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”

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…”

Words of the Week: what we do…

Reading time: 5 mins

All the resources for the year 2018-19 are here – please feel free to use/adapt these as you like: https://1drv.ms/u/s!Auj24K2Vk84jgad995C6uUNNDUnDZA?e=DSeR2J

We’ve all seen ‘Word of the Week’ used in schools. On the surface, they can seem a little superficial; how can one word per week really make a dent in the vocabulary deficit of our students? I would argue, though, that any change in attitude and practice must have a tangible, visible hook. Word of the Week may not improve literacy on its own, but it creates a simple focal point which raises awareness across the school. Development in pedagogy around vocabulary and literacy is my ultimate aim, but Word of the Week is great marketing for this T&L drive. Continue reading “Words of the Week: what we do…”