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 na├»ve, 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.


  1. Dear Rob
    I’m very sorry to have caused you to feel so upset and am disappointed that you interpreted my communication with you as vitriolic.
    But maybe you’re right that I am too dogmatic. Maybe I can be inflexible. And stubborn? Yes, definitely. You’re right to say that I have no idea who’s in your class beyond your explanation that they are a low ability Year 7. Twitter is hardly a medium for finding out this sort of information and rarely is there an expectation that such a thing would be required. And, yes, neither did I have any idea what your objectives in selecting a text might have been. I made an assumption and this may well have been a lazy assumption. But you’re also guilty of doing this.
    My objection to teaching Harry Potter has nothing at all to do with its literary merits. I very much enjoyed reading all the Potter books to my daughters and they went on to read Tolkien and Pullman as a result. I don’t even object to it as being ‘easy’ either; as you say, it may be very challenging for poor readers. What I worry about is its lack of cultural capital. (And incidentally, the point about cultural capital is that it’s not subjective; it’s what we have agreed on as a culture over time.) It doesn’t tell students very much about the world that they won’t already know. It doesn’t introduce them to ideas or knowledge that can empower and enrich our lives. It doesn’t provide any access to the world, in fact if it’s taught in school, it denies them the opportunity to study works which can provide them some of these things. Is it worth reading? Yes, absolutely. Is it worthy of precious curriculum time in schools? No.
    If your aim is clarity of writing then you cannot do better than teach them Orwell – I wholeheartedly approve of Animal Farm and don’t care whether or not you care. Orwell’s prose is some of the finest in the English language and for a 20th century writer his command of sentence structure is second only to PG Wodehouse’s. I don’t have a particular attachment to Dickens – I’d been having a discussion about how much I’d enjoyed teaching Great Expectations to a mixed ability Year 9 class and he was lurking in the forefront of my mind.
    I’m also sorry that my holding forth on teaching needing to ‘hard’ went down so poorly. Take it from me that many teachers massively more experienced than either of us fail to understand this. Clearly I misunderstood where you were coming from and I apologise for my tone. Almost as soon as I sent the tweet about ‘being shocked beyond belief’ I regretted it. I deleted it almost straight away but sadly it had already done its worst. That was unworthy. As Mr Knightley says to Emma: ‘Badly done”.
    Have you caused me to reconsider? Wel, shit: I’m a loud-mouthed show off who has always struggled to tread lightly. I’m sure I’ll continue to ruffle feathers with scant regard for the status of the fowl. But I am sorry that you felt hectored, bullied and patronised – I know how much that sucks.

    Sincerely, David

  2. An apology needs two words and doesn’t generally feature a ‘but’. Especially not a but that says I’ll do it again anyway. It’s also generally just to the person who has been offended and not an opportunity for the apologiser to try and gain from appearing humble. Real humility in this would have been a quiet sorry to the wronged and leaving it there.