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.
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!
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…”
This is a re-post of a blog I wrote for WomenEd in February 2019.
A couple of years ago, a male colleague introduced me to someone as a ‘ball-breaker’. He looked at me and smiled, clearly intending this as a compliment, and went on to make a joke about how even he was a little scared of me sometimes. ‘Ball-breaker’. It makes me uncomfortable. It’s a phrase which implies that the subject is aggressive, and has the power (and tendency) to emasculate men. It implies that the subject is brutal, perhaps destructive. I don’t recognise myself in any of those depictions of leadership. This phrase is also heavily gendered; you seldom hear men described in such terms.
My colleague clearly felt that he was saying something positive about me; saying I am strong and effective in the workplace. In reality, phrases like this reduce women to being defined purely by the impact they have on men. She’s not being called decisive, honest or driven; she’s being called a ‘ball-breaker’, implying that all she does is dominate men and, no matter what she achieves professionally, it is only notable through the lens of how men feel about her leadership. If she makes a decision which a male colleague would not have made, she metaphorically ‘breaks’ his ‘balls’ – he is not the one in control and he is therefore rendered useless. She has done that; the ‘ball-breaker.’
If a man had done it, everyone else’s ‘balls’ would have remained in tact but, because she is a woman in leadership, she leaves a trail of emasculated colleagues in her wake.
As the dark winter months close in around us, I am seeing a lot more in my Twitter feed about wellbeing and people who are seriously struggling with very challenging work environments.
I have been a teacher for 10 years. My first 5 years were spent working in the wrong way; I made myself incredibly ill every year, and one year I actually fainted back stage after a theatre trip through sheer exhaustion. Working every hour of the day did not make me a better teacher; it made me intolerant, frantic, and did not help my marriage. It also wasn’t really the fault of the schools I worked for – I fell for the ridiculous but attractive idea that I was fed as a trainee; to teach is to be a martyr and change lives by sacrificing your own. WARNING: This is dangerous nonsense.Continue reading “Wellbeing: the subtle art of saying “no”; saying “not yet”, and asking the right questions…”
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.
This is the mantra I share with my students at the start of every academic year, and it’s something we return to when we need a boost. I am currently teaching in the same community where I grew up. It’s taken me nearly a decade, but I’ve earned my stripes in a number of other schools and communities across West Yorkshire in order to return to my old stomping ground. I am incredibly grateful for the foundation which my childhood has given me, but as someone who grew up in a single parent family in an area which ticked all the boxes for social deprivation, someone who attended a (technically) failing school and wouldn’t have been expected to do particularly well, I want to give voice to something:
So called ‘disadvantaged’ students don’t want you to make things ‘accessible’, we want you to make aspiration possible. Don’t take it slowly, take it easy on us or limit what you teach so that we can ‘get it’. Instead, be even more demanding, even more ambitious, and help us to catch up with our more privileged counterparts.
In ten years of teaching, I am embarrassed to say, I have never managed to do homework right. It has always felt like an extra thing; to plan, to remember, to take in, to mark and to cause friction between myself and my students. Growing up, I also remember some homework tasks at school which made me anxious. My own circumstances meant that I didn’t have the resources, time or capacity to do some of the things my peers could. Homework has been something I have shunned and put to one side, doing enough to meet school policy, but without any real passion or engagement. That has changed this year.
This post is based on my talk at ‘Teaching and Learning Leeds: Encouraging the Leader Within’ on 23rd June 2018.
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, but 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”
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”