Wednesday, 11 December 2013

I Don’t Know How To Start...

Imagine a world without imagination. How plodding and prosaic life would be without the opportunity to envisage something other. How dreary our dreams would be if they reflected nothing but reality. Imagine your hopes, your fantasies, your deepest desires - and then imagine them no more.

We would grow stale. Stagnate. Original thought would shrivel and die, leaving us devoid of invention, innovation, art, music and literature. We wouldn’t dare to strive for something better. We would not seek to improve, develop or grow; we’d lack the facility to do so.

It’s a nightmare scenario. Only in this world of our creating, there would be no nightmares.

Welcome to my Y10 English class.

They are an able and eager bunch. They’re not wonderfully gifted, nor without literary pretensions. Realistically, they’re likely to achieve Cs – although I’ve told them their reach must exceed their grasp (they love a hoary old cliché). Problem is, they have absolutely no imagination. None.

We’re about to start the ‘Moving Images’ controlled assessment: produce a piece of writing inspired by a still image from a film. They can write anything – description, narrative, monologue, poetry, script - from a perspective of their choosing.

Except they can’t; they “don’t know what to write about”.

I have attempted to address this. A practice piece was based on Simon Armitage’s poem Out of the Blue, which every pupil re-interpreted as a first person perspective from the POV of a character trapped in the World Trade Centre on 9/11. I encouraged such a focus, even producing model paragraphs and responses which did something similar.

This was a mistake.

Not only did they steal the essence of my narrative, but they lifted lines verbatim from my work. It was shameless. I forgave them, realising that I had been too prescriptive. The source material was too narrow. I’d given them the answers.  I’d not allowed their imaginations to run wild. I would not make the same mistakes again.

This time, we have studied various elements of the horror genre – short stories by Poe, prose by Susan Hill, films like Pan’s Labyrinth. We’ve reviewed movies, written practice paragraphs, explored figurative language, looked at planning techniques and filled our editor’s toolkit with techniques from Steven King. We are ready.

I have collated images from various films: monsters, scenery, creatures, people. Pupils can select their own source material. The movie stills range from Guillermo del Toro’s aforementioned masterpiece to The Shining, Beetlejuice, Let The Right One In – even Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is an option.
It hasn’t made one iota of difference. They don’t know what to write. They haven’t got any ideas. They don’t know how to start.

Whose fault is this? I’d like to think it’s not mine. I reflected and remedied what went wrong first time around, but maybe I’m still making mistakes. Maybe it’s the school’s fault for focusing for so long on language rather than literature. Maybe it’s our educational system creating pupil-automatons conditioned only to pass exams.

My suspicion is that it’s their fault. Their imagination has atrophied, withering year on year as they move further from a childhood of play and invention to a teenage where imagination is replaced with computer games, social networking and I’m A Celebrity. Their palm-sized smartphones connect them to the world automatically, requiring little cognitive effort – a far more convenient way of engaging with the ‘outside’ than through the cumbersome chore of reading a book or engaging in a genuine exchange of ideas with a flesh-and-blood human being.

It’s a trite and obvious conclusion, but if our children read more books and spent less time alone with their gadgets, maybe this malaise might be alleviated? But how can we encourage them to engage with the world, to dare to dream, to fantasise? We are bombarded with stories telling us that Britain is Broken, but we have to convince our pupils – and ourselves that this is the case. Only I don’t know how to start.

If you have any tips on helping me overcome this problem I’d love to hear them! Add them to the comments or tweet me @PGCEng

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Should People In Ivory Towers Throw So Many Stones?

On Friday night David Didau, the esteemed and highly regarded teacher, blogger and author of The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson, became embroiled in a contretemps with Rob Ward, a newly qualified teacher of little repute. The flare-up occurred as a result of the tweet below, rumbled on for hours and involved many educationalists with influential online presences.

The tweet was posted after Rob had spent approximately three hours listlessly flicking through the collection of class texts in his school’s KS3 cupboard. He had already dismissed Room 13 by Robert Swindells (on account of it being shit) and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (because the few copies available were unavailable). He had toyed with spending his own money on copies of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English (but is skint because it’s Christmas), but then discovered a box stuffed to the gills with JK Rowling’s tale of a wannabe wizard. Hence the tweet – and the row which ensued.

Feeling more than a little aggrieved at the way his innocent request for input was interpreted and the way he was personally attacked, Rob wrote a letter to the Right Honourable David Didau. Sadly, Rob did not know to which ivory tower he should address his missive – hence its online publication…

Dear David,
               I wonder whether you might think more carefully in future about how you choose the targets for your opprobrium? You’ve been following me on Twitter for a while now and have communicated amicably with me in the past, so I’m sure you are aware that I am newly qualified. If you were unaware, maybe you might have noticed my username; I was inordinately proud of dreaming up ‘EngQT’ to signal my status and would be distraught to think that others were not marvelling at my clever wordplay. Regardless, I did make it abundantly plain in my communication with you last night that I had been teaching for just three months. That your vitriolic messages were not tempered by this knowledge speaks ill of you.

Worse, however, was the dogmatic, inflexible and stubborn manner in which you chose to make your point.

You clearly don’t believe that Harry Potter will assume a prominent place in our literary heritage. You don’t believe it is ‘exceptional’. You wouldn’t add JK Rowling to the pantheon of great British authors. You don’t believe I, or anyone else, should be teaching it. All valid points of view, all of which I fully understand – and some of which I totally agree with.

But here’s the rub, David. You didn’t ask me to what end I was selecting my class reader. You made no effort to find out what the objectives of my teaching would be. You don’t have the faintest idea who is in my class. And you attacked me without making any attempt to discover these salient and relevant points.

Let me enlighten you. My class are adorable, and I love teaching them. They are very, very weak – working below L3 in reading and writing. Of the thirteen children in my class, three attend fewer than half of my lessons thanks to their ill-discipline and poor attendance. I have no support in these lessons whatsoever. I have formed a great attachment to them and them to me. I am absolutely determined to secure L4 for all of them before they leave my class. And I will.

I am completely convinced that they would read the texts you advocated. They would launch themselves into Dickens (and would probably be familiar with the story of Oliver Twist already). They would have a good stab at Oedipus the King. But both of these texts would be too hard for them.

I tweeted you last night with the first paragraph from both Harry Potter and Oliver Twist. Here they are again.

Potter’s a bit prosaic, eh? Perhaps a little dull. Certainly it can’t hold a candle to Twist. You are correct – we can learn an awful lot from Dickens.

But you don’t know what I want my Y7s to learn, do you? At the moment, my number one aim is to get them to write coherent sentences which start with a capital letter and end in a full stop. If I want to use a class text as a model for this, The Philosopher’s Stone provides clear examples of how to do so. Rowling might not be the greatest author the world has ever seen, but she provides sentences which my Y7s might genuinely be able to emulate.

Do you believe they could write sentences like the one Dickens opens Oliver Twist with? That paragraph is just one long sentence. It’s one which I would LOVE them to write. But it is beyond them right now. What use is it providing them with examples such as these? How confusing it would be. How alienated they would feel.

You made a massive assumption last night. A false one. You assumed that when I said I wanted ‘accessible’ texts, you thought I was referring to ‘easy’ ones. I was not. I was speaking of texts which were difficult enough to stretch them.  And because I know my class, I know that Harry Potter would be a less difficult gap to bridge than that between their current reading level and Charles Dickens.

Your snobbishness also irked me here. You airily dismissed the teaching of texts which pupils could access at home, believing that we should only teach them what they cannot otherwise access. For better or worse, we use the Accelerated Reader programme at school. On average, my pupils are reading books at level four on the AR scale. They read these for thirty minutes at home each day (if they are good little boys and girls). Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a level six on the AR scale; this is a title which will stretch them. Oliver Twist is a level eleven.

I am sure you can deconstruct/dismiss my understanding of Vygotsky and ZPD, but my impression was that pupils learning best occurred when children are called upon to perform at the very edge of what they are already capable of? My professional judgement is that Harry Potter and the work I set them to do on the novel would be more likely to achieve this than Oliver Twist.

This is where you became particularly sneering and dismissive of me. Your constant assertion that learning is supposed to be ‘hard’ was not particularly troubling – although you failed to take into account that there is a difference between being ‘hard’ and ‘too hard’. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but if work is ‘too hard’ will learners not become disenchanted? Evolution is an incremental process, and I am trying to ‘evolve’ these youngsters into confident writers and readers. Throwing them in at the deep end (apologies for the mixed metaphor) is likely to see the majority sink rather than swim.

As for your assertion that “being satisfied with what they can do isn’t really teaching”: thanks. Thanks for being so condescending, insulting and obnoxious. I am not an idiot, David. I know what teaching is; I am a teacher.

I am also self-aware enough to know that I am not a fully-formed educator. I am learning. For that reason, I often seek advice on Twitter from more experienced colleagues. I am happy to take advice on board and was delighted that many people offered excellent advice and tips on alternative texts or approaches to making the literary cannon more ‘accessible/easy’ (delete to suit your bias).

What upset me most of all was your flagrant disregard for my circumstances. I’m not entirely sure whether it was ignorance, lack or empathy or just a personal agenda, but the below tweet was a real low in a succession of dismissive tweets:

There are a number of reasons why I take particular issue with this tweet. Firstly, and forgive me for repeating myself, I am new to teaching. I have never taught a full novel to anyone. I freely and publicly admitted that I would find teaching Dickens to this class very difficult. And I stand by that. It’s a massive book and, at present, I genuinely would not know where to start. Nobody has ever told me how to condense such a weighty tome into manageable chunks. Nobody has ever advised me on how to make some of the language more understandable. Differentiation is the part of the job I find most difficult. I am shocked that you find that shocking.

Secondly, I didn’t say Dickens is “too challenging to attempt”. That makes me sound like some kind of moronic fraudster. I’d gladly teach Dickens to different classes. In fact, I really want to teach his work. Great Expectations is high on my ‘to do’ list – when the time is right. For me and for my pupils.

You’re in a position to offer advice. If you truly believe I should be teaching something with ‘cultural capital’ (a wholly subjective qualification), please provide some advice on how to do this. Many others did, whilst you seemed to relish the opportunity to pursue an agenda at the expense of making me look foolish.

Hectoring (bullying?) me the way you did was a thoughtless and unnecessary abuse of your status. You demonstrated a total lack of empathy and no understanding whatsoever. Your inflexible dogmatism spoke of someone with an agenda to pursue – one which you unfairly pursued at my expense.

I hope this letter causes you to carefully consider the way you communicate your ideas. You might have been nominated for a prestigious bauble, but other opinions are always available.

Yours sincerely.

Rob Ward

PS: I don’t think I was ever likely to teach Harry Potter. I was asking out of curiosity and in the hope that someone would offer a credible alternative.

PPS: I found a middle ground: Animal Farm. I don’t care if you approve or not.