Tag Archives: Language

On mark schemes and how they hinder good writing

Old vintage typewriter

A couple of years ago, I took almost nine months off work to write a novel. In spite of my booker-winning dreams, were I to weigh all the decisions I’ve made throughout my life, this one would not rank among the greatest. At the time, I was living in an expensive flat in West Hampstead and the novel itself was a stinker.

Why so bad? Because I tried to write it. What I mean by that is, I tried to write it. I was so conscious of my writing that I paid little attention to other considerations. Y’know, trifling things like character and plot. Worse, because I was so conscious of style, the style itself was awful. I mean truly hideous. I missed no opportunity to add an extra adjective or metaphor, and never did I use a simple word when a showy one would suffice.

So I know a little thing or two about bad writing. Today, however, I’m more interested in what it is that makes writing good. Unsurprisingly, given the above, this is something I ruminate on from time to time. What constitutes good writing is both complex and subjective, but there is one quality that all good writing has: control.

I’d define a writer with control as a writer whose language communicates the exact meaning he wishes. There is little room for ambiguity, unless the writer desires it, and even then, he is able to manipulate his words to mean (and not mean) precisely what he does (and does not) want them to.

A mark scheme for writing is, therefore, a problem. A mark scheme will necessarily reduce the amount of control a writer can have, because it will exert an unnatural influence over him. It will control him. It will say: “What you’re writing is irrelevant; good writing must tick these boxes, always.”

If you look at the paragraphs above, they would certainly attract reward using AQA’s GCSE mark scheme. We have rhetorical questions, punctuation for effect, some decent vocabulary, et cetera, et cetera. But the writing is also pretty plain. Save for one or two clichéd metaphors (“a stinker”) and too many rhetorical questions, I haven’t gone out of my way to add unnecessary literary flourishes. How often can you say that about writing that aims to pick up marks at GCSE? How often do you read through a few paragraphs without being battered by a tsunami of similes, metaphors, alliterations, or tricolons? Rarely.

Leaving aside the pupils for just a moment, it is also true, I think, that many an English teacher has been ruined by the GCSE mark schemes for writing. Sometimes, when I read a blog, article, or TES column, I cannot help but hear, underneath the sentences, a teacher who has taught to the GCSE mark scheme: “Open with a rhetorical question to engage your reader… Try and use a simile or metaphor in the first three sentences… Use a statistic to make your point feel valid.” Yawn. Of course, there are plenty of examples of excellent writing from English teachers on Twitter and in TES. But you get the idea. The tail is wagging the dog.

Content is king. It should dictate writing style, always. Form should be ruled by what the writer has to say; his message should not be subservient to the arbitrary considerations of style, especially those dictated by a poorly designed GCSE mark scheme. So, if we return to our pupils, we can see that this is important, because no writing, however “creative” the task, needs an overabundance of trite literary “techniques”; unnecessary literary flourishes are harmful to both clarity and style, yet the GCSE mark scheme mandates, for example, that pupils “sustain” their use of linguistic devices alongside a “wide range” of punctuation. But great writing doesn’t require endless linguistic devices and needless little marks cluttering up the page. By asking for this, the mark scheme not only places style over substance but also hinders that very same thing, stylish writing, that it is purporting to promote. Talk about boneheaded.

Now, let’s pause for a moment. Instead of creative writing, let’s consider a piece of analytical writing on, say, Romeo and Juliet. A pupil writes the following sentence: “Romeo is impulsive, immature, and sensitive.” Recently, I have read more than one blog in which teachers have written about how they have coached their pupils to write a sentence such as this. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, it’s a decent sentence. And I agree with you. It is a decent sentence. In isolation.

However, if this is a piece of analytical writing then the pupil’s use of a tricolon is misplaced. In terms of tone, it just doesn’t work. It’s too writerly. Rarely in analytical or academic writing would a writer use a tricolon such as this, because it would jar with the rest of the essay or paper. Further, unless he is a particularly skilled writer, by using the tricolon the pupil is likely to cause himself another, larger, problem. He will likely suffer issues with his paragraphing and structure.

In terms of structure, allow me first to acknowledge that a pupil might get away with using the tricolon above if he employs it as the beginning sentence of an essay. Assuming, that is, that the question asks specifically for a character analysis of Romeo. This works because, as readers, we assume that by placing this sentence first, the writer is indicating that his answer will focus in its entirety on these three traits.

Still, I would be cautious before recommending this to pupils as a strategy. Were they to do this in an exam, they risk getting themselves in a muddle, given that time pressure often forces pupils to follow where their ideas lead moment by moment. Too much specificity early on might prove counterproductive.

But let’s return to the issues with paragraphing and structure that tricolons will lead to. The tricolon above is almost certain to cause the pupil problems, because as soon as he mentions Romeo’s characteristics (impulsive, immature, sensitive) at any point other than the opening of his essay, he is obliged to address and analyse each of them there and then. This is because in an analytical essay, you can’t just mention things in passing. The effect of this is likely to be one of two undesirable outcomes: an average-length paragraph with superficial analysis, or a long, winding behemoth of a paragraph that is both confused and confusing.

An entire essay could be written on each of the characteristics that the pupil has identified—Shakespeare presents Romeo as immature. Discuss.—so to brush quickly over them is clearly a waste. Conversely, extending the paragraph will result in the pupil attempting to weave together too many ideas at once, and the threads of each will become tangled and lost. There’s too much cognitive load for both writer and reader.

If a pupil decides he wishes to write about these characteristics, then he is best to leave out the tricolon and address each individually, and the best way to do that is in separate paragraphs. This will allow him the time and space to make a decent attempt at communicating his ideas about each characteristic without muddling awkwardly between them. It will keep his writing clear, as well as his thoughts, which is necessary because their is considerable overlap between the two. Importantly, it will also allow a the pupil’s teacher or marker to follow his train of thought with ease.

Unfortunately, if the pupil chooses to use a tricolon in his essay, and if he also wishes to explore each idea within its own paragraph, as he writes he must clumsily flag to the reader which of Romeo’s aforementioned characteristics he is now referring to, with something along the lines of “Firstly, I will analyse how Romeo is impulsive”, before stuttering into his next paragraph with “Secondly, I will show how Romeo is immature.”

No. Just no.

As a writer, everything you write is a promise to your readers. As readers, we expect the words we read to be connected to both what has gone before and what is yet to come. If you flout this rule when you write, you lead us down blind-alleys and confuse us. We begin to lose the thread of your argument or analysis. However, writing also has an onward flow. It cannot constantly reference what has been said already and what will be said shortly, otherwise that flow is broken. Navigating this can be tricky, but skilful writers, writers with control, do it seamlessly.

This is why the ticolon is problematic in academic writing, which is about explaining and analysing information, not about sprinkling beauty through the use of detail or persuading through the use rhythm and repetition. These are the things that a tricolon is best at doing, but in academic writing, you should not pause to linger over something whimsical, nor should you aggressively repeat your point to leave it ringing in the ears of an audience. To use a tricolon in academic writing will not achieve either of these things, but it will disrupt the order in which information is presented, and so will often result in turgid prose, because the writer must constantly pause to remind readers where he has been and where he is going.

This obsession with linguistic features is surely a knock-on effect of mark schemes and their diktats about what must be present for writing to be good. Like any art form, what is good is context specific. For example, I’m rather partial to a Caravaggio painting, but I wouldn’t hang a print of ‘David with the Head of Goliath’ above my dinner table. Similarly, though I enjoy the music of Wu-Tang Clan, I’d think twice about blasting ‘Protect Ya Neck’ through my car speakers when picking up a girl for a first date.

When the mark scheme for writing is adversely affecting literary analysis, you know you have a problem. But what’s the solution? Well, comparative judgement looks promising. If examiners were simply presented with two scripts and told to choose which is best, then we get do away with writing mark schemes altogether.

While I’m tearing things up, I would also do away with the current grading system. In place of grades, pupils would be assigned a percentile score. This would be based on where their writing falls in comparison to everyone else’s once the judgement process has been completed.

All this would certainly be a leap into the dark. It would risk the same problems that occurred following “life after levels”, whereby the vast majority of schools passed up the opportunity to redesign their assessment practices, opting instead to rebrand levels and sub-levels, which many had complained so bitterly about, with names such as “steps” or “progress points”. Perhaps, in a similar way, schools would simply reproduce these god-awful mark schemes and camouflage them as “success criteria” to inform teaching prior to the exams.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, this might initiate a large-scale conversation about what actually constitutes good writing. Perhaps it would remove any sense of a cap at the top end. Perhaps it would encourage pupils to aim higher and higher, and so perhaps their writing would improve and improve. Perhaps, when unshackled from the mark scheme, teachers would be free to help pupils produce genuinely high-quality pieces writing. Perhaps, just perhaps.

No knowledge. No teacher talk. No challenging texts. It’s as if we’ve designed our schools to keep the poor in poverty…

So I once had a child in my form who was a real pain in the ass. A real pain in the ass. Everyday: “Raymond, put your food away”; “Where’s your tie? Your lanyard?”; “Raymond, I’ve just asked you to tuck your shirt in”; “Watch your language”; “Raymond, can you put your phone away, please? Raymond, put your phone away. Raymond. I won’t tell you again. Put it away.” Et cetera, et cetera.

But for all that, we got on well. We fell out a lot, but we got on. For example, he was internally excluded multiple times for swearing at me, but when I accidentally left my classroom door wide open and my phone on the table, he sat beside the phone and “protected” it until I returned. “Sir,” he said. “You’re such a beg. You left the door right open. Any crack-head could have come in and nicked your phone if I didn’t  of sat here.”

I paused and smiled at him. “Thank you, Raymond,” I said. “But now put your own phone away.”

He smiled.

From time-to-time, I still think of Raymond. I think of how he couldn’t string a sentence together and yet occasionally said something so insightful it would altogether halt me. But I try not to think of these things. They make me angry. I’m angry because if things had been different for Raymond, if he were from the other side of the tracks and had gone to a prep school, then he could have gone to Eton. And if he had gone to Eton then he could have gone to Oxbridge. I’m angry because, while there are complex social issues at play, I don’t believe that social issues or the divide between private and state schools explains how a gap so large, between hardly being able to construct a sentence and going to Oxford, can form.

It’s well established that by comparison to those born in relative prosperity, children who grow up in poverty generally have a vastly reduced vocabulary. By some measures, at age twenty-four months they are already six months behind in terms of vocabulary and language understanding, and have heard thirty-million(!) fewer words by age three. Considered in light of these statistics, the stigma that still exists around both “teacher-talk” and challenging literature seems not only misguided but an outright outrage. It damages children like Raymond.

If we are to improve the vocabulary and language skills of our most disadvantaged pupils, if we truly want to close the attainment gap between rich and poor, then we need to address the issues that are within our power as teachers to address.  We cannot simply bemoan issues that are outside our sphere of influence, such as government policy, structural power in society, or lack of parental enthusiasm for education. I’m not denying these things exist. I’m saying that, as things stand, we  each have but one poxy vote with which to change them. And though wealth and vocabulary are correlated, income does not determine the breadth of a person’s vocabulary.

To broaden the vocabulary of our pupils, we must teach vocabulary, ambitious vocabulary, explicitly. But we must also allow our pupils to hear us talking, to hear the extent of our own vocabularies. And since most teachers possess a relatively broad vocabulary, it is madness—madness—to deny children access to our personal word banks as though they are as personal and precious as our piggy banks. I have written before about the remarkable stickability of vocabulary when compared to other knowledge, so I won’t repeat myself here, but it is worth restating that the discomfort that exists around teacher talk is actively harming the children we teach.

To illustrate, we’ll compare a teacher explanation and a treasure-hunt activity. Let’s say the treasure hunt takes ten minutes to complete, as children roam around the classroom finding the information that’s been hidden (hidden!) from them. Inside an envelope they will discover a short piece of information written in dumbed-down language, because each pupil has to read it independently and it is highly unrealistic for the teacher to individually check everyone’s comprehension. Now, let’s consider all that could have been achieved in ten minutes of teacher-talk: a clear explanation employing rich language, complex words defined and then clarified with examples, and all before some quick whole-class AFL is used to check for understanding and clear up any misconceptions. Just consider the difference in total word-exposure that the children in each example have been exposed to and then multiply that over an entire school career. Tens of millions of words, I would guess.

To compound matters, once we have denied them access to our own vocabularies, we deny them access to the vocabularies of our great writers, by studying texts that pupils can “relate” to. Some advocate this because they worry about fostering a love of literature in our young people. I sympathise with the concern and have no problem with the principle. But you have to ask yourself, what, exactly, are you fostering, and what, exactly, are you getting paid for, if all you are doing is providing pupils with a book that they will love regardless? Because anyone can do that. Literally any mug with a library card can say to a child: “Pick whatever you want, mate.” The challenge is to foster a love of great literature in children by illuminating the words and ideas that our greatest writers have left behind. That’s where, as English teachers, we earn our money. And it is with these texts that a child’s vocabulary really develops. It is here they are exposed to a plethora so-called Tier-2 words; words, such as “plethora”, that are found in print but mostly absent from oral language, and where the majority of discrepancy exists between children from poverty and prosperity.

(As an English teacher, I’m primarily interested in literature. However, in other subjects too, surely pupils should be reading quality material in every lesson and familiarising themselves with the nomenclature?)

Of course, more ideal would be to prevent the gap opening in the first place. This is why I think it would make more sense to direct the majority of Pupil Premium funds towards EYFS and infants. But that is perhaps a whole other blog, by someone more knowledge in EYFS and primary education than I. (And yes, I think that is the march of secondary Headteachers and their Business Managers I hear, as they line up to stone me for suggesting yet more money is taken from their budgets.)

More controversial still, are ideas around cultural literacy. (For expedience, let’s put asside the knowledge vs skills debate.) As soon as one accepts that our first responsibility as teachers is to teach “stuff” to the charges in our care, a culture war erupts centering upon who gets to decide curriculum content. During his excellent (seriously, seriously excellent) presentation at yesterday’s #REdRugby, Chris Peirce commented (words to the effect of): “I think it’s useful for children first to have an understanding of the culture they’re part of.” This prompted a couple of responses from other members of the audience, with one even commenting that she would be sending her own child to his school in September, and as such would be able to keep an eye on things herself, which I thought was unnecessarily antagonistic.

As it happens, I agree with Chris’s position. I contend that, if a person doesn’t have access to a rather large and complex web of metaphors, symbols, and references from their own culture the culture in which they live (please note the critical difference there), they are excluded from opportunities within that culture. Ultimately, being unable to navigate the warp and woof of their surrounding culture leaves people in a state of alienation. And, like it or not, in every region of our planet there is a dominant culture that prevails. People need access to the culture of the place that they inhabit in order to participate in society. I, for example, have fairly decent knowledge of communist cinema during 1960s Hungary. While this is quite nice, it serves me little to no purpose on a day-to-day basis. Were I a film scholar, it would be useful. But I’m not, so it isn’t. Better, say, that I have a decent understanding of the Mary Celeste. Why the Mary Celeste? Well let’s have a look at a headline from today’s Sunday Times:

IMG_1494

Without an understanding the Mary Celeste, a reader of this text misses most of the meaning in the headline. But knowledge of the Mary Celeste is not the only knowledge a resident of Britain needs to unlock meaning here; there is other cultural knowledge and concepts that must be recognised and understood in the forty-or-so words: paradox, that Theresa May is the current British prime minister, that in Britain political mandate is granted by a general election, what a general election is, the result of the recent general election, and what Brexit is.

Let’s investigate another:

IMG_1493

Here, readers need to be aware of the different cultural stereotypes that are associated with people of old and new money. They need to be au fait with ideas about the corrupting influence of money, and how, in Britain, these are overtly connected with a person’s class. They need to know what a hereditary peer is, and to understand that they will require a fairly well-developed understanding of how the Palace of Westminster operates. They will  also need to understand the stereotypes associated with hereditary peers, in order to understand the reference to his being “157”, as well as stereotypes around how they behave in parliament, if they are to infer what Liddle is implying when he says: “I’m not sure he knew who he was, or what he was supposed to be doing.”

They will need to know all this and have a developed sense of irony, if they are to understand that Liddle is not, in fact, saying the peer was a nice chap when he says, “seemed a nice enough chap” but, rather, is affecting the assuredly nonchalant language of those from “old money”. However, to pick this up, it’s not enough to simply know what irony is. No, the reader must understand the particular linguistic-tics of those from old money, as well as stereotypes about their attitudes.

Last but not least, they need to take all this information and connect it to the reference to “old money” in the headline. So, as we can see, quite a lot is going on, and if one is to understand it, one must understand the minutiae of the surrounding culture.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think our children should be able to read the newspaper when they leave school. Many, perhaps even most, wouldn’t be able to extrapolate all the meaning from the examples above. If pupils are leaving school unable to understand the references in two very short extracts, which I found in less than a minute or so’s searching through today’s paper, then we have a problem. It is for this reason that a country’s schools should foreground it’s “home” cultural knowledge; it grants access and cultural capital to those who wouldn’t otherwise would possess it. Incidentally, this is particularly vital for children who are first-generation immigrants, who have a triple-lock to overcome: they have comparatively limited understanding of the language; their parents’ cultural  literacy in the new country is likely to be highly limited, so they are not exposed to it at home; and they often find themselves in inner-city schools, where ingrained attitudes suggesting that certain knowledge, or culture, is (not) for certain people often still prevail.

Some people believe it is elitist to foreground the teaching of particular knowledge and culture, but, in a wonderfully succinct tweet, Rebecca Foster exposed the fallacy of this position. She said: “I think it’s elitist NOT to teach challenging texts to certain groups of students.” I’ve already addressed the issue of challenging texts, but there is a broader truth implied by Rebecca’s words, and it comes down to the difference between “is” and “ought”. While no one culture is objectively better than another, all people in society ought to have access to the cultural knowledge that will allow them to be socially mobile, should they wish to be; elitism is not about the content of but access to that culture. The snob is not the man who asserts we should teach Latin, but the man contends Latin is not for those he considers socially inferior. If you’re arguing that certain knowledge isn’t for certain children, then take a look in the mirror, because you are the snob.

At KS3 especially, I believe we need to conceive of ourselves as teachers of culture, as well as teachers of our subject. Even today, I have basically no scientific knowledge. I’m embarassed to admit it, but I could not tell you for sure what Galileo (something to do with telescopes?) or Newton (electricity?) did, just that they are important. Until fairly recently, I knew basically nothing about the ancient Greeks and Romans, actually nothing about art or art history, and felt entirely like a philistine if I got dragged into an art gallery. So I’d walk around gibbering about how boring and rubbish I thought it all was, as a cover for my ignorance (and I’m sure most who are reading this can easilly bring to mind a raft of pupils who blanket their ignorance with similar behaviour in the classroom). And all this despite having a first-class degree in English! Bizarrely, all this knowledge is useful to me as an English teacher, for, in an English classroom, any subject can become relevant at a moment’s notice (I think it was David Didau who said at #REdRugby yesterday that knowledge is “Velcro”, ie it sticks to other knowledge). But as an adult, knowing where to look and what to read can be tricky. It’s far better to taught it by an expert teacher at school.

On teaching boys… and violence and aggression and masculinity and assertiveness

During a last minute revision lesson before the English Language examinations, one of my Year 11 pupils approached me. “Sir,” he said. “Do you know what mistake you made with us lot?”

Yes, I thought. I was too nice to you at the beginning of the year.

“You were too nice to us at the beginning of the year,” he said.

I sat back in my chair. The other boys in the room looked up from their work in anticipation. Clearly, I knew why the pupil had said this — because it was true — but I asked him to explain himself anyway.

“My brothers say you’re well strict, Sir.”

Recently, I have read a number of Edu-blogs focusing on masculinity, aggression, and violence, in particular from Tom Bennet and @positivteacha, and since I work in a challenging boys’ school, I reckon I have something to add. Further, I like violence. I’ll just repeat that once more for effect: I like violence. I like violence in films, violence in books. I’m most engaged in a sporting event when the aggression is simmering and it threatens to boil over. Boxing is my favourite sport of all, and, until an injury forced me to quit, I boxed a little myself. Of course, I’m not some violent sociopath. Outside of a ring, I haven’t been in any kind of scuffle since my teenage years — a long time ago — but it would be disingenuous of me to deny that I enjoy some forms of violence, and it would be disingenuous of me to claim that this is not a part of my experience as a man, as a male, or as an XY, depending on the extent to which you believe in biological determinism, or nature vs nurture.

But what does this have to do with schools? What role does masculinity play in the context of the classroom? In particular, what does it have to do with teaching and learning? Let us think back to the pupil above. In preparation for next year, the faculty I work in have recently initiated the set changes that would usually occur after the summer, and as a result of these, I’ve ended up teaching both younger brothers of pupil in question, one of whom is in Y7 and the other Y9. When I came to teach their classes, if there was one thing I was damn sure about, it was that I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes as I had earlier in the year. As such, when the classes arrived at my door, I was going to treat them as children who were likely to misbehave, not as young adults who I could inspire and charm wondrously by force of my engaging personality. Ahem. The upshot of this is that to his brothers, but not to him, I am a strict teacher.

I know, I know: all this will make some people uncomfortable. It sounds heartless. It sounds like I don’t care. It sounds like I think kids are all bad. None of these things is true. I’ve worked with young people in a variety of settings over a number of years, including PRU, NEET, LACES, and mainstream, and I can honestly say that, out of the thousands of children I have worked with, I can count on one hand the number I think are in way “bad”. Kids often do bad things but rarely does that mean they’re bad people. And yet the comment from the elder sibling is revealing, is it not? He wished I had treated his class like I subsequently treated the classes of his brothers, and whipped them into shape from minute one, rather than trying, generally unsuccessfully, to claw back the behaviour of his class after a terrible beginning. In essence, he wished I had treated them as children who were likely to misbehave — which, with hindsight, they most certainly were and most certainly did.

Now, the school I work in is tough — inner-city, all-boys — as tough as a mainstream school gets. You must be tough to work there, and the boys are only interested in being taught by someone who is tough-enough; someone who is tough-enough to stand up to their challenges, and someone they have tested and proved they can stick around. Someone who won’t up sticks and abandon them when times get tough. So when I stand in front of the class and insist, insist, on compliance I do so not only because those pupils who want to work and learn deserve adults who will provide them with an environment in which they can do so, but also because those boys who present the most challenging behaviour want this too. In fact, they want it the most. They want teachers who are tougher than they are themselves. As their teacher, they want me to be a man who can earn and command their respect, who won’t back down, whose will is stronger than their own. There has been so much this year that has been tough, but it is this battle of will that has been always the sharp point. It is this that has so drained me, emotionally. It is this that has led to me tell those closest to me, in my darkest moments, that this job has “taken something” from me.

But for all that, why, exactly, would a class of disadvantaged boys want some weak-willed teacher? Why would they want to learn from someone who couldn’t last day in the world as they know it? This doesn’t mean they want some knife wielding maniac. It does mean they want someone who can roll with the punches, who is in their corner, who can be trusted to pull them up from the canvas and yet disqualify them if they hit below the belt.

Instinctively, men understand that respect is the foundation of masculinity. When a man enters a new social group, he doesn’t expect equality but understands he must earn respect from his peers before being treated as an equal or a leader. (Incidentally, I believe it is this that is at the root of a lot of destructive male behaviour — a desire to win respect too quickly, or at any cost, can lead men to violence and aggression.) Whether we are a male or female teacher, the important role that respect plays in terms of both boys and masculinity has implications for the ways we treat the boys in our schools. Principally, we might want to consider a few points:

  • We damn well better have high expectations. What pupil in their right mind respects a teacher who expects nothing of them? The teacher is failing in in their first and most obvious duty — to improve the child. Of course, children may well say they like a teacher who allows them to behave as though they are a wild animal, but this is based not on respect but on a superficial and present-tense predilection for laziness.
  • We better know our subjects. Boys won’t respect someone who they feel has nothing to tell them.
  • We better follow through with anything we say we will do. If we don’t have the strength of character to follow through on our words, we’re nothing. We must be also be clear about what we expect: say what we mean and mean what we say. Teenage boys rarely speak in riddles.
  • We better demonstrate that we respect ourselves. If a class doesn’t enter my room correctly? “Get back outside. Line up against that wall and don’t say a single word. Each and every one of you knows what I expect. How dare you enter my classroom like that?” Phrased like this, the words have nothing to do with my disappointment with the pupils. The pupils are outside and standing in silence because it’s my room and I’ve set the rules, and I’m demonstrating I have enough self-respect to insist that they’re met. However, when the pupils (silently) return, I’ll frame the resulting (and necessary) conversation in terms of the respect they must show not to me (I’ve already demonstrated the respect I believe I deserve), but to one another — respect for the learning time and environment of themselves and their peers. And, of course, this is the reason why I insist on their following the rules; I value their education, and sometimes often I must value it on their behalf.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that the classroom needs to be a place of respect. But respect looks different to different people in different places and contexts. Sometimes, in a tough, inner-city boys school, there is a need for teachers, again regardless of whether they are male or female, to be… not aggressive, but hyper-assertive. In recent years, many of the traits and traditional ideals associated with manliness have been ridiculed and eroded away, and men are often portrayed as violent monsters, feckless slackers, or useless, half-arsed, domestic pests. But one manly trait that has survived the cull is assertiveness. Assertiveness is, generally, still considered a desirable trait for a man (and increasingly for a woman too). But there is a fine line between assertion and aggression, often finer than we will admit, and when working with children, and in an environment that requires, nay demands, constant assertiveness, while simultaneously testing that assertiveness, it really is incumbent upon us as professionals to reflect on how we are assertive. I’m sure many teachers have ended up on the wrong side of that line once or twice, having been wound up in the wrong way at the wrong moment. If not, most will have witnessed a colleague who has allowed anger to get the best of them. This is understandable, but it is not the way we should aim to assert ourselves. I believe the more supportive SLT are of teachers who are firm and assertive, the less teachers will lose control. Since they know they are working within a framework that backs them, teachers are more likely to remain calm when presented with a challenging situation.

In my department (English), I am the only man, and so during the course of this year, I have collected a number of boys in my classes who it is said “respond better” to a man (sometimes these pupils are known, more simply, as “naughty”). I also have boys who hang around after lessons and ask me to demonstrate how to throw a jab. I have boys who search me out on a Monday morning because they want to talk about the boxing that was on TV at the weekend, and who find me on a Friday to ask who I think will win and why (they’ll often challenge my opinion, but I’m usually correct #JustSayinLads). Whether it’s about books or boxing, the boys will listen because they respect me, and because they think I might say something worth hearing, and yet I know no more about either of these things now than I did at Christmas, when many of the same pupils wouldn’t have listened to me talk on either subject or followed any instruction I gave. All that’s happened in the intervening months is that they’ve come to respect me. The way I’ve earned their respect is simply by demonstrating that I myself believe I deserve it, and I’ve done that by fulfilling the role of a responsible adult, above all, by asserting myself. To fulfil the role of responsible adult, I’ve often had to, for example, tell the pupils “straight”; bellow orders, instructions, and expectations at them; call them out in the frankest of terms (short of swearing) about their casual use of sexist and homophobic language; tell them their work/behaviour/attitude isn’t good enough; and that their excuses don’t interest or bother me. The paradox is that the blunter and more candid I’ve become, the more positively the boys have responded; it seems counter-intuitive, especially in a society that conceives of individual freedom as a mythical thing bestowed on us as though by divinity, rather than a liberty that is fragile and requires careful nurturing if our young people are to turn into truly free adults. Of course, the paradox isn’t really a paradox. We’re social animals and a large part of growing up is learning how to behave in groups. To this end, rules and boundaries are extremely important, and we’re damaging many of our boys when we pussyfoot around their behaviour. For instance, if I called them out on their sexist and homophobic language while coming across like some effete milksop, it would mean nothing. Indeed, when I was a teenager myself, there were few things that irked me more than when some apparently caring do-gooder claimed they “understood” me or asked, “and how does that make you feel?” in a creepily hushed tone. It’s only because I’ve fulfilled an assertive, responsible role that the boys are prepared to listen to what I have to say on these issues. If I can say these things and remain a man, so can they.

All this reached a nadir recently, when my Year 10s, who were so poorly behaved at the beginning of the year that it took several members of staff to even get them in the classroom, were in uproar for the first time in months. What had angered them so? I told them I would be away for three weeks on a placement. The room erupted with accusations: “You’re leaving!” “You won’t come back!” “You’ve got another job!” “You’re lying!” etc etc. As I said earlier, the boys need to know above all that, as their teacher, I won’t abandon them. For me to have left now, after they have accepted me and subordinated to my rules, would have been the ultimate betrayal.

Of course, I understand their anger is really loyalty. But what has changed so profoundly over the course of a few months, so that a class who wouldn’t even enter the classroom, who would systematically throw pencils and pens at me, now can’t countenance the prospect of 15 English lessons with a different teacher? Trust. By demanding their respect, by sticking to my word for months on end, by holding them to account and refusing to excuse their poor behaviour, I’ve eventually created an environment in which they can trust the parameters, and in which they feel like they have someone to look up to. Don’t get me wrong, my classroom is hardly some Utopian paradise, where hitherto difficult and aggressive boys miraculously metamorphose into chivalrous and polite young gentlemen. And there are teachers in my school who are much better at behaviour management than I. But my classroom is a place where work happens and where progress is made. Undoubtedly, for some of the boys in my Y10 class, I embody something more than a teacher, something that is missing in the rest of their life (and while I’ve been away, I know a number of them have checked with other members of staff to see if I’m really coming back). But more than that, they know that while I’ll chide, rebuke, and reproach them when they’re out of line, I’ll also be at front of the queue to advocate for them. They understand that everything I do, I do with their interests in mind. In some sense, I’ve taken the attitude of the boxing gym and applied it to the classroom. I’ve had to break them down so I can build them up.

Shortly before I went on the placement, one of pupils piped up during a piece of silent writing. “Sir,” he said. “Could you beat Raymond in a boxing match?”

Raymond, often a challenging pupil, is a little bit taller and a whole lot heavier than I.

“Yes,” I said.

Up looked Raymond. “How do you know that sir?”

“Imagine you’re playing badminton, Raymond,” I said. “If you’ve never played before and your opponent has played for five years, do you think you’d beat him?”

“No.”

“Well then.”

And that is the answer the pupils wanted. They got back to work.

 

Anyone can make something simple seem complex… On clarity, explanations, irony, and ‘My Last Duchess’

For those who don’t know, I am currently on a three-week placement with the school who will accredit my QTS via the Assessment-Only route. Amongst other things, this has involved a small amount of teaching and observing A-Level classes — a first for me. Reading through some pupils NEA’s (quaintly known as “coursework” to anyone above a certain age), I was transported back a number of years, to writing my own A-Level essays. Specifically, I remembered feeling pressured to write intelligently. No doubt this pressure was wholly self-inflicted. I had a truly wonderful English teacher for both GCSE and A-Level, Mrs Griggs (also my form teacher), who pretty much singlehandedly kept me in mainstream education, and I have no memory of her saying: “Tom, for the love of God, would you whip out that thesaurus over there and add some needless words to your writing!” But alas, whip out that thesaurus over there I did, and add some (many) needless words l did. William Strunk’s “Omit needless words” is perhaps one of literature’s truest maxims on the art of writing. A virtuoso sentence, unimprovable insofar as it follows the advice it offers (try to re-phrase it more concisely).

Rather less articulately, I found myself offering similar advice to an A-Level pupil. Now, this was a clever lad. Probably an A* candidate. His essay dealt with a number complex ideas on the application of Marxist theory to Larkin’s poetry. However, his writing was riddled with words. Needless words. They were everywhere. A plethora of infinitive verbs. A deluge of abstract nouns. A superfluity of phrases and clauses. And all resulting in a potentially brilliant essay descending into empty vagaries. He took a little convincing, but in time I persuaded him that, while many a writer can take a simple idea and make it seem complex, only a great writer can take a complex idea and make it simple. Back to his computer he went, and hopefully to the most wonderful key of all: delete.

All this had me thinking about the extent to which Strunk’s maxim “Omit needless words” can, or should, be applied to teaching, and in particular teacher explanations. Now, full disclosure, I am not someone who believes a the teacher should shut up and allow a class teach itself. I mean, I’ve read Lord of Flies and I’ve seen Battle Royale, y’know? You won’t ever hear me saying to a colleague who is wittering on endlessly, “Hey maaan, are you the sage on stage or the guide at the side?” I might, however, recommend they improve their explanations.

Prior to becoming a teacher, I worked as a Business Development Manager. If there’s one thing you learn quickly when you’re selling things to disinterested people, it is this: what you say is irrelevant, rather it is what they hear that is important. A good general rule is this: people like to get the information they need clearly and quickly. They don’t want to know what they don’t (think they) need to know. Please note, I’m not advocating teaching to the exam here. I’m simply saying that we shouldn’t overload pupils with flim-flam and waffle. I might love irony, for example, but still, prior to teaching ‘My Last Duchess’, there is no need for me to indulge that love by giving my bottom set Year 10 a thirty-minute introduction to the concept. This would leave many confused and most bored. Better off I give them a simple and straightforward explanation, one which will allow them to access and understand how irony works in this poem. So I’ll weave my explanation of irony into my teaching of the poem more generally.

So how do I explain it? Well, first of all, here’s some things I don’t do. I don’t explain it in terms of sarcasm, as I have seen done before (“it’s a bit like sarcasm but it doesn’t rely on tone of voice”). Why don’t I do that? Two reasons. One: confusion between irony and sarcasm is something I am trying to avoid, so comparing them is obviously counter-productive. Two: this definition doesn’t actually explain what irony is, only what it isn’t. Similarly, I won’t offer a vague definition, such as: “It’s when someone says one thing but means another”. Here pupils will reasonably respond: “Oh I get it. You mean lying, Sir?” No. No I don’t. The explanation I’ve used has confused them. And I most certainly will not give them a definition of irony up front, lest those pesky children spent their time attempting to sniff out the irony themselves and thus develop an array of misconceptions, which I must then unpick.

Instead, what I will attempt to do is provide a simple explanation, ideally within a clarifying example. Again, note that my explanation/definition comes within the clarifying example, not before it. So for ‘My Last Duchess’ I will explain the following, writing key information on the board as I go (see the end of post for an example) to prevent overloading the pupils.

  1. I tell the pupils that it is necessary to understand irony in order to understand the poem fully. I tell them I’ll demonstrate an example first then explain what irony is.
  2. I make them aware it is Browning who is being ironic, not the Duke. (The pupils need to understand this first, otherwise they are likely to confuse irony with a lack of truthfulness on the part of the Duke.)
  3. I explain that Browning is using the Duke’s words to mean one thing (the Duke does believe what he is saying) but he is also expecting the reader (“that’s you lads”) to pick up on another meaning.
  4. Note that while, as a teacher, you can see how I am beginning to introduce the concept of irony, the pupils are still in the dark. Because of this, I’ll recap points 2 and 3 a number of times, until I am happy that everyone has listened/grasped them.
  5. Now, as I explain the differences between what the Duke says and what the reader understands, I will draw a diagram on the board that illustrates some of the differences:FullSizeRender
  6. I will then explain to the pupils that it is in this gap, between what the Duke says and what the reader understands, that the irony lives. The Duke is saying one thing, but Browning is telling us something else. (“And remember lads, it is Browning who is being ironic, and it is Browning who wrote the words of the Duke.”) Generally, at this point, a noise of satisfaction will come over the room as the penny begins to drop. With this, I will add to the diagram like so:IMG_1256
  7. Finally, once pupils have some understanding of what irony is, I will provide a definition, which I will expect them to write in their books. Something along the lines of: irony is when a writer uses words that mean one thing, but the reader understands he actually means something different or opposite. (Clearly, this is an oversimplification of the complexities of irony. But at this point the pupils have an understanding of how irony works, and a simple definition to go with it. Anything more will confuse them. Once the knowledge is embedded it can be expanded on later, should the teacher believe it beneficial or desirable.)
  8. At this point I might add something like: “In the case of ‘My Last Duchess’, Browning was using the Duke as an example of how some people in Victorian Britain thought about women. Some would have thought the Duke’s behaviour was fine. Can you believe that? However, he used the irony to show that the Duke was actually a madman, even though he seemed kind of normal. He wanted to show people they should not think the same way as the Duke; he wanted them to think the opposite way to the Duke, so he used the Duke’s own words against himself. Browning is saying that if you think the same way as the Duke you are also a madman.” The pupils get this. They think: “Yes, he is a madman. He had her killed for smiling.”

Before I move on with the lesson, I will have the pupils parrot back the definition of irony I provided for them. I will also have them talk me through how irony works in ‘My Last Duchess’. Here pupils will struggle. But it is particularly important to be rigorous with this step. The pupils will get frustrated, but it is good frustration; they are frustrated because they understand and yet are struggling to explain. It’s worthwhile talking them through this. I re-assure them that they have already accomplished the hard part (understanding irony) and now they just need to do the easy bit — committing it to memory.

This is at odds with how the relationship between working memory, long-term memory, and “true understanding” is typically conceived. Usually, memorisation is thought to a) come first, b) be in some sense “easier”, and c) be less worthwhile (“surface learning”). As we can see from this example, none of those things is necessarily true. When I explain irony to my pupils, they frequently understand the concept. When I ask my pupils to explain irony to me, they frequently seem not to understand the concept. But it is vital that as teachers we do not mistake a pupil’s inability to explain a concept as evidence that they have not understood it. It simply means that they have not memorised the various constituent pieces of information that are required for independent explanation. In this example, it is memorisation that is both trickier and more effortful than understanding, and it is memorisation that will enable pupils to become independent users of the concept of irony.

When I explain the concept to them, I am standing in for their long-term memory, and I am simply asking them to manipulate small pieces of information that I present and explain in a logical sequence. It is for this reason that I will often list the key points of an explanation on the whiteboard in a series of steps, an example of which is provided at the end of the post (1,2,3 etc.). It allows the information to be sequenced into small chunks, making the information easier to understand before it has been memorised and easier to memorise after it has been understood.

All this takes 15-20 minutes, depending on the group, and at no point do I get bogged down trying to explain what irony is. Like Strunk’s masterful “Omit needless words”, the irony mostly demonstrates itself. I simply stand on stage and guide the pupils’ eyes toward it…

Please, if you have something to add regarding my definition of irony, my approach to explaining, the steps, the inversion of the understanding/memorisation process, or indeed anything else, then leave a comment below. I’m keen to learn as much as I can from my fellow EduTwits, and I’ll reply when I can.

 

Whiteboard steps

  1. It is Browning is being ironic, not the Duke.
  2. The Duke genuinely believes what he is saying, but the reader understands something different.
  3. Diagram. (Illustrates examples of difference between what the Duke says and the audience thinks, and includes an explanation of how irony works in My Last Duchess.)
  4. Definition: irony is when a writer uses words that mean one thing, but the reader understands he actually means something different or opposite.

 

Should you wish to read Strunk and White’s excellent, if slightly outdated, The Elements of Style, you can do so here.

My explanation of irony, particularly in relation to My Last Duchess, has been partly influenced by The Art of Poetry vol. 6. I recommend every English teacher buys it. It is the best poetry resource around, and by some distance.

On EAL, vocab, memory, and trust

For teachers, one of the more dispiriting hallmarks of life at the chalkface is pupils’ inability to retain information. The joy of yesterday, when pupils successfully articulated how Shelley used structure in Ozymandias to reflect the shifting and precarious nature of power, is obliterated when a day later those same pupils have forgotten what a stanza is.

However, one area where this observation doesn’t hold is in retention of vocabulary, particularly by EAL learners. During a meeting with my (wonderful) mentor last week, she praised a dictionary task I had done with a low-ability set while we studied ‘Storm on the Island’. After reflecting for a moment I said: “It’s incredible, EAL kids remember all the vocab I teach them. They don’t remember anything else I teach,” I added, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “but they can recall words defined for them six-months ago. It’s actually insane.” She nodded sagely, my mentor, and we went on with the meeting.

This got me to thinking about the nature of language acquisition and what vocabulary  we should be teaching our EAL pupils. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that, when it comes subject-specific language, we should teach them the exact same vocabulary that we teach our non-EAL pupils. There should be no reduction in vocabularic ambition. (Yes, I just made that word up.)

Anyway, prior to life in my current school, I have seen classrooms where the teachers teach classes of solely EAL pupils using card-sorts and only the most basic language. Note, these were pupils who had a basic grasp of the language, not brand new arrivals with little or no English. I understand the rationale for this approach, and I have no doubt that the teachers were teaching this way out of a sincere belief that they are doing best by their pupils. And, frankly, they might be right. I have no evidence to suggest my approach is any more effective. However, my experience so far has taught me that EAL pupils will pick up the basic vocabulary, so long as they are exposed to it, which the vast majority are, if only through the volume of English they hear in their classrooms. Humans are evolved to acquire language and, while there is a difference between first and second language acquisition, as teachers we should exploit this, and in English the new specifications reward teaching EAL pupils higher-level vocab.

Whilst I have some reservations about the new specifications, in general I think the changes have been positive. In literature particularly, pupils are rewarded for their knowledge of the texts. This is why I don’t dumb-down the vocabulary I teach my EAL pupils. For example, when I come to teach Armitage’s ‘Remains’ I will define the word “dehumanise”, explain how it relates to the poem, illustrate quotes it links to, and model ways in which I might use the word to write about the poem. Of course, when the pupils produce their own paragraphs, they will contain all the mistakes familiar to those who teach a high volume of EAL pupils: confusion between singular nouns and plural verbs, and vice-versa; over use of conjunctions; incorrect use of definite and indefinite article; wordiness; merging of first and second language grammatical constructions etc etc. However, the pupils will make these mistakes while using vocabulary that allows them to access, and deal with, ideas of conceptual complexity; under the current specification, the mark scheme allows me to reward them for this.

This brings to mind another problem of teaching classes that have high numbers of EAL pupils: identifying those who are high-ability and low-ability, since EAL pupils’ linguistic competence often obscures their ability to think conceptually. So often they have the ability but they don’t have the words. However, the approach outlined above (define, explain, illustrate, model) allows all the pupils to have access to the material because they are both learning new vocabulary and understanding how it relates to the text at hand. Another pleasing consequence of this approach is that it also benefits the boys in the class whose first language is English but who lack natural aptitude for the subject. Further, it is excellent for the boys who have fallen behind their peers and ended up in a low set due to years of poor behaviour. For these boys in particular, it provides tangible nuggets of knowledge they can learn and consolidate, allowing them to feel a sense of success. An underdeveloped vocabulary is common to all these groups, and a methodical approach to broadening their ‘word-base’ benefits these pupils greatly. (NB. I teach in an all-boys school.)

The question all this naturally begs is why do pupils seem to remember vocabulary better than other information? Again, I have nothing to back up any of the assertions I am about to make — besides my own experience, observations, and, truthfully, guess-work. But two ideas immediately present themselves to me. Firstly, humans probably have a natural inclination to remember and recall language. Secondly, and more importantly for those of us who teach, we probably teach vocabulary better than other knowledge. As I pointed out above, I often use a rigorous approach when introducing pupils to new vocabulary. The ‘define, explain, illustrate, model’ process means that, after pupils are introduced to a word (and concept), they then see me work with that word, while also having the chance to interact with it themselves through my questioning and/or any tasks I ask them to complete. This contrasts with the way pupils are usually introduced to new information. Perhaps it is just me, but I know that, outside of vocabulary, it is rare that I have the opportunity to work with such small chunks of information and teach them so rigorously and explicitly. Furthermore, once I have taught a word it slips into the minutiae of the classroom culture. Once I am confident the pupils are secure with a word and concept, I am free to use it in my daily teachings. This produces a sort of de-facto retrieval practise, whereby pupils are forced to recall the word and what it means each time I use it, and if they are to fully understand what I am saying they are also required to think flexibility about the word, applying its meaning to various contexts. It is most satisfying when, a number of months later, we will be looking at a completely different text (say, Inspector Calls) and a hand will shoot up in desperate excitement, as though it must urgently touch the ceiling. A pupil will say: “Sir! Sir! He’s dehumanising her Sir!” in reference to Birling and Eva Smith. The sense of satisfaction pupils have when they can relate old concepts to new contexts is one of the most satisfying elements of the job, and one of the most visible reminders of how we make a difference.

Reflecting upon this has had implications for the ways in which I teach other knowledge to the pupils. Where possible, I try to reference old concepts in new contexts and I frequently use ‘Do it now…’ tasks to recap prior knowledge, as I know many other teachers do. But crucially, when necessary I will also stop lessons completely and return to a previous topic we have learned. This is particularly effective with a class who are becoming restless. I’m sure every teacher recognises the shiver that begins to twitch and quiver through a class when pupils collectively struggle with a difficult concept. Often, I’ll stop the lesson and ask some quick-fire retrieval questions about previous (often entirely unrelated) knowledge the pupils have been taught. There’s two reasons I do this. Most obviously, it allows me to recap and consolidate prior learning. Less obviously, it allows me to shift the dynamic of the room from one of struggle to success. I am not averse to struggle and many have pointed out that it is often necessary for learning. But we must also be aware that struggle is not pleasant and a class cannot spend all their time in a state of strain and confusion. By returning to something already learned, I am relieving some of the stress to which my pupils are exposed. But more than this, once I have shifted the dynamic, I can narrate my pupils through the process of learning, through the struggle. I remind them that there was a time when they had to struggle through the concepts in the questions that they have just found easy, and I reassure that there will be a time in the future when they breeze through questions on the ideas they are struggling with now. “But you must trust me,” I tell them. “You must let me guide you, and you must stick with me; we’ll get there, but we’ll only get there if we stay together.”