Father’s Day: a poem for fathers

It’s Father’s Day. I thought I’d share my favourite poem about fathers.

Unsung by Kei Miller

There should be a song for the man who does not sing

himself – who has lifted a woman from her bed to a wheelchair

each morning, and from her wheelchair to her bed each night;

a song for the man recognised by all the pharmacists, because

each day he has joined a line, inched forward with a prescription

for his ailing wife; there should be a song for this man

who has not sung himself; he is father to an unmarried son 

and will one day witness the end of his name; still he has refused

to pass down his shame to his boy. There should be a song

for the man whose life has not been the stuff of ballads

but has lived each day in incredible and untrumpeted ways.

There should be a song for my father.


I was privileged to hear Kei Miller read this, and other poems from his anthology A Light Song of Light at The Blue Coat in Liverpool.

Go and find his poems. They are worth it.

A review of the anthology is here: http://www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk/summerreads2013alightsongoflightkeimiller.aspx

Rosie McColl at #TLAB13: can pupils be more effective teachers?

One of the biggest challenges I find is making student presentations effective, so again, my choice of second #TLAB13 workshop picked itself. Rosie McColl, Deputy Head of English at Berkhamsted School, led a workshop which posed the question: can students be effective teachers?

Rosie had endeavoured to fix the age-old problem of ineffective group presentations. I thoroughly enjoyed Rosie’s workshop as it contained ‘real’ (video) examples of her action-research.

We saw examples of student vox pops on the problems of presentations:

  • they enjoy the research but don’t like the feedback if it isn’t engaging, detailed or the presenter(s) is nervous.
  • if all class are doing the same topic, fine but if not, we only really learn our own topic.
  • it’s nice to hear other voices and views though.

and the one that surprised me the most:

  • I don’t trust other pupils’ research – teachers should validate content.

This was backed up eloquently by several pupils in the audience (and whoever’s school they were from, they were a credit to you) who echoed much of what Rosie’s videoed pupils had shared.

So, what can be done to improve on this?

We’ve all come across research that says we learn best when we teach others, so equipping our pupils to do this effectively must be the holy grail.

Rosie’s approach was simple but effective.

Her year 10 boys were looking at war poetry. They needed to makes links and connections. The class was split into groups and all were given a selection of unseen texts, poetry and prose. Half the groups were tasked with presenting their findings via the traditional method of ‘telling’ the audience. The other half were told only to use questions when presenting their findings.

(Some time had been spent on effective question formulation prior to splitting into the groups, so all pupils had come up with some ‘good’ questions or question stems to aid with their discussions.)

We saw videos of the pupils feeding back. The ‘tellers’ were predictably dull with a fairly dis-engaged audience. The ‘questioners’ were much more engaging. Both audiences, classroom and conference, were paying attention, considering responses, involved.

Rosie said she was simply offering one idea of how to make pupils better teachers, she wasn’t claiming it was the best or only solution.

Sometimes though, it’s the simple ideas which are the best.

Pupils as questioners and not tellers: there’s my year 12 lessons planned for the next week or so!

(Oh and if you’re not already, then get following Rosie on Twitter: @rosiemccoll)

Dumbing Down English Literature?

There’s a report in today’s Telegraph saying that the English Literature A Level has been dumbed down.

It makes for a great headline. I can just imagine the horror over afternoon tea: “Do you know they aren’t teaching the classics anymore?” “I doubt they even know who Shakespeare is nowadays. It just isn’t good enough.”

The Ofqual report has looked at the AQA exam board and focused on their choices of text for A Level teaching. They believe that the choice of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights are not sufficiently challenging for A Level students. I’m not necessarily going to dispute that, although I actually think that Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are some of the most profound and thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long while. It’s interesting however, that as you read the article further, a spokesman from AQA confirms that neither of these novels is on the current exam specification anymore.

So is English Literature really being dumbed down?

I teach English Literature A Level. My Year 13 students this year are tackling a variety of texts including Enduring Love by Ian McEwan, Hamlet and an anthology of poetry that includes work from Petrarch to Duffy, Browning to Angelou. Their Reading for Meaning unit is called Love through the Ages and they are examined on texts from Chaucer to the modern day. Their fellow students in Year 12 are studying Victorian Literature: Hardy, Clare, Bronte, Wilde etc. In both years, pupils are encouraged to undertake wider, independent reading and indeed without showing an appreciation of a variety of texts from different genres and, for the Year 13s, from different times, they cannot hope to pass their AS or A2 examined modules.

Of course we embed an appreciation for literature from an early age. All Key Stage 3 classes study a variety of literature from different genres, cultures and periods. Our Year 7s have a weekly library lesson, in which they are encouraged to read for pleasure. Later in the year they will be introduced to Shakespeare in a module that samples extracts from a range of his plays. Our Year 8s all study a pre-twentieth century classic novel in addition to a Shakespeare play. Differing abilities are catered for in the learning activities teachers choose for their groups, but all pupils are exposed to the texts in their original forms. In addition to this, they have guided reading of modern classic novels and poetry from different cultures. Our Year 9s build on this, studying further Shakespeare plays and a range of poetry, learning to make thematic and structural links between texts they have studied. At GCSE, our pupils study both English Language and Literature.

We are passionate, as a department, in encouraging a love of literature. We wouldn’t choose to teach exam specifications that we didn’t believe promoted a rigorous understanding and appreciation of the texts we study. The skills our A Level students acquire don’t just help them go on to study Literature at university either; they are both valuable and transferable: inference, deduction, synthesis of information from a variety of sources, analysis, and a formation of personal opinions alongside an appreciation of critical readings from many different perspectives. Our students mature into informed, independent readers.

The exam board we use is the apparently maligned AQA. However despite the shock headlines, I can assure you there’s nothing dumb about our lessons!


Written for the Huffington Post UK: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/clare-sarson/dumbing-down-english-lite_b_979079.html


Summer Reflections

I’ve been told several times that your third year of teaching is when things “click” and I’m wondering if that will be true.

I know that there are several things that seem more achievable this coming year, like classroom management for example. I’ve now worked out how I want my room organised to suit my way of working and how I want the seats arranged to suit my pupils’ behaviour! I feel like my room will be my room this year.

Researching my new courses has been fun. Year 13 English Language is proving fascinating. The new GCSE spec seems interesting: next week I’m tackling the prep for the Shakespeare and linked poetry assignment.  And somehow, planning and prep seems to be getting easier… It’s a third year thing perhaps?

One thing that is definitely going to make a difference this year is my own proactivity in terms of my CPD. I’ve recently found Twitter and participate in the weekly educator’s discussion #ukedchat (Thursday 8-9pm)  I’ve attended my first TeachMeet and intend to attend more next year. The power of the PLN is huge… I am actively engaged in my own professional development and it has made me feel completely invigorated and positive. Now if I can only transfer this sense of possibility to the rest of the department then we might be getting somewhere!

My next project is Moodle… and that will need a whole new post!