Archive for the 'teaching' Category

What did I learn from teaching?

October 1, 2019

I’m really looking forward to the new Philip Pullman novel coming out later this week. There was a very interesting interview with him in The Observer: I always find his reflections on his career as a teacher thought-provoking, and today he has had me reflecting on the question: what did I learn from my students?

It’s a very difficult question, and not just because a teacher is on the other side of the fence, supposed to be teaching rather than learning. But over the years I learned that my students wanted to be taken seriously, to be listened to. They deserved this, and it was their right. As my experience and confidence developed, I realised that anything might be said or discussed in my classroom, as long as the students could approach the topic as sensibly and as maturely as they were able. Staffroom conversations with colleagues led me to realise that not everyone could or wanted to do this.

I had my opinions and beliefs, and if I expressed them, students expected to be able to question, and expected me to be able to justify. One of my favourite call-outs to students being, ‘Evidence?’ I had to provide mine. There was a phase where politicians were touchy about teachers indoctrinating students, and I was once taken to task by a parent who felt I had been biased in criticising Margaret Thatcher. I explained that I was wont to play devil’s advocate, and to challenge students with a range of opinions – they knew I did this. Other opinions are available. My job was to get my students to think.

Respect was earned; good behaviour was earned. I can honestly say that behaviour was almost never an issue in my classroom. I know I spent most of my career in a grammar school, but students anywhere are not angels, and others did have disciplinary issues.

My students didn’t have to like me, or my subject, and not all of them did; I learned not to take this personally, although it never ceased to sadden me when a particularly interesting and promising student did not choose to take English on into the sixth form.

There was only one moment of epiphany, which took my breath away and left me temporarily lost for words. It came towards the end of my career, with a year 11 class; they had almost come to the end of their allotted time of compulsory education, and we were reflecting on the purpose of school, education and what use they felt it had been to them thus far. A propos of I cannot remember what, something about what they expected from their teachers, I suspect, one of the female members of the class said, ‘But sir, you respect us and we respect you.’ Noises of agreement came from others, and she must have explained further. I didn’t know what to say; I felt very humbled, because I had never consciously looked at the nature of our relationship like that. The weight and the responsibility of my position came home to me very heavily.

I think in the end if there was one thing I learned that summarises all that teaching students taught me, it was to be myself in the classroom, not to pretend to be someone or something else. They didn’t get all of me – no-one ever does, if you think about it – but what they got in the classroom was a true slice of me.

On the crisis in English schools

May 4, 2019

Every Easter, England’s teaching unions hold their conferences, and alarming stories and statistics emerge. This year once again, it was the numbers of teachers being bullied by management, suffering stress, enduring long working hours, planning to leave the profession quite soon, and large numbers of pupils ‘off-rolled’ by secondary schools. What has gone wrong? Here are some thoughts, not in any particular order…

Increasingly, schools are run by managers, often with little or no experience of the classroom. Having zero experience of your particular field may be an advantage in other areas of the economy, but it’s bad in terms of running schools. Furthermore, identikit ‘training’ of would-be headteachers standardises both bad and good practice and undervalues particular individual strengths, I think.

In a sense, the teaching profession has been de-skilled; it’s certainly not as well-trained as it used to be. When I trained, all teachers were trained in university-level institutions, receiving a serious grounding in child development and child psychology as well as specific training in how to teach their particular subject. Now, unless you were particularly interested, that study of development and psychology was often dry as dust and dull as ditch-water, but I believe it was also vitally necessary and vitally important to being a successful teacher; it was only as my career developed that I realised just how I was unconsciously using all that knowledge and understanding I had acquired.

Teacher training is very different now: ‘school-centred’ was deemed to be much better, and it gave schools access to the money! Now, precious little of that vital general training seems to take place: there’s plenty of practice and experience in ‘delivering’ a subject curriculum, but divorced from understanding the minds of the little pitchers into which it’s being poured. I speak with experience here, for I was involved in setting up the initial teacher training scheme in my school. In those days students had to experience teaching in least a couple of different schools and I was often horrified at the poor deal some of my final placement students had received in their first training school: it was clear that a school had decided to have lots of students because they brought in lots of money, but had offered them very little support and training. I’m not at all convinced the situation has improved. What’s clear is that it’s uneven across the country, across different academy chains: there’s no guaranteed, standardised training… and if the teachers who are supposed to be mentoring the students are stressed and overworked, the temptation to cut corners must be great.

The end result of this is both teachers lacking a complete training, as well as teachers trained to teach by numbers and deliver a subject, in other words de-skilled and disadvantaged compared with earlier generations of teachers, not grounded in a sense of their own personal skills, strengths, aptitude and above all, sense of professionalism: this last has been consistently weakened and attacked by successive governments and generations of managerial headteachers. And so we get a teacher writing the other day about how it’s necessary to have standardised national testing because otherwise teachers can’t know how their students are doing because teacher assessment is all subjective…

Information technology has a bigger part in the current chaos than many people realise. Because data collection and analysis is now possible, easy and a source of profit for companies that market software, it will be done: it’s unavoidable, it’s the norm and the clock will not be turned back. Whether data-tracking of students in such minute detail is necessary or desirable is not really the question any more. And so, the workload issues it generates for teachers cannot be made to go away. When I started teaching, none of that was possible, and I don’t really think my students suffered because of that lack.

It’s also the political – as opposed to the educational – use that’s made of all this number-crunching: it now means that schools can be forced to compete with each other, that teachers can be deemed to be ‘failing’ if their results or ‘progress indicators’ do not come up to certain norms. In other works, data has become a big stick to beat up both students and teachers. Ever since the dreadful Kenneth Baker in the 1980s, every education minister has had to prove her or himself in their rise to greater things by playing with the train-set that is education; the fact that many of them had never experienced a state school education is of course totally irrelevant…

There’s another thing: the great divide between state education and the private system (which all taxpayers subsidise through its charitable status). At one level it’s a sideline, but it’s a socially divisive one that this divided country could and should do without. And this is where we come on to what can be done to change things. Other countries do it quite differently, and their school students do not seem to be total numpties compared with all our Einsteins: the obvious and most interesting example is Finland, and plenty of information about their radically different system is available out there so I don’t need to duplicate it here. Suffice it to say it’s based on local schooling and a thoroughly professional and professionally-trained teaching corps.

If we had a system of students all going to their local school – primary or secondary – then all schools would need to be brought up to the same level of staffing and resourcing. And there would be no need for the endless, polluting school runs where streets are jammed by the diesel tractors of parents who deliver their children to what they think is the best or right school for their child…

It does all come down to money in the end: how much is a child’s future worth? How much do we want to invest in the future of our country? And, sadly, my impression of England is that we want education, as we want so many other things, on the cheap…

On grammar

April 5, 2019

I’ve written about grammar, and its teaching, before, and if you’re interested, you will be able to find those earlier posts. But I’ve returned to thinking about it as a result of re-reading the Latin book I posted about yesterday, and my rediscovery of Winnie Ille Pu, which is a lot harder than de roma antiqua… more colloqualisms and invented words needed there!

My experience of English grammar has been fairly mixed: I was at school in the progressive late 1960s and early 70s, when grammar was rather out of fashion, and I never really acquired a structured and thorough knowledge and understanding of it; I did some study and serious preparation when I needed to teach it myself, but was aware that there were colleagues whose knowledge was far more comprehensive, and to whom I sometimes needed to refer.

My knowledge of grammar came from my learning of other languages, which I was then able to apply to English. Back in the day you could not get to Latin O Level without the famed Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer (which I still have); everything was logically explained and copiously illustrated, usually from actual classical Latin authors. Because there is much more inflection in Latin than in English, there were many more rules which one could learn and apply quite logically, to end up with correct sentences in prose composition exercises. This application of rules clarified how my own native language worked, and how the correct use of grammar aided clarity and accuracy…

The same was true of other languages: French grammar was drilled into us by a teacher who, unlike many other MfL teachers at the time, put a clear emphasis on speaking the language, and used the same textbooks that French school pupils used, so we were totally immersed in the language. The rules were practised and absorbed. German was a very different kettle of fish: I learned it conversationally, and grammar rarely got a look-in, with the result today that, although I can speak the language and make myself understood reasonably well, my grammar is pretty poor, really: the correct cases don’t drop into place as I speak, my verb tenses are all over the place, and as for prepositions governing cases, well… My rather more rudimentary Polish suffers from the same issues, sadly. But Spanish, which is my newest project (still in progress) is well-rooted in grammar and I am really fortunate to be in a small class and taught by a traditional teacher who also understands and believes in the necessity for grammatical rigour.

It’s also the case that, in talking with all sorts of friends and acquaintances in various conversation groups that I’ve been part of, invariably they say that their knowledge of grammar has come from their study of MfL and not from any English lessons they had at school. So what is the problem?

I think that grammar went out of the window in English schools (along with quite a few other things) because it came to be perceived as dull and boring, at a time when school was meant to be exciting (!); also there was a fashion for believing that certain things would be learned ‘as you go along’ almost by osmosis as it were, without any conscious effort being required. There’s a baby and bathwater situation there, I feel; learning needn’t be dull, but sometimes there are things which cannot be rendered un-tedious and which have to be mastered; not all of life is going to be wild whoopee and excitement, and that in itself is a lesson worth meeting when one is younger…

The effect of the disappearance of grammar teaching then had its effect on MfL, which became rather less structured and rather more conversational (that not a bad thing in itself, but it lacked the necessary underpinnings) so that we eventually ended up with students memorising lists of sentences that they did not necessarily fully understand, in order to pass oral examinations in French or German. This then made the leap to advanced study of a language of such a magnitude that many students regarded it as far too difficult, with the consequent disastrous effect on the study of modern languages in our schools and universities…

And the disappearance of Latin from our schools, to which I referred yesterday, has its place in all this, too. Such structure and discipline could underpin the study of MfL as well as English, except that it no longer does. Too difficult… unnecessary…irrelevant… when one starts to apply such a purely utilitarian logic to learning and education, all sorts of things fly apart. But that is a much wider argument, so it’s probably a good place to pause.

On the joys of teaching English

March 7, 2019

Every now and then, I remember I was a teacher once. When I meet up with former colleagues who are still working, I sigh with relief that I don’t have to return to school for training days, and listen to the ‘leadership team’ witter on about targets and initiatives and I don’t know what else, and I feel briefly sorry for those who still do have to… I also remember how different it was on the following day, when the students returned and the real work of a teacher began again – how much I loved it!

Things that I really enjoyed: reading books together in class. That was still possible in secondary school and we all loved it: reading around the class, sometimes everyone in turn, sometimes volunteers, sometimes me. We could and did pause to discuss all sorts of things: plot, character, language, how a writer tells a good story, why x happens and not y, why a writer does things a certain way and not another. All kinds of opportunities for different kinds of writing arose at various points in a novel. And everyone could express opinions about all sorts of things, practising listening and responding, learning to argue, and to support opinions with evidence…

Sometimes I would get students to present a book they had recently read to the class: a brief introduction and then read out a carefully chosen extract; explain what their opinion of the book was, and why, and finally take questions from their class-mates. Not everyone found this easy, but I felt, from a very early stage in my career as a teacher, that good speaking and listening skills were probably going to be of much greater use and importance to my students in the future than writing skills…

When we got on to individual talks to the class, we had a great time: choose your subject, and give an illustrated five-minute presentation to the class, then take questions. It was often an astonishing confidence-building exercise for students who were not very strong at English, as they used the opportunity to be experts in their own field in front of the class. As time went by, health and safety curtailed their choice of options somewhat, and having livestock in the classroom sometimes presented management issues… but I always learned lots, and I know the students did, too. I still think the best ever talk came from a GCSE student who was a keen fencer: she spoke confidently and demonstrated her skills effectively, using a male student whom she didn’t very much like as her opponent for the practical parts of her talk: he took it all in very good part. The talk filled an entire 40-minute lesson; nobody was bored, and she naturally received full marks for her efforts.

Discussions and also formal debates featured regularly, and I had an understanding with students that no topic was off-limits as long as they could approach it sensibly and maturely, and respect others’ different opinions and their right to express them: you were allowed to disagree as long as you did it respectfully and explained your reasons… I can only remember a couple of occasions in nearly thirty years when it was necessary to close down a discussion because some could not manage these rules.

Of course, students had to write, as well as speak and read. One of my favourite activities came out of reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with Year 8 students (age 12-13). If you can make the book work, it’s a real challenge for them: nineteenth-century language and behaviour and dealing with issues of race, childhood, schooling and lots more. The book has everything: truanting, running away from home, a murder, romance, getting lost in a cave, finding a real fortune… and there is an amazing writing opportunity immediately after the murder: produce the front page of the town paper the day after that event. There’s writing the story, editing and improving it, working out how much the reporter can know and find out, compared with what Tom and Huck have seen, and then you can go into an IT suite and they can design and produce and print their front page.

The skills of essay-writing come to the fore as students approach public examinations, and over the years I evolved a tactic which they seemed to find effective and helpful: the whole class together would plan an essay. I’d take them through the entire process stage-by-stage, from analysing the title and working out what an examiner might expect, through brainstorming and then organising and sequencing their ideas, followed by selecting evidence, and then crafting an effective introduction and conclusion. It would all appear on the whiteboard, colour-coded with different pens; we could pause the process and discuss any aspect of it that anyone wanted to, and we could also time the different parts of the activity so that students could work out how they might effectively allocate their time in an exam room. We needed a good double lesson – 80 minutes – to do the whole thing, and if time allowed, the last thing was to practise and discuss a range of opening sentences. It was pretty exhausting for all or us: the class being attentive and working against the clock, and me, controlling and managing everything so it all came together in the allocated time.

I used to enjoy giving work back to students. I’ve read some unbelievable nonsense lately about re-marking and triple marking and written dialogue between teacher and student and thought to myself, ‘How can any of that be justified in terms of time?’. Although I wasn’t particularly proud of it, my semi-illegible handwriting did me favours; I regularly did write lengthy and detailed comments and advice on students’ work, and they often had to work quite hard to decipher my runes. They asked each other first and when that failed, called me over: they actually wanted to know what I’d written, and I could briefly expand and clarify. And, of course, there were extra oral comments as I gave work back, perhaps reading out particularly good bits before I hurled exercise books back across the room towards their owners…

A good deal of being a teacher – an English teacher, certainly – is about being an actor, as perhaps you have deduced from the above: confidence builds up over time, as does the very necessary ability to be reflective and critical of what happens in your classroom, and to adapt and modify when circumstances dictate.

I particularly loved working with sixth-formers, for they really kept me on my toes; even if I knew my stuff – and I did – I never knew from what angle their questions or comments might come. Keeping one step ahead of them was exhausting, as well as very satisfying. They got special treatment in some ways: we were a little less formal with each other, and we always set the room out in a circle to create a seminar-style atmosphere, as well as to emphasis equality, rather than use the serried ranks of desks or tables that larger classes required. There was tea and mince pies at Christmas, too. Practical criticism – working with unseen texts – was what I liked most of all, feeling more and more the enabler rather than the teacher as the two years of the course ticked away and they all in their different ways became more perceptive and confident as interpreters and critics of literature…

There is no better profession – and I think that word is so important, and so under-respected nowadays – than teaching. I have been very fortunate in my life’s work.

Good English, correct English?

September 15, 2018

You would probably expect a retired English teacher to have strong views on what constitutes good or correct English, and what is permissible and what shouldn’t be. I’ve found myself thinking more deeply about this, partly provoked by what I’ve read recently about changes in French orthography. Whilst many and different attempts have been made to make our own language more gender-equal, languages like French which attribute, often apparently randomly, different genders to all nouns, have a rather more complex problem when they try to do this.

For instance, to use they as a singular pronoun in English, to avoid using he or she, and perhaps appearing to subsume the female in the male, jars for some, and for others seems perfectly acceptable, normal even. Usage evolves inevitably and although spoken English may lead, the written usually follows. With gender-specific nouns, some have started to use the (previously) masculine form for both male and female, thus, for instance, describing both male and female performers as actors, rather than using the separate form actresses for females only. I can’t, personally see a problem with such modifications of usage. But then, we don’t have any official body in charge of regulating the language, unlike the French.

At the moment, if you want to be equal across the genders in French, you have a masculine and feminine version of a word – let’s say étudiant and étudiante. And if you are attaching any adjective to that noun, it will also have a masculine and feminine form, and then there are different forms for singular and plural too. And the rules of the language currently say that the masculine form is sufficient when speaking or writing about a group that may actually comprise both genders. If you’re not happy about this, what do you do? I won’t go into further detail here, but there’s plenty of detail available out there on the web. All the possible suggestions I’ve seen or read about are either ugly or cumbersome or both. And then there’s the official body regulating the language to satisfy…

Which brings me back to right and wrong, correct and incorrect. Certain things rub me up the wrong way, like fingernails sliding down a blackboard. And yet, I have to acknowledge our language as a changing, evolving, dynamic system, and my studies of literature across the centuries have demonstrated this quite clearly to me many times over. Double negatives, which many blench at, were acceptable, even necessary, in Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s time.

During my time as a teacher, I tried to explain to students the notion of clarity as central to effective communication, and also the idea that spoken and written language are different, as are formal and informal usage, and what students needed most for success was an understanding of this, and the ability to function well in the appropriate register for whatever situation they found themselves in. Thus, how one spoke or texted in free or social time was one thing, and I could tut-tut quietly to myself if I liked; how one spoke in the classroom – a formal situation – was different, and I could and did have various specific expectations. Similarly, depending on who the audience was for your written English affected how you framed it; anything ad usum privatumcould be as you liked, although sloppy habits there might well end up carrying over into formal situations and causing problems; written English with an audience demanded care and adherence to the conventions of correct English. The same was true with regard to regional accents; there was nothing wrong with themper se, but in certain situations Standard English might be expected, and an inability to function in that register might disadvantage one.

All that is before we get started on the vexed topic of spelling, about which I was always much more rigid.

William McGonagall: The Tay Bridge Disaster

July 27, 2018
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill’d all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

You may have heard of the nineteenth century Scots poet William McGonagall, the one often described as the worst poet ever, the man whose public performances were packed by people who went to laugh at him and his poetry. His is truly a very sad story, although he does seem to have been largely oblivious to what really went on…

But remembering him set me thinking about good and bad poetry

When I was first teaching, practical criticism was a full two-year course, preparation for a single unseen paper at A level, where the student would meet two texts, one poetry and one prose, and would have to write an analytical and appreciative essay on each. Only once was a text set that I’d used with some of my students a couple of years previously.

So preparation for this paper involved exploring poetry and prose from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, looking at language, poetic techniques, styles, form and structure; it involved learning how correctly to use the language of literary criticism and how to express opinions; it involved learning to evidence one’s analysis and response. Not easy, but interesting, and two years was a decent length of time for a student to become as proficient as they were going to be.

I came to use McGonagall’s famous poem as one of my final pieces of practice with my students. By then, I would give them a text, and ask them to read it to themselves, and to think about and jot down brief notes on particular aspects, preparatory to beginning discussion. After ten minutes or so, we would be ready to begin work together. Usually, a student would be asked to read the text aloud. There were times when students would tie themselves in knots trying to say positive things about the poem, taking things like rhyme, rhythm and metre seriously. (Try it.) How quickly they were able to realise how bad the poem was, was a touchstone of how competent and confident they had become in their analytical abilities. I tried to keep a straight face through all this. I wish I could remember which student it was, who, at the end of the few minutes of silent study looked up and said, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’

So what is wrong with the poem? There are some terrible rhymes – Edinburgh and sorrow, for instance, and some forced rhymes, as in think of a word that will rhyme with x and it will do, forced into the poem anyhow. There is no sense of metre, so that rhyming pairs of lines jar appallingly. There is needless repetition of phrases and lines, perhaps with the hope of a refrain-like effect. The poet strains to covey a sense of tragedy but fails completely, partly because the metre he’s trying to use is a rather jolly one, when he sticks to it for long enough. And then there’s the civil engineering moral tacked onto the end…

I remember, from my time as a school pupil, being told to write a poem. God, how I hated it. I didn’t understand metre, couldn’t get the right number of syllables to a line, got the stresses all in the wrong places, thought it had to rhyme. It was a peculiar form of torment, which I tried very hard to mitigate when I was teaching (see here). I firmly believe that the starting point of a poem is inspiration of some kind – which you either have or don’t – the ideas or sensations produce the words and images, which are then either worked over, tweaked and improved or not, and then offered to readers or not. A good poet, and a good poem, can make me see something I’ve never seen before, or look at something in a way I’ve never thought of, for a (brief) moment taking me away from myself and my pedestrian reality.

Rupert Brooke: These I have loved

July 25, 2018

These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such —
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year’s ferns. . . .
Dear names,
And thousand other throng to me! Royal flames;
Sweet water’s dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing;
Voices in laughter, too; and body’s pain,
Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass; —
All these have been my loves.

 

A moment of epiphany here, as I looked for the text of this poem I’ve liked for years, to use in this post. It’s actually part of a longer work… and I never knew! However, this is the part I have known and used, and which I shall focus on. I don’t know where I came across it first, although it was long ago, at the start of my teaching career, and I always used it as a way in to offering my students the possibility of trying to write poetry. This was always a very fraught task, if you think about it, poetry being so personal as well as something many students seem to have an automatic aversion to; I also had grave reservations about trying to ‘teach’ students to write poetry anyway…

But, Brooke’s poem offers a way in. In this part of his poem, he focuses on many, totally unconnected things which have given him fleeting moments of sensory pleasure; we all have these, and it was relatively easy for students to understand what Brooke was on about; even if his particular pleasures left them cold, they could name plenty of their own, and were usually ready to. Then, invited to focus more deliberately on each of their five senses and make lists of them, it was a straightforward enough step for most to see how that exercise could lead them into a similar poem of their own; prodding them to think carefully about exactly the right words they needed to characterise their particular pleasure came next… I was regularly very surprised and pleased by the number of good poems they produced, imitative or not. And there was a box ticked (if I needed to tick one) as well as a classroom display for a while.

Brooke’s poem works quite simply, it seems to me: it’s a list – the final line of the section I’ve quoted makes that clear – there are items that pleasurably stimulate each of his five senses, randomly thrown together (?) or perhaps linked by some association in Brooke’s mind. Each item is briefly listed, characterised in a few words, and then Brooke is on to the next one, so there is a democracy of sorts here: no one sensation is prioritised, better than others. And the impressions are fleeting: this I feel is most important, as we understand that oh so brief buzz of pleasure from one of the little things that momentarily please us. The skill (the art?) is in the choice of words to describe each sensation: the strong crust of friendly bread, the cool kindliness of sheets, the cold graveness of iron… and I remember that the better poems my students produced also managed to find just the right words to convey their sensations.

It’s not a stunning poem, but it’s a good one, one I have never forgotten, and one that does a thing that a good poet always does: make me look at something in a new way, one that I wouldn’t have found for myself (because I’m not a poet).

Thoughts of a somewhat reluctant teacher

July 11, 2018

As I grow older, anniversaries become ever more lapidary; this afternoon I realised with a shock that it was 40 years since I gained my PGCE. It was always going to be teaching or journalism; I can still recall the careers’ advisor’s face after she had tentatively suggested advertising and I’d told her all advertising was immoral… and teaching seemed like a more secure prospect than journalism.

Training at the long-gone or renamed CF Mott College at Prescott on Merseyside was interesting: I really enjoyed the theoretical side of teaching and the child development and psychology, found the English tutor’s input unbelievably dull and patronising, and my French was rather better than the French tutor’s, so I was mercifully spared the sessions in the language laboratory (some of my readers may need to look that up). One of my training schools was on three sites in Everton; after I’d finished five weeks of teaching a year seven class French – or attempting to – I was taken aback when a girl came up to me and asked, in the broadest of scouse accents, “Sir, can you speak French? Say something in French to me…’ My main training school had separate-gender staff-rooms (!) and, after I’d asked an awkward year ten boy to step outside the classroom temporarily and gone back a few minutes later to find him gone, to be told at break by the deputy head, ‘I took that boy off and thrashed him for you!’ I vowed not to do that again. When it was suggested I apply for a post at one of the top private schools in Cambridge, I realised I wasn’t ready for this lark just yet. I was still a hippy, and instead went off to do an MA and then an MPhil, which I enjoyed immensely.

It was nearly five years later, in the darkest days of Thatcherism, after I’d had enough of living on benefits, that I decided to cash in on my qualification and work as a supply teacher. Having taken on board the interviewer’s suggestion that ironing my shirts would be a good idea (!) I did my probationary year as a supply teacher in Hackney, breaking up more fights than I ever had to do afterwards, and scotching a year eleven boy’s attempt to burn down the classroom by throwing lighted matches into lockers… The money was good, and a year and five schools later, Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham Boys’ School head-hunted me from ILEA’s lists as an English teacher, and I never looked back, spending a year and a half there under an inspirational Head of English.

What changed? I realised I could communicate my subject – after this time as an English teacher, my French never got a look in again – and my love for it, pretty effectively, and that speaking and listening was an aspect I was particularly strong in, as well as its being one which was only just coming to the fore in terms of both classroom and examination. I also realised that I worked far more effectively with brighter and more able students, and so that’s the track my career followed. I liked the edginess of the classroom, and the liveliness of discussion that was possible once the right boundaries had been agreed. Nothing was off-limits.

Having re-located to Yorkshire, I enjoyed six stimulating years at Harrogate Grammar School, under another wonderful Head of Department who allowed me to work to my strengths, and then went off to Ripon Grammar to run the English Department there for the rest of my career. And now I’m history: as of last summer, there were no students at the school who would have been taught by me…

So I was a reluctant teacher in some ways, and perhaps coming to the profession in my late rather than my early twenties made things easier, particularly in terms of establishing the right kind of distance between me and my students. I’d also had time to do a counselling training course, which was invaluable in so many situations throughout my career when dealing with difficult situations and students in need of advice and support.

I do have a lot of happy memories, of many students and teaching colleagues, some of whom I’m still in touch with. As a career it was a tough and demanding one – I have no patience with anyone whose opening gambit is along the lines of ‘oh, all those holidays!’ – but a very satisfying one, because of having played a part in shaping future generations, and sharing my love of my subject. I wouldn’t have done anything else: I made the right choice all those years ago.

R C Sherriff: Journey’s End

March 17, 2018

 

41vyJGXwb4L._AC_US218_It struck me that it’s a century since the start of the final German offensive of spring 1918, and consequently of the events R C Sherriff dramatised in his play Journey’s End, which I taught to more GCSE English Literature groups than I can remember…

It’s a very simple play, in many ways; a small troop of officers and soldiers holds a small section of the front line somewhere near St Quentin. We get to know them; they have to make a raid on the German lines to gain information, lose an officer and some men; the German offensive begins, and they are wiped out.

Sherriff was on the Western Front, and his experiences make the play ring true. The play was a sell-out in 1929 when it was first performed, and the novelisation of the play was a best-seller, although it’s now long been out-of-print. So how did Sherriff succeed?

At a time when most people in Britain would have a family member who had served, been injured or killed in the war, there was clearly an enormous amount of knowledge about and experience of the war, some of which had been shared with family members and some which had been deeply buried as ex-combatants sought to forget. The grotty conditions of trench-life, and little attempts to make it bearable, are there; humour is injected in small doses by Mason, the officers’ cook. The cameraderie of shared discomfort, when men who don’t know each other but are forced into intimacy by conditions, convinces. And the meaninglessness of the conflict is underlined – not through Sherriff’s desire to spread any kind of pacifist message, though after four years of war this might be understandable – by the isolation of the small group. They are somewhere on the front line; there are other companies alongside them; battalion HQ is somewhere, but they are disconnected from all that, somehow, anonymous and annihilated, and the audience is forced to ask ‘why?’…

Sherriff’s greatest success comes from his careful creation of a small group of officers, and the interplay between them; he clearly had a good eye to what would make effective theatre. Commanding the company is Stanhope, a young officer who has been in France for four years, is clearly very effective in his role but who has turned increasingly to heavy drinking to be able to cope with the horrors of what he’s involved in; his second is a schoolmaster in his forties, Osborne, who is nicknamed ‘Uncle’ by his fellows, and who seems to survive by talking with everyone, being friendly and offering fatherly advice. He has a wife and small son back home, is chosen to lead the raid on the German lines and knows it means almost certain death, but does his duty – and is blown to bits by a German grenade. Trotter is the only officer who is working class, and has clearly risen up through the ranks unlike the others; his interests and attitudes provide a contrast, and he clearly enjoys eating and drinking; after Osborne’s death he becomes second-in-command and focuses on doing his duty. Hibbert is a coward or malingerer or suffering from shell-shock depending on your point of view, and Stanhope’s efforts are concentrated on preventing him going sick just before the German offensive. Everything is complicated by the arrival of a young replacement officer fresh out of training – Raleigh – who went to the same public school as Stanhope, who was his hero. Will Stanhope stand up to the image he formerly had? And, of course, through Raleigh, Sherriff teaches the audience about the routines of life in the trenches…

An enormous amount is crammed into the ‘two-hours traffic of our stage’; much quiet, calm and waiting; shared conversation, reminiscence and genuine friendship; swift and sudden action; the crassness of the higher ranks comes across through the figure of the Colonel who arranges the raid, and the raid itself, which cannot, of course, be re-created onstage, is instead brought to life through sound and light effects. We are fully involved in the life and death of these few men from start to finish, and the closing moments are truly powerful.

Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

February 18, 2018

411nnDMdwyL._AC_US218_This is another of Shakespeare’s plays that I haven’t been back to since I retired. I’ve seen a couple of very good performances in the past, though I don’t remember a great deal about them, so it will be interesting to see what the RSC do with the play when I see it in May.

Romeo and Juliet is a play I always enjoyed teaching in school, and always found appropriate at GCSE level; it was a bit more difficult when – back in the dim and distant past – it was set for the SAT tests of loathed memory, because some of the humour was tricky to explain to 13 year-olds. But the subject-matter – young love – and the vulgarity, bawdiness or obscenity of the group of lads who are Romeo’s mates, call it what you like, went down well with classes a couple of years older. It was realistic in terms of how young people often talked and joked, and I firmly believe it’s not a teacher’s job to censor: whatever needed explaining was explained and I would laugh along with the class. There is a fine line, though, between clarifying, and dwelling unnecessarily on the obscene…

Several things struck me with this re-reading, particularly the development in Shakespeare’s work in the dozen or so years between the first performances of Romeo and Juliet and his later love tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, which I’m currently writing about. Compared with the latter play, Romeo and Juliet can feel rather primitive, with its several prologues prefiguring each act, what feels like excessive use of rhyme, a certain lack of subtlety in some of the characterisation, and all the over-the-top wailing and moaning by the Nurse…

These are two love tragedies worth seeing alongside one another, though: young lovers and mature lovers; both pairs die, tragically, because they feel they have nothing left to live for; the teenagers are totally wrapped up in themselves to the exclusion of the rest of the world, but the older lovers are plagued by the interference of the outside world whichever way they turn. Young lovers swear sincere and undying love to each other, the mature ones play games with each other, go astray, but come back to each other in the end. Comparisons are endless, and perhaps enlighten our own experiences.

I find both plays utterly convincing in their totally different ways, and, of course, I shall call this another illustration of the dramatist’s genius. The passion, the haste, the exclusion of the outside world in the love of Romeo and Juliet perhaps reflects some of Shakespeare’s own life experience, which we know almost nothing about… and for me the crudity of the lads’ sexual banter – Mercutio and Benvolio particularly – creates the atmosphere that allows the youthful but definitely sexual passion of Romeo and Juliet to convince an audience (before we remember the boy actor who would have played Juliet, perhaps). My classes all seemed to enjoy studying the play and working out who was to blame for the tragedy – parents, usually, so no surprise there – and I found myself gradually growing to like Baz Luhrmann‘s film (which I initially loathed) for its fidelity to the original dramatist’s intentions. I’m looking forward to seeing the play again.

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