Posts Tagged ‘discussion in class’

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.

Advertisements

Permission not to like

May 30, 2016

When teaching, I often formed the impression that students were in some way in awe of books, literature, writers and poetry, and that they needed to be reassured that it was all right for them to have their own personal reaction to a text: there was nothing wrong with them if they didn’t like something. I realised that it was part of my role to give them ‘permission’ to dislike something, often leading by example, sharing my own likes and dislikes. When students saw that I both liked and disliked certain books and writers, they were able to be more honest in class: obviously, I never knew what they said outside the classroom…

What I wanted was for students not just to like or dislike (or, indeed, to love or loathe) but to be able to explain why, to give reasons for their reactions, and hopefully to illustrate those reasons so that I and the rest of the class could share them, and argue with them.

This became quite easy at GCSE in my final years, where, in the compulsory poetry anthology, and among the compulsory pre-twentieth century poems (yes, you foster a love of poetry by government edict, forcing it down their throats) there featured a positively dreadful poem by Wordsworth called The Affliction of Margaret. It droned on for two large pages, overblown verse and sentiments, awful rhyme, very repetitively. I hated it with a great loathing, and would share this with my class, often before we read it, pointing out to them that we had no option but to spend a little time on it. Then we would read it, explain it, make some notes, and discuss how they might need to use it in the exam, and how they might avoid using it. All of this made life a great deal easier and kept the students on my side.

We often discussed what we read; students were curious about what I read, and were sometimes surprised about what I owned up to: it wasn’t wall-to-wall Dickens and Hardy. Again, these are two writers I have not grown to like during my lengthy life of reading; I let my students know this, and am proud to be able to say that I never inflicted either of these writers on 14 year-olds. At that age most students will find them long and dull. I did point out that they might choose to read and even enjoy them later on in life. I tried – within the usual constraints – to choose books with which the students might feel some connection.

I never taught a text I didn’t like. When it came to sixth form, we often argued. It took the best part of a year to persuade a certain student (who will know who I’m referring to if they ever read this) that there was some literary merit in Charles Frazier‘s Cold Mountain. The recognition was grudging and hard-won.

Readers will realise that there’s quite a lot of literature I don’t bother with, or actively dislike; life is too short to waste eyeball-time. I am open to being persuaded to read things I express reluctance about, and do sometimes change my mind. In the classroom, however, students tend to regard their teachers as experts, which to an extent we are, though it’s also important to let them know our limitations: we are not the fount of all wisdom, though they may well learn something from us. What, in the end, I wanted was for everyone to be able to speak openly and honestly, but also to learn that it was easy to just dislike something, harder to explain and justify their point of view; that was where the learning lay… they even came to anticipate my one-word response: ‘Evidence?’

Gosh, I miss it…

Teaching English: speaking & listening

April 5, 2016

Continuing my thoughts on the craft of teaching English, five years after stopping…

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 contribute to marks and grades: I feel that this does a grave disservice to students.

%d bloggers like this: