoughts

Do you need to compare two poems? In that case, your plan – you did write one, didn’t you? – should have the notes on both poems side-by-side so that you can look to move easily between the two poems when you need to, back and forth. A comparison isn’t writing about one poem, then writing about the second and then writing a sentence or two about both of them. It’s trying to consider them both at the same time, alongside each other. It means looking for similarities and differences between them.

Quotations

There isn’t a right number to include. Quotations are evidence, to support your comments, your analysis, your opinions. Ideally they are short, and frequent. You should not be copying in three or four lines of a poem when your point actually refers to three or four words: that’s time wasted that isn’t gaining you marks.

The end

I’m sure I haven’t actually said anything that teachers haven’t already told you. I’ve put it all down on paper, in one place, for you to read and think about, maybe in different words from your teacher. Sometimes that unfamiliar voice helps. Good luck!

If you have found this useful, you can find other posts about different aspects of poetry and literature by using the search box. If you want context or background information on the First World War, look under the ‘Pages’ heading on the left.

Carol Ann Duffy: Collected Poems

November 6, 2020

     A while back, I treated myself to a copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s Collected Poems. Of course, it’s not complete, because she’s still very much alive and writing, and one of my posts on one of her poems is the most read post on this blog, for some reason which no-one has yet elucidated.

My interest in Duffy is two-fold, aside from the fact that she’s a brilliant poet. One is that we were contemporaries as students of English Literature at the University of Liverpool in the 1970s; she did joint honours with Philosophy I think, I with French and so our paths never crossed. And she was my favourite poet for teaching at GCSE, I think because the selection of her poetry connected well with my students: I really enjoyed teaching her poems. Annually we’d take an entire GCSE cohort off to Leeds Town Hall for GCSE Poetry Day, a well-run commercial venture at which Duffy was always one of the featured live poets. You never knew what sort of a performance you’d get – if she had an off-day, it was pretty perfunctory though well-delivered; if she was on form, it was excellent, highly political, and the students raved about her.

And in this collection, I’m discovering a completely different side to Duffy. Obviously the poems for the GCSE Anthology were carefully selected for suitability, though there were a couple of edgy ones, Anne Hathaway, for instance, where you could (carefully) lead bright students who were becoming aware of their own sexuality to use their imaginations…

Duffy is both a brilliant versifier and a very political poet. That feels very trite; you’ll need to explore for yourself to appreciate what I mean here. Much of her poetry is autobiographical in some way: we see her wrestling with Catholicism, and she is very bitter about the toxic effect of religion on people’s lives. She can be harsh, cruel, even vicious in some of her portraits of individuals and character types she has met. She creates vivid memories of her childhood days, and there are powerful memories of her mother, which become very poignant and elegiacal after her mother’s death.

The one particular collection in this huge volume which isn’t so personal is The World’s Wife, where she deliberately gives a voice to the often silent or unheard partners of famous men in history and literature; it is good to experience this more imaginative or creative aspect to her work; I particularly like Anne Hathaway which I mentioned above, and also Eurydice’s counterpoint to the story of Orpheus.

It’s clear that Duffy is also a wide reader of poetry and at times I found myself detecting influences of other poets, or deliberate imitations of them, Donne, Shakespeare and Hopkins to mention a few. I referred above to her poem The Wound in Time, which was her response as poet laureate to the centenary of the Armistice at the end of the Great War; she is clearly as moved by her knowledge of that conflict as I have been and there are a couple of other really powerful poems on the subject – Last Post, and Christmas Truce.

I’m not pretending to do justice to a lifetime’s work in this piece, but to sketch my personal response. I turned the pages, letting my eyes wander, and slowed down and enjoyed the poems which they lit on. For me, at this particular reading, the shorter poems have worked better than the longer ones, and at times I found some of the love lyrics rather repetitive, although she writes sensual and erotic verse better than any other poet I’m familiar with…

It has been so refreshing and eye-opening to explore the full range of her work.

Knowledge and the marketplace

August 25, 2020

Some of what I’m going to say will probably seem blindingly obvious, but my recent reflections on testing, and the astonishing farce that has been the government’s recent attempts to manipulate public exam results in this country, have led me to realise how my feelings about learning have changed as I’ve aged, and how these changes are probably inevitable.

The later stages of my teaching career marked a sea-change in attitudes to education, with most students deciding to study not subjects they necessarily liked or loved, but those they felt would guarantee them a career and decent salary: this wasn’t the way my generation had considered study and learning. Of course, if you wanted to be a dentist or doctor or a vet, say, then you obviously had to follow a particular course for a specific qualification. Otherwise you chose to study what genuinely interested you; this was a motivational factor in pursuing those studies, and you graduated a more developed person, of interest to a range of employers because of the higher level skills you had acquired. I accept that such a choice was rather perhaps rather easier in the days of student grants and free university education.

I always chose to study what interested me, and the testing and examinations were in many ways a minor hindrance that I had to put up with; the exception was training to become a teacher, which had specific aims and objectives as well as necessary theoretical and practical assessment. So my studies of languages began at school and worked towards a degree in English and French. I loved French, felt empowered by being able to communicate in another language, proud of being able to be taken for a native after I’d done my year in France and still pretty chuffed that although many French people now know I’m a foreigner, they can’t tell where I’m from… when in France I just ‘do French’, it comes naturally. It’s not quite so straightforward in Germany as my level of competence isn’t that high – I was taken for a Swede once – but my interest in and fascination by communication and language has never waned, and it’s over 40 years since I graduated.

I read Literature for my first, second and third degrees. What this meant was I could indulge my love of lying on a bed or a couch and reading, but I also acquired what I now realise was a toolkit for exploring what I was reading, setting it in contexts and exploring how it worked and achieved its effects; this toolkit was my vademecum throughout an entire teaching career – the qualifications enabled the access to the career, but the heightened and enriched love of reading has been my lifelong companion, and I like to think I have passed on some of this love and enthusiasm to some of my students over the years.

I could say similar things about other subjects I studied and was tested on: there was a qualification and often a subsequent and lasting interest. And the testing was also temporary, I understood quite early on: once I passed my A-Levels I knew that the O-Levels I’d been so proud of two years earlier were fading into not quite insignificance, but certainly the past. Ditto when I came to take my degree… one level replaced the next, in some way denoting that I’d extended a certain set of skills to another level.

What I have come to realise, and to enjoy, is the feeling that learning has been a lifelong activity, achievement and pleasure; I cannot now imagine it being or having been anything otherwise. I have no real idea whether this is a common feeling, but I am convinced it sprang originally from being able to follow what I liked and enjoyed, rather than feeling obliged to study something for my own good, like a dose of cod liver oil. I’m saddened that many of today’s students seem to feel they do not have the freedom to make such a choice. I’m also conscious that many of the things which have fascinated me – books, reading, languages, history, philosophy – are not regarded as worthwhile because their monetary and economic value cannot be computed, and yet I also know that such subjects create values and cultures…

I’m conscious that I’ve mentioned nothing about the world of maths and science, and this is not because I dismiss or belittle it; it just isn’t my world. Maths I always found hard, though I loved arithmetic and playing with numbers, calculating things in my head, and I still derive much pleasure from it today. I passed the necessary examinations at the time and moved on; most of the science and maths has faded and atrophied from lack of use, though it’s still there somewhere on my personal hard-drive. When I became a vegetarian some forty years or so ago, I read and studied a good deal about nutrition and healthy eating, and I have kept up with this, and manage to understand a good deal of the science involved: what I learned all those years ago has come in useful in an unexpected way…

In a decent world, in a wealthy country like ours, I feel that study should be available to anyone, at any time and in any field, if they have the required time and effort to commit to it. Many people, myself included, discover long after the age of formal education, that there are new things they wish to learn…

In the end, I suppose that my experience does demonstrate that indirectly education serves ‘the market’ in that it enabled me to work and have a career; what seems so wrong to me now is to expect the entire education and qualification system to be reduced to a mere function of the market in every aspect, with the state and the market expecting to produce students to fit certain slots, like widgets, whilst making a profit from them all along the way. Just look at all the money made out of examining students, and all the money made out of student accommodation in university towns…

Failing the future: COVID-19 and schools

August 19, 2020

This retired teacher is profoundly grateful not to have been working under lockdown, either at the chalkface or from home, and is in admiration of anyone who has. I have tried to imagine how I might have taught and managed a full teaching load and run a department under the circumstances, and failed. I have, however, been reflecting on what has been happening and not happening, according to what has been reported in the press.

I am saddened at the thought that students in year 11 and year 13 had such an abrupt and unsatisfactory ending to important stages in their lives, and are uncertain about how their futures may (or not) be affected by the disruption. I wonder why the government has not finally grasped the nettle and taken the opportunity the occasion has presented, to bring an end to university applications based on predictions rather than actual exam results. Having undermined faith in teachers’ professional judgement and set schools in competition with each other, predictions are now highly unreliable for many different reasons. I see no need to comment on the recent farcical sequence of events surrounding this year’s public exam results: it speaks for itself.

What surprises me most of all is that no-one in power has addressed the potential for further disruption: everyone is meant to be back at school in September, whether this can be done safely or not (and that’s another thorny issue). But what if there has to be another national lockdown in winter? Or a series of local lockdowns, of varying length and at different times? How can any system of student assessment through examinations be carried out fairly under such conditions? There used to be a lot of collective expertise in the profession about continuous assessment and moderation – I know, because I was heavily involved in it – but that has all gone.

Is is possible to set up a system whereby exams might be taken in students’ own homes, with sufficient inbuilt security to prevent cheating and personation? I don’t know, but someone should surely be investigating.

What about all the students without access to IT at home? Laptops have been promised for months but none or few delivered. Can a basic device with an OS and software only for school use not be designed and produced, and be enable to work on 4G for those students without broadband at home? This might go some way towards levelling a very uneven playing field; again, I have no notion that anyone is working on this case.

I can imagine that individual schools will be devising protocols for briefing their students fully come September about how things will be done in the event of further disruption, insofar as the schools themselves have been informed…

I have always seen education as society’s investment in its future citizens, as well as individuals’ investment in their own future. And we as a nation have been trying to do that on the cheap for far too long. That’s without thinking about the broader picture, the building of curious, educated and intelligent people, with an interest in knowledge and culture for its own sake, because it’s a good thing; as a nation, I think we’ve thrown that one right out of the window.

Back to lockdown: as a teacher, how could I share a love of books and reading at a distance? How could we discuss the novels, characters and ideas, the issues that they raise, not being together in the same room? More difficult, how to communicate grammar and spelling, analysis of texts and more? How to draw out and encourage the quieter ones, and allow them their moment in the sun?

Even under ideal circumstances – whenever were they? – and with the best of intentions, things can slip. At home, many students will find better, more interesting and more distracting things to spend their time on: who will keep them focused? A parent has to be a parent first, not a teacher, and teachers are trained in their craft, as many parents have been somewhat surprised to realise over the past months.

What I have written comes from the perspective of a secondary phase teacher, where the task is harder because there are so many subjects and input is required from so many different people; I have the impression that some wonderful things have been happening in primary schools because so much comes under the remit of a single class teacher who is able to have more of an overview of the planning of what is taught to their pupils.

I said earlier that I cannot imagine how I would do all this, and yet I realise that it all must be done. I have the picture of a government that isn’t really bothered enough, doesn’t care enough and isn’t competent enough to make the good happen. And so I fear the consequences of the selling short of several years’ education, and what the reactions will be of those young people when they realise just how badly they have been treated. We are not a poor country, and our future citizens deserve a hell of a lot better.

Maryanne Wolf: Proust and the Squid

July 2, 2020

91T9T2C1FjL._AC_UY218_     Something prompted me to return to this fascinating book on what happens to the brain when we learn to read, or indeed, if for various reasons we have difficulties with the process, such as dyslexia. It probably never occurs to us that, although we are born with brains wired for us eventually to develop speech, this is not true of reading or writing, processes that every human needs to learn from scratch. The open architecture of the brain allowed the possibility of humans developing writing and reading…

And then we must take into account the transformative power of these last two achievements on humans and their societies, compared with those which are only oral.

Wolf explains pretty clearly – to this lay and unscientific reader – the astonishing complexity of the processes which take place in the human brain, first in the process of learning to read, and then, when we are readers, in the processing of the texts we read.

Initially, humans developed representative and repeatable signs which could be learned, and eventually derived more sophisticated alphabets where the complete array of sounds could be mapped onto signs or letters. It was fascinating to discover that the human brain functions differently if it has to process ideograms in languages like Chines or letters in languages like ours. Equally, the regularity of an alphabet in the way it maps sounds to writing can lead to earlier fluency in reading: English orthography does not help us here!

There are more interesting historical and philosophical questions for us to reflect on, too: did the alphabet, leading to reading and writing, liberate humans from the hard work involved in sustaining an oral tradition (remembering everything and ensuring it was all passed down accurately through the generations), and thereby allow more complex thought? It may be that writing changed the way we think…

Apparently Socrates was very wary of reading and the written word, feeling that it was dead (thoughts and ideas frozen by being committed to paper), inflexible (once written down it is canonised, in a way) and that it destroys memory (look, for instance, at how little we expect school students to memorise texts such as poems nowadays). And, ironically, Socrates’ thoughts only survive for us now over two millennia later because Plato wrote them down…

Wolf is also very interesting on problems with reading – those often grouped together conveniently under the general heading ‘dyslexia’ – again seeking to explain what happens differently, often much more slowly, in the brains of those faced with such difficulties. It becomes very technical, although to realise that there are differences in how dyslexia affects people according to their language I found very interesting, and I also realised how helpful some of this material would have been early on in my career as a teacher.

There are implications in all of this for our future, which Wolf does not neglect: what changes may be being wrought in the human brain at this very moment with the move from printed to digital text, and the different ways that text can now be used and consumed? She contrasts immediacy with critical effort, and I think that this is an important area for further reflection and consideration; there is a certain kind of ease in the use of digital text which makes me ‘uneasy’. I can recall being unnerved when students used to say to me – of an older generation used to remembering and recalling things at will – “Oh, I don’t need to learn/ know that, because I can look it up…” Where might that lead our species, eventually?

On racism, and fear of ‘the other’…

June 13, 2020

I have been aware of the anger in the US, and more widely, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, though I will admit that I have not been following all the events in close detail. However, as a white male, I have been made to think again about various issues. I’m old enough to remember the US riots of 1968, which are the nearest comparison I can come up with at the moment.

I could say, ‘I’m not a racist.’ But I’m not really a fit person to be a judge of that. I can say that in my teaching career I always sought to challenge what I perceived to be racist comments by any student or colleague, but I can’t say I challenged them all, because again, how can I judge clearly what constitutes a racist comment or statement?

When I start to think about racism, I find myself contemplating it as originating in the fear of what, or who is different in some way from ourselves, because we cannot understand or share their experience. When I travel, I feel more comfortable in lands where I am able to communicate with the people, even in a rudimentary way, and understand and be understood; I feel less secure if I cannot operate in the language. There are cultures that I experience as being so different from the one in which I grew up and have lived in, that, try as I might, I cannot really get beyond what feels like a very superficial knowledge and appreciation. China. India. Japan. For example. And at this point I have always felt that there are two possible reactions: I can fear and reject what I do not understand, or I can be curious and seek to know more. This latter is harder, and one does not always succeed. And I wonder what makes one person fear and then reject, and another curious, and seek to find out more…

I think that I provided places and times for the exploration and discussion of the subject of race at various points in my teaching. Racism in the context of the Nazi extermination of the Jews came up particularly through a novel called Friedrich, by Hans Peter Richter, which I always read with my year 8 classes. The story was more of a diary, year by year, of two boys growing up as neighbours and friends in a Germany which was gradually taken over by the Nazis, and how their stories and lives diverged. Particularly shocking to students was the final section, a historical chronology of all the steps taken by the Nazis against the Jewish population of the country. There was much discussion and much learning; the story was on a human scale, and ended with the boys at roughly the age the students themselves were.

But that text is a sideline, in terms of the issue I’m reflecting on here, which is racism towards people of colour, specifically in the US. Here, three books stand out for me: Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

81oPMLy71QL._AC_UY218_     To Kill A Mockingbird was a GCSE text much loved by teachers and students alike until Michael Gove in his wisdom decided that texts written by non-Brits didn’t count as suitable ‘English’ Literature. A more dim-witted, idiotic decision I cannot recall. I know that the novel is nowadays somewhat looked down upon for a rather patronising portrayal of a black man as victim. I feel that is a simplistic judgement, and one from an adult perspective, and reject it completely when considering the novel as a powerful text through which teenagers – the developing adults of the future – can be brought to explore and consider closely and carefully how racism is both ingrained and institutionalised, and how basically unfair and unjust it is: they are truly shocked by how the story develops, and its tragic outcome. And they also see young white children pushed to confront their own internalised racism. No, it’s not perfect but it is powerful and effective, and I don’t know of a better opening for such a thorny topic to be brought into the classroom.

511vJG6H5DL._AC_UY218_     Mark Twain’s two novels are rather different. Tom Sawyer is a story of nineteenth century boys’ fantasy fulfilment more than anything else: running away from home, skiving, pulling a fast one on teachers, seeing a murder and finding hidden treasure. But the ‘servant’ boy Jim is introduced: he doesn’t have that hard a life in a children’s storybook, but in the 1840s Missouri where the story is set, he’s obviously a slave, owned and exploited by white people. It’s in the next novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that Jim comes into his own, for he becomes a runaway slave. That is a very serious matter, as is the fact that he’s aided and abetted by Huck, the town outcast who becomes his friend, and yet who, in the context of the times, wrestles with his conscience because he realises he’s committing a crime in helping Jim escape, thus ‘stealing’ another (white) man’s property. He also takes time to come to terms with the obvious fact that Jim is a human being on the same level as himself, rather than the inferior being and chattel that society considers him to be. Because Huck is a decent fellow, uncorrupted by ‘civilisation’, and in some ways a vision of the ideal American frontiersman, he does the ‘right thing’ and helps Jim escape from the slave states to freedom.

It’s a heartening tale, and one it’s today fashionable to dislike, condemn and even ban from schools and libraries, particularly in the US. It’s a book of its time – something we should not forget – and that means, among other things, that the infamous n-word is freely and liberally used. How on earth to deal with that in the classroom? In my experience, by full and frank discussion of that word, of offensive language and labels more generally, and what such language can do to people and ultimately lead to. Huck and Jim’s adventures together and their mental and moral struggles speak for themselves, and again open up a world of discussion, debate and awareness-raising, topics not to be shied away from in the classroom. In many ways, it is nowadays a very awkward and challenging read, as well as a very good story. My line always was, ‘if you can discuss it as sensibly and as maturely as you are able, then we will discuss it.’ And almost always, students rose to that challenge, and I respected them for that. I know I would say it, wouldn’t I, but in my experience literature provides many different openings for bringing the next generation of citizens to reflect on the world that they live in, as well as to appreciate the power of great literature.

On being tested (not for COVID!)

June 2, 2020

Something brought to my mind the horrifying realisation that it’s half a century this month since I did my O-Levels, which were the end-of school examinations at age 16 in England way back then. This has had me reflecting on the experience of being tested, which seems to happen a great deal more frequently than in my younger days…

I took the 11+ shortly before my tenth birthday (for some unknown reason, Lincolnshire County Council allowed you a go at age 10 if your school wanted you to, as well as the usual attempt at 11. I knew that it was an important test, on which my future education possibilities depended, and wanted to pass; the headmaster of our primary school coached a small group of us and I was successful. I have no recollection of the experience being stressful, and found the test itself quite straightforward and rather strange in places – I recall a (presumably mathematical) question about an election in which each of the candidates received exactly the same number of votes (2 each).

I was at a small Catholic boarding school when O-Levels came around. For some of the subjects I was aware we were following some kind of course; there were set books to study in English, RE and Latin, for instance, and specific topics to cover in History and Geography. None of the work felt particularly onerous, and I had some idea of the kind of questions I might meet. There was a French oral with an external examiner which required me to read a passage aloud and then converse with him about whatever came up…

I contrast my experience with that of students nowadays, including many of those whom I taught in a career of nearly thirty years: I felt very little pressure or stress, either from myself or my teachers. I have been fortunate in that I evolved a system for organising revision which stood me in good stead through all the stages of my education: no revising after 9pm, and no last-minute panic in the morning, so avoid conversations with peers about the upcoming exam. Triage of material: this stuff I know and understand pretty well, this stuff here needs a more careful look over, this other stuff I really do need to work on…

What was different then? Why did I feel more stressed about whether I’d get through three hours of exam without needing a pee, than about the questions on the paper? You were being assessed on what you knew and understood, and the examination wasn’t competitive, in the sense that there would only be a certain percentage of each grade awarded. There was also a trust in the markers and marking, which increasingly disappeared during my teaching career with the increase in the number of papers and exams, and the ever more complicated descriptors and mark schemes. These, along with markers being increasingly badly paid, led to people almost but not quite being dragged in off the street to do the work. I don’t think university places depended so much on grades at age 16, whereas everything seems to be taken into account nowadays. On the other hand, for many universities, O-Level Latin was a must for matriculation…

I felt supported by my parents, and my teachers, whose jobs and future prospects did not depend on how well we managed to do in our exams: they did their job, we did our work and it all came out in the wash.

A-Levels were a similar performance, and university applications and interviews – yes, they were important and pretty much de rigueur – a very gentlemanly business. The professor of French and I chatted and discussed whatever, until at a certain moment he said, “Bien, continuons en français!” (which we did) – I hadn’t expected that, but it was fine.

University exams were more stressful, because I developed hay-fever, which plagues me to this day, even as I write, and because they were in enormous exam halls with vast numbers of invigilators, some of whom thought it was OK to chat in the corners of the exam rooms… I loved my MA exam, because it was my first and only experience of a takeaway exam: we trooped in to collect the paper from the office at a set time and were instructed to return our scripts a fortnight later. And the viva for my MPhil thesis was a very civilised affair over a good lunch at the home of an academic, with two examiners, a hard man and a soft man. A serious grilling, though.

My most stressful experience of being tested came in a practical field: learning to drive. I passed only at the third attempt, finding the whole ordeal much more gruelling than most of my peers. I’m sure this was right, given that letting someone loose on the road in ton of metal that can move at up to 100mph or so is a very serious business. I’m still grateful to the friend and neighbour who insisted on my driving to the Lake District and back in her tiny Fiat 500 the day before my successful test, building up my confidence enormously and convincing me that I could be a driver.

I’ve read about countries where there are no examinations; I’ve read about countries where things are much more competitive and stressful. As a teacher, I experienced and administered 100% continuously-assessed coursework, which produced comparable results to examinations, but without the pressure and stress on students. So what is it all in aid of? How many ways can you weigh a pig? To a large extent, I think we’re victims of the fact that there have always been examinations, and as a society we have failed to think seriously enough about their purpose or necessity. Also, because data collection and analysis is now so easy and a money-making business in itself, the end justifies the means, and we are persuaded to believe that it’s fairer, more scientific, more accurate and a whole lot of other subjective things.

I have had to support students through the stress of their own expectations and their parents’ expectations of themselves. Some suffered greatly, and unnecessarily; sometimes they gave up. Some people can function effectively under pressure in examinations, some cannot; this does not mean they are incapable.

I’m no expert, but I have experience, personal and professional. I can not see any point in exams at age 16, since we expect students to remain in education until 18. Perhaps there is a need for some kind of certification of competences at a certain level in a few areas such as language, maths and IT at the end of schooling. Unless we plan to limit the numbers moving on to higher education, then what’s needed is an assessment of whether someone is capable of accessing and potentially succeeding at the next stage: this doesn’t have to be by examination…

Finally, I remind myself that examinations are now a vast industry: writing and rewriting syllabi, writing and publishing textbooks, producing exam papers and marking them, analysing all the data, providing training courses… the money recycling goes on ad infinitum. And who is it all serving?

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