Monday, 31 December 2012

Cathartic Non-Constructive Crankiness

My hand is broken. My fourth and fifth metacarpal have been snapped and dislocated, leaving me one-handed over Christmas. I can barely type, cannot write and struggle to wipe. On the plus side, I'm not allowed to wash up. Hopefully the metalwork holding my paw together will be removed in mid-January and I can begin functioning like a proper human being again.

My busted hand has not been my only frustration recently. I am seething with rage at just how useless my university has been during my PGCE. My anger at this educational institution grows daily and any success I have achieved so far has been in spite of them, not because of them.

The course has, thus far, been divided into the following components: a two week placement in a primary school; a series of 'theory' lectures on Monday mornings; subject specific lectures, workshops and tutorials on Fridays; a placement in a secondary school. All of these elements must be documented and uploaded onto an online tool which logs our work and progress. Seems reasonable, eh?

The primary placement was perfectly fine. I arranged it myself, picked a lovely local school and enjoyed acting as a TA to a Y6 class. I'm not entirely sure what the point was - we were told it was to give us an idea what pupils were capable of when they joined secondary schools as Y7s - but given that these adorable rugrats were a full year younger than Y7 pupils at a time of huge growth and development, i'm not sure there was much value in this.

Lectures have been even less useful. Sold to us as 'a series of provocations' designed to encourage our own thoughts and studies, these have been nothing short of appalling. It seems the only qualification to present these lectures is that you must be a former student of the course who enjoys drinking with the course leader. I'm not actually sure what the majority of these lectures were for. Some were so woeful that, despite attending and taking notes, I hadn't realised the topic had been covered. When it dawned on me that I had to write a 6000 word essay on AfL I complained that this subject hadn't been covered. It had. I rest my case.

Subject specific sessions have been little better. The course leader has apparently been trotting out the same sessions for years, is a patronising twerp and makes some of the most absurd and unreasonable demands you could imagine. He clearly has no sense of decency whatsoever - confirmation of which arrived at around 3pm on December 21st. While everyone else in the world of education packed up and pissed off to the pub, this man was emailing the PGCE English cohort asking them to write a short SoW based on two stories from the Sunlight on Grass anthology. These are to be presented in the first session back after New Year. The timing sucked and, at the end of a long and demanding term, this put people's backs up. Worse still, getting hold of said anthology (not commercially available) or the stories it contains (impossible to find online) during the holidays is like plaiting fog.

Much of this section of the course has involved micro-teaching. Usually, this involves a group of twentysomethings acting like petulant children in an immature attempt to replicate the behaviour of a 'typical' class of children whilst being 'taught' by other group members. It is bullshit of the highest order.

Thankfully, the tutors in these sessions are thoroughly lovely and charming: old-fashioned teachers from the old school. Unfortunately, this causes misunderstandings and leads to mixed messages. While they are happy to trust our judgements and abilities, their laissez-faire attititude to documentation and 'Offsod box-ticking' leads to confusion and panic - not least when compared to the course leader's anal approach (this may or may not be a euphemism).

The key to this confusion lies in the very software designed to combat grey areas. This piece of software (which shall henceforth be known as The Twat) is meant to keep an electronic copy of all our documentation and evidence. Each file uploaded can be linked  to the Teaching Standards, thus creating a wonderful and convenient compendium of evidence which can be accessed by anyone who needs to, whenever they need it. Hallelujah.

In practice, The Twat is an absolute twat. It's like comparing the internet to Ceefax - badly designed, cumbersome, confusing and (already) embarrassingly outdated. Rather than saving time, it creates far more additional work. Written observations must be scanned and uploaded, every single resource and lesson plan must be uploaded (one at a time), items cannot be dragged/dropped like you'd expect, many documents must be uploaded twice (once in one folder, then again as evidence against the standards), every lesson must be evaluated and a reflective journal produced (in which you repeat work by replicating your evaluations), ad infinitum.

As well as creating absurd amounts of admin and being enormously time consuming, this piece-of-shit software is managed inconsistently. Messages are sent from the various disparate departments of the university updating instructions on its use (the record is eight contradictory emails in less than an hour) meaning that school-based mentors, university tutors, course leaders and office staff cannot agree on a uniform approach to The Twat's use - what the blue-blazes are us poor students supposed to think? I don't know anyone on the course who wouldn't prefer having a folder filled with evidence which could be presented as required. What luddites we are.

Luckily, I spent two years working as a Teaching Assistant in an English department prior to my PGCE. As such, I had hundreds of hours of practical experience, had taught plenty of lessons and had a bank of useful knowledge ready and waiting to be used on my first placement. I hit the ground running, made 'outstanding progress' and have been offered (and have accepted) a job. Bully for me. But many of those without my experience have struggled, with four falling by the wayside already. This infuriates me.

There has been much talk of 'setting pupils up to succeed'. Unfortunately, these words do not seem to apply to PGCE students. We are encouraged to make success as easy to achieve as possible for our young charges. The same words feel empty when applied to us. The way our course is structured means it's perfectly possible to teach English having only ever seen around ten lessons of that subject taught. How can that be acceptable?

There are PGCE students in my school who are fresh from university. They have no school experience. They don't know what activities work in the classroom. They don't know how much can be squeezed into an hour. They don't know how to assess formatively. They don't know how to plan for progress. They haven't been taught these skills. They haven't seen these things done. And it's not their fault.

My university has taught me nothing. And have charged me £9000 for the privilege. Despite telling me they'd make life as easy as possible for me, my second placement school will see me spend three hours a day travelling. And then at least an hour fiddling around with admin. What I want to do is plan brilliant lessons and teach them. But when will I find the time?

Monday, 1 October 2012

Inactive Listening

The last thing you should do for your students is spoon-feed them. And hopefully you'll never be called to wipe their arses. So praise the Lord that our PGCE course leader made a stand today against the dunderheaded dipsticks who waste his time with inane questions which he's either answered or which are addressed in the course literature.

It is slightly worrying that such a high percentage of our future educators seem so unwilling to engage their brains before they engage their mouths, listen so inattentively and are incapable of independent thought. With his affably amiable demeanour visibly dissolving, our fraying lecturer taught them the 'three before me' rule. If nothing else, his stance should at least teach them not to mollycoddle their own pupils. It might have been the only thing they learned today.

Saturday, 29 September 2012


Three weeks into my PGCE and this is my first blog in bloody ages. If only someone had warned me that this course would be so time consuming! I'm already into my second placement (the first was seven days in a primary school - eek!) and have spent hours and hours reading and annotating educational theorists' theories and Ofsted reports. I've observed good, bad and indifferent lessons, met some inspiring practitioners, spent half my bursary on printer ink and have now, thankfully, managed to overcome my shyness and forge some fledgling friendships with fellow students.

The course itself seems excellent. A varied programme of guests, tasks, workshops and lectures has rarely been anything other than illuminating - and has often been thoroughly good fun. My personal tutors (a job-sharing combo of avuncular idealist and maternal pragmatist) are utterly wonderful and, other than the token loud-mouthed irritant, the other student teachers are a decent bunch. I'm the eldest by a good few years, and although there are a couple more 'mature' students, the vast majority are fresh from university. I've yet to succumb to the temptation of going out on one of their regular post-lecture boozing sessions.

The workload has been enormous, with reams of reading to be done, auditing of our own subject knowledge to be completed, spelling and grammar tests, refelective journals, literature reviews and various other tasks to be completed. I'm keeping up admirably, but it's soon time for our first major essay and my first foray into masters-level academic writing. I'm shitting my pants at the prospect - it's a long time since my dissertation on how Napster would change the way we consumed music* - and i've done nothing similar in scope or scale since. I'll need plenty of help with it.

* Reading it again, my dissertation could have been written by Nostradamus. It predicted the rise of mySpace, Spotify, artists giving music away for free, online-only albums and various other digital music innovations. I'd like to have it retrospectively re-marked so that it got the grade it clearly deserved rather than the 2:1 it was awarded.

Friday, 7 September 2012

The Spelling Test

A tiny post this, but one that might interest amateur psychiatrists/psychologists (what is the difference? Is there one? Does anyone care?).

When I was fourteen I did a spelling test. I got 49 correct answers from 50 questions. The word I got wrong was 'restaurant', which I spelt 'restaraunt'. I was fucking furious with myself, despite getting the best score in the class.

This incident was almost twenty years ago. But I remember it vividly and, for some strange reason, recalling that spelling test and my (understandable) error actually embarrasses me. To this very day. Recalling it makes my face flush and burn.

How strange that such a seemingly insignificant memory can provoke such a strong reaction.

My Bestest Teacher Eva

Outside of my amazing parents (foster carers/adopters of troubled children/selfless angels), the most influential person in my life was my drama teacher. To preserve his modesty and my identity, I'll not name him here. Instead, I'll use the pseudonym 'Mr Garbutt' - an in-joke which i'm sure he'd recognise were he ever to read this piece.

Mr Garbutt was everything I'd like to be as a teacher - and lots of things I'd not be allowed to be in the modern profession. As well as being my drama teacher throughout school, he went on to be my Theatre Studies teacher at A-Level. I loved both subjects and achieved an A grade in both - thanks in no small part to his excellent teaching.

Far more important than his skill in the drama studio, though, was the influence he exerted on me outside of class. It's not mere speculation to suggest that he saw something of himself in me - I was a bright kid from a largely uneducated, working class family, just like him. For all their love and affection, my parents could only nurture my intellect to a certain degree. Mr Garbutt recognised this and immediately began the process of stretching me and filling me with a love of books, language and culture which has burned in me ever since.

He furnished me with novels, albums, videos and dog-eared copies of plays. He introduced me to Themroc, Kurt Vonnegut and Harold Pinter, ignited my love of Shakespeare (and The Tempest in particular) and gave me my first taste of Lou Reed. He encouraged me to read a play every week, told me that Antony Sher's The Year of the King was the greatest book about acting ever written (it is - and was discussed with relish with my PGCE interviewer) and it was Mr Garbutt who put me in front of audience for the first time.

From the age of eleven, I was in every school production until I left at eighteen. I was Ariel, Reverend Hale, a cavalcade of colourful characters in Mr Garbutt's original productions and many more. I performed at the National Student Drama Festival, helped run his theatre workshop for younger kids and even returned for a guest appearance in their play after I'd left school.

Further than our 'working' relationship, we had a personal one, too. Post-production parties would be held at his house so the (largely sixth-form) casts of his plays could gather for drinks and food. As I got older, the pair of us actually went out for a meal together a couple of times - probably the first time I'd ever been to a restaurant or eaten Chinese food. I once met him for a chat one evening (he was rightly concerned about some of my extra-curricular activities) and ended up back at his house having a Southern Comfort and watching a documentary about the Manic Street Preachers.

Just as I was set to become the first person in my family to go to university, the whole system of student finance changed: grants abolished, fees introduced and huge loans. I had one of my many crises of confidence: my parents couldn't afford to support me so I couldn't go. What was Mr Garbutt's reaction to this? First coffee. Then counselling. And when that failed, he made me pack a bag, stuck me in his car and drove me to Edinburgh to see an ex-student of his. We stayed in his digs, got a guided tour of the campus, drank in the student union - and I came away invigorated, determined and desperate to escape my tiny town and sample the big city.

I haven't done justice here to the lasting influence Mr Garbutt has had on me. He shaped my life in a way which was above and beyond what ordinary teachers do for their students. Of course, our relationship would be deemed wholly inappropriate now and he'd probably be investigated, castigated or worse. But without him, I wouldn't be who I am today. And although we're still friends over twenty years since we first met, I have never really thanked him.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

A Fish Out Of Water

Having laid out my clothes and packed my lunch last night, my first real decision today seemed to be a simple one: left or right. It's a fifty/fifty choice at worst. I chose badly.

Arriving absurdly early, i located the correct building and poked my head inside. There were two waiting areas, one on either side of the doorway. The area to the right was populated by small groups of PGCE students chatting amiably to one another. The one on the left was entirely empty. My choice was thus:
  • Triumph over my sense of social awkwardness, disrupt an existing conversation and ingratiate myself.
  • Sit shyly on my own and hope that a newcomer would come and talk to me.
I opted for the latter and watched the room fill up. But not a single soul came over to my side. Everyone congregated together. I was caught in a Larry Davidesque situation: swallow my pride, get up and go over to everyone else or stubbornly ride it out. Like Larry would've, i chose the latter.

It didn't get much better. I didn't speak to anyone for the whole day unless i was forced to. I'm now worried that i seem aloof or uninterested. I'm not. I'm just fucking dreadful at meeting new people. But given that i'm not shy in a classroom/lecture theatre, i'm aware that i look pretty ignorant elsewhere - it's hard to believe that someone so confident in one sphere can be so utterly useless in another. The sooner my cohort is divided into smaller, more manageable groups, the better.

I also managed to get lost, eat my lunch before 12pm and mislay my favourite (and very expensive) fountain pen. Worse of all, i'm now absolutely shitting my pants about the academic side of the course. The essays, assignments and literature reviews are something i haven't done in more than ten years - and which i did badly then. I'm aware that i'll need extra help with this stuff. But whilst i'm nervous about this, i guess others are more so when it comes to the teaching side of things. What you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts.

On the positive side, the course leaders and tutors were charismatic, dynamic and inspiring, the freebies from the unions were cracking and the course sounds absolutely brilliant. I'm sure i'll soon get into the swing of university life and my first placement (in a primary school around the corner from my house) begins tomorrow. There's a lot to be done - and a lot to look forward to.

That's it for now - i've got shitloads of papers and handouts to file!

Monday, 3 September 2012


As i'm sure many teachers do, i spend inordinate amounts of looking around for inspirational lesson ideas and wondering how i can transform everyday instances from my life into whizz-bang lessons which link learning with experience in a truly memorable form. Today, i watched a film which did that around 25 times in 100 minutes.

That film was Samsara, an extraordinarily visual documentary crammed with evocative images, eery sequences and arresting ideas. It's a documentary with no dialogue whatsoever. Instead, music links individual scenes from around the world which show everything from religous worship to factory assembly lines to massed martial arts demonstrations. Shot on 70mm film over a period of five years, it's a striking and thought-provoking piece which could have dozens of applications for educationalists.

Often the film's focus is on juxtaposing growth/decay, wonder/disgust, life/death, etc. That's a lesson in itself, illustrating perfectly why juxtaposition works and setting the wheels in motion for some original writing. There are also some wonderful characters whose stories could be explored, amazing landscapes and vistas to inspire writing on setting and some excellent sequences to inspire debate on issues such as vegetarianism and/or animal cruelty.

There's plenty here for teachers of other subjects too: Geography, RE and Citizenship could all draw heavily on passages and scenes of natural phemonena, the nature of devotion and numerous moral issues. Each scene is only a few minutes long too - there's no need to lose half a lesson to showing a clip.

Of course, it'll be a while before Shantaram appears on DVD, but the moment it does i'll be buying a copy. The value of the moving image is huge and it's rarely been captured so beautifully or powerfully. And it beats jerkily buffered YouTube clips any day.

Blogger won't let me embed the trailer here for some reason, so click HERE to go somewhere else and watch it instead!

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Time to Stop?

I'm sure that my previous school experience will stand me in good stead on my PGCE course. And i'm certain that without it, i would never have been accepted into university in the first place. But the problem with all this experience might just be that it's turned me into a smart-arse. And nobody likes a smart arse.

Since the end of last term term, i've had around six weeks to fill in. The ideal would be holidays/festivals/walks in the park and lots of al fresco dining. Sadly, the wife has been away for most of the summer, money is tighter than a nun's chuff and the weather is woeful. So instead of having fun and relaxing, i've found myself in a strange situation - i'm planning lessons.

I'm aware that they might never be used. That they might not be up to scratch. That it's arrogant of me to assume i know what how to do it. Except i do. Kind of. I've been watching English teachers in action for two years. I've taught dozens of lessons myself (largely under supervision) and i know a good/bad lesson when i see one. I've done more observation already than i'll ever do at university.

I've also spent the entire summer reading assiduously, pillaging the likes of Phil Beadle, Rex Gibson and Trevor Wright's brilliant books for ideas, inspiration and lesson plans. I've even published some of that work here. But is it time to stop? Should i really be waiting until i've at least completed my induction day before i go any further? Could too much practical experience even be a bad thing?

Monday, 27 August 2012

Fun With Food/Simile

A couple of fun, interactive lessons here, inspired largely by Trevor Wright's How To Be A Brilliant English Teacher - a book which I'd highly recommend to prospective and practising teachers alike. A rough overview of the lesson is here, and at the foot of the article there are links to download the full lesson plans and associated resources.

Lesson One: An Introduction to Similes
Just get on with lesson – no messing. Draw a large circular shape on the board and label it – “head like an orange” will suffice. Stick an ear on it and label it – “ear like a cauliflower” will do the job. Offer the pen to a pupil to have a go. Repeat until you run out of steam.

Discuss your character. Give him a name. Why is better to say he has “spots like baked beans”? Get to a point where the word ‘simile’ is mentioned. The kids will hopefully now understand the concept – get them to prove it... Each pupil has a post-it note. They have to write what they think a simile is. Collect them, discuss them, arrive at a definition and get them to copy it into their books.

In their books, pupils are to complete this sentence: I think the poet has used lots of similes because... Feed back and hopefully someone will come close to answering today’s LO: To explore why writers use similes.

Head like a potato
Show the kids the a picture of a someone with an interesting face. They must describe them without using any similes at all. Feedback – and be critical. Ask them to do the same task again – this time they must use loads of similes. Feedback – there should be much to praise. Pupils swap books and make one positive comment on how the description has improved from the first version to the second.

To wrap things up, pupils must work with the person next to them to produce a definition of simile – without using the word ‘as’ or ‘like’. Once you've got a definition you're happy with, let them pack up!

Lesson Two: It Tastes Like...

First, pupils must unscramble the red words in the learning objective and copy it into their books.
LO: To lime issues to describe food.
LO: To use similes to describe food.
Following the last lesson on simile, pupils should have a good idea what it is and how it works. So just launch into this lesson and they’ll hopefully follow enthusiastically...

You need some foodstuffs. My suggestion would be some Chilli Heatwave Doritos, some pineapple and some chocolate – enough for everyone to have some. Pupils will take it in turns to eat an item before writing a suitable description in their books. Initially they must begin “it tastes like...”
  1. For the first item (Doritos) there are no restrictions on what they can write. It could ‘taste like’ anything they want.
  2. For the second item (pineapple) they are not allowed to describe it in terms of another foodstuff.
  3. For the third item (chocolate) encourage them to describe it in a way which doesn’t mention taste at all: it feels like, melts like, etc.
After each stage, discuss which descriptions were the best and why. Hopefully you’ll get some really creative ideas and can make a record of the best ones on the board and in books. Have the kids realised that in saying ‘it tastes like’ they have created dozens and dozens of similes?

Hand out and read Thorarinn Eldjarn’s Froots & Vegedibles (link below). Pupils are to pick three of the absurd foodstuffs and describe them using similes. Pupils should describe taste, appearance, texture or anything else that tickles their fancy. Feedback, sharing descriptions and maybe try and guess which fruit/veg they are describing.

As a quick plenary, ask the class to use a simile to describe what today’s lesson would’ve tasted like if it were edible! 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The Clown Punk

The more i learn about teaching, the more i realise that there's a lot you can't plan for - and that going off piste can often be the most rewarding way of doing things. I've also realised that other people's ideas are very often better than mine and that using other people's resources is a perfectly valid thing to do!

So, with that in mind, this latest lesson plan for The Clown Punk utilises a handout i found in my old school's harddrive to stimulate a class discussion which i would hope would lead to arguments, disagreements and heated debate. Quite where that leads is not an outcome i've planned for - but by prefacing the debate with lots of work on SOLO and questioning skills which will hopefully ensure more measured and intelligent responses.

There is probably three hours worth of activities here - learning objectives will need to be set or reviewed according to progree throughout the lessons. The overall aim, however, is simply to improve students' critical and interpretive reactions to poetry.

Clown Punk PPT Slides

Give: Flying Solo

Simon Armitage is far and away my favourite poet. His working class 'northerness' appeals hugely, his down-to-earth style and witty readings are right up my alley and he lives down the road. The Not Dead is my favourite collection of poems ever and, as an added bonus, the majority of the kids i've taught are similarly enchanted by Armitage.

Without having yet begun my PGCE, i've been reading extensively and voraciously, desperately trying to absolve as much knowledge as possible about teaching before putting it into practice on my placements. Probably the most useful blog i've discovered is Jill Lavender's fledgling effort, which has provided much food for thought and some extremely detailed and innovative lesson ideas. I'll continue to follow Jill carefully - she's bloody lovely as well as being bloody talented.

David Didau's Learning Spy blog and excellent book have also been inspirational - not least his advocating of SOLO taxonomy: a useful and extremely user friendly way of structuring lessons, objectives and questioning designed to help pupils understand their own progress and how to achieve further.

I'd already planned and taught a pair of lessons on Give in my previous role as a TA, but having seen Jill's brilliant lesson plan based on Solo taxonomy, i immediately re-worked and re-wrote it so as to steal/incorporate her brilliant ideas. What follows is an combination of her plan and mine (weighted in favour of the former) perhaps a little more suited to a less experienced practioner.

Give Lesson Plan
Give Powerpoint Slides

Massive thanks to Jill Lavender, obviously. As always, feedback would be warmly welcomed.

Monday, 20 August 2012

We Are Poets

"Poetry is dead, man."

It's a refrain I've heard a number of times in school and one which, on occasion, I've almost been tempted to agree with. I've seen poetry taught terribly to totally uninterested classes failing completely to engage with or understand the text.

When I've taught poetry myself, I've used Sir Chris Hoy, Drop Dead Fred and the Sex Pistols to enliven and enrich my lessons and, by and large, have left classes enthused and with the feeling that poetry really is something which speaks to them. John Cooper Clarke and the amazing John Agard are also powerful poetic weapons for a teacher to have in their arsenal - who could fail to be impressed by the latter's amazing rendition of The Charge of the Light Brigade?

Now, though, I have something stronger, more relevant, more empowering, inspiring and impassioned: We Are Poets.

The story of six youngsters from Leeds taking on the best youth poets in a global slam event is one of the most powerful documentaries I've ever seen. Filmed on the streets where I live and starring kids who remind me of students at my school, it has a huge personal resonance and relevance for me. More than that, it gives poetry and the spoken word back to the people it belongs to.

The six poets are selected from Leeds Young Authors, an amazing project promoting community and cultural awareness through literature. None of the group are 'academic' in the traditional sense. None of them are white, nor middle class. All of them, however, are truly gifted poets, using the spoken word to explore and illuminate the very real problems they experience on the streets of Leeds: racism, knife crime, relationships, absent fathers.

The portraits of the poets which preface the competition are magnificent introductions to them. Their stories of broken family backgrounds, conflicting feelings over their mixed-race parentage and mistreatment at the hands of Islamaphobes and racists speak loudly to the audience - and directly to a typically mixed race English class. These experiences influence their poetry markedly- and offer an amazing opportunity to use the film in your classroom to examine poets' motives and writing processes.

The passion of all involved on the slam itself has to be seen to be believed. Kids from every race, background and culture compete for perfect ratings from their peers in an intense battle which prizes the delivery of the poems as much as their content. It's a reminder that poetry arose as an oral tradition - and one which makes direct links to acting, rapping and performing.

Most important of all, however, is just how relevant these brave and brilliant youngsters make poetry seem. They use it as social comment, argument and rhetoric, to explore issues which affect young people today and to explore their own lives and cultures - and prove beyond doubt that poetry is as relevant and powerful today as it ever has been. I cannot think of a better way of enthusing children about poetry than getting these talented people into your classrooms. Now!

Unfortunately i've been unable to embed a video of the film into this blog, but you can view the utterly amazing opening sequence of We Are Poets  by clicking here. It's stunning and features Joseph Buckley's gorgeous poetry set over stunning cityscapes of Leeds.

To request a screening and a visit, email or follow them on Twitter @WeArePoets

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The River God Personified

Another of my poetry lesson plans, this time a two parter on Stevie Smith's creepy The River God. The first lesson focuses on personification, its uses and advantages.  The Powerpoint and starter activity will need adapting to your purposes - but doing so should be fun and a good excuse to do something creative in the classroom.
I took this photo. I love it.

Armed with that knowledge, the pupils will be better positioned to tackle lesson two - which focuses on how Smith uses the technique in her poem. There's a lot in here - it might be optimistic to think it could all be done in one lesson - a pick n mix approach might be best. The handout borrows heavily (blatantly plagiarises/cuts and pastes) from the TES Resources material on The River God which is excellent.

Personification/The River God Lesson Plans
Personification/The River God Lesson Handout
Personification/The River God Lesson Powerpoint Slides

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Metaphor and Medusa

This post follows An Intro To Everyday Metaphor, in which I outlined my belief that teaching simile/metaphor was pretty pointless unless students understood just how ubiquitous such figurative language was. The lesson included in that blog was designed as a precursor to the two included here.

The first lesson is an introduction to metaphor in poetry, drawing heavily on two poems from the Relationships cluster of Moon on the Tides: Praise Song for My Mother and Nettles. It obviously makes sense to use poems from the anthology - not least because they're both so rich in metaphorical language relevant to young people growing up. The lesson is designed to encourage pupils to interpret and react to the poems themselves - a part of poetry teaching i've seen disregarded far too often.

The second lesson focuses on Carol Ann Duffy's Medusa. It asks the pupils to analyse the poem's use of metaphor, their effectiveness and whether or not Duffy uses Medusa as an extended metaphor or whether she is writing in her voice - there's a task asking the pupils to re-write parts of the poem with no figurative language at all. Hopefully this will help them arrive at a conclusion by demonstrating the strength of Duffy's technique.

Metaphor In Medusa Lesson Plan
An Autopsy of Medusa
Accompanying Slides (these are not a necessity)

As always, i would welcome any constructive feedback. I'm reading voraciously and taking advice from various sources on how to improve my planning - hopefully by the time September comes around i'll have absorbed oodles of useful hints and tips and be thinking and preparing on autopilot!

Friday, 10 August 2012

An Intro To Everyday Metaphor

I've just started reading James Geary's I Is An Other, a magnificent book about the power and prevalence of metaphor. Surprisingly, he believes we use around six metaphors a minute - some of which are obvious, some of which are the skeletal remains metaphors which have become so commonplace as to be invisible. It's a fascinating book and excellent reading for anyone with an interest in language.

For me, it has proved inspirational. I've never seen metaphor taught as anything other than a literary device - and often this teaching has been dry and prosaic. Surely it would be better to give students a grounding in the everyday nature of metaphor before examining literary applications for it? If they realise how often metaphor is used in their daily lives - and by themselves - surely they'll be far better placed to understand it a more academic sense.

With that in mind, i've designed a quickfire whizz through everyday metaphor which references Elvis Presley, Andy Carroll, Australian weather forecasters, the human skeleton and, obviously, young Romeo of Verona. As usual, it's not gonna be perfect - i'm only a learner myself. But the activities, questions and ideas in this plan can be adapted and modified to your own purposes.

I'd anticipate the lesson taking an hour and the Powerpoint slides are not necessary at all unless you enjoy a little visual stimulus (or just like gazing at Elvis).

An Intro to Everyday Metaphor Plan
An Intro to Everyday Metaphor Handout
An Intro to Everyday Metaphor Slides

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Singh Song by Daljit Nagra

During my time as a TA, I saw poetry taught very badly, very often. Two 'old school' teachers I observed seemed to believe the hallmark of good poetry teaching was ensuring that pupils had reams and reams of notes scrawled all over their texts - regardless of whether they understood them or not. I hated this approach - it amounted to little more than dictation and encouraged little thought, analysis or interpretation. Wherever possible, I would step in by offering to teach the lesson or by interjecting vociferously. Thankfully, the teachers encouraged this and the pupils seemed to enjoy it. Hopefully they learned something, too.

So now, despite having not yet started my PGCE, I'm bravely putting my lesson on Daljit Nagra's 'Singh Song' online. I focused on how Nagra created the character of Singh through language. Hopefully some of you will like it and use some of the ideas within.

Following some fantastic feedback from the Twitter community (much of which is in the comments section below), this plan has been revamped and reconfigured in an attempt to make better use of learning objectives, assessment and structured questioning. It's quite different to before - and hopefully much improved!

Click the links to download the plan, accompanying Powerpoint slides and handouts. All of these can be downloaded as regular documents or PDF files.

Singh Song: Creating Characters Through Language
Sing Song: Powerpoint Slides
Singh Song: Extracts Handout
Singh Song: Standard English Handout

Thanks to everyone who offered advice - it's much appreciated!

Monday, 6 August 2012

Back to the Future

At the age of eighteen i made a number of choices which i regret to this day. Firstly, i took a year out from education. Secondly, i chose to do a Film & Media degree. And finally, i elected to study in Scotland.

My reasons for making these choices made perfect sense to me as a youth. I fully intended to work during my gap year, saving a huge stockpile of cash with which to pay my way through university. I chose to study media as it was a relatively new degree and sounded exciting, interesting and relevant - with any number of career paths open to me upon graduation. And i chose my Scottish university as it was as far as i could get from my northern hometown (which i've often referred to as 'England's Armpit') without going down south - an alien environment to a meat n' spuds Yorkshireman like me.

Despite my best intentions, none of my choices proved to be in any way advantageous. I earned tuppence ha'penny in a wasted twelve months, subsequently realised that media degrees were the very definition of 'Mickey Mouse' and discovered the Scottish penchant for alcoholism and Irn Bru breakfasts suited my personality far too readily.

And so i left with a shitty degree in a pointless subject, too skint to participate in the unpaid work-placements necessary to make a name in the media and having singularly failed to establish any kind of serious work ethic during four years of study. The reasons for this were myriad and include: being astonishingly immature; Tesco selling vodka for £6.32 a bottle; Scots starting uni at 17 and the first year of study being accordingly easy - and my falling out of studious habits as a result.

And so now, ten years on, i'm returning to university - this time on home soil. And i am excreting in my undercrackers for the following reasons:

I used to hate 'mature' students. They did all the work. Turned up to every lecture, screening and seminar, knew the answers and were articulate and committed in a way which disgusted me. Now, i have become all i despised. I am 32 years old, and although not everyone on my PGCE course will be a fresh-faced whippersnapper, i'm sure i'll be one of the oldest. Will i relate to my fellow students? Will they resent me? Think i'm a geek? I hope not, but i'm not the most outgoing individual and worry greatly about making friends and being part of 'the group'.

After ten years away from university learning, i'm extremely concerned about things like lectures, seminars, note-taking, essays, referencing and all the other routines, skills and habits i've fallen out of or forgotten. I'm so used to writing informally, anecdotally or personally that producing academic writing fills me with fear. Just finding my way around campus is a big enough worry - never mind the things i need to do when i'm there!

Am i right to be concerned? Can anyone allay my fears or offer me advice ahead of registration day in September? Or am i just being a paranoid old man?

Monday, 30 July 2012

Is Silence Golden?

A teacher I worked with last year started every lesson with ten minutes of silent reading. This was a fairly self-explanatory process: the students brought in a book from home or the school library and read it for the allotted time. But was this a good use of their time?

My strong suspicion is that this opening activity was designed purely for the teacher’s benefit. The silent reading period ensured the class settled quickly after break or lunch, meant that latecomers didn’t miss anything vital and allowed her time to set up the lesson, do a register and finish her coffee. Occasionally she would make a token effort to check that the pupils had an ability-appropriate novel in their sweaty little mitts, but largely they were left to their own devices.

Of course, not every child in her class had a voracious appetite for literature. Many kids would spend ten minutes either staring through their paperback or around the room. Others failed miserably to ever bring a book with them. Instead they would steal from the teachers’ appalling collection of grubby charity-shop cast-offs, reading tattered copies of outdated kid-lit from the mid-seventies before tossing it carelessly back from whence it came. 

As a prospective teacher of English, i’m very aware of the benefits of a varied diet: as a child I’d polished off CS Lewis by the age of twelve and had moved onto sneakily stealing copies of my dad’s Steven King novels, reading my mother’s copies of Bella in the bath and giggling at the readers’ letters in the soggy porn mags I hunted for in local hedges. Without these formative literary experiences, where would I be now?

But why do we read? Aside from the obvious pleasure we take from a good story or a neat turn of phrase, what is its purpose? The late Bill Hicks was once posed a similar question by a waitress and responded:  "Wow, I've never been asked that... You stumped me. Not what am I reading, but what am I reading for? I guess I read for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones is so I don't end up being a fucking waffle waitress!”

This was, of course, a typically caustic joke. But humour only works when it contains a kernel of truth – and Hicks was a famously honest and perceptive comic. He knew, like you and I, that reading benefits us by improving our vocabularies, aids our understanding of the world and our place within it, enhances our spoken language skills, helps us to empathise or criticise, enables us to construct arguments and forces us to develop our imaginations.

In principle, then, silent reading ought to be hugely beneficial – but only if it is active reading. How do you ensure it is a valuable experience? Ask the kids to write book reviews? Ensure you have a good selection of books to lend them? Spot quizzes? Replace silent reading with some form of guided reading tasks? Or just spend ten minutes teaching them something instead?

Let me know below or on Twitter!