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.

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”

Memory and Recall: Practical Strategies for a Linear World

Memory 1

This post is based on my talk at ‘Teaching and Learning Leeds: Encouraging the Leader Within’ on 23rd June 2018.

Memory 2

Teaching is fundamentally about making the best possible use of the human brain and helping students to use theirs to their fullest potential. Why then, is there so little focus on how the brain works in initial teacher training and in school based CPD? There are certainly some pockets of excellent practice out there,  Memory 3but the vast majority of teachers on the ground do not have a solid grounding in how we actually learn, and are therefore living in a fog of uncertainty and vague ‘I reckon this will probably work’ territory… Continue reading “Memory and Recall: Practical Strategies for a Linear World”

Vocabulary Flood

flood

Foundations

I am very blessed to work in a school where most of my students have a talent I do not possess. Over 75% of our students speak something other than English as their first language, and many of them speak three, four or even five languages fluently. There are 72 languages spoken in our school community. Walking through our corridors is a very humbling experience for someone like myself who scraped a grade C in GCSE French; our students are constantly slipping in and out of various languages, often creating their own unique patois as they attempt to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers to share ideas with their friends. Continue reading “Vocabulary Flood”

differentiation (with a small ‘d’)

This post is based on workshops I have led this summer at both the Leeds Trinity University NQT Conference, and at Teaching and Learning Leeds 2017 (hosted by The Grammar School at Leeds). If you attended either of these sessions and have questions, suggestions or comments, I would love to hear them @funkypedagogy, or write a comment below. My thanks to Anne Williams (@agwilliams9) and Charlotte Wright (@commahound) for asking me to speak at these brilliant events and providing the impetus I needed.

Slide5

differentiation: know your students and act accordingly. Anything which seeks to complicate this beautifully simple idea is missing the point. Continue reading “differentiation (with a small ‘d’)”