Inauguration Day Poem by Amanda Gorman

This is a transcript of Amanda Gorman’s poem which was performed at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on 20th January 2021. You can see the poem being performed here.

Buy Gorman’s first collection here.

I hope this is useful for you – the history and power of political poetry is a gift to share with our students!

As soon as the poet/administration makes the text of the poem publicly available, I will take this version down and post a link to the official one instead.

What are we reading for? A helpful list for students…

When we teach literature, what is it for? Critical reading, analysis, exploration and appreciation of the writer’s craft… In my heart I know that literature is broad and beautiful but, very often, particularly when preparing exam classes, I get too focused on the product. That is, the essay: a series of nice, tidy paragraphs which will answer a question set in timed conditions.

This obsession with the product can sometimes get in our way – we stop looking for the literary, and focus too much on finding something to fit neatly into a structured paragraph. How many times have we heard students ask, “how can I make a point about that?”

I’m not sure there is a great solution to this problem: as long as our exam system functions the way it does, we will always have students looking to boil things down to what will or will not fit into ‘a paragraph’. However, I do believe that by asking the right questions, we can turn them back to the text in a broader, more literary way. Below you will find a simple list of questions which I have collated over the years to help students to ‘interrogate’ a text. They can be used as a starting point when looking at a text for the first time, or as a prompt when trying to find further meaning as part of revision or a stretch and challenge activity. This is not an exhaustive list, and I wouldn’t suggest trying to use all of them at the same time! The key is to see this as a resource to go to when you need students to find another ‘way in’ when they are struggling to explore a text independently – I always go back to this in my classroom, particularly when students are thinking too much about the product and not enough about the text.

Narrative (how the story is being told)

  1. What is the narrative perspective?
  2. WHO is speaking/seeing/remembering?
  3. What can we deduce about the speaker (if there is one)?
  4. Can we link the speaker (if there is one) to the author?
  5. Is the narrative voice reliable?
  6. Is the narrative voice displaying any strong emotions or opinions?
  7. Is the narrative voice the same throughout the text? Does any change affect how we read events, characters or atmosphere?

Reader/Audience (both modern and contemporary with the text):

  1. Who is the intended reader/audience?
  2. How would the reader/audience feel during and after this text?
  3. Is this text supposed to entertain/shock/challenge/anger/teach/inform/intrigue the reader/audience?
  4. As a reader, how do you respond to the text?
  5. Does the reader/audience need to know any contextual information for all or parts of this text to make sense?
  6. How was this text experienced originally? e.g. published novel, serialised in a newspaper, outdoor theatre performance… Would that experience have affected the way people felt about or responded to the text?

Characters (these are literary constructs, not real people!):

  1. Are they telling the story directly (narrating)?
  2. Are they being observed by someone else? Or by an omniscient narrator?
  3. Do they create interest? Mystery? Conflict? Tension? Humour?
  4. Do they act as a contrast to other characters or devices?
  5. Are they described vividly? (appearance, sound, mood, thoughts, speech, movement etc.) Or are they someone who is more mysterious and open to broader interpretation? Is that important?
  6. How is the reader/audience supposed to feel about them?
  7. Does this person play a symbolic role in the text? (e.g. Mr Birling might be said to represent Capitalism)
  8. Are they the same throughout the text, or do they experience changes? (e.g. ageing and maturity, attitude to life, trauma)
  9. Are they a character which is based on any kind of genre archetype (e.g. Gothic convention of the pale, virginal woman)

Language:

  1. Are there any significant uses of sound? Repetition? Alliteration? Rhyme? Plosives?
  2. Are there any significant lexical features (use of words)? Does the text have a specific semantic field?
  3. Is there any technical language or language specific to a time, place, society/group or religion?
  4. Do the word choices of characters reveal anything about their history or emotions?
  5. Is there any imagery used? Does it conjure any specific mood or atmosphere? (i.e. conflict, love, violence, madness, nature)
  6. Is there any evidence of the same images being used elsewhere in the text to create a motif or recurring idea?
  7. How do images impact on the experience of the reader/audience?
  8. Has the author chosen a particularly poignant or shocking image for the reader/audience? Why?

Structure:

  1. Does the text start or end with a dramatic event/revelation/image etc?
  2. Does the text start and end in the same place/same idea/same language? (cyclical structure)
  3. Is the text told in chronological order? Or are there flashbacks? Letters? Diary entries? Recollections?
  4. Is the text told from the same perspective throughout?
  5. Does the narrative voice develop (i.e. grow up/have some form of transformation) during the text?
  6. Are there any notable character journeys or arcs?
  7. Are there any moments of high tension? (draw a tension graph for the text to see patterns)
  8. In poetry; is there a rhyme scheme which is relevant to your interpretation? Does the structure of the poem (length, stanzas etc.) have any impact on meaning?
  9. Are there any moments of shift in the text where the focus, intensity, pace etc. changes?
  10. Does the text follow a standard structure for a particular form or genre? (e.g. a ballad or a Petrarchan sonnet)

Context:

  1. When is the text set?
  2. Is there any significant event, movement, philosophy etc. which might have impacted the text?
  3. Does the text specifically refer to real events? Is it a truthful account of real events, or does it simply use real events as a background to a fictional story? What effect does this have on the reader?
  4. Who is the author? Did they have any strong beliefs or experiences which might have influenced the text?
  5. Did the author write any other texts? How do these compare to this text?
  6. Which other significant writers and texts might have influenced this text?
  7. How does this text sit among other literature of its type?
  8. Has this text influenced other writers?
  9. Does this text do anything new in its genre/era/for this writer?
  10. How was this text received when it was first published?
  11. Has there been any notable reception of the text over time?
  12. Has the text had any significant influence on wider literature, art or culture? (e.g. there is a huge body of film and stage adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, as well as representatiuons of the text in art, dance and music)
  13. Is there any language or reference to things which are not in use today? Does this change our understanding of the text?
  14. Are there any prevailing attitudes in the play which are different to modern ideas? (e.g. attitudes to homosexuality, women, marriage)

Evaluation:

  1. Are there any clear overall messages or lessons to be drawn from the text?
  2. Does the author make any explicit address to the reader/audience?
  3. Why has the author written this text? (there might be first-hand accounts)
  4. Did the author write this text as a response to an event in their own life?
  5. Is the author making a point about human nature?
  6. Has the author written anything subsequent to the text which offers us any insight? (e.g. Steinbeck’s letters)

Challenging Questions:

  1. Was the author a man or a woman? Does this alter the way we see the presentation of gender in the text?
  2. Does the author voice characters frojm outside their own social group or life experience? (e.g. do they give voice to a disabled character without being, themselves, disabled?) Does this alter how we read or question representation in the text?
  3. Do you trust the narrative voice? Are they trying to manipulate the way you see things?
  4. How close is the author to the narrative voice of the text? Can we see the voice as a true reflection of the author’s opinions?

I would love to add to this list if anyone has other suggestions! Please message me on Twitter or pop into the comments below!

Knowledge and Skill Audits: know your team

Getting started in September with Y11 is always a challenge, even if they have been your class in Y10 and they’ve had a really consistent diet. Throw in a global pandemic, months of home learning (or not-learning), uncertainty and possible trauma for some, and things become very complicated indeed.

Forgive me for using an obscure (in the UK) sports analogy, but I love American football. It is a sport which takes strategy and detail to the NEXT LEVEL. Every play is a meticulously planned attack or defence, making the most of high level analysis of player data. They plan everything to make the most of every single play. In the immortal words of Al Pacino in ‘Any Given Sunday’, the team moves forward “inch by inch, play by play.” I often play this speech to my Y11 classes at Christmas – it’s excellent (but check it first because it’s a teeny bit explicit…). I believe very strongly that we could learn a lot from a sport which analyses player strengths and weaknesses and uses that information to create the highest performing team possible. If you KNOW your ‘team’ (or Y11 class), you can make the most of every lesson…

I conduct regular student knowledge and skill audits. These can:

  • Identify what content students do or do not remember
  • Identify what level of skill they possess and what specific areas they need to improve
  • Provide a vehicle for students to reflect on their own feelings and competencies
  • Provide an opportunity for students to communicate with me about their needs in a specific and focused way
  • All of these features combined mean that I can plan far more effective sequences of learning, quizzing and homework tasks. It also gives me the chance to meet the needs of those students who are doing fine, but don’t feel like they are. Sometimes those pick-up chats don’t happen unless you ask directly how students are feeling about things.

How does this work in practice?

  1. Give students an audit to complete. Explain that this is something which is private between you and them. Also explain WHY you are doing it – it’s so that YOU can be a more effective teacher.
  2. The audit can have practically ANY design you like. It just needs to have very specific questions. e.g. don’t ask: How confident do you feel about your Literature exams? Instead, ask something more specific, e.g. On a scale of 1-10, how confident do you feel about writing about context in A Christmas Carol? (there are some examples below of what audits might look like)
  3. Once students have completed their audit, collate the information (e.g. what are the patterns? What are the things which the WHOLE class could do with work on? What are the things which just a few students need?) and use that information to adapt your long term planning. For example, if it becomes clear from the audit that nobody really remembers Ozymandias, you should probably plan half a lesson at some point to recap and then follow it up with some recall tasks in subsequent lessons.
  4. Communicate that plan with your students. This is important – telling them: “You did the audit, and I learned X, so I decided that we will do Y…” shows the students that you are listening to them AND that there is a purpose to what they are doing. Share your longer term planning with them. Pace is important in Y11, so I always share my plan with them for the rest of the half term, and show them how it is linked to what came out of the audit. This means that if students are lacking motivation at any point, we can return to that plan and remind ourselves of what we are doing and why.

How to write an audit

An audit can just be a series of questions, but I find that students complete them more accurately if the layout is organised as a grid or something. Here are some examples of audits I’ve used in the past, with an explanation of how they work…

Marginal Gains Wheels

The wheel has a different piece of knowledge or skill in each sector, and students shade in how confident they feel in each area, then annotate around the outside to explain in more detail. You can return to this later in the term and get them to repeat the activity to see if anything has changed. The first example uses the poems from the Edexcel anthology, and the second uses language paper skills…

Block Grids

Students are given a list of questions, statements or areas, and they shade in from 1-10 how confident they feel in each area. They then also comment at the end, where appropriate, to identify reasons and next steps.

This is an example for essay writing skills in A Christmas Carol – note how narrow and specific each skill point is – it breaks down lots of the elements of a successful piece of writing.

Self-Comparison Models

This is slightly more complicated. I give students a PERFECT model essay. They read it. It has questions around the outside such as: Could you select a quotation as appropriate as this from memory? or: Would you be able to write a conclusion which answers the question as well as this? or: Would you be able to develop your analysis to make three points about this image?

Students answer the questions and thus reflect in real detail on how they compare with the top grade model answer. I then get them to write a little reflective summary, along the lines of: What are your THREE key areas to work on so that you can write more like the model?

In the end

Audits work really well as a tool for supporting your planning. They shouldn’t take very long, and don’t have to be complicated, but can give you critical information which will make you more incisive and focused in the classroom. What they CAN NOT do, however, is fix everything for you. They are the first step in a pretty hard slog but, if used well, they can dictate a plan which you can return to again and again to maintain your energy: know what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.

Time for a change

n.b. In this post, I will use the terms ‘people of colour’ and ‘BAME’ to describe myself and others. These are terms which I am comfortable with, but not everybody likes them, and everyone has the right to be described in whichever way they choose. If you’re not sure: ask.

Teachers are the most resilient, creative, empowered people I know. We see a problem, and we find our own solution. We had a lack of agency and decent CPD, so a flourishing grassroots movement started around a decade ago, and everything from huge conferences to tiny teachmeets sprung up around the country. We took ownership of the problem and came together as a profession to do something brilliant. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of us.

The time has come again for us to make a collective effort for change. We are sitting inside a crucible and it us up to us to decide what we become when we finally emerge.

Under our previous grassroots CPD systems, there were marginalised groups. These fit broadly into two categories:

1. The practical/financial penalty: people who, for personal reasons, struggle to pay for and attend a weekend conference.

Consider parents of young children, particularly mothers, who have already taken a hit to their career and professional development because of the time taken out on parental leave. Disabled colleagues face greater challenges travelling and ensuring that venues are accessible for them. Colleagues who are struggling financially (or NQTs and early career teachers on lower pay) may not have the luxury of shelling out for tickets AND travel/accommodation costs. Consider also the advantage gap in the profession based on location – colleagues teaching in, say, a poor coastal community in the North East, have far fewer opportunities to attend high quality events which take place in big cities, and mostly in the South, often London. That means that they have to consider costs which are over and above those of their colleagues who teach in the capital.

In June 2019, my friend Zara and I had a night away to attend a conference in Peterborough. We were both speakers at the event. We both live in Leeds, are both comfortable financially, and both had husbands who would be at home with our kids. We met at Leeds station, posh coffees in hand, enjoyed a leisurely couple of hours on the train (#mumsontour), rocked up at our very nice AirBnB, went for a lovely breakfast in the morning (kid-free!), then spent the whole day at the conference learning, networking and enjoying time with our colleagues. We went to the pub with the delegates before jumping on the train back to Leeds. It was bliss.

Now, imagine that, instead of living in a well connected city like Leeds, we actually lived in Scarborough (beautiful, but hard to access on public transport). Imagine that one of us was a single parent of a small toddler. Imagine that the train fare, accommodation and food out (easily £200 each) was actually the same as our entire budget for miscellaneous family expenses for a month. That trip, despite its huge professional value, would likely have been deemed impossible.

The conference game, as we knew it, was one for the privileged to play.

The incredible flourishing of more accessible CPD as providers and conferences have moved online in recent months has been a revelation to many. I have been contacted by colleagues all over about my own CPD sessions this summer, “I never normally get to see people speak because I’m in the Highlands”, “…because I’m a carer for my mum,” “…because I can’t get childcare,” “…because I can’t travel,” “…because I teach abroad and there aren’t any events here.”

Moving online, recording sessions and allowing people to access them whenever and wherever suits, is a standard which we cannot now change. People have had a taste of how it can work for them, and we must all now demand that our colleagues are never left out in the cold again.

The second marginalised group poses a much more complex challenge.

2. The race penalty: people from BAME communities are underrepresented as speakers and delegates at teaching events

This is a fact. There are far fewer black and brown faces on panels, leading workshops and giving keynotes. This is a problem. Twitter has long been awash with spats about race, representation and marginalisation in the world of teacher social media and professional development. Some have been short lived, and some continue to rumble on – there is a tension in the ether. That tension is the result of a lack of education and understanding of critical race theory and the reality of racist and anti-racist policy and behaviours. I am going to attempt to explain as clearly as possible here:

“I’m not racist” – this statement implies that someone is neutral in the face of racism. Their actions are not racist, they don’t judge or discriminate. They aren’t doing anything wrong.

This is a fallacy. If an entire system is oppressing one group, our neutrality does nothing but sustain that system. If we are ‘not racist’, we are not actively doing anything to change that system, we are allowing it to exist in the hope that it might change gradually by itself…

“I’m anti-racist” – this statement means that someone actively combats systems and attitudes which oppress people because of their race. They speak out when they see and hear things which are unjust, and they take actions to dismantle systems which sustain white privilege.

The only way to work in a positive way is to be anti-racist. Being anti-racist is tiring, it requires us to be more than neutral – to go beyond what is comfortable. For me, being anti-racist means acknowledging that, though I am a person of colour, I have benefited from the privilege of being light skinned. I have to acknowledge the fact that women with darker skin than me have a far more difficult barrier to overcome in the professional sphere. I am given regular opportunities to speak at conferences, on podcasts, to write and have my voice heard. These are experiences which many of my BAME colleagues never see. Let us explore why this happens…

When we organise a conference, we tend to look around for ‘the best’ people in the field – people who have written books, or who have been seen at other conferences. We might ask people on Twitter for their recommendations (this happens a lot). When people give recommendations, the same names always crop up.

This is also played out in the usual Twitter love-ins – a new teacher joins Twitter and says “who should I follow?” and they are inundated with lists of recommended tweeters. These are great suggestions filled with excellent teachers and supportive tweeters, but these lists very rarely contain PoC, and if they do, it is even rarer to see black African or black Caribbean educators being promoted. This isn’t a conscious decision – people don’t deliberately exclude these educators. The problem is that they often don’t KNOW who they are! If you don’t SEE them, you don’t go on to promote them.

This means that the same people (me included) are being promoted again and again, to the detriment of other people who have the potential to contribute important expertise and perspectives to the debate. I’ve been doing the same for years – recommending the same people without considering how diverse these recommendations are. If I want to be anti-racist, I must actively seek out educators from underrepresented groups to include in my recommendations. I must make an effort to promote the voices and experiences of others, and if I don’t I am supporting a system which excludes people of colour and, indeed, people from other marginalised groups.

None of this is new – the profession knows it is happening, and people are actively seeking to educate themselves (like I said at the start, teachers are amazing people). The current climate is an opportunity for us to change forever the way we operate and to ensure that, in our professional spaces at least, our BAME colleagues are explicitly brought in, heard and valued.

How can we make a change? Here are some suggestions…

  • Actively seek out BAME educators to follow on Twitter (there is a list to get you started on the BAMEed website here)
  • When you are tweeting out a list of follow recommendations, ask yourself if any of those recommendations are PoC. If there are none, consider how you might be more inclusive.
  • If you are organising conferences and events, make an effort to approach BAME speakers – many people do not put themselves forward as speakers because they do not feel that some conferences are ‘for them’. An invitation would change that.
  • If you are lucky enough to be asked to speak at a conference, ask the organiser if they have made an effort to approach a diverse range of speakers. If they haven’t, make some suggestions or direct them to the BAMEed website.
  • If you feel that a conference organiser is not invested in fair representation, you could decline to participate. I know this is a difficult step, and that it is easy for me to advocate this as someone who already has a platform, but if we don’t take a stand, we sustain an unfair system. If people make it clear that equity is important to them, things will begin to change.

Our profession is incredible. Teachers see injustices and seek to right them. They seek to close gaps, to right the wrongs of an imperfect society. We hold ourselves to high standards and make difficult choices for the benefit of our charges. We must now extend that care to our colleagues. We must look after each other. Let’s not lose the lessons we have learned this these extraordinary months of turmoil.

By re-designing the way we provide CPD, networking and conferences, we can be fully inclusive and move our profession forward without leaving valued colleagues behind.

‘Hollow’ by Vanessa Kisuule

This astonishing poem was written by Vanessa Kisuule, the Bristol City Poet, in June 2020 in response to the destruction of the statue of Edward Colston, a slaver. His entire fortune was built on the systematic enslavement, murder and rape of enslaved Africans.

Kisuule has generously given her permission for anyone to use the poem in the classroom, so I’ve transcribed it to make that easier for busy teachers. I’ve taken a few liberties with formatting and punctuation, but have tried as far as possible to stick to the poet’s underscoring from the original video.

You can see the video here.

Download the transcribed poem here:

Language and Power

The brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25th May this year has sparked an outpouring of grief and anger which has reverberated around the world. Racism and the power structures which dictate our lives have always been there, but lockdown means that there is nowhere to hide – people cannot ignore what they are seeing on the news, in their communities and in their social circles, because there is nothing to distract them now. Lockdown is forcing us to sit, be quiet, reflect and feel things which were easy to put aside before now. I am seeing far more educators in my network beginning to ask questions, to talk more openly about race and to say things which, even a few months ago, would have been far more difficult to articulate. They are beginning to see the stark realities for the students they teach and they want to know how they can help when we are back in the classroom.

This post is an extract from my latest book. It is about the ingrained power struggles which exist in language and literature and how we, as English teachers, might make changes to address them.

‘I wrote my way out of hell
I wrote my way to revolution
I was louder than the crack in the bell

(…)
And when my prayers to God were met with indifference
I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance’

– ‘Hurricane’ from Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

The story of Hamilton appeals to me because it demonstrates the huge potential of the written word, whilst simultaneously highlighting the way in which the established language structures of this world create a power divide. Alexander Hamilton was born into extremely challenging circumstances on the Caribbean island of Nevis (the sister island to St Kitts where my own grandfather was born). Hamilton’s talent as a writer was recognised in his hometown and, in 1772, local merchants raised money to send him to college in New York, away from his tragic childhood and towards opportunity. He literally wrote his way out. He then went on to write his way into history as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and either designed or influenced many of that country’s political, financial and judicial systems. You need only look at some of his essays on the constitution (the Federalist Papers), or George Washington’s farewell address (written by Hamilton) to see the artistry in his words. The act of telling this story in the 21st century through the lens of what is, essentially, a hip-hop opera, with an all-black and minority cast, is a provocative statement about who owns words and who writes history.

It would be very possible to write this book without a section on power, race and disadvantage. The book could stand without it and still be useful to teachers. I could avoid the challenge of unpicking this incredibly complex but critical set of issues. I have decided that I can’t do that.

I am a woman of mixed heritage; my grandfather came here from St Kitts in the 1950s as part of the Windrush generation and he and my British nana went on to raise a family of very talented black children. They were the only black family on their estate in East Leeds. While my father is a lovely man, he and my mum separated when I was very young and most of my opinions and cultural experiences have been formed from within the bosom of a fiercely proud, ambitious black family. Navigating the world of teenage hormones and identity crises, when you are also struggling with the misplaced guilt of being light-skinned in a world where that means you can ‘pass’ for white, is hard. I watched while my mother experienced discrimination – monkey chants on the streets, bullying at work – and felt that I was somehow cheating by not having to deal with these experiences. Whilst it was infinitely more difficult for my mother facing this kind of treatment on a regular basis, it was also hard for me to feel a sense of belonging anywhere when people didn’t see me as I saw myself.

I’ve worked through this now and feel far more comfortable in my own skin – I understand my role as an ally, and I know that I have a right to belong to my Caribbean as well as my British culture. This does, however, give me a unique insight into power structures and language. I have all the privilege of a British education, including a prestigious university. During my time at Oxford, I learned quickly how to navigate spaces which were not, at first, natural to me. After three years of reading English at Merton College, I had refined my understanding of the rules, the codes, the expectations of language use in this ancient and sacred academic space – one which, I hasten to add, made me feel at home from the very start. On the other hand, I have a deep understanding of my Caribbean culture and can appreciate the feeling of being ‘other’ in traditional spaces like schools. My family still meets every single week for Sunday lunch, and we have a way of discussing the most challenging political issues of the day in a perfect cacophony of raised voices, laughter and argument. We are not quietly taking turns; we are passionately coming to a consensus in another way – in a Caribbean way. Looking round the table, I see a PhD candidate, an Alderwoman, a Trades Union speech writer. We are not uncivilised or uneducated – it just happens that our discussion structure is not what might be considered acceptable to families from other cultures or, more significantly, in a classroom. I often feel that I am standing in the middle of two different worlds, and that my mission has to be reconciling these two sides. Essentially, our ambition must be to enable all students, regardless of background, to be the best academic writers and speakers they can possibly be, but this must be tempered with a mature understanding of our own cultural bias and the way we see our students.

Who owns words? We cannot deny that the conventions and forms that we teach in our classrooms are a valuable currency in later life, but what is given status is also dictated by the dominant culture. In her groundbreaking work on culture in the classroom (‘Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom’, 2006), Lisa Delpit says:

There are codes or rules for participating in power; that is, there is a ‘culture of power’ (linguistic forms, communicative strategies, and presentation of self; that is, ways of talking, ways of writing, ways of dressing and ways of interacting.)

The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power.

Delpit is talking about US society here, but the same applies everywhere – the ‘codes’ that our students need to be taught are those that will enable them to succeed in the real world. These codes can include the structure and conventions of a formal letter, an academic essay, a developed response at a job interview, or an exchange with a stranger at a networking event. Our world is filled with conventions that are entirely the domain of a dominant culture – in the UK this is the white middle and upper classes. All the children we teach need to be able to navigate these codes, but we must acknowledge the fact that some children are already ahead of others in this area. My husband and I are raising our son – we are two educated parents with good jobs who have a very firm grasp of these codes and, critically, possess time to invest in teaching them to him. At three years old he chats to himself and explores different vocabulary to describe the jungle he is imagining in his head; it is ‘enormous’, ‘gigantic’, ‘very incredibly huge’. He is playing with the codes – he knows he is rewarded with smiles and praise every time he says something clever, and he will be one of those students who starts primary school with an impressive vocabulary and awareness of sentence structure. Not all children have the same pre-school experience. I used to teach at a 3-18 school where every year we had a number of children starting with us in reception who were non-verbal. Their parents had experienced significant challenges in their own education and were unable to use the ‘codes’ effectively.

In our schools today, we might look around and identify a whole range of students who are less au fait with the ‘codes’ than others. This isn’t about making sweeping generalisations and judgements, it’s about knowing where the challenges are likely to lie, and then making reasoned decisions about student needs based on our knowledge of individuals. These students are most likely those who exist outside of the ‘culture of power’ – the dominant social group: those for whom English is an additional language, or whose parents do not speak English; those who have limited verbal communication at home with adults from a young age; those who are living in poverty; those who have no access to books at home; those who belong to cultural and/or ethnic groups which experience oppression and discrimination. I could go on, but we know the multi-faceted nature of disadvantage and the damaging impact it has on young people and wider society as it persists.

I hear cries from some quarters in education from those who would like to do away with terms like ‘disadvantaged’ in the name of equality. People say, ‘I don’t use labels in my classroom’ or ‘I don’t see disadvantage: I see individuals’. A lot of people feel this way, it seems, but I wonder where this comes from? All teachers are privileged, even if they didn’t start out that way. We must be mindful of the level of privilege we have – our education, jobs, a degree of security, position of power – all of these things make us privileged. We are far more literate and more able to engage with the world around us than the average person. This is privilege, and it can make us feel a sense of guilt. We can often worry that, by calling someone ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘culturally poor’, we are somehow judging them, or buying into the very stereotypes that we see as keeping them down.

All of these concerns are very natural, but we must ask ourselves who we are really trying to protect. A lot of these issues; the judgement, fear of patronising, fear of being called racist or intolerant; these are all about how wefeel, how we are affected by poverty and injustice. It’s easier for us to say, ‘well, I don’t see disadvantage because I’m not judging people’, than it is for us to just deal with the fact that society is unfair, and we happen to be closer to the top of the pyramid than many of our students. The ability to ignore injustice is our privilege. Many of our students and their families can’t ignore it, because they are living it every day. The least we can do is acknowledge it – see it for what it is, call it out, and try our best to deal with it. In a perfect world, we would be able to treat everybody the same way, and there would be no need to recognise differences like this. We don’t live in that world yet. To ignore disadvantage is nonsensical: we can’t start living in a world we haven’t created yet. So, let’s call it out and recognise ‘disadvantage’ and lack of power for what it is. If we see and take ownership of our feelings of discomfort and guilt, we can use these emotions as a spur to action: let your discomfort give you your why.

So, if we are to teach children from all backgrounds to access the codes of power and ensure their success in later life, we must be willing to acknowledge the reality that, for a complex array of reasons, some children are disadvantaged; they sit outside of the ‘culture of power.’ Delpit goes on to say that:

‘If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier.’

In other words, explicitly teaching students the rules and conventions of excellent writing and speech, focusing on ambitious knowledge and the rigorous application of skill, will make them more able to engage in the culture of power. Teaching a curriculum that is ambitious and challenging is the best way to achieve social mobility and life-long success for our students.

Navigating the culture of power: the English language

We must seriously acknowledge the fact that, as English teachers, we deal in a dangerous currency with a complex past. I have already said that language can dictate how people engage with society and the extent of control they might have over their own lives. It goes far deeper than this, though. For all its beauty, the English language represents something here and elsewhere in the world that makes me feel uncomfortable.

‘Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.’ – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie is one of my favourite writers. Here, she explains perfectly the complex cultural challenges of English Language and Literature. We cannot deny that, as a direct result of aggressive expansion of empire and an ingrained sense of British superiority, our language and literature have dominated large parts of the world. Adichie recalls only ever reading white British writers when she was a child in Nigeria. These alien voices were given prominence over the development of Nigerian writers and non-white voices. This is a pattern that has been repeated in many other places worldwide. Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o says:

‘In terms of language, English is very dominant vis-Ã-vis African language. That in itself is a power relationship – between languages and communities – because the English language is a determinant of the ladder to achievement.’

I am not seeking to unpick this mess. It is what it is. On one hand, British literature is a rich, beautiful gift that has been lavished upon the world. On the other hand, it has acted as a bully which has effectively beaten out and squeezed many other viewpoints, languages, forms and traditions.

While we have already discussed Delpit’s theories about the ‘codes’ of power within the English Language, Dr Christopher Emdin writes about other cultures having different ‘codes’ – movements, words and sounds which constitute meaningful communication which is unique to particular ethnic groups around the world. (‘For White Folks who Teach in the Hood, and the rest of y’all, too’, Beacon Press, 2017) When we teach writing and speech in our classrooms, we are largely relying on Western European ideas of what sophisticated expression should look like. Dr Alfonso Del Percio, associate professor in applied linguistics at University College London puts it like this:

‘In our Western Society there is a kind of fundamental assumption that we share. A good person is somebody who is rational, who is able to hide their real emotions. So a good person is one who can display rationality. The problem with this Western view of language is that what counts as ‘rational’ is often the language of the white male elite, and what counts as ‘emotional’ language is that of the working class, of ethnic minorities, and to an extent still today, it’s the language of women. That attitude to language serves the legitimation of inequality in society – inequality between races, between genders and between classes.’ (‘Class Talk’, Radio 4, 2nd March 2020, hosted by Kerry Hudson, produced by Liza Grieg)

We have to be conscious at all times that there are other forms of communication, other ‘codes’ which exist in the world, and that to ignore these or assume that they are lesser than our traditional forms is to perpetuate the myth that the English language is somehow superior to everything else. It is not. It’s great, and it’s what we’re working with, but let’s teach students how to use it as a tool for them rather than as the font of all language. We would never argue that writing an orchestral symphony is the bestand only way to express complex emotion in music – we know that there are a variety of genres and forms that offer opportunities for creative beauty. We would never argue that sculpture is the only way to express humanity in fine art – we know that there is a plethora of other media available to artists, and that all of them have capacity for excellence. In the same vein, if we truly respect writing as a high art form, we must accept that the standard form of the English language is just one of the colours in our paint palette.

Many of us teach students who have their own cultural stories, forms of communication, systems for debate and discussion which do not necessarily correlate with what is ‘the norm’ in Britain, but which are deserving of our respect and interest. English teachers, therefore, must walk a fine line. In order to ensure the success of our students, we must teach traditional ‘Western’ forms and genre conventions really, really well, but we must also acknowledge the wider potential of the written word beyond these forms. People have done things differently (and sometimes better) elsewhere in the world, and perhaps we should seek those out.

We are also seeing interesting shifts in language and power because people are rapidly changing what ‘the norm’ is. In our constantly evolving world, our most effective modes of conversation are dependent on online platforms constantly in flux, where the traditional gatekeepers of publication no longer hold sway. A person no longer has to submit an article to an editor of a broadsheet to write about politics. It might, therefore, be sensible for us to look at the conventions of blogging and ‘threads’ on social media (or whatever other innovations have popped up since this sentence went to print!) because these are increasingly the medium of choice for those trying to express opinions, and these have potentially massive audiences.

What should teachers be doing to navigate these issues?

  • Teach the knowledge and skill students need to be ‘exam ready’ – whatever that means.
  • Teach the knowledge and skill students need to exist, write and succeed in the real world.
  • Explicitly teach the ‘codes’ which some students do not possess – teach these in an effective, direct manner.
  • Strive to be evidence-informed and think critically about what you are doing, what you are asked to do, and why.
  • Be honest with yourself about your students and your attitudes to them. You bring expertise and knowledge to the classroom which is of enormous value, but they bring their own understanding, skill and cultural heritage, too. Listen to them.
  • Be a snob about the right things: hold the great canonical writers in high regard, but be ready to welcome other writers and voices into your classroom – if they offer textual complexity, high levels of challenge and artistry, they, too, have a place on the curriculum.
  • Strive to change the narrative about what and who a ‘writer’ is, what a ‘hero’ or ‘protagonist’ is and who can have opinions about the great issues of our time. Representation is not so much about students seeing themselves represented in texts, but more about showing readers that other kinds of people can alsobe the heroes, the thinkers and the writers.
  • Acknowledge your own privilege. Allow yourself to think about it and understand that, for some of your students, the classroom is not necessarily a space where they feel a sense of belonging. The content you are teaching them might feel distant from their own experiences.

A thoughtful, reflective teacher who has high standards and ambitions for all their students can change the way such students engage with education and the world around them.

This is an extract from ‘Teach Like a Writer’ (2020). Find more information and all the resources from the book for free here.

Write like a… short story writer

This is a short extract from my new book, Teach Like A Writer. Here, Jacob Ross talks us through his classification system for types of short story. I’ve turned this system into a simple visual which I’ve used with my classes to help them to identify story features – you can download this at the bottom of this post.

The short story 

The short story is one of the oldest forms of literature (written and oral) and is common to all civilisations and cultures. It includes fairy tales and fables as well as religious texts and stories of origin. 

In recent years, I have become better known as a novelist but I’ve cut my teeth on the writing and crafting of short stories. It is still my preferred mode of writing. If we see the novel as a cocktail of themes, multiple characters and story lines, then the short story can be likened to a shot of vodka – with all the potency of one. 

It is a highly economical, single-minded little beast where every word counts. It can be cantankerous and fussy. Sometimes it is downright rebellious and will often refuse to go in the direction the writer wants to take it. It does not always end as tidily as the writer intended and can take anything between an hour and a year to complete. 

Zero Written Feedback: a trial

FACT: Many schools still have blanket marking and feedback policies which dictate frequency and form of marking, e.g. one mark every four lessons, with a comment on progress and two DIRT tasks (just an example)

OPINION: One-size-fits-all policies prevent us from doing what matters most for students in each subject. Academic subjects are distinct disciplines which need different treatment; excellent feedback in music is very different to great feedback in maths.

FACT: It can take anything from 2-4 hours to mark a full set of exercise books in English, depending on class size, level and marking policy requirements. If we take an average of 3 hours per set (6 minutes per book in a set of 30), and six classes for a full time main-scale English teacher, that’s 18 hours of marking per week. That’s before we even begin to complete data, pastoral and admin tasks, planning or subject knowledge development.

OPINION: Most written feedback has impact, but that impact is NOT commensurate with the sheer amount of time teachers invest in the act of marking. Students can make the same or better progress if teachers STOP giving written feedback and, instead, invest their time in better planning and subject knowledge development.

Continue reading “Zero Written Feedback: a trial”

Storming the Citadel: a quest for cultural capital

This blog is based on a talk I gave at ‘Teaching and Learning Leeds 2019’ hosted by the Grammar School at Leeds on Saturday 22nd June.

Why is language vital?

What is Cultural Capital?

Who decides what ‘culture’ is?

What does it mean to be ‘culturally poor’

How can we redress the balance?

Culture, cultural capital and cultural poverty are all loaded terms. They are trigger issues – the type which evoke the big, contentious issues in our society. If we are to have a hope of tackling cultural poverty in the classroom, to focus on the ‘teacher stuff’ and find solutions, we must first wade through the wider social injustices and sensitivities which are inextricably linked to ‘culture’: race, power, identity, nationalism, poverty and the lives of real people.

Continue reading “Storming the Citadel: a quest for cultural capital”

Poetry 2: Knowledge and Revision

The poetry anthology is a difficult challenge for revision because there are so many moving parts and it’s difficult to know what to prioritise. I’ve had lots of people asking for advice in the past week or so, wanting things which are going to be ‘engaging’ and ‘new’ for students. The problem with this is that planning for the sake of fun and engagement rarely produces high impact learning for students – it often means that teachers focus on novel activities, rather than on long term learning.

When I talk about revision, I don’t mean that last panicked bit at the end of the course, when the students have finally realised that an actual exam is imminent. If you get to that part of the year and find yourself encouraging massed practice (otherwise known as ‘cramming’), I fear that it might be too late!Continue reading “Poetry 2: Knowledge and Revision”