Sunday, 27 January 2013

Punctuation Pets on Paper!

Here's my first attempt at properly drawn Pets, without the aid of a computer.  They look a bit different, but I'm sure that;'s just teething problems.  I've created a new Comma, to replace the derivative and boring caterpillar thing - he's much more fun.

Let me know what you think!

Sunday, 20 January 2013


What is it with commas?  At first glance they appear to be an easy-to-understand branch of the punctuation tree; a straightforward mark that only the worst dunces can possibly mess up.  This is certainly the attitude that my students have for this poor, misunderstood piece of typography.  'We learned how to use commas in year 2,' they cry in unison, 'we need no more instruction in this barren mark.'  They then proceed to merrily splice their way through their work, like Dr. Moreau.

Lists they understand.  This is the one punctuation mark that they are supremely confident of, and rightly so.  The problem is that lists feature very lightly in work written post KS2 - they are not a common sight in your average essay or film review.  So their happiest times with commas are removed from them, and they are left, arrogantly flailing, in a morass of misunderstood rules and commas after connectives.  The poor devils.  Recently I've made punctuation my life's work, or so it seems.  I spend a great amount of my time trying to find ways to engage students in it, and also instruct them as to their use.  And this is tricky, as the rules are convoluted and time-consuming, and yet I find I cannot just fob them off.  I can't say to a class that commas are where you breathe.  I just can't.  The main reason for my truculence on the matter is because simplistic rules like this don't work and lead to terrible misapprehensions.  No, it's much better to teach them exactly how punctuation works, so they can cope with any eventuality.

With semi-colons and full stops this is an achievable aim.  I can even get apostrophes into their eager little heads with some ease.  But commas give me nightmares.  Their rules are seemingly simple, but getting them across to students is incredibly hard.  Let's start with the subordinate clause and its associated comma.  In order to teach students this, they have to grasp the concept of a subordinate clause.  This also means they have to understand the concept of 'sentence'.  Have you asked a student what a sentence is recently?  If not, give it a go.  It's a hoot.  And the trouble is, how does one define a sentence in easy-to-grasp language?  It is a single unit of meaning?  What's meaning?  It's a single utterance formed around a verb?  God help us - what's a verb again?  It's a penguin? Yes.  It's a penguin.  A single, functioning, happy penguin.  That'll do.  And this is what I use to get across the whole spectrum of sentences, compounds and complexes.  Three penguins in various states of disarray:

Simple sentence = a penguin, happily standing there.  He's perfectly all right by himself and cannot be broken down any further.  He makes sense, too.

Compound sentence = a penguin with another fully-functioning penguin glued to his back.  They both look a bit miffed.  They are glued together by the fabled 'Andorbut' glue.  So far so mental.

Complex sentence = a penguin wearing a pair of robotic trousers.  This is a penguin that has an optional upgrade.  The upgrade cannot work alone, of course.  No - it needs to living, breathing, functioning penguin to operate.  The little seat the penguin sits on is in the shape of a comma.

So, there we are.  The compexity of the issue demands bizarre analogies to be formed.  Now, it's altogether possible that I've missed a trick here, and that there is some easy way of teaching this without resorting to zoo animals.  If so, let me know.

But still, commas and subordination.  Tricky.

What about commas and connectives? Pretty easy this, as long as they remember it's comma before connective.  Even then, many will get confused why 'and' is exempt from this rule, and whether the writing after 'because' is a subordinate clause or not.  For me it all boils down to the 'survival' idea - if a section of text can survive alone, and cannot be broken down into a shorter unit of meaning including a verb, then it's a sentence.

Then we have the splice.  I've been reduced to strange analogies again when it comes to this most egregious of punctuation errors.  My line with the students is that putting a comma between two full sentences (penguins or whatever) is barbaric.  It just can't cope with the pressure and will be squashed flat.  They like this idea.  I tell them that the only marks strong enough to handle are semi-colons and full stops.  Then one smart-arse will pipe up, 'but what about exclamation marks?'  Yes, those too.  This works pretty well, especially if I draw dead little commas all over their work when I see any splicing going on (I haven't actually done this yet, but I sure am going to start now).

But even with this arsenal of weird ideas, I still don't feel I've got a complete handle on their comma ability.  There must be other ways to achieve full comma-ability - any ideas?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Books that I'd like to teach

When it comes to teaching literature we all have our favourites: books that we have taught many times and feel incredibly comfortable with.  Take you pick from the list: To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, The Crucible, An Inspector Calls, Death of a Salesman, Romeo and Juliet, Stone Cold, Touching the Void, The Great Gatsby etc etc.

But what of those books that we love, but feel we are not allowed to teach?  GCSEs and A-Levels seem to have harsh strictures on what we can deliver to students, and often this forces our hand away from gems that we've loved for decades, books that we know inside out, books that we could teach to a busload of Millwall fans without losing their interest.  Perhaps we need to make a change here and take a few literary risks.  After all, GCSEs and A-Level syllabuses are more flexible than they seem these days, and there's always KS3...

I remember teaching The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to a Year 8 class several years ago, when I was an Independent school drone.  It was on the Year 8 syllabus, which surprised me (there's a wheelbarrow-load of bad language in that books, including the c-bomb), and so I built a tidy little scheme around it.  Goodness, but their attitude to the book was incredible.  I've never taught a text that has been so eagerly, so immediately lapped up as this one.  Once we'd established the salient facts about the narrator, Christopher - most importantly the nature of his Aspergers - the students understood everything, even the necessity for all the swearing.  It gave them an insight into authorial choices and intentions which set them up for the rest of the year.  It even gave them a chance to understand the term 'post-modern', which they guzzled up with relish.  So much enjoyable teaching and learning from a book that doesn't typically feature on school syllabuses must give us pause for thought.  Perhaps it's time to cast off the shackles of the tried and tested, and find ways to teach books we're really passionate about?

So, what would I teach, if I could?

1. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (KS3-5)

My all time favourite book, and with enough content and style to keep you busy for months, Wonderland is a perfect book for teaching.  The manipulation of language alone is going to help students grasp connotation and emotional impact, and the episodic structure of the story will aid with that tricky side of things too.  Characterisations are many and varied, and the humour will draw in even the most grumpy student.  I'd probably teach Looking Glass too, mainly because it contains 'Jabberwocky' and Humpty Dumpty, whose meeting with Alice could be analysed for years - 'There's glory for you!'  A whole term spent on this book in Year 8, perhaps, could be very useful indeed, paving a way for later understanding about language, structure and form.  And Year 8 can be adapted as we wish, so it's simply a case of buying the books (the biggest sticking point) and coming up with a detailed and relevant MTP.

2. The Devil's Dictionary (KS5)

Ambrose Bierce's fascinating and hilarious spoof dictionary would be great in any of the Englishes at KS5.  It has a really savage humour that could be a great focus for English Language, and its status as a work of literature can raise interesting questions regarding the nature of literature.  Bierce's biography is enthralling, too - especially his disappearance in 1913, where he set off to Mexico (at the age of 71) where he joined Pancho Villa.  He was never heard of again.  The potential for this to be used at KS5 is huge, thanks to the non-prescriptive nature of certain units on all English courses.  Perhaps as inspiration for coursework in Lit Lang, or as an example of language change in Language A2? This could easily find its place into a curriculum.  And by the way, if you haven't already, make sure you read it!

3. The Waves (KS5)

I've waxed over-lyrical about this before on here, but it's worth reiterating.  The Waves is an enormously important book.  The structure is very simple - a narrative separated into times of day by short descriptions of a beach at dawn, midday, dusk etc.  But the narrative held within this is very complex and abstract, charting the lives of several children as they pass through time, with traits, utterances and images carried through their whole life.  The self-awareness of the characters, and the fact they speak with the forced formality of a witness in the dock throughout the book, describing their lives, have stayed with me for years.  A-Level literature students would have a field day.

4. Lucky Jim (KS4)

Kingsley Amis' best book, in my opinion.  This would be a great text to read with a year 10-11 class.  The difficulty of the relationships and the sad heroism of Jim himself would appeal to a teenage audience.  In fact, Jim's open insolence and hatred of all forms of authority in his job as lecturer would strike a chord with most students! The fact that we can't help but root for the poor guy helps too.  The problem is, despite its quality and relevance, there is no easy way to fit it into a GCSE course.  It isn't a different culture text, and doesn't really fit into literary heritage either.  So its left out in the cold.  A shame.

5. A Confederacy of Dunces (KS4-5)

This is a tricky book, but the characterisation of the lead character is worth its weight in gold.
Ignatius J. Reilly is the modern teenager.  Any student who moans about the world, believing themselves to be better than all others, whilst gorging themselves on pringles playing Call of Duty, would see themselves reflected in this text, and that has to be a good thing.  Again, the contextual details surrounding John Kennedy Toole's suicide and subsequent posthumous publication would add fascinating flavour to it.  It's a different culture text, at least, but you'd have to be creative with the Controlled Assessments to squeeze it into a GCSE curriculum.

I'll have a think about more as the week progresses.  But there we go, a few books that I would love to teach.  Now I just have to figure out where, why and how.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Performance Related Pay

Performance-related pay will arrive, unwanted, in September – like a train full of dead cows pulling into Winchester.  There is seemingly nothing we can do about this, and no way of making our voices heard.  Reasonable doubts aired by the cautiously pro-cause NAHT, and serious misgivings bellowed by the NUT and NASUWT are being entirely ignored as Michael Gove pushes the idea through.

I am not about to get too riled by this; like I said, there’s little we can do.  Instead, I’m going to have a think about the ramifications of this move.  How is it going to work? What will the short- and long-term effect be?  How will I be affected? 

Little detail has been released regarding the machinery of this new system.  In fact, Gove has admitted that there is “further work to be done” to get the thing working.  This, of course, implies that he hasn’t the foggiest idea how it will work, and I think we should all be sceptical of any major policy change that hasn’t been thought through carefully enough to actually have its inner workings planned and decided upon.  This means we have next to nothing to go on when trying to assess how we will all be affected.  All we can do is ponder, speculate and wonder.  So here we go.

            1.       What will the pay scales be?

It seems that this is unknown.  We do know that the existing wider pay boundaries will be maintained as reference points, but that the various levels between will go.  So, Main Scale teachers will still be working within the established 21,000-31,000 bracket.  UPS will remain, presumably, but again without any set intermediary figures.  TLR will still put you somewhere within the next big chunk, and so forth.  One thing that has not been mentioned is altering the pay scales entirely, or opening them up.  It seems a classroom teacher is still going to be limited to £36,756 (U3), rather than able to climb up and up without taking on responsibility that removes them from the classroom.

2.       What will happen to pay?

Based on the above, we can make some quite clear guesses about what is likely to happen.  As things stand, teachers wait 6 years to hit M6, and can then go through to the UPS.  Their yearly pay rise is around £2,000 pa, year on year.  With the new system, these increments vanish.  Thus, teachers could be awarded any (or no) amount of money, within the wider band.  Yes, it means an excellent new teacher, ostensibly on M2, could be awarded with a huge salary increase, all the way up to £31,000 in their second year.  If this happens, good for them.  However, it also means that an experienced teacher in a school struggling with a broken budget could be awarded a smaller sum – say £500 – for the next year.  This could be a reward for excellent work – a real incentive – but if the money isn’t there, the raises wonj’t be great.

It seems schools are being made able to award much smaller yearly increments, slowing down the wage inflation that all schools have to contend with if they have a settled and happy staff.  Thus, pay awards for great work in the classroom could easily turn out to be much worse than the old level increments.

Similarly, there is no room for incentive for established, excellent classroom teachers.  The idea was that this plan would help keep outstanding teachers in the classroom, rather than in an SLT office.  This isn’t going to happen if the old wide payscales are kept, as we’ll still be capped at £36,000.

3.       What is the effect going to be?

I was going to move up to M6 next year, and was mightily looking forward to breaking the £30,000 barrier.  Now I am concerned that it may not happen.  I may only go up by a small amount, despite any incredible teaching I may deliver this year.  I may not go up at all.  If a school has serious budget problems, as many of them do, what’s to stop them halting payrises for a few years?  What safeguards will be in place to stop governing bodies using this new system as an exercise in budget cutting?  At the moment, there is no word of anything like this.  Instead, we get bland, vague statements with no real substance.  It’s like pasty taxes all over again (apart from the fact that pasty tax made some sense, though it was horrifically cold-hearted and evil).  Still, we must try and make a balanced analysis.

Let’s imagine that schools are able to really reward great teachers.  How will it be decided?  There are a few ways this could go:

a)      Target-based.  For this to be fair, it would have to be based on value added.  However, there are so many variables in student performance that it seems dangerous to base any pay increases solely on this.  Why should my pay be stalled because I have a class of students whose parents aren't interested in their children?
b)      Holistic.  This would depend on SLT knowing their teachers really well.  It would depend on very rigorous CPD and would probably require more observations than are currently allowed to be truly indicative.  It would take into account extra-curricular stuff, curriculum development, assemblies and everything else that teachers get involved in.  This would benefit teachers who work hard, but would not be dependent on results.
c)       Mixture.  This seems most likely, and is probably the most realistic.  It will be a huge extra workload for SLT and could cause intra-department resentment, and even then can only work properly if the money is there.

            But even if it is decided that a teacher deserves a pay-rise, there is still the problem of how much will          be awarded.  This alone questions the idea that there will be improvement in motivation and output after the introduction of this system.

In all the whole thing seems rather slapdash and ill-thought-out.  The professed aims of inspiring good practice and motivating teachers who are stuck in a rut, along with keeping excellent teachers in the classroom don't add up.  Most teachers won't get much benefit from this scheme - the most they can hope for is to be early enough in the career to speed up the scale faster that before, getting to the cap a few years before others.   Established teachers will see little difference, and it is they who may best benefit from some extra pay rises if they are outstanding.  It is not going to make the career attractive - I agree with the unions when they argue that "predictable pay scales are one of the main attractions for new entrants to the profession" - and it has too much scope for corruption.  What do others think?

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Knowledge and/or Skills

What is more vital? Teaching of knowledge or skills?  Anyone with sense will know that they are symbiotic - they work together to improve students' ability - but too often I hear that teaching knowledge is somehow inferior, or even unnecessary, when trying to improve certain skills.  I don't want to get drawn into debating where the new curriculum is heading - I simply want to outline how the overt teaching of knowledge improves the learning and outcome of skills at KS3, 4 and 5 in English.

(I may well be preaching to the choir here, in which case I apologise.  However, the debate of knowledge vs. skills crops up so often on Twitter that I think it's worth considering.)

I am an English teacher, and as such I will focus on the value of skills and knowledge within that subject area.  There may be areas of overlap with other subjects, but not necessarily.  English is seen as a primarily skills based subject, I think, by most teachers.  The skills involved are all linguistic - reading, writing, speaking and listening.  These are skill-sets that we seek to improve between years 7-13, and all are assessed on a regular basis.  But do these skills ignore knowledge?  Should the teaching of 'knowledge' - that is the sharing of scientific, emotional and artistic facts, plus the transmission of the opinions of people throughout history and around the globe - be a part of skill-teaching in English?

I would say it is intrinsic, and that teaching skills without also teaching relevant 'knowledge' is deeply misguided, simply because it's an unnecessary self-imposed limitation that doesn't really benefit anyone.  Knowledge, as defined above, is a vital part of any informed analysis of text, or piece of writing, or conversation.  As teachers, it would be remiss of us to opt out of transmitting the ideas and facts about the world that would help inform the skills we are teaching.

Let's take the analysis of a poem as a case in point.  Imagine we are analysing Andrew Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress', and we are a Yr 10 class.  The skill we will be improving and practicing will be textual analysis.  Now, analysis of the language of the poem is fundamentally a skill utilising the literacy skills that will be long-established by the student.  They will be able to analyse the line 'this coyness lady were no crime' and argue that the use of 'crime' has certain connotations - connotations that they picked up long ago.  But this kind of rudderless analysis based on literacy that has been cemented since Primary School will not serve them well, and it is impossible to improve their skill without giving them access to some knowledge that, up to this point, they have lacked.  They will need some contextual understanding of the position of women in the 17th Century for starters.  They will also need to be taught a little about human empathy and feelings (how many times have we had to teach students that people aren't purely good/bad, but that there are shades in between?  This is not a skill - it's a fact that must be taught, either proactively by a teacher or passively through the reading of books).  They will require, in short, some teaching of facts and opinions to make their analysis full and worthwhile.

An analysis of a later part of the poem, where Marvell uses the imagery of death to frighten the woman to bed, will only yield worthwhile results if the students spend some time researching/being taught the cultural associations of death, tombs, burial and such like.  Expecting them to come up with good analysis based only on their naive, pre-conceived notions of death, established at KS1 and 2 is extreme folly, when it would take only one lesson to improve their position.  Note that I am arguing that analysis of text is possible without overt teaching of accompanying knowledge, but that I don't see the point of leaving it there, when the analysis could be enriched so easily by giving them some extra knowledge to work with.

In writing, it is fair to say that skills alone will get us a long way (once the initial 'knowledge-transmission' of basic literacy is complete).  A student can write a passable letter to the headteacher about school uniforms without knowing very much of the wider world, and they can write a film review with no knowledge at all of the film-making process.  So far, so good, if we're happy to leave it at that.  But why should we?  Why would we, as teachers, not want to enrich their writing by teaching them of relevant concepts, events, terminology, culture?  Teaching a student to write a film review without teaching them facts about film making, such as camera angles, film terminology, a little of the history of Hollywood seems shortsighted at best and negligent at worst.  Knowledge is the perfect ally to skills, and allows the skills to be used to their utmost.  A student who uses the recently-taught knowledge they've gained in their writing will elevate it massively compared to one who doesn't (or can't, because they received none).

The same goes for teaching Speaking and Listening to, of course.  But I will detain you no longer.  Skills in English are fundamental; skills informed and improved by freshly-taught, relevant knowledge are the icing on the education cake - one that every student should be allowed a slice of.

Tennyson and setting for AQA English Literature

A land where all things always seem'd the same! – A study of setting in the poetry of Tennyson.

Imagine Alice without her Wonderland.  Doesn’t really work, does it? This text is inextricably bound up with its setting:  the story’s meaning is reinforced or crystallised by geographic location, and other examples are too numerous to list.  However, even though setting is listed in AQA textbooks as a key ‘Aspect of Narrative’, it can be quite difficult to find criticism examining how authors consciously utilise it to bolster the meaning of their tales. Hopefully, more support material will emerge as the specification matures.  In the meantime, though, here are some scribblings examining two poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, taken from the AQA Anthology.  I hope that they are of some use to students and teachers alike.

‘Always Afternoon’
As an example, Alice’s Wonderland has been argued to represent or symbolise many things: the mysterious world of adult activity, or the shift from childhood innocence to teenage angst and awareness.  Any reader of the original text could see how either of these two readings could be argued (or both, in order to get that AO3 mark) and it is purely in the representation of the story’s setting, its world, that this symbolism occurs; be it the sinister and possibly even sexual imagery of painting white roses red, or the obvious ‘growing-up’ metaphor of the beautiful, yet unreachable, garden beyond the tiny locked door.  Tennyson’s worlds tell similar stories.  Like those of Carroll, they reinforce and embody the themes and preoccupations of his tales, giving them a visual representation that we, the readers, can enjoy.  ‘The Lotos Eaters and Choric Song’ was written after a trip with his friend Arthur Hallam (the one who died) to the Pyrenees in Northern Spain[1].  It is about Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, and his experiences on the shore of the Lotos Eaters. The lotos is an “enchanted stem” that has the same hazy effect as opium or heroin, causing the “pale and melancholy” inhabitants of the region to lose all sense of ambition and desire, and in doing so, as the quotation shows, their health and happiness. The land itself emphasises the focus of the narrative – the effects of absolute lethargy and despair – in a series of linguistic manoeuvrings by Tennyson.  The air is “languid”, “swoon[ing]” in the damp heat of a summer afternoon: an eternal afternoon, where the moon flies “full-faced”.  This creates a bizarre yet effective opposition: it is neither day nor night in the land of the Lotos Eaters, in just the same way as the eaters themselves are neither dead, nor alive.

This ‘living death’ is amplified by Tennyson’s clever depictions of the passing of time; a time that isn’t quite the same as ours.  It is hesitant and shy, popping in and out of existence throughout the whole poem.  A waterfall, “like a downward smoke”, seems to “pause” in its fall, implying that time is not a constant here; this reflects the uneven nature of consciousness in the land.  On the other hand time does paradoxically give the impression of moving onward.  The sailors, in their low chant, sing of an apple in “the middle of the wood” and chart its growth and eventual fall.  Whether this apple is simply a rhetorical device in their argument or an account of an actual apple in the land of the lotos is difficult to say, but nevertheless it helps give us a sense of ages of time passing as the sailors lie drugged and helpless.

‘Cool mosses deep’
It is very definitely a land of plants.  Throughout the poem Tennyson makes reference to a host of flowers and herbs, from the sleeping poppies and weeping flowers of stanza six, to the “beds of amaranth (a plant that symbolises eternity) and moly (a magic herb found in Homer’s legends)” in stanza twelve.  These plants, and their associations, certainly add further weight to the main theme of sleep and “dreamlike ease” of the poem, but could add something further.  Tennyson was writing at the time of a great acceleration of the industrialisation of Britain.  Railways were snaking over the whole of England, and the long procession of hopeful country folk to the slums of the cities was continuing as it had for the last fifty years.  Tennyson’s beautiful, endless and slothful land is one without the iron shackles of industry: it is a land where the idea of being industrious is alien and the beauty and timelessness of pure nature is allowed to survive, untouched by the “toil” of humanity.  Tennyson could have been contemplating a better world of the past, a bit like the way the Romanic poets (including Keats and Wordsworth) longed for the idyllic world of the agricultural mediaeval.  Thus, we could argue that ‘setting’ in this poem is used to highlight contextual concerns (AO4). 

However, to turn this argument on its head, Tennyson’s description of this world becomes quite sinister at times.  The “yellow lotos-dust” that blows around this “hollow” (meaningless?) land chokes and fills the landscape with its own, perfectly natural pollutant; the land, though beautiful, is ultimately a land of living-death, offering the lotos as a means of keeping humanity docile and still.  It is a vengeful, controlling world that fits fascinatingly with modern contexts and the environment, as well as issues concerning drug addiction, such as the dangerous effects of the Opium poppy, from which heroin is derived.  Tennyson was to face accusations of being addicted to this for much of his life[2].   So, like Alice’s Wonderland, Tennyson’s land of the lotos hides meanings above and beyond the need to give a story a geographical location.

‘The island of Shalott’
Let’s move away from the Lotos-land before we fall asleep, and travel to Shalott.  Rather like Tennyson’s home of the Lincolnshire Wolds, Camelot’s country is one of “long fields of barley and of rye”, filled with willows, lilies and flowers: another idyllic mediaeval world.  It is this beautiful, unspoilt world that the Lady inhabits.  But no; ‘inhabit’ is the wrong word.  The Lady of Shalott is not of this land at all.  She is somehow beyond it, enclosed by “four grey walls and four grey towers” and hidden from view.  The only hint that she exists at all, beyond our narrator’s omniscience, is the song that “echoes cheerly” through the land.  Furthermore, she is forced to view the world through “a mirror clear”; she doesn’t see reality, rather a manipulated and twisted version of it.  In fact, she is punished when she attempts to view the world and an attractive man riding through it, and then eventually dies. The feminist connotations are strong, but I’ll leave that here as you’ll discover more about that in A2 English Literature.  What is very interesting for our purposes is her seeing “the water lily bloom” just before the curse crashes down on her.  Not only are white lilies associated with death and funerals; one species of water lily is known as the Nymphaea Lotus and many other lilies have lotus-like properties.  Now, admittedly these lotus plants are real and do not share quite the same properties as Tennyson’s lotos, but the point is there: once again we see a reference to the seductive and dangerous side of nature.  Did the lotos charm the Lady to make an error just as it charmed the sailors of Odysseus? Perhaps, and as an idea it is a good candidate for some AO3 marks.

‘In the stormy east-wind straining’
Finally, remember how Alice’s Wonderland could be argued to be a symbol of loss of innocence?  Shalott could hold the same meaning.  The Lady dares to gaze down on Lancelot and the curse falls on her as the mirror cracks “from side to side”.   After the curse takes hold and the Lady is aware of her impending death, the setting also changes.  With a touch of pathetic fallacy the landscape reflects the mood change and goes from a colourful idyll to a dark and sombre land.  The “stormy east wind” blows around the “pale yellow woods”, with rainfall adding further tears to the occasion.  The destruction of her chaste innocence is a cause for mourning, as even the clouds join in the grief.  Whereas Carroll celebrated the shift into knowing adulthood with his bizarre and ultimately beneficial landscape, Tennyson seems to condemn it, using the setting as his judgement.  Hopeful and glorious summer turns to depressed and brooding autumn...all because a woman looked at a man.  This is only one reading of the situation, and as you know AO3 is all about accepting that there are different ways of looking at these issues, so you should also consider the more ‘positive’ view that the landscape is mourning the death of the Lady herself.  But then, why is she robed in that most symbolic of colours, white?  

There isn’t space here to delve any deeper into the mysteries of setting.  Perhaps the fairy-tale nature of both poems’ setting could be examined, as could the use of the townscape at the end of ‘Shalott’.  But these are for you to think about.  Setting is a fascinating focus of study in Literature; combined with a close textual analysis and a bit of contextual knowledge, some really intriguing theories can be explored.

[1] The Poetry Foundation ‘Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 - 1892), biography’ at, (accessed 18th April 2010)

[2] Platizky, R (2002) ‘"Like Dull Narcotics, Numbing Pain": Speculations on Tennyson and Opium’ in ‘Victorian Poetry’ (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press)

Saturday, 12 January 2013

My Teaching Groundrule

A week into the new term and I'm feeling more positive about the whole teaching thing.  More effort put into my planning (see an earlier post for my resolutions!), successes with my Punctuation Pets idea and rapid student progress have all made me a happy camper this week.  As such, I'm going to have a think about what my fundamental teaching groundrules are.  I've never really thought about it before, let alone codified it, so this should be an intriguing process.  By 'groundrules' I mean the central tenets that I seem to adhere to, and a reflection of all the reflection and improvements I've made in the last 5 years.  It all seems to boil down to one particular rule, so here it is: number 1 of 1:

See the classroom, and lesson, from the students' point-of-view.

I think this is a fundamental thing, and it's a rule that I live by day in, day out.  Perhaps it stems from Atticus Finch, perhaps it doesn't.  All I know is that I cannot plan, deliver or reflect on a lesson without placing myself into the shoes of a student who had to endure it.  They are our customers, in the broadest sense of the word, and their experience matters.  I am under no illusions, though.  I know that their viewpoint can be flawed, or short-sighted, and there is more to this than simply making lessons fun or silly.  No, this extends into really focusing on how they will be, are, or have been learning.  How will they react to this PowerPoint slide?  Will the colours aid their understanding? Should I explain this concept in three different ways, over the lesson, using different analogies each time for different students?  Can they understand this concept without certain key vocabulary?  Is there any way I can exemplify this skill in a way they can grasp and enjoy?  Above all, how can I make their learning easier, more enjoyable and more seamless?  These questions are always on my mind, and I am forever wondering how they are likely to react to what I'm giving them.  I think this is absolutely vital, and would recommend this simple technique to anyone.

It also leads to removing all busywork from lessons.  Occasionally I will set work like this, especially with KS3, but it always makes me feel awful afterwards, like gorging on a pizza covered in chocolate and chorizo.  We've all had days where we're ill and lack the energy to bounce around the room like a crazed educating frog; typically we react to these days by giving them work where time-consumption seems to be the main factor.  But equally, we've all felt that hollow sense of worthlessness that stems from this work.  As I can't abide this feeling, I avoid busy work like the plague, and ruthlessly over-analyse any set task in a lesson just in case it has elements of busy work within it.  This can be more a curse than a blessing at times, but it seems to work well.

Behaviour management also connects with this.  Have you ever told a student off, knowing full well you're being unreasonable and probably a bit of a prick?  I certainly have, and can't face it.  I have to know that I'm being totally fair, otherwise I find myself blustering like a moron and, viewing myself briefly from their point of view, I realise what an insufferably foolish goon I look.  Teaching two boy-only groups has taught me that being consistent, reasonable and willing to let things go is the only way to succeed with just about any child, let alone misanthropic male teens.  These days I always ask myself, am I actually correct? Have I fully explained why there is a problem? Have I made it crystal clear what the potential repercussions will be?  These self-checks tend to work pretty well, and I hope I don't come across as a frustrated, bellowing cow-person anymore.

Maybe it's an obvious thing, but I know I was never taught to look at a class from the customer's viewpoint during my PGCE.  I think it's very helpful, and reckon that it keeps me sane in an increasingly insane educational world.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

A Story...part 5

Frustration brewed in his stomach and flooded his system as he realised that his cowardice and over-active mind had ruined his chances of reaching the party.  It was a helpless frustration, and he sought for something to blame other than himself for his failure.  He swore at the river, he railed against the vagaries of the weather and the unnecessary darkness of the night sky; he stormed at the insidious stories of his youth.  The river below him insolently soaked up his insults, and continued to flow slowly.  It seeped ever closer to the party that was being held at its banks downstream, mocking the efforts of the lonely man at its side.  The sky was extremely clear now, as the last clouds vanished, and the cold that came with this was like the sudden chill of entering a long-disused room.  Cold stars were glimmering vacantly above, viewing the newly revealed scene beneath them with indifference.  Far off, deep in the flat vastness beyond the river, the jagged teeth of trees still held the darkness fast, and a lonely oak, planted by optimistic souls long ago, reached its heavy fist at the sky.  The furious man gradually shed his anger, exhausted by the evening spent in such a spot.  He thought for a time, half ashamed by his outburst, and resolved that he should continue walking.

Unfortunately, no-one is able to blithely stroll through a landscape that has already terrified them; the terrible silence and grim blackness had taken a firm hold of the man’s heart, and the two mismatched footsteps still reverberated in his ears.  Every step he took, he felt sure was being mirrored by the same mocking, unfriendly presence.  As panic germinated again in the recesses of his mind, and his heart began to pump more blood than was necessary to his face and chest, he began to imagine, for the first time, what this being was like.  He saw darting, mischievous eyes; he could see the pointed, smooth face, tapered at both top and bottom in an unnatural parody of a human’s; the flat nose and the thin mouth, laughing at his discomfort, were as real to him as the darkness that filled his senses.   His breath was catching in his throat as he continued to walk, unsteady and panicked, along the river path.  He would run, but he felt that this would be like running from a wary dog – it would encourage the being into quicker action.  So he carried on walking, never looking back, despite the pressure his neck felt to twist around and cure the intense stressed curiosity he felt.  His ears were alert to more footsteps, but heard none.  In his mind, this simply indicated that the creature had learned to synchronise its steps with his.  He continued to walk, his chest tight and strained from his rising panic.

In-school Mini-teachmeet

In the midst of the announcements and the consultations and defibrillator training in our training day on Monday, there was just under an hour of really lovely professional collaboration and sharing.  This was the Mini-Teachmeet - an idea I had mooted during an #SLTchat about a month ago, and which had received a bag-full of retweets and so forth.  I thought that using the teachmeet format within school - basically getting teachers to share practice for 5 minutes in front of everyone else - would be a really positive move, and would possibly lead the way to a full teachmeet in the near future.

Being a lowly teacher with no TLR or authority, I had to get this ok'd by the SLT, but luckily they were very happy to let it happen.  I just had to find willing teachers.  Now, we all know how hard it can be to get busy teachers to do extra stuff, and I was worried that no-one would have time to help out.  The training day was just after Christmas, and obviously only the very mad would want to spend the yuletide period preparing for a presentation in front of their peers.  I was contemplating the possibility of doing it myself, possibly in a variety of costumes.

However, I needn't have worried.  People from all departments were happy to chip in, and before I knew it the complement of 10 teachers had been filled.  This is important, as it shows that a notional barrier against doing this kind of thing (teachers hating the idea) doesn't, perhaps, exist.  We had a wide range of topics, too, from nearly every department of the school.  It was possibly a little English-heavy, but sue me.  We English-ites love to show off our poncey ideas, so that's to be expected.

The session had been placed into the 9.30-10.30 time slot - just before coffee - which would ensure maximum levels of 'awake' and 'enthusiastic'.  I have a feeling it would have fallen flat on its face if set after lunch, but a morning slot gave it a good chance of succeeding.  And succeed it did.  The 10 contributors were funny, enthusiastic, passionate and knowledgeable, sharing their ideas with clarity and a range of kinaesthetic activities.  The full running order is below, and as you'll see the variety of topics was superb.  The audience were consistently interested, and seemed to take away a host of great new ideas.  In all, it was a wonderfully positive way to start the term, and I hope that we make it a regular feature.  I would whole-heartedly recommend that other schools follow suit and organise something similar for their training days.

Topics discussed:

BTEC Coursework and use of diagrams for learning
Edmodo and its applications
Memory aids for fact-heavy subjects
PPPB Questioning
Time management
Running Dictation
Playdough usage
Tweachers and Twittering
Pass the Bomb
Wow lessons and their application.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie?

A damnable question, this.  (The) Smashing Pumpkins were one of the finest bands of the 90s.  Imagination, lyrical brilliance, musical invention and the sheer arsehole-opulence of Billy Corgan made them an enthralling listen, and their major albums, between 1991 and 2000, are all joyous members of my collection.  Most people are in agreement that 1998's Adore and 2000's Machina are inferior albums, leaving three albums in contention.

1991's Gish was their debut record, and set the standard for what was to come on their second album - 1993's Siamese Dream.  This was a colossal album - huge distorted guitar and bruising drums (Jimmy Chamberlain's biceps are bigger than his head) created a wall of sound that mingled and roared its way through lengthy, clever songs such as 'Cherub Rock', 'Geek USA' and 'Silverfuck'.  It had moments of relative peace and reflection - 'Disarm' does to the aggression of the album just what you'd expect it to - but overall the impact of the album is heavy and harsh.  Corgan's voice drills into your head, purring and yelping like a mad cat lyrics that are hard to define but somehow very beautiful to hear.  It's a bloody good album.  It's also usually the critic's choice (Metacritic awards it 96/100).  However, I'm here today to discuss the merits of its gargantuan, vastly overblown successor - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

After the success of Siamese Dream (Grammy nominations and 4,000,000 copies sold in the US) Corgan set out to create an album that would probably be their last, and one inspired by The Beatles' White Album. It was to be a double album, using much of the material garnered from the Siamese Dream sessions.  However, the eventual result sounded very different.  Mellon Collie shows a band that has carved a very different niche.  Whereas Siamese Dream could conceivably be compared to Nirvana's Nevermind or even Pearl Jam's Ten (if you squint), this is certainly not the case for its follow up.  Mellon Collie has a fuzzy, far-away quality to its production.  It sounds super-polished, but also slightly alien (undoubtedly aided by Corgan's weird voice).  It's guitars are seemingly over-dubbed hundreds of times, and everything is tuned down a half step, creating a lower, deeper quality to the guitar and bass.  The length of the album (just over two hours) means that there is plenty of variety - piano gets a good airing, as does an orchestra, synths and even the noise of a bazooka from Doom adds punch to Bodies.  Tracks such as '33' and 'In the Arms of Sleep' are incredibly poignant and moving songs led by slow acoustic guitar, piano and electronic effects.  The iconic '1979' is focused around a drum-loop and synths, all leading to one of the finest middle-8s in rock history.  But the core of the album is still heavy, with tracks like 'Where Boys Fear to Tread', 'X.Y.U' and 'Zero' some of the most brutal to date, but still built on the fuzzy, murky guitar that is the trademark of the album.

Emotionally, Mellon Collie hits hard.  Of course all albums have a different impact on different people, but there is something about the loneliness and isolation that Corgan writes about, married to the incredible sense of hope that sneaks in, both lyrically and musically, that grabs me every time I listen, even now.  'Muzzle' is the emotional high point of disc one (the pink one), where forbidden love appears to have led Corgan to ponder how 'all things surely have to end', but yet conclude with 'I am meant for this world'.  It's a wonderful counterpoint to the grim, sometimes detached lyrics of Siamese Dream and one that, thanks to my sentimentality, means that Mellon Collie will always win.

Thanks to @Lauraa_alemany for the inspiration for this post!

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Punctuation Pets - Final 10

(c) Peter Wharmby 2012-2013
Well, I've finished my paint drawings of punctuation marks as endearing little beasties.  Now to figure out if I can actually use them as part of my point-scoring punctuation work.  I'm hoping that anything that students can get behind (either whole-heartedly, like Year 7 undoubtedly will, or ironically - Year 11) will help them become more aware of punctuation.  It will hopefully help to prevent students from forgetting all about overlooked marks by giving them a little personality.

A copy for each classroom may be a good idea, but there'll be a trial first.  A poster, score sheet and habitat space on a classroom display will be the starting point, and then I will give each student a scoresheet when they are working on something where punctuation is particularly assessed.  I can then monitor improvements made and decide if this is any good!  The scoresheet is a simple affair - names and pictures of the 'Pets' (with Latin names for extra geek-mayhem) and a points value.  The trickier a mark is to use correctly, the higher the mark.  I am also hoping to get a guide written by KS3 students, including 'natural habitats', where usage rules can be spelled out clearly.  There is a lot of mileage here for creative writing and storyboards too - in fact, I feel this has the potential to expand considerably.

Like any classroom initiative, it will live or die by my own enthusiasm and consistency.  As such, I will have to get it embedded in my classroom routine, rather like bounce questioning is now.  Shouldn't be too tricky, especially if they prove a success.  I'll let you know.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

My Top 20 Albums tweets

I had lots of fun today tweeting my personal favourite 20 albums, in the manner of one of those countdown shows that are on Channel 4 a lot.  It was great to find so many people shared my musical tastes, and opened up a whole new sphere of twitter - it's not just teaching, but lots of other things too!  I've always been a bit of a muso, obsessing over bands, records and gigs, and was even in my own band at one point (go here to listen to some of our tracks:, but I've also always found it hard to find like-minded individuals.  It seems that Twitter is filled with them, and this is great news.  Talking about music is one of the real pleasures in life, and sharing your enjoyment and expertise of a certain band or performer is a vital part of being a music fan, as are the inevitable disagreements.  Is OK Computer really better than The Bends? Is early REM better than post-Green REM? Are Coldplay the spawn of the devil?  All of these are flashpoints, guaranteed to cause endless debate, but debate that is good-natured, witty and knowledgeable - the best kind.  I will be tweeting about music much more in future.

For posterity, here is my Top 20.  This is a product of my mood and feelings on 1st January 2013, and is very subject to change...

(Picking favourite albums, and especially ordering them, is a very unnatural process, but one that really gets you to appreciate the finer details of a record.  It forces you to consider sleeve, lyrics, track-order, length and atmosphere very closely, as you struggle to pit one against the other.  Thanks to this, I remembered the wonderful illustrations within the booklet of 'The Sophtware Slump' of the dirt-filled keyboards; this propelled it above 'Heroes' with ease!)

1. Murmur - REM (1983)
2. The Bends - Radiohead (1995)
3. The Soft Bulletin - The Flaming Lips (1999)
4. Trompe Le Monde - Pixies (1991)
5. Automatic for the People - REM (1992)
6. 100 Broken Windows - Idlewild (2000)
7. Up the Bracket - The Libertines (2002)
8. OK Computer - Radiohead (1997)
9. Siamese Dream - Smashing Pumpkins (1993)
10. Very - Pet Shop Boys (1993)
11. The Sophtware Slump - Grandaddy (2000)
12. Heroes - David Bowie (1977)
13. Parklife - Blur (1994)
14. In Utero - Nirvana (1993)
15. Different Class - Pulp (1995)
16. The Holy Bible - Manic Street Preachers (1994)
17. Electro-Shock Blues - Eels (1998)
18. We Shall All Be Healed - Mountain Goats (2004)
19. Songs for the Deaf - Queens of the Stone Age (2002)
20. Loss - Mull Historical Society (2001)