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 facing 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.

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”

Poetry 1: Key Principles

Poetry is the music of language. It is the most condensed, perfect form because the writer has compressed all meaning, emotion and expression into the most concise finished product possible. Every line, every word, every sound has some potential gold to be mined by our students. However, poetry is difficult to teach because:

  • Poems are open to a wide range of interpretations. Which interpretations are ‘right’? Which ones should we teach?
  • Poems are often ruled by very specific genre conventions. How much of this do we need to know? How much should we teach? Do students need to know about all of Romantic Poetry in order to study and understand ‘Ozymandias’?
  • Poems are often like little puzzles; writers often purposefully create them to be confusing, complex and challenging.
  • Students want to find the ‘right’ answer. There often isn’t one, and that’s hard to swallow!
  • Rhyme schemes and technical terminology are rife in poetry. How do we filter these out so that we focus on what’s important?
  • Single poems are often published as parts of wider anthologies or collections. Can we really remove them from their intended context and teach them by themselves? We wouldn’t extract a single piece of recitative from an opera and expect people to appreciate it when divorced from its natural setting, so why do we carve up anthologies like this?
  • Poems for GCSE study are thrown together into an anthology; this editorial decision in some ways dictates how we read the texts. Does this false relationship, often between poems written hundreds of years apart, without any original authorial intent, rob them of their integrity?
  • At GCSE, Teaching fifteen separate poems from fifteen different writers, with context and comparison skills, is very difficult. In some exam boards, this is only worth 12.5% of the grade. In a course of two years, 12.5% of lessons is roughly 30 hours of teaching (not including missed time for assessments, mock exams, trips, poor attendance etc.). That’s a maximum of two lessons per poem. That’s not enough.

Complaining about it is fine, but this is the job before us, and I am all about practical solutions.

Top Tips for Teaching Poetry: Continue reading “Poetry 1: Key Principles”

Quotation Revision and Confidence!

I am a big proponent of learning quotations by rote. If students can memorise albums full of song lyrics, they can learn quotations! My students have been explicitly learning quotations throughout their GCSE course, but they still suffer from a lack of confidence when it comes to feeling like they really know their texts.

I do regular retrieval activities, such as:

  • Brain Dump – write down everything you know about the text!
  • Specific Retrieval – e.g. write down everything you remember about Lady Macbeth; events, personality traits, quotations, EVERYTHING!
  • Spelling tests – spell character and author names, and key literary terms and words related to context… Continue reading “Quotation Revision and Confidence!”

Unseen Poetry Without the Stress…

Unseen poetry is stressful. We feel that it is never given enough time (because there are fifteen anthology poems to teach) and students struggle with confidence because the texts will be unfamilar to them. Coupled with this, the independent reading of poetry requires students to posess a certain degree of cultural capital; literature is filled with establised imagery and hidden meaning which the frequent readers in our classes will pick up easily, but those without that literary grounding in language and symbolism will miss, without even realising there was something there to spot in the first place.

I have started to teach unseen poetry by stripping away much of the worry and myth surrounding it. The main concern my students tend to have is: I need to be able to understand what the poem means.

Wrong. The exam question doesn’t say ‘explain what the poem means’. The questions on unseen poetry are going to ask how writers present things, and the examiner wants students to demonstrate their ability to pick out features of texts, comment on them and write some developed analysis. This is not the same as having to give a straightforward overview of a text. Continue reading “Unseen Poetry Without the Stress…”