Friday 24 July 2009

Romeo and Juliet and the reason why

Two days ago saw the end of term (big sigh of collective relief there.)So I was sitting in the English office contemplating the summer break on the last morning of term, when one of my Year Tens came in and handed me an essay. Come on! On the last hour of the last morning of the last day? But I gave her a bright smile, thanked her and bade her a good summer. And waited until the door had closed behind her to curse.

Actually, she was only doing what I had asked. I'd handed back the class' first draft of their Romeo and Juliet essays and had suggested in passing, that they should do the rewrite over the summer break, or, if they preferred, they could do it before and I would mark it for the beginning of next term. So, swallowing my unreasonable irritation, I read the first paragraph of her essay. And almost cheered. It was riveting. Enthralled, I read on.

By the time I had finished reading the six pages of closely typed A4 sheets, I had tears in my eyes. OK, I could say it was because I was very tired, or it was an allergic reaction to the accumulation of dust on the table. But these would be lies, because the reason for my reaction was simply the fact that the essay was superb. It was the best thing that I had read for a very long time. I had brilliant students in my last lovely year eleven and I've written loads about them, but this essay was something else. My best students from last year, achieved this quality of writing and understanding towards the end of their final year. This girl, has just turned fifteen. She has another year to go of her GCSE, and she's already writing like a very good A level student.

I've had a lot of fun with this girl while teaching R and J. She adores the play and won't hear a word against it. So needless to say, suggesting that Romeo was a bit of an idiot elicited an interesting response. When I suggested that the main theme of the play was not love, if she'd had a gun she'd have shot me! However, although she (very wisely) totally disagreed with me about a lot of what I said about the play, she's very, very bright and can hold her ground in an argument, something of which I thoroughly approve. And it was this originality that came out in her essay. The question had been about the methods that Shakespeare used to manipulate his audience's emotions in Act 3 Scene 5 (the scene when all Hell breaks loose with Juliet's father.) By the time I'd finished reading her essay, not only was it very clear that she completely understood what the Bard was saying, she'd also shown total engagement with the two lovers. Her work was polished, sophisticated and mature. I could give her nothing lower than full marks.

It's been a difficult term and for various reasons mentioned elsewhere, I was really wondering why on earth I was still doing this job. Then I read this girl's essay on Romeo and Juliet, and I rememered. And I ended the term with a smile.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

The 'Alan Shore technique'

My year tens have had their final lesson of the year. It consisted of the final few speeches from the class. One of my girls stood up and despite obvious nerves (which she conquered pretty quickly) delivered a riveting speech on tolerance and the monstrous (her word not mine) behaviour of racists who gain followers by pretending to be reasonable and patriotic. Her speech was technically brilliant. Any persuasive technique you could have wanted was there. Her passion and clear understanding of both her subject matter and the what I now call (and so do the kids) the 'Alan Shore technique' was evident in every line and every movement. She was wonderful.

And I wasn't the only one who thought so. The class listened in total silence, completely enthralled by her. When I asked for comments at the end, one of the students, who had mislaid her GCSE speaking and listening criteria said it was an A*. I asked her how she could be so sure if she didn't have the criteria in front of her and she said, "Everyone listened. You could have heard a pin drop. She used all the Alan Shore techniques, but more than that, we were all completely grabbed by what she said, and if that isn't total engagement of audience, I don't know what is."

I had to agree. She was correct. Of course she was.
But the thing was, it wasn't the fact that the student's speech was clearly an A* grade, it was the fact that the other students knew it and were happy for it to be an A*.
There was no jealousy or resentment, just genuine pleasure at the quality of work produced by one of their colleagues. They were, as a whole class, delighted by the work each and every one of them had produced.

During this entire exercise, they were supportive and generous with their praise and help. Not once did I sense envy at a good speech, or malicious glee at a less successful student's work.
When I tried to explain to a colleague that the first ten minutes of all my lessons are spent creating and developing an atmosphere where students feel relaxed, cooperative and part of a team, this is exactly what I was referring to. There is a feeling of friendship in the class. A feeling of everyone being in it together. It takes a while to create this, and sometimes it doesn't work. But it was nice to see in that last lesson, that in this class, it had.

Saturday 27 June 2009

A lesson in three parts

Yesterday, my yr 10s began their oral work based on the speeches they'd been watching. This was quite a hairy exercise as it turned out that this lesson was to be observed - officially. I'd already set up the lesson, so remembering too late that this would be a performance managed lesson (observed to see if I know what I'm doing!). I just hoped that my yr 10s would do the business.
I've been told by 'people in the know' that I should be doing three-part lessons, involving some 'starter' exercise to get the kids interested, a development and then a plenary, summing up what I'd done.
Well, I begin every lesson with conversation. I talk to my classes. I show interest in what they do. I let them know that they matter. The result of this is students that know their teacher doesn't just see them as receptacles for knowledge, that the teacher sees them as people. The effect of this is students who are in the mood to be cooperative. Who are in the mood to learn. This, is my 'starter'. And it works.
So this is what I did at the beginning of yesterday's lesson. I know that they don't particularly enjoy standing up and speaking formally, so it was my place to make them feel comfortable, so they could do the best that they could. I cracked a few very bad jokes (the groan-worthy ones are always the best!) then told them about assessment. I'd decided that they would peer assess the speeches and have to justify the grade using the GCSE criteria which I gave to them. I also told them that they should always look for the positive in their peers, to focus on that and not on what might not have worked so well. This comment (a bit sneakily I suppose) was also intented for the assessor sitting in the back of the class.
They then began their speeches. They were quite wonderful. They were articulate, clever and persuasive. They used the Alan Shore techniques (see previous blog) to perfection. I was so proud of them. The colleague observing my lesson may have been there to watch me, but I wanted her to see them. To see how good they have become. They are bright students who work well. They work well because they enjoy their lessons. And they learn. Surely this is what matters and not whether or not my lessons have these arbitary 3 parts.

Monday 22 June 2009

My yr 10s are shaping up nicely. This week we are preparing for a speaking and listening exercise. They're pretty good, but their style is pretty unsophisticated (not surprising - they ARE only yr 10!) but for the A* grade, they need to be more structured in their talks.
I, like most of the world am mesmerized when Barack Obama speaks, so I decided to look at good speech writing and delivery. At some future date, I intend to get the class to analyse the techniques used in Obama's speeches (for anyone interested, the famous speech at his election is analysed in detail on but for now I found something simpler.
I found transcripts of the closing defence speech from 'A Time to Kill' (incredibly powerful speech) and one of the inimitable Alan Shore (wonderfully played by James Spader) closings from 'Boston Legal' - the one I chose to start with is a speech about condoms (yes, really!) It's a powerful speech that uses loads of persuasive techniques and is so well formulated that it makes a really good model for the kids to follow. Then this week, I used another one from a later episode that's a swingeing attack on the PATRIOT Act. It's witty and clever, and like the earlier condom speech, is great for teaching persuasive techniques.
I quite often use film or TV series to supplement my teaching and following the fallow period since Buffy left (although she still makes guest appearances every year in my Gothic lessons, or my lessons on the use and development of language...) Alan Shore has brought a lot of useful material into my classroom. So between him and Denny Crane, (the other major character in the series) Speaking andListening lessons will never be the same again!
I'm looking forward to hearing my Yr 10 speeches!

Monday 1 June 2009

Out of the mouths of babes...

A few weeks ago, I began teaching Romeo and Juliet to my Yr10s. One of my girls, L, revealed a total passion for the play, not that she really knew it, she just knew approximately what it was about. She also said how much she hated Baz Luhrman's film version with Leonardo Di Caprio, claiming it was a travesty...
Anyway, we got into the play and when we got to the bit when Romeo dumps Rosaline for Juliet, she was disgusted and expressed her dismay at her idol's feet of clay in no uncertain terms. I suggested that perhaps he was just being a 'bloke' (which needless to say deeply offended the boys in the class -but that's half the fun!) to which L said, "He's actually being a complete dick, Miss."
I suggested that her choice of language might be a bit unfortunate and that she probably shouldn't describe Romeo using quite that word...but I agreed that perhaps she had a point...
We got to half term, so for homework I asked the class to finish reading the play (they're a fast paced group so this wasn't as onerous as it might seem). Today, the first day back, L greeted me with, "What on earth was Shakespeare thinking about when he wrote that ending?"
"What?" I asked, "the way everyone dies you mean?"
"No, not that," she said, "the bit that happens afterwards, all those people standing about talking! Talk about an anti-climax! Even Baz Luhrman didn't do that!"
I had to smile. I intend to explain the ending soon (the Greek tragedy format etc) but I was delighted that she had formulated an opinion based on actually reading the play. She was actually thinking. But the thing that made me really smile was her final comment as the class filed out to their next lesson.
I asked her as she packed her stuff, "So, what do you think of Romeo now? Still a plonker?"
There was a thoughtful silence then she said, "No. Not a plonker. He's just a boy isn't he? A kid. Look at the way he behaved when he was with Friar Lawrence. Throws himself on the floor and has a hissy fit. That's the behaviour of a boy, not a man. Shakespeare's writing about children...not adults. That's why they behave the way they do. It's not a play about grown ups. It's a play about teenagers...and we all know how they behave!"
And tossing her 15year old head, she smiled at me and walked out. Leaving me grinning like a Cheshire cat.
It was a wonderful feeling, seeing these students beginning to think for themselves and I hope that my lessons encourage freedom of thought. I might not agree with everything my students say, but that's not the point. They're supposed to argue with me: it shows they're not afraid to go their own way. And that's just what they should be doing.

Saturday 30 May 2009

Music in Nature

I had an interesting experience the other day. My Yr 13s have now left as their A2 exams are looming. As they were leaving their final lesson, one of the girls, who struggles with the course, asked if she could come in and see me for a one- to- one session as she was really finding Lyrical Ballads difficult. Of course I said 'yes' and we agreed a meeting.
Anyway, a few days later, she came in and we began looking again at Wordsworth's poetry and it was clear that she was really having difficulty with grasping Wordsworth's religious beliefs. Then out of the blue she said, "I really don't agree with Wordsworth."
"What do you mean?" I asked, a bit puzzled.
"I don't agree with his views about Nature," she said.
I suggested that there was really nothing to agree or disagree with, as Wordsworth had a very specific religious belief when it came to Nature and that we just had to accept it, whether we understood it or not. Then I had a brain wave - I told her about my daily walks with my dogs at some stupid time in the morning (I start at about five!) and how I've seen some phenomenal sunrises and have just thought, 'Wow!' I asked her if she had had that experience herself, - just looked at something like that and realised that there are some things that make you realise that there are things that are beyond our material world or our comprehension. She was silent for a minute then said that she'd seen a sunrise in Iceland recently that was so brilliant that she'd photographed it and now used it as her wallpaper on her computer.
I asked her to tell me what seeing the sunrise was like and how it made her feel. She paused, clearly thought for a bit then said, "It was like music. Like seeing music."
That took my breath away so I just said, "That's it. That's Wordsworth. That's what he's talking about when he says about 'feeling a presence' that filled him 'with the joy of elevated thought.'"
There was a long pause then she said, "Yes, it is, isn't it? That's what Tintern Abbey's about isn't it? Feeling the music?"
And all I could think of saying was, "Better late than never!"
But she nodded, agreed and left with a huge grin on her face.
I don't know if that last session will make a difference to her exam performance, but I do feel that she, at that moment, had an insight into what Wordsworth himself saw and that has to be a good thing. It also reminded me at the end of a week when I was doubting my usefulness in education (a long story and one for another time) the reason I went into teaching in the first place.

Sunday 3 May 2009

High hopes

This week I discovered how good my new Yr 10s can be. After my last fast pace group, my lovely yr 11s from last year, they have big shoes to fill. But over the last week or so, I have high hopes for them.

I've been trying to get them to improve their speaking and listening skills, in particular, their persuasive techniques. They're already pretty good, but they need to understand that an emotional argument needs power behind it. And this comes from knowing exactly what you're doing.

Of late I've been introduced to a totally addictive TV programme: Boston Legal. I initially watched it out of curiosity and after only one episode, I was totally hooked. Now the reason for this is not what you might imagine - that I wanted to know what had become of William Shatner so many years after abandoning the legendary James Tiberius Kirk...I'm actually hooked on the script. It's absolutely brilliant, - articulate and witty. And the courtroom speeches are spectacularly good, particularly those articulated by the wonderful Alan Shore (played by James Spader).

Anyway, the point of this bit of information is that I decided to use one of Alan Shore's speeches to show the class how persuasive language works. I showed them an extract from a particular episode in which Shore is at his articulate best, then gave them a transcript of the speech and asked them to highlight any techniques they could spot (pattern of three, rhetoric etc). I was really surprised how many they spotted. But this was only the beginning. This was a gentle way in to another speech I wanted them to analyse, - the closing speech of the Defence in the film "A Time to Kill". It's a truly wonderful example of persuasive language and a profoundly moving speech.

I observed their faces as they watched this part of the film and was pleased to see that not only were they engrossed in the speech, but they were clearly deeply moved. And when I gave them the transcript of the speech, they were only too keen to see how it worked, the language of the speech as well as the body language of the lawyer. The ideas they came out with were really good and again I was surprised how much they spotted. They clearly found the speech very powerful and their comments were surprisingly insightful and mature.

As I mentioned before, I now have high hopes for these kids - they're showing signs of originality and imagination. This can only be good.

To use a spoon - or not!

I had a very curious and vaguely disturbing conversation with a colleague the other day. We have very different attitudes to the students: he believes that the teacher should do practically everything for the class; I don't. In fact I refuse to spoon feed my students . A class should be able to sit an exam without my holding their hands. My job as their teacher, is to make sure they have the necessary knowledge, tools and confidence to do well on their own. In fact, if they need me to do everything for them, then I haven't done my job. My friend however believes otherwise.
He feels that the teacher should be able to teach students to be A* by following the syllabus to the letter. I believe that we can't. A teacher can teach a student to be a very good A, but the student has to get the A* himself. When I said this, my friend asked what was the point of us teachers being there if we were not going to teach the A* using a step by step guide. My argument is that our purpose is to provide the knowledge for an A*, but, more importantly, to provide the environment in which an A* can develop and flourish.
The critical element in an A* piece of work is 'originality'. In fact, it says so in the exam syllabus we use. If the teacher over-teaches a piece of work, and this happens if the teacher guides repeated redrafting of coursework (by 'repeated' I mean five or six redrafts with the teacher watching every move) then the final piece will be the teacher's not the students, and it certainly won't be 'original'.
I'm teaching another fast paced group, following on from my lovely yr 11s from last year. Even though they are only yr10s, some of them are already producing A* work. I certainly haven't sat down and made them redraft work over and over again. They've done a first draft, on which I write reams of suggestions and rude comments (the occasional 'eh? what's this supposed to be?' or an 'Aaargh!' in the margins provides much hilarity) then they do a final one. If need be, I tell them that if they're unhappy with their 'final' draft, they can do another one next year, when they're in yr 11 and that I will talk them through improvements then - and not before. This should be enough. The student has to do something himself, otherwise the final piece will be mine, not theirs.
We have to trust the students. It's up to us to teach them, to guide them, then to let them go.
The word 'educate' comes from the Latin 'ex duco' which means, 'I lead out'. That is what I hope I do.
I told my yr 10s the other day that I see the A as climbing to the top of a mountain, the A*, is jumping off. They got the idea and they agreed that this is exactly what it is. The jumping off is up to them, my job is to show them the way. If we want originality in our students, if we want A level students who know how to think on their feet, then we have to let them go. We have to trust that we, as teachers have done our jobs properly, that we have given them the knowledge they require and provided them with the kind of learning environment in which they feel safe enough to think without fear of ridicule or censure. But more importantly, we have to trust them.

Changing Inspirational Teaching

After problems with spamming on the previous system, I've now moved to a 'Blogger'-based system, though still with the familiar ''  address.

Archives from previous posts are still here, across eight web pages: