Posts Tagged ‘teaching English’

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).

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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.

Montaigne: Essays

February 17, 2017

515td2p46tl-_ac_us218_When I was teaching, I used to set essays all the time, and yet I never really thought about this literary form at all, in the ways that I used to reflect on poetry, prose and drama. Essays were of various kinds, asking students to write about something they were interested in, something that had happened to them, to present an argument or to explore an opinion offered about a piece of literature, and, other than the obvious idea that the requested piece of writing was non-fictional by definition, that was it.

Having taken a long time – several years, with gaps – to work my way through Montaigne’s Essays (and I must also confess that I read them in English not French, having baulked just slightly at renewing my long-lost acquaintance with sixteenth century French) I have found myself thinking. Montaigne seems to be regarded as the originator of the form, a (relatively) short prose piece on a single topic which the writer may explore how she or he chooses, and often from a personal angle.

It doesn’t seem to be that easy a form to master, for it must either be tightly structured so that the reader knows exactly where you’re leading him or her, or, if it’s a looser kind of reflective wandering through a topic, it must not unravel too much and the reader feel lost in someone else’s ramblings. Which is why a large part of my teaching work was about how to plan and write essays.

Montaigne comes across as a very likeable and very erudite man in his essays: he ranges very widely; some pieces are quite long and involved, others much briefer. The titles of his essays are often puzzling, enigmatic, and one often doesn’t meet the named topic for many pages. He seems very liberal, in the free-thinking sense, open-minded in a way one might not expect from his times, humane in his approach to us and our failings and shortcomings. He writes very openly about sex and sexuality, about his own body and its weaknesses as he ages, and faces the prospect of death. And I am quite envious of his very early retirement to his estate and his tower in which he would sit, think and write, away from the demands of the world. I also like the idea that Shakespeare would have read some of his works, in Florio’s translation: usually it’s the essay ‘On Cannibals’ that’s mentioned, in connection with The Tempest.

I’ve really enjoyed making my way through this huge and well-produced tome – Everyman’s Library do make beautiful books; some of the essays I’ve enjoyed far more than others, and I’ve taken care to mark these, so that I can come back to them: I can’t see myself re-reading them all, somehow…

And now that I come to think of it, I suppose that each of my blog posts is actually an essay. In case you wonder, I do plan them (former students please note!) usually jotting down notes, thoughts and reactions as I’m reading a book, and each piece is carefully read through and revised after I’ve committed it to my hard drive. And I thought I had left essays behind when I finished my master’s degree…

On no longer being a teacher

July 12, 2016

It’s now coming up to five years since I taught my last lesson, walked out of the classroom and my career as an English teacher came to an end. It took a long time for what that meant to really hit me; recently I’ve been thinking about what it actually meant.

A major change – the major change, I’ve realised – is that I now spend most of my time, not with young people, energetic, lively and with the world and their futures before them, but with people of my own age and older, with a far different outlook and rather narrower future prospects. I continue to miss my students, some of whom I’m still in contact with via social media, and they are now developing careers and lives of their own, becoming so much more than the young people I came to know within the four walls of a classroom. One of the great things about being a teacher, as well as one of the sadnesses, is seeing your students outgrow you. I miss the liveliness of the classroom, the interaction, the discussions and arguments, the continually being kept on my toes by the need to be a couple of steps ahead of them all. And I miss my teaching colleagues, too.

But this piece is not intended as a retired teacher’s wallowing in nostalgia. I have tried to keep up with my subject, and what is going on in the world of teaching and education since I bade it farewell, and have been shocked by what I’ve seen: the political games continue, the examination specifications continue to be changed far too frequently, teachers and their students are ever more at the mercy of data managers and bean counters seeking new ways to weigh the pig. Entry to university seems to have become even more complicated, and certainly far more costly; students rightly seek to know if they are getting value for money, and my impression is that often they are not.

The most shocking thing that has been brought to my attention, by a former teaching colleague, is the effect of all the pressure and stress on the mental health of school students, reflected in the increasing numbers experiencing quite serious problems and needing professional help for them.

I’m both horrified and outraged by what’s happening. All of education is transformed into a highly competitive business; instead of offering support and help to young people at a formative stage in their lives, who are trying to get to know themselves and find their way, we are subjecting them to often unbearable levels of stress and pressure.

Children must begin to learn to read and spell and climb onto the academic treadmill before they are ready, at an age when they should be playing; they must be tested regularly and told they are not succeeding or not up to average (by people who don’t understand the concept of an ‘average’); students must choose – at an age when they may not be ready to make choices – subjects for study that may restrict, constrain and limit their future lives, careers and happiness, not subjects that they enjoy, necessarily, but ones which they are told will set them up for future financial success – allegedly. And, when they might be enjoying the freedom to be students at university, before settling down to the relative seriousness of a working life, they are already saddling themselves with a mountain of debt.

All of this was happening while I was still teaching, but it has got far worse; I wouldn’t want to be trying to advise my students on wise and sensible choices. I’m profoundly grateful that I was educated in a more relaxed, more generous and more liberal age; I used to explain this to students and tell them that I felt they were also entitled to such treatment; a country like ours needs to be investing in its future, not auctioning it off to the highest bidder…and a rich country like ours can surely afford it.

And so, although I started off by saying what I missed about teaching, I’m also very glad I am retired. Perhaps this is a natural aspect of growing older: not that one looks back and says, ‘Things were better in my day,’ but that one realises – even if not yet fully accepting it – that life has moved on, is now passing you by, and that the torch has been passed to younger hands. Other minds than mine now have to wrestle with these issues.

David Crystal: Spell It Out

June 21, 2016

51p7rzC0mSL._AC_US160_Teaching (or attempting to teach) spelling was part of my job throughout my career, and it was quite important to me to encourage students to be as accurate as possible. I tried to adopt a structured approach to teaching spelling – in fact worked my way through a number of what I thought were structured approaches; I felt that I met with a certain amount of success, and yet, according to David Crystal, I was not going about it the right way. After reading his book, I have to agree with him (mostly)…

I have always been a good speller, never having any real problems with any aspect of it: once I’ve met a word in print, it sticks along with its spelling. I’ve put this down to the way my memory works – maybe photographically for spelling – and the fact that I read a lot (!) This hasn’t always made it easy for me to be sympathetic to those who clearly found it all much more of a struggle, but I did try.

Crystal presents the history of the development of spelling in English, through the varied influences of Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, the Great Vowel Shift and a whole host of other factors, including a number of well-intentioned but wrong-headed attempts to reform, to structure and to standardise spelling. We can thus see how the rules and the anomalies and the myriad exceptions came about, and how they cause problems for the unwary and the non-native English speaker. I thought I knew quite a lot about our language and its history, and yet it all came across as much more complicated than I had known. The book – like many others of his – is clear, well-written and explained, and copiously illustrated with examples.

He also makes some suggestions as to how spelling might be better taught and learned, as well as recognising that it’s not a fixed thing, but changing and evolving over time, pointing out that electronic communication and the internet are forces that tend both to standardise and also to allow more rapid evolution of spelling. Context is important for teaching spelling – so all those lists of words in isolation so beloved of English teachers are not that helpful; an understanding of some basic principles of etymology is useful, so clearly a knowledge of Latin would be a help. I’m not holding my breath on this one, but it’s another of those factors that must have helped me, coming, as I did from a generation of students who needed O Level Latin to embark on an arts degree…

If I’d read this book whilst still working, I would have made some major changes to how I went about teaching spelling. It’s a useful book for the interested general reader as well as for teachers, I think.

On teaching Shakespeare

May 13, 2016

51QrP0QTnTL._AC_US160_A follower’s question about the teaching of Shakespeare has had me reflecting on my experiences in the classroom.

I was wary of teaching Shakespeare too early on in secondary school. I know there are people who think ‘the younger the better’, but the other side of that idea is dealing with the kind of questions students are likely to ask; I have never been one to censor anything in the classroom, and so waiting until students were – hopefully – of a suitable mature age to be given honest and truthful answers to their questions, felt more sensible to me. Inevitably questions about sex would arise: Shakespeare is full of allusions, references, and, more than anything, word-play. Explaining Romeo and Juliet even to Y9 students demanded a certain level of care… so my personal preference was to wait until Y9.

There is the idea of beginning earlier with something more innocuous, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, but I tried that once, at the start of my teaching career, and never went back to it. Trying to interest eleven and twelve year-olds, particularly boys, in fairies and magic is just not going to work.

The choice of play is crucial when students are younger. Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar all offer something to students in terms of plot, action and issues for reflecting on. And I think that to be able to offer some recognisable connection with their own lives helps to make the plays work. With Romeo and Juliet there is lively action, the idea of young love, and the idea of parents trying to control one’s life, and my students were more than willing to engage with these issues! Macbeth raises the ideas of hopes, dreams and ambitions and how far one is prepared to go in achieving those, as well as the idea of someone being influenced by their partner to do things they might otherwise not have done. And Julius Caesar obviously raises the idea of what one should do about bad rulers, tyrants, and how we make such judgements on rulers, as well as the ways in which the common people are manipulated.

Clearly, as students grow older, they are able to engage with more complex plays and issues: they can understand the idea of sexual jealousy as raised in Othello and The Winter’s Tale, for example, although they might not kill as a response to it… and one can explore racism in many ways by studying Othello, or The Merchant of Venice.

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Studying Shakespeare in the classroom is a bit of a contradiction, as he was a dramatist and wrote for performance, not reading. Some schools are fortunate in having theatres reasonably accessible and can often take students to live performances which present the plays as they were meant to be experienced. Other schools – ours included – are not so fortunate. I tried, over the years, to develop a way of teaching which addressed this problem.

I’d always do a very quick read through of the whole text, with the emphasis on getting a grasp of the plot and the main characters, and noticing what the main ideas were. I must stress here, that I was never one for just studying extracts. I think that’s a meaningless activity; if there isn’t time, or you can’t make the whole play work, then best not bother. After an initial read, we would watch a TV or film performance of the play. We’d watch it straight through – obviously it might take several lessons, but I wouldn’t constantly be pausing it to comment or explain; again, allowing students to try and grasp the overall effect seemed much more important. If they were studying it for examination, I’d suggest they try to follow the text as they watched, the idea being that if they matched dialogue, gestures and action to the printed words it would improved comprehension. Feedback suggested that this did indeed work.

After that, we had a choice, depending on whether they were studying for an examination, or to write coursework on the play. If a detailed study of the play and serious questioning and note-making were required, now was the time to do it. This was often the lengthiest, and perhaps the most tedious part of the work, but at least the class now understood what they were dealing with.

After this, we would look in more detail at character, themes and issues raised by the play, and I used to do this through group work and presentations to the class; each group would be enabled to show both their understanding of the play and their allocated topic, and their ability to explain it to their peers, as well as manipulating their knowledge and understanding in ways which were a good preparation for what they might be asked to do in an examination. If there was time at this stage, it was also good to be able to watch another (different) complete performance; if we were really lucky, it might be possible to see the play in the theatre…

Looking back over my nearly thirty years in the classroom, I can honestly say that I always loved teaching Shakespeare – correction, trying to pass on my love of Shakespeare. I miss it, but the week after next is my annual Shakespeare week.

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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