Posts Tagged ‘teaching English Literature’

A tour of my library – part two

August 9, 2019

My collection of literature and literary criticism lives in my study, and includes works of reference I used when I was teaching. I have been gradually slimming this section down in retirement, since I have actually finished with a good many of the books and do not expect to have any further use for them. I still write the occasional study guide, and so the collection does come in useful, although I tend to rely much more on my own teaching notes, most of which I’ve scanned and keep on my laptop. I’m most pleased with a collection of Shakespeare texts I built up over many years: a complete set of thirty-five volumes of the Arden Shakespeare Second Series in hardback editions. This may not mean anything to you, but this series was the gold standard in my time as a student and teacher. However, the gem of my literature collection was a treat to myself of a facsimile of the First Folio: pure book porn (if you’ll allow the expression), I love to sit and turn the pages over and marvel quietly.

The fiction section lives in our sitting room, by and large, and fills two alcoves on either side of the fireplace. For ease of searching it’s divided into two sections, works written before 1900 and works written after that date. The pre-1900 section contains many of the classics you might expect, Austen, Conrad, and also quite a few of the Russians. I have a good number of nice editions, particularly those of the latest incarnation of the Everyman’s Library; these are books that I do like to come back to. The modern section is very eclectic, but – as you might expect – with a bias to Eastern European literature on my part. A good number of our poetry books also find their homes on the top shelves: Milton, Donne and other metaphysicals; the modern poetry I used to teach is in my study.

There’s a small selection of my science fiction in my study. It’s the only section so far where I have begun to apply a new criterion: do I definitely want to keep/ re-read this book? If I’m certain, or there’s enough doubt, then I shall keep the book; otherwise I shall part with it. This means that quite a lot of the science fiction is actually in boxes in the loft, because I have no interest in re-visiting it. One book which I am keeping is a not very well-known American utopian novel from 1887, Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, which envisions a socialist America in the year 2000. The premise is contrived, as often in a utopia, but the vision is fascinating. And my copy is a most bizarre example: it’s printed on very cheap paper which has gone seriously brown, and looks exactly like the original British edition of the novel, except that it’s in a semi-glossy paperback cover, which would not have been possible then. This cover would seem to feature the frontispiece portrait of Bellamy from that first edition. There are absolutely no clues that this is a reprint or facsimile, and it certainly does not look like a photographic reproduction. I bought it new in the late 1970s, and there was apparently an edition published then, but I have no clue who published it. Very mysterious…

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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.

On examinations, coursework and cheating

March 6, 2017

I was shocked last week to read an article which showed how widespread the practice of buying essays online, in order to boost one’s results, has become: it’s not a cheap route to success, but one that tempts many, and is very hard to detect. The issue is somewhat different from plagiarism, ie using material from other sources in your own work and not admitting it: both are definitely cheating and severely punished when found out. Plagiarism was becoming an issue towards the end of my teaching career, and there are, as far as I’m aware, programs capable of detecting it. Indeed, I detected some in my work in the classroom. And neither of these issues is going to go away, because the internet isn’t…

So how best, how fairest to assess performance in a subject like English Literature?

When I did A levels back in the 1970s, it was all examined, and the exams were all closed book (ie you had no texts with you in the exam room). It was hard work, and there was a lot of memorising of quotations, especially: it was to enable exams in the subject to be less memory-dependent, and to spend more time assessing other skills that alternative forms of assessment were devised and tried out. I remember, for instance, preparing students for open book exams, where a copy of the text, sometimes annotated, sometimes not, was allowed in the exam room. A number of problems immediately arose: some editions of a text had better or more copious textual and critical apparatus for weaker students to waste time looking up, and if annotation was allowed, then students – sometimes encouraged by teachers – stretched this to extremes, filling up every margin and blank page with notes and even essay plans… it couldn’t be policed and wasn’t fair.

When I first started teaching, there was far less unnecessary pressure on schools, teachers and students, and a system of 100% coursework seemed to work quite well, as long as moderating processes were adequate. For a while I was group chair of a local panel of schools where we met to moderate and standardise GSCE coursework grades in English Literature. It seemed a fairer system to me, allowing students to develop and demonstrate a far wider range of analytical and writing skills, and completely removing the memory test element. Research at the time also suggested that coursework enabled girls to do better. It’s easy to see potential problems with this system, and they became more and more serious as the educational ‘reforms’ of the bean-counters in the 1980s took effect. Dishonesty was hard to detect and eliminate: teachers could instruct students on what they should write; parents or older siblings could write the essays; extracts from critics and study guides could be copied into an essay in the hope of better marks. Sometimes this might be detected: a lot of the time it surely wasn’t. The advent of the web made this all far worse, as did increasing pressure by school management and OfSTED to produce results.

For most of my teaching career a combination of coursework and examination obtained: the advantages and disadvantages have already been outlined, but the balance between the two allowed a wide range of knowledge, understanding and skills to be developed and assessed.

And now the pendulum seems to have swung back to where it was when I was at school: closed book exams. A number of issues come to the fore: league tables, and competition and comparisons between schools – the ‘market’ as it’s so quaintly called – demands ever higher results (grade inflation) when surely we should be aiming at the best for every student, and co-operation and sharing of resources and expertise between schools. This is compounded by the spread of ‘data collection’ where numbers and grades are perceived to be more important than a real understanding of a student’s strengths and weaknesses (professional judgement has gone out of the window) – how many ways are there to weigh a pig?

We do currently seem to have an education system that isn’t fit for purpose, partly because no-one’s sure of what the purpose is. We have a cumbersome exam system run by a number of competing commercial companies that pretend to be charities, who often cannot recruit enough properly qualified people to mark papers, while we have just increased the number of exams… I’ve often wondered how the French manage to get their baccalaureate marked and results out before the end of the summer term (which is earlier than ours…). And then there’s that major problem that got me started – the internet. If you can buy an essay, written to order, then you hand an advantage to the rich, and you have to turn the clock back to the exam room of forty years ago in the name of fairness. I did manage to memorise enough quotations from the eight texts I studied to help me get my grade ‘A’, but I’m not sure what good that memory test did me…

My ABC of Reading: U is for Unseen

December 19, 2016

One of the things I remember from my days of studying at school and university is the unseen, a word capable of striking terror into one’s brain: to be faced with a passage of text – prose, poetry or drama, that one had never previously met, and being expected to analyse it and write intelligently about it, against the clock. And, of course, the unseen was in Latin or French, if that was the subject of the examination.

When examiners are pushed into all sorts of tricky corners by clueless government ministers who think that teachers are cheating again, surely what they need is recourse to the good, old-fashioned unseen paper. Only once in my long teaching career was an unseen not an unseen, when I opened the A level paper my students were taking and saw a short story I’d studied with some of them in the fifth form, and thought – I wonder how many of you will remember this? And that previous encounter would have been of no advantage to them anyway, for the unseen paper tests your skills and understanding, and your ability to apply these, as well as your ability to write intelligently; no cheating possible here. If you’ve been a committed and reasonably assiduous student over two years, you can cope with anything you’ll meet.

Yet you could practise for this paper, and we did. A weekly class where I would put an unseen text in front of the class to see what they would make of it; all you could do by way of training really was to feed them prompts, encouragement and feedback, and supply them with a useful list of terminology and definitions. Apart from that, if you covered a wide enough spectrum of literature over time, from sixteenth to twentieth century, intelligent students would build up the beginnings of a jigsaw of literature and its history, with enough knowledge to enable them to conjecture intelligently and explore an unfamiliar text with a sensible approach.

And, of course, I got to choose the unseen texts, and could feed them all kinds of extracts from my favourite novels, or my favourite poems; an advantage of this was that I would end up eventually explaining and clarifying what it was that I specifically liked about these texts, whether language or metaphor or rhyme or build-up of tension or whatever, and the class learned something of how to explore and explain their reactions to texts, as well.

Over time, I came to save one particular poem for the last class I took with a group. It was William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster. As usual, we’d read the text aloud – very important for hearing all sorts of things that one should pay attention to – and then they were invited to begin their analysis. Often, they would wrench themselves into trying to make all kinds of appreciative comments, while I bit my lower lip. I loved the student, whose name I sadly cannot remember, who, one year, put up their hand and said, tentatively, “Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?” And that was an object lesson for everyone.

My A-Z of Reading: O is for Open Book

December 5, 2016

Should an examination be a test of memory, or of a student’s broader ability to apply knowledge and understanding? When I took exams in literature at school and at university many years ago, you were not allowed texts in the exam room. This meant that, as well as knowing the texts thoroughly, and the issues they raised that examiners might ask you to write about, you also had to memorise quite considerable quantities of quotations from those texts in order to support and justify your analysis. How useful was that ‘memory test’ part of my degree qualification, for instance?

When it came to the examination for my masters, I met the ‘take-away’ exam, courtesy of Lancaster University English Department. You took away the exam paper and came back a fortnight later to hand in your four essays; you’d had the time to re-read any text, any critic, plan, draft, write and re-write your essays, and the examiners knew that and expected and marked accordingly. No memory test there, but a serious test of one’s ability to analyse, theorise and evidence, as well as think originally.

When I first started teaching there was 100% coursework in both English Language and Literature; that worked for a while, but depended on committed and conscientious teachers, and there was too much temptation – pressure perhaps, particularly where parents were paying for results – to game the system. So that went, sadly. Incidentally, since those days, I have no personal evidence that students’ results are globally any better or worse. And once again, students were being graded on their ability to understand, to analyse and to evidence.

In came open-book exams: invigilated, timed sessions, but students could have their set texts with them; no memory test, but a test of understanding, analysis, and ability to evidence. Such a system had its downside: weaker students in particular saw the text as a crutch, a prop, and tended to spend far too much time searching for quotations instead of writing for marks. A copy of a text was no substitute for textual knowledge. And again, teachers were pressured to play the system: annotation was allowed, and how much was too much annotation? Who was going to police this? Students ended up with every available inch of their text crammed with notes and essay plans; weaker ones again spent too much time accessing these and not enough time writing.

So we came to the era of clean texts: schools had to spend money buying and storing sets of books to be kept solely for exam use, and again, quis custodiet? So everything came full circle and we are now back at the era of memory tests once again: learn the quotations your teacher tells you, and, if you are a weak student, try and cram every one in to your essay, whether it fits or not.

One of the greatest flaws of the English education system, I felt, during my time as part of it, was the amount of time spent chopping and changing and re-inventing the wheel: students were never served by this; teachers weren’t either, so who was? Exam boards, publishers, consultants all made a mint. And nobody really answered the question: what, exactly, are we trying to assess in a literature exam, and what is the best way to do this?

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: learning to write

April 5, 2016

Reflecting on my profession five years after retiring…

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 in to both textual analysis and structuring writing.

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 once could write and erase, correct and modify as one went along, so it would be alright, 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…

As my career progressed, I gradually discovered that it was possible for the students ans 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, 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.

Receiving students’ writing to mark was often 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?

I always regarded my students as writers, but, as I have written elsewhere, it took quite a while before I remembered that I was one, too. And now, away from all the pressures, I enjoy writing this blog very much.

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.

Reading in class

March 25, 2016

It’s coming up to five years since I said farewell to the classroom, and I find myself thinking quite a lot about what I used to do, and how and why; clearly processing something here, so I thought I’d share my musings, which are related to the broader issues of reading and literature.

Many young children are fortunate in being read to regularly at home; the most obvious example is the bedtime story. Then they are read to frequently at primary school, and enjoy this, too. I always felt that there is no reason that this should stop at secondary school. After all, many adults enjoy listening to audiobooks, perhaps while commuting. So, I always made it a practice to read whole texts with my classes; in the early years of secondary school, there was free choice, but later on the books were dictated by the demands of GCSE.

I always chose books that would be a challenge, in terms of language or subject matter; they were books that students often said they would never have chosen to read themselves, but nevertheless they were glad to have read the book in class. And we read the entire book, word for word, cover to cover. I really think this sharing and (perhaps) enjoying together was really important; there was no sending them away to read a couple of chapters for homework so we could get through it more quickly. The exciting bits we shared; the boring bits we shared, too, and out of them might come all sorts of interesting discussion: OK, that’s boring to you, so why do you think the writer did it like that?

All sorts of activities sprang from the book: looking up and learning new words; discussion of all sorts of topics and issues that came up – the story could be paused so that opinions could be aired. Anything was grist to the mill. Writing activities offered themselves: creative responses, dramatic or analytical ones, reviews and opinion pieces.

Everyone got to read. I would read frequently, to keep that pace of the story going, to pick up the threads after a not-so-good reader had finished, to ensure that we got to a suitable place to stop at the end of the lesson (didn’t always manage that!). Sometimes students volunteered; usually between a third and half the class were game for that; often I picked on students or read around the class, to ensure that all got the necessary practice. So much was gained by this sharing, it was clear to me; an outsider might think it was all a skive or a doddle for the class, when it was so much more. There was learning and enjoyment at the same time – what more could one ask for?

Teaching English

March 24, 2016

I became an English teacher because I loved reading and hoped to be able to pass on some of my love and enjoyment of literature to my students: we all start off very idealistically! But, beginning from this enthusiasm meant that reading was always at the core of my work as an English teacher, and everything else grew from it. This approach was encouraged in the – now much-derided – past, long before the National Curriculum, datasets and all the other craziness which drives people out of the profession, by my first Head of Department.

Every class had a class reader, which the teacher chose, and as many as possible of the different aspects of English arose from that reader: vocabulary and dictionary work as well as new spellings, creative and analytical writing opportunities and speaking and listening work, which could and did obviously include cross-curricular themes. You would aim to get through a book a term, and would hope to read the entire book aloud in class. Everyone could read aloud, and this also offered opportunities for weaker readers to practise.

It wasn’t a perfect approach to teaching the subject – you still needed to bring in grammar and punctuation exercises and comprehension practice at various points, but throughout my career I never came across an improvement on it: certainly I ran a mile from any scheme that offered an English course from a textbook.

We did end up having to do rather more preparation than we otherwise might have done, because all the activities we wanted had to be created de novo – they weren’t available in a textbook or via pre-produced worksheets. But within a co-operative department resources and ideas could be and were discussed and shared, even co-produced. And once you’d created them, you had them for future reference, which meant that over time, as you developed a repertoire of texts and activities that could work with particular classes and ages groups, preparation became far less onerous; this made it easier to taken new texts on board from time to time. With suitable tweaking it was an approach that worked at Key Stage 3 and also at GCSE, and the methods could be applied in slightly different ways to Shakespeare and other drama, and poetry too.

OK, I liked this approach, but what about the students? I have to say that, once I’d ruled out books that didn’t work, my classes seemed to like what they got. They enjoyed the books, admitting they liked them, even while saying that they were not books they’d ever have chosen to read themselves. That was fine: I was extending the range of their reading, and stretching them to boot. They seemed to learn: their grammatical knowledge, their comprehension ability, their range of writing and their confidence in speaking and listening progressed as it should have done, and they achieved the exam results they were capable of. And we all got along pretty well: job done.

Picking the books I used was crucial: I never used a book I didn’t like, or that I felt we ought to read, because it would be good for them, or because it was a classic. I would never inflict Dickens, or the Brontes or other such weighty and worthy tomes on my classes. This doesn’t mean we read lightweight tosh, either: there are lots of good, well-written books suitable for young adults, or even specially written for that market. Anyone – this includes you, Mr Gove – who thinks you raise standards by force-feeding young people classics as if they were French geese just doesn’t get it.

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