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: