Archive for the 'teaching' Category

Speaking and listening

November 19, 2022

This is the last of a number of posts about teaching, which I thought I’d published a long while ago, but apparently had not…

Somehow, I always felt quite confident leading and managing discussions in class, and quite early on evolved the idea that nothing should be off-limits as long as students could handle the topic sensibly and reasonably maturely. Students almost always responded well to this kind of trust and expectation of them; outsiders and visitors were at times shocked and surprised; I rarely was. It is hard work keeping a discussion on-track, and bringing it back to order when it’s become a little shapeless; it’s also hard monitoring who’s taking part and who’s not, and trying to call students in order to make their contributions. However, it’s also incredibly rewarding when at the end of a lesson, you realise it’s gone well, and some of the students leave the class still arguing about whatever it was…

The other thing I have always done is to play devil’s advocate, in order to ensure that there’s some sense of balance to a discussion and that all aspects of a topic are covered, and also as a way of challenging prejudices, challenging over-confident students, and also encouraging them to challenge me; things get complicated when you’re trying to argue back, and also manage a discussion. But I always did think that it was important for students to realise at some point that their teacher did not know everything or have an answer to everything, and I wanted them, more than anything, to be wary of anyone who offered supposedly simple answers to any of the world’s problems.

The rationale for speaking and listening in class for me was that I could see it would be far more important for many students to be able to speak clearly in public, to address meetings and gatherings, in their future working lives, than to be able to write well. I developed considerable expertise in teaching and managing oral communication in my early years in the profession, and it became a particular strength of mine as I moved up the career ladder.

A lot of students are quite confident at speaking in class, perhaps because they are among the brightest; equally, some of the very brightest can be very quiet, almost reticent: how do you bring them out of their shells? Part of it is offering them interesting things to talk about, part of it is ensuring that everyone knows and accepts the ground rules: that everyone may take part, everyone will be heard respectfully, and no-one will shout anyone down or abuse anyone else because of their opinion. And there has to be a range of different activities: whole class and small group activities as well as individual presentations to the class. These last are often the hardest for some students, but when they are offered the chance to talk to the class about a subject of their own choice, they often flourish because they are then confident experts in that field, and everyone will acknowledge this.

The significance and value of speaking and listening has been marginalised recently in public examinations; it is no longer assessed, and no longer contributes to marks and grades: I feel that this does a grave disservice to students.

Teaching writing

November 18, 2022

I recently came across a number of posts about teaching, which I thought I’d published a long while ago, but apparently not, so they will appear over the coming days…

Although I remember loathing the imposition of the National Curriculum for English, after it had worked its way through primary schools it did actually make the teaching of writing somewhat more straightforward at secondary level too, because it clearly labelled and defined genres, and also encouraged writers to try and write with a target audience in mind; when it came to GCSE, the trio of genre, audience, purpose was a useful way into both textual analysis and the structuring of writing, as long as none of this became too rigid.

When I had had to write, at school and at university, I had always found initial preparation and planning of some kind to be invaluable, rather than rushing headlong into writing, and I tried to get students to slow down and do the same, with some success. Many could see that to have a fairly clear idea of where they were heading, what they wanted to say and how best to say it, before committing themselves to the final version, was a good idea. However, this tended to change over time as it became possible to word-process text: now one could write and erase, correct and modify as one went along, so it would be all right, wouldn’t it? Well, no: this method took ages, you still needed a route map before you started, and in an examination room, you still had to do it all longhand on paper with pen and ink, against the clock… although I gather that even this is now beginning to change.

As my career progressed, I gradually discovered that it was possible for the students and me collectively to plan an essay in class on a black/whiteboard, elucidating and illustrating the entire process from start to finish, taking the students through all the stages of organising, structuring and sequencing ideas, and also building in various prompts about timing, in preparation for the exam room. It was an exhausting tour-de-force which required a double lesson, and the ability to juggle quite a few balls at once, as well as keeping a rigorous control of time. But I could see the difference it made, and I could see my students realising the control it gave them. And with enough lead-in time, they had the opportunity to practise and refine their own take before using it in the exam room.

Receiving students’ writing to mark was a real joy: I could often see writers whose command of language and imagery was way beyond my creative efforts. And personal pieces were often very moving indeed: writing that came from the heart, often sharing things that I could see the student was sharing for the first time, with a stranger; the trust that involved was astonishing, and the writing demanded respect. It was often very hard to put a mark on a piece, and writing a teacher comment took much deep thought: how to value a piece as well as assess it, and not to patronise someone who shared part of her or himself.

Teaching spelling

November 17, 2022

I recently came across a number of posts about teaching, which I thought I’d published a long while ago, but apparently not, so they will appear over the coming days…

Some can spell: many can’t. English doesn’t make it easy. I’ve always found spelling a doddle; yet, there are a few bugbears I have to stop and briefly think about. And spelling mistakes have always irritated me. So, how did I get here?

At some point in primary school there were spelling tests. At secondary school, these were regular, weekly events, and I suppose I ‘learned’ my spellings. I always read a lot, so I must have covered many thousands of new words, all correctly spelt, in my reading, and somehow – photographically, perhaps? – these stuck in my memory. I have always been intrigued when I come across new words; I look them up in a dictionary; nowadays I collect them in a notebook because they are such rare events. I suppose this careful attention to new words, this curiosity, must have helped the spellings to stick. Similarly, rules and patterns have always fascinated me, so when they cropped up in various spellings, this will also have helped, not that English is that regular in its spelling rules (unlike Spanish or Polish, for example). Because I have always liked to be right, when something is wrong, incorrect, it does tend to stick out…

That’s all been fine and dandy for me, but what about my poor students? I always strove to inculcate curiosity about words and language. I gave them regular spelling tests, of lists of words I’d gleaned from common errors in their written work. I always corrected all spelling mistakes and insisted on spelling corrections being done – I was unable to merely select a few errors in a piece of work, as official advice often suggested. I would provide word lists in advance of writing tasks so students had correct versions of words they might perhaps want to use. Perhaps some of this worked; it was a scatter-gun approach: some of the bullets would strike home.

And of course it all got so much more difficult with the advent of word-processing and the concomitant spell-checker. This would help you, if you could use it properly: was it set up for British English spelling? It wouldn’t help with homonyms. It wouldn’t help if you automatically hit the ‘correct’ button without looking at what it was suggesting. A spell-checker is as intelligent or as stupid as the person using it, I would tell my students… Mary had a little lamb/ She also had a bear/ I’ve often seen her little lamb/ but I’ve never seen her ….

Spelling changes and evolves. American spellings are inevitably creeping into British English, and there’s probably very little we can do about that. There are worse things than spelling mistakes. But taking enough care and trouble to get things right does show a certain approach, attitude and respect for your audience.

Teaching punctuation

November 16, 2022

I recently came across a number of posts about teaching, which I thought I’d published a long while ago, but apparently not, so they will appear over the coming days…

This probably comes second to grammar in terms of absolute dullness, but again is essential if you are aiming to communicate clearly and meaningfully in writing. And there was a gradual realisation that secondary school was a bit late to be trying to teach punctuation: ideally it is learned in primary school at the same time as the basics of reading and writing: you need to learn what a sentence is, and how to punctuate at the same time as you’re writing your own very first sentences; you can’t tack on punctuation afterwards.

So it was often an uphill task, not made any easier by students sometimes having been taught incorrectly at primary school… you could explain the rules and the reasoning behind them, and drill students in producing model sentences, but there was no guarantee that these abilities, demonstrated under ideal conditions in the classroom, would transfer themselves to their own work, done at home or in the exam hall…

As with grammar, I often felt that the best way to tackle a topic was to link it to the need to be clear and to be understood when writing, and to explain that incorrect grammar, and/ or inaccurate punctuation were likely to leave readers uncertain, or even mistaken: so in order to avoid this, you need to do that.

So much of good practice in all areas of English, it became ever clearer to me, was absorbed through good and well-developed reading habits: if one enjoys reading and reads attentively, it’s not really possible to avoid noticing how sentences work, are built and punctuated: you’re constantly reading good quality English, grammatical English that’s accurately presented and correctly spelt, and you unconsciously absorb this into your own practice. If you’re very curious, you ask questions, too. Easy to say: how do you get students to read when there are so many superficially more exciting things to spend time on?

Increasingly, I can see the separation that used to exist between reading and writing in past centuries emerging again: few people will need to be able to write more than the odd sentence or list, and will have technology to help them; those that have greater need will be able to call on expert practitioners of writing. Social media and instant messaging are changing everyone’s practice. I make no value judgement about this change.

Teaching grammar: does it matter?

November 15, 2022

I recently came across a number of posts about teaching, which I thought I’d published a long while ago, but apparently not, so they will appear over the coming days…

This is a difficult one. I never really had a solid grounding in grammar, as I was at school in the late sixties and early seventies, when the general feeling was that it would be picked up almost by osmosis as it were; there wasn’t a structured way of teaching it, and suitable textbooks were disappearing and being replaced by very dumbed-down ones. During my teaching career, things became even more difficult as the terminology used was changed, sometimes by grammarians in the name of accuracy and clarity, sometimes by government quangos in the name of god knows what…

To most school students, grammar is deadly dull, and the necessary drilling in order to inculcate understanding and good practice even more so. In my experience, gaining knowledge and understanding of grammar came mainly from learning other languages, and then reflecting that grammatical knowledge back on to my knowledge and understanding of my own language; if it hadn’t been for my innate curiosity about such things, very little would probably have stuck.

Learning Latin in those long-gone days was very heavily grammar-based, with memorising of the five declensions, four conjugations, principle parts and I don’t know what else. Once you’d cracked subject and object, you were good to go. And then there was French, and again, the grammar and its terminology gave you a handle on your own language. But the overall effect was pretty piecemeal, especially since a lot of it wasn’t directly transferable to English: English and Latin grammar are miles apart, despite the best efforts of several centuries of prescriptivists.

With such an incomplete knowledge of English grammar, trying to impart it to my own students was rather a challenge, to say the least. In the end, there wasn’t enough time fully to explore the subject, and I didn’t want to bore my classes to death; I was about to say there were more important things to teach them, but it would be better and fairer to say, more interesting things. It became a matter of working out what were the absolute essentials that needed to be imparted, starting with the basics of the parts of speech, and moving on from there, developing knowledge as far as was necessary, and when it was particularly called for. I was never happy with this approach, but it was the best I could do. I don’t think anyone has come near working out what to do – I just know how enabling the ability to communicate clearly in Standard English is, and therefore how important it is to be able to offer this to school students.

On literature and race

November 9, 2022

This is an issue I’ve wrestled with for a while, and felt challenged by when I was teaching.

Firstly, how good is literature by black and minority ethnic writers in this country? Then, what am I/we doing judging writing by the race/skin colour/nationality of its author? Isn’t literature an absolute, in the sense of it either being good/bad/indifferent? The question is then complicated by reflecting on the past, when perhaps works by such writers were not published or exposed to an audience, and also when people from those communities might not have had the opportunity to write, find an audience, be published: does this imply that there is ‘catch-up’ to be done, allowances to be made, and so on?

What about white critics passing judgements on literature and poetry written by members of other communities? Is there covert racism, is there on the other hand the potential for being patronising? As white critics and teachers, are we merely guilty of tokenism? Past (cultural) history has left us, it seems to me, with a massive can of worms here.

Let’s be a little more concrete. When I was teaching GCSE English and English Literature, a good number of years ago now, there was a compulsory unit of ‘Poetry from Other Cultures and Traditions’ which, as you can see from the label, put various works in their own, separate compartment. There was some interesting poetry, some that I really liked, and some that I thought was basically tosh. And I didn’t feel wholly comfortable with any of those judgements, but I had to teach 15 and 16 year olds to analyse and appreciate it, to write essays on it and gain marks… Why was it all in a separate box from the usual white/home-grown subjects like Seamus Heaney, Gillian Clarke, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, all of whom I found it easier both to teach and appreciate because I was comfortable with the traditions from which their works sprang? How valid would comparison across those genres be?

I was always clear with students that there was no law saying they had to like a poem; they just needed to be able to explain why they did or didn’t like a poem, and give evidence to back up their opinion. I did not have a problem illustrating this approach when we were faced with some quite grim (to me) poetry by some of our more hallowed poets…

This leads me on to surmising that appreciation and analysis of poetry or novels written by members of different racial minority groups are possibly better taught by members of those communities, who would have the necessary contextual background and understanding to do them justice. And here, we are of course in dreamland, given the relatively small number of English teachers from such communities.

For me, these issues seems even more acute when I read of examination boards recently making deliberate choices to remove from examination specifications poetry by well-known, white British poets (such as Philip Larkin, for example) and replacing them by works from other cultures and traditions. Something, it seems to me, must be lost by depriving those who live in the country of making the acquaintance of some of its best poetry. And I don’t feel completely at ease saying that, either. Colonialism, empire, immigration and racism has a great deal to answer for.

One thing: I have no trust in any politician to make any useful suggestion or help the discussion forward. I am still struck by the utter idiocy of one M Gove decreeing that GCSE students should only study novels by British writers, thus depriving teachers and students across the country of To Kill A Mockingbird as an examination text; for all its faults, it allowed much mature discussion of growing up, parenting, community and racism, opening students’ eyes to a whole raft of ideas and issues relevant to them, their age and their world.

I wonder what other readers and teachers think about all this?

Fifty years on…

July 3, 2022

The older you get, the more anniversaries there are; it recently occurred to me that it’s now 50 years since I sat my A Levels… good grief! And what a simple business it all was way back then. All exams, for a start: no continuous assessment, no coursework or anything like that. Just sit in silence and write and write and write.

English literature (well, obviously); I think we’d studied eight set books and only had to write about six, so there was a choice. Othello and King Lear, Doctor Faustus, Paradise Lost 9 & 10, Chaucer’s Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Shadow of a Gunman, Andrew Marvell’s poetry… is that all of them? Don’t recall which I avoided…

French: dictation, I remember, unseen and prose translation, essay, and literature. Le Mariage de Figaro, Le Roi Se Meurt, Servitude et Grandeur Militaires, Confession de Minuit. The killer was, that French Lit and one of the English lit papers were timetabled on the same day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon; eight essays altogether and I remember I filled thirty-six sides of foolscap (predecessor to A4 if you need to know) that day and had a seriously sore hand.

Latin of Classical Civilisation (yes, weird title) with unseen, prose translation, a Roman history paper and set books, though I can no longer remember what they all were, apart from tiresome Livy Book 30.

I’d already passed two A levels in previous years so I knew what to expect, roughly, and I had my revision plan and just powered on through it; I certainly have no recollections of pressure from other or myself, and no stress about any of it, either. Innocent days, perhaps; the end of school, certainly. I recall getting pissed in the village pub, raiding the kitchens where we took and ate all the strawberries, a naked dip in the freezing pool and ceremonial urination on the cricket pitch. Then it was all over.

I had offers from three of the five universities I’d applied to and had fallen in love with Liverpool, so that was my first choice. With two A levels already, and since I’d originally applied to read Latin and French, my offer was one D grade, in French. Results day meant an envelope in the post and a scrawled note from my tutor saying, ‘That should be good enough for Liverpool’ (about my 2 As and a C). Done. Except my A in English Literature was making me review my options, and I knew I’d really rather read English than Latin. So I wrote and asked – I’d already made the rather unusual for those days request for deferred entry – could I change my course based on my results. That would be fine, they said.

Do I make it all sound far too easy? Maybe. I did take naturally to study, because I enjoyed the subjects and they fascinated me; I was also quite an organised student, and I had really good teachers. I put in the time and did the work; at a Catholic boarding school there were few other distractions, which meant I was rather a slow learner in other areas of life.

What I took away from the whole experience is rather more important: a deep love of literature and languages instilled by teachers with a genuine passion for their subjects, and I suspect already at that time the prospect of becoming a teacher and passing on some of that enjoyment to future students was beginning to form itself somewhere deep in my unconscious.

What I realise now is the simplicity of those days, without pressure or expectation, which students of today cannot know or enjoy; no real thoughts about what would come after university; the comfort of knowing that with my place would come a grant to cover my living expenses, and the course costs I didn’t even have to think about, because there were no tuition fees. I have often wished that such freedom was on offer nowadays, because I have always been a great believer in learning for learning’s sake, and studying what you enjoy, rather than because it will bring you a high salary. I’m aware that university students were an elite then, a very small percentage of the population rather than today’s 50%. The greater democratisation and accessibility of higher education is surely a good thing, but I’m also aware that it’s primarily a great money-making opportunity for so many different people, with the needs and rights of the actual students quite a way down the list of priorities.

I’ll finish with a line from Virgil. Forsan et olim haec meminisse juvabit…

50 years on…

December 24, 2021

For some reason, it came into my head that 2022 will mark half a century (!) since I did my A levels and left school. The sense of of the relentless passage of time was rather overwhelming, and I turned to reflecting on my world of so long ago. A Catholic boarding school; no sense of health and safety or safeguarding as we know them nowadays. From the naivety of the priests who ran it, a great sense of freedom in those heady days of the late sixties and early seventies. Much discovery of music, sexuality, astonishing films on TV… laying the foundations for my student days…

And, from the good teachers there, the inspirational ones, the push to be curious, explore the world of knowledge, art and literature. An amazing French teacher, years ahead of his time, who actually concentrated on getting us to speak the language, an English teacher who allowed and encouraged us to read anything and everything, a classics teacher who gave me a lifelong love of Latin and things and places Roman. No chance of becoming a scientist: no-one to teach Maths or sciences beyond O level. Was I bothered? Only much later on did I realise what roads had never been open to me, and by then any regret was pointless, futile: I was already me.

What remains today is the abiding feeling that learning is a lifelong activity, and that humans have a developed brain and a sense of reasoning for a deliberate purpose; yes, the priests’ message was laced with religious arguments, but for me the precepts are good in a secular world too. Since I left school all those years ago, at various points in my life I have chosen to go and learn German, Italian, Spanish, Yoga, and I have taught myself the art of bread-making and learned a lot about IT. From the relatively narrow field of my A level studies, my reading has broadened out in many directions…

Perhaps such attitudes meant that it was inevitable I would become a teacher myself… I don’t know. But I do hope I passed on some of that curiosity to those I taught.

I’m conscious of how much easier life generally, and schooling in particular, was in those long-ago days. You learned what you needed to learn for the exams, practised writing essays and sat the exams. No coursework, no continuous assessment, no relentless data-based pressure to make progress, and thereby enhance the school’s results and marketability. I have no memories of stress; perhaps I was lucky – I worked out how to be organised and get things done, and those habits have stood me in good stead.

Regrets? As I’ve aged, I’ve been aware of having missed out on sport and music. Back then, if you were keen and already capable, then games teachers were interested in you and encouraged you; if, like me, you knew nothing and couldn’t play, they were completely uninterested in helping or teaching you; you were bored, ignored, shivering and freezing on the edge of the field, and your lifetime loathing of sport grew early and long. With similar friends, I learned the joys of walking and rambling; that’s it for my physical activity. Music was the same: I now wish I could play an instrument, but there was never the opportunity. My voice broke early, so I was forbidden to sing lest I put others off. Just in case anyone is envious of the simplicity and freedom of those long-gone schooldays, there were those downsides, too.

I liked school. My father, who had only four winters’ worth of Polish rural schooling to his credit, encouraged me in my learning journey and I’ve never forgotten that. Education was the gateway to the world and to possibilities.

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…

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