Posts Tagged ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’

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 learning to read…

March 10, 2015

12906602197481I sometimes think about the process of learning to read, and how astonishing it is, because it opens up a whole new world beyond the real, physical world, to a child. There’s normally controversy about how it should be done, especially in England, where education has long been a political football; as my wife was a primary teacher, we sometimes discuss the issue and compare notes on our experiences.

I went back to my own experience. Firstly, I have no recollection of being read to at home, whereas this is nowadays a joy to children and their parents. There were no books, although I’m not completely clear whether this was a class thing, because of lack of money, or because books for small children were not widely available during my childhood. So, learning to read happened at school, beginning in Miss Marvell’s class in my case, with an alphabet frieze around the top of the classroom walls to chant together, and flashcards which she held up for us to recite – ‘Mother Mother see Kitty’ being the only one I can remember, thinking it a rather odd statement to be making, even at the age of five… In Mrs Harvey’s class we read together, read aloud individually, and she read to us, which I loved; my picture is of it all coming together pretty quickly and without any real difficulty. I do recall having to help one or two of the ‘weak’ readers with their books. What thrilled me was the discovery of longer books, with actual stories in them: I was hooked very quickly.

I was enrolled in Stamford Public Library at an early age, and often made daily visits to get another book to read. I discovered science fiction written for children, and loved the idea that there might be other worlds out there. It was there that I came across the ‘Young Traveller‘ series, in which a (nuclear, white, middle class) family of parents and children visit different countries of the world and are introduced to different foods, traditions and practices, and see the main tourist sites. All very wholesome, and illustrated by inset pages of black and white photographs. But I am not surprised that I love travel, and travel writing in my later years.

I worked my way through the classroom libraries in school, reading pretty much everything, including large parts of the ten-volume Children’s Encyclopaedia by Arthur Mee. Once you had completed whatever task the teacher had set for that session, you got sent off to pick a reading book… bliss.

I began to acquire books, slowly, and my father made me a small bookcase for my bedroom – I still have it. I loved the relatives who sent me book tokens for Christmas and birthdays, rather than the usual boring stuff. One of them bought me The Wind in the Willows – the oldest book in my library – and another bought me The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (and we all know what that led to!). I also read comics, hoovering up the adventures of Dan Dare, although I don’t think my parents fully approved of this sort of literature.

I think things are rather different nowadays. Libraries are a shadow of their former selves in this individualistic and consumer-oriented age; printing techniques have developed enormously to allow the production of beautiful children’s books; schools are tackling some of the issues connected with poverty and class attitudes to education. For me, learning to read set my imagination free for life, and, as a child, it was at least on a par with the discovery of Lego…

Why I read…

January 14, 2014

2008_1227stefsphotos0001I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember.

The first book I was ever given was Winnie The Pooh, and I never looked back; the first book I ever bought myself was with a Christmas book token (anyone remember those?) – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It cost the amazing sum of 3/6 (for those who never met real money, that’s the equivalent of 17.5pence). I’ve never looked back from Holmes, either.

As a child I wore our the children’s section of Stamford Public Library, with daily visits during school holidays. At the age of 12 they let me loose on the adults’ section… James Bond was a revelation. I hoovered up everything I could at school, and was astonished to be paid a grant to study literature at university, where I lay on the bed, reading huge numbers of books, some brilliant and others dire. After that, I received grants to read for two more literature degrees… and then spent my working life teaching English, mostly centred around reading & literature. And now I’m retired and can and do read to my heart’s content.

And there are often times when I ask myself what I’m missing, what I’ve missed, through having my nose in books all this time. When I got too uppity as a teenager and argued the toss about everything with my father, he would remind me that you can’t learn everything from books. He was right, even though he was the one who had encouraged me to read, to study and to learn. And I realised that actually, by reading, I could learn from the experiences of others as they wrote about themselves.

I read because I can enjoy (vicariously) the lives and experiences of others.

I read to escape from myself and my world, sometimes.

I read for pleasure.

I read to stimulate my mind and my brain, to make myself think.

I read because I’m seeking information.

All of those in no particular order. There have been failures, some of which may shock people: I have no time for Dickens; I read Hard Times at university because I had to; it was fair, but I have no desire to read any more. Similarly, I had to read Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but have never felt the urge to explore further. An unopened copy of Jude the Obscure is on the shelves somewhere. I tried to read Mein Kampf once, but it bored me stupid and I gave up. (I also fell asleep in the cinema trying to watch Triumph of the Will). Several people at different times tried to persuade me to read Nabokov’s Lolita; I’ve had three goes, and failed – it makes my flesh creep. It took me thirty years to tackle Saul Bellow; I managed to get to the end of The Adventures of Augie March, and it was okay, but…

If you want to know what I really like, then I point you to the page somewhere on here called ‘My Lists’.

I calculated, from the reading log I’ve kept since the age of 18, that I’ve read over 3000 books since then. It doesn’t really seem very many, and I know that I have lots to re-read, along with the large piles of unread ones: I hope I’m granted enough life and eyesight to get through them all. I’m certainly not going to change the habit of a lifetime…

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