Tag Archives: Teaching English

Catching Up With Good Reads⤴

from @ Just Trying to be Better Than Yesterday

I’m getting to an age where being invited to other people’s houses fills me with terror. The small talk, the nibbles, the apologies for having to leave early after constantly and surreptitiously checking my watch every ten minutes; my ability to cope with the opinions of others is seriously receding. The concept of the book group is another level of hell. I’m unforgivably very set in my ways and my views. If I like something, I like it; I’m rarely swayed by reviews, whether from friends, strangers or newspapers. But that’s the nature of our tastes. My taste in books is better than yours; same goes with film and music.

It is in that context that I signed up for Goodreads. If you’re unaware of what it is, it’s a Social Media platform for readers, one where we can track what we read and record our progress. There is also scope for ongoing discussion with others and  it is an excellent forum for recommendations. And that’s fine if you like that sort of thing. I’ve not always been that bothered with it but signed up years ago just to see where it would take me. Like most Apps on my phone, however, I forgot all about it. Mostly.

This year has been a little different. In January, when we go through that resolution phase, I signed up to the reading challenge where you give yourself a target number of books to read in the year. I normally hate that sort of thing as it is quite okay if ‘War and Peace’ is the only book you read in a year as opposed to 18 books by Andy McNab or Jeffery Archer. However, I had spent years looking  at shelves of books I had bought and never read. Those were the books I, mostly, put on my list. If I couldn’t read them this year, I would get rid of them.

And it has been fine so far. That long line of neglected books has begun to shrink. That David Sedaris book I bought a couple of years back; finally discovering the joy of Magnus Mills; others that were ‘must-reads’ about five years ago. All moved to the ‘recently read’ shelf. ‘Goodreads’ has, bizarrely, provided a childish sense of achievement as I watch the list decrease and my ‘Reading Challenge’ overcome its targets. I’ve never given myself reading targets before. It has been okay. I do, however, miss  the rediscovered joy of reading an old book from my past; the digression from what I had planned to read to reacquaint myself with an old friend. Re-reading ‘Rabbit, Run’ was my greatest reading pleasure of the year.

The biggest problem is that when I look from my unread books to my newly purchased shelf I seem to have created a whole new, even bigger, pile. Of course I keep buying new books; of course I always will. And of course I’ll go back to reading old ones.

In his book ‘My father and Other Working Class Heroes’, Gary Imlach discusses the problems with televised football. ‘Every goal we see is remembered for us.’ Creating an online record of every book we have ever read creates a similar issue. Forgetting great books and returning to them unexpectedly can be a joyous thing; it can reintroduce you too old friends or enemies. And it reminds us of why reading consists of a lifetime of Good Reads.


What’s Up, Docs? Digital Technology in English.⤴

from @ Just Trying to be Better Than Yesterday

As  an English teacher I get no greater pleasure when I see a classroom full of children engrossed in a book. Whether that is a focused ten minutes on their own choices or hanging on every word of Macbeth, books are what got me here and books are what it should be about. So when it comes to tech, I’ve always approached with caution. With any new ‘innovation’, I always begin with two questions: will this help reduce my workload rather than increase it and will it genuinely be a better way to teach kids stuff? If the answer to either of those is ‘No’ then I’ll ignore it.

I have real concerns that some of the major international tech firms are looking on at Education in the UK and are rubbing their hands with glee. So much money; so much possibility. The blind swallowing of this thing called ‘21st Century skills’ often disguises the fact that good learning is good learning no matter the tools we have in front of us. But is it incumbent on us all to find out what might work for our classrooms and ourselves? Perhaps. Again, approaching with caution – and a firm eye on the price tag – is key.

Having said that, though, it is our professional responsibility to utilise the best strategies for our classrooms. Using effective tech is already part of what we do in Scotland. The Government issued document ‘Enhancing Learning and Teaching Through the Use of Digital Technology’   states that: Digital technology is already embedded within Scottish education. It has a place within Curriculum for Excellence, Initial Teacher Education and the Professional Standards set by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS).’ So, knowing that, I have always tried to use the best resources I could find for my classes. The danger comes, however, when we use tech just because it is there.

I have recently been dabbling with the  ‘Classroom’ suite of tools from a very big tech company. For writing in the senior school I have begun to see it as hugely impressive. Our students have to produce a Folio for Higher and National 5. Using Docs this term has allowed me to follow progress very closely, to mark and assess as they go along, and avoid the chasing up of late bits of paper. It both cuts down on my workload and helps the students to make progress. Sold. I would never use it with younger kids; they need to write accurately with pen or pencil before they should move on to more focused tools but for seniors it works really well.

As teachers we should be able to assess how tech works most effectively. Kids have loads of gadgets but are not as tech savvy as we may be lead to believe. In fact it is often  lazy assumption. They have tools with great power. Whether we can tap into that or not remains to be seen but we should find out of ourselves. Tech, if anything, should allow us to extend the classroom, providing genuine opportunities for learning. If it doesn’t do that the we should leave it alone. And get back to the books.


Re-reading and the Discovery of Old Friends⤴

from @ Just Trying to be Better Than Yesterday

We’ve been decorating this week which meant moving bookcases in and out of rooms. It has been a big job, not helped by finding myself sitting in the hall flicking wistfully through books I’d forgotten I had. A volume of Woody Allen cartoons; a signed copy of The Wasp Factory’ by Ian Banks; a book of John Updike essays on Art. There is no more blissful way to spend an afternoon, surrounded by old friends, more revealing than any photo album. The Updike book, especially, grabbed my attention because he is, perhaps, the writer who has influenced my reading history more than any other.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I went to University. My schooling and my background had convinced me that it was for others and complete terror of formal education kept me away. Throughout that time though I read and read. Updike’s Rabbit novels were an obsession. Harry Angstrom’s struggles to cope with the reality of a changing America struck a chord and stayed with me throughout Uni until eventually I wrote my dissertation about them. I still own my well-thumbed Penguin copies and they’ve sat on the shelves ever since. But here’s the thing: since graduation -1996 – I’ve never been able to pick them up again.

Like old, lost friends, I’m planning to reacquaint myself this summer. The first book sees Harry at 26, my age when I when to Uni. The last one is at 56 – not quite me yet but not far off. I wonder what I’ll find in there though: the lines I underlined, the corners I folded down.  Rereading old books is not merely a luxury, it is a necessity at times. Like old photos, we may see an additional detail in the corners, a changing perspective. And while Harry and I are old friends who lost touch, perhaps we can discover a whole new relationship.

Discovering old books unexpectedly is a joy. It’s why I’ve never been one for alphabetical order; not books, not records, not CDs. The aimless wandering allows me to stumble upon unexpected corners and spark old memories. Along with our music collections, nothing travels with us as much as books. Moving into any new home, sharing that home with a significant other for the first time. Our books take a special place. That bookmark you left sticking out of ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’; that train ticket peeking out of ‘The Third Policeman’; the post-its peppering ‘The Magus’.  They all tell our life stories for us.

So, it’s time to move the bookcases back today. It’ll likely take less time than when I moved them out. But what I will do is shelve the old friends in a much more prominent position. The newer, shinier upstarts can take a back seat for a while. Books change as we change; our knowledge, our political perspectives, our relationships. Opening up the ‘Rabbit’ novels once again is a big step for me, but one I hope will, rather than return me to a younger man I don’t know any more, allow me to rediscover the beauty and art of my book collection.


What’s Grown Ups Going to Think?⤴

from @ Just Trying to be Better Than Yesterday

There is a moment in ‘Lord of the Flies’ when Simon, the artistic, religious visionary, speaks an uncomfortable truth. ‘Maybe there is a beast…maybe it’s only us.’ The boys in the story begin to show what happens when all rules, all modes of decency, are eroded. I thought about this recently when reading some of the sneering tweets aimed at the hashtag, PedagooFriday.

I created #PedagooFriday six years ago;  blame me. I wanted to create a space where anyone could share a positive experience from their classroom and, perhaps, develop a happier tone at the end of the week. I’m very proud of what it became, even though I have no input into its running now. Of course, there will be things that are not so great, things that you might feel are nonsense. However, we should welcome new voices even if we may disagree. If not, we welcome a world of ‘Lord of the Flies’ and the atmosphere of ‘survival of the fittest’ pervades.

When the rules, or lack of them,  are established, we manoeuvre in our attempts to be one of the tribe, to impress Jack, the most powerful, strongest, angriest voice. Standing just behind his shoulder, we can throw spear-like tweets knowing that someone has our back. Who we hurt, or upset, is neither here nor there because this is a Twitter and you choose to enter the arena. There is no attempt to enter dialogue, to explain; no attempt to empathise or understand. It is acting without responsibility and, we soon discover, there are no rules.

So, many entering the fray for the first time, sharing their practice, find themselves spurned and mocked very publicly. Jack and his tribe sniff out a weakness; perhaps retweet with a mocking aside; perhaps write a hilariously scathing blog post in retort. But that’s okay, isn’t it? Because Twitter is in the public domain and if you choose to land on the island then what do you expect? Very quickly you are asked to choose one side of the island over another and you better make the right choice because after that anything goes.

Except it doesn’t. We may well choose to share ideas others may think of as silly or frivolous. It may well be the first time we’ve cleared our throats and, like Percival Wemys Madison, ‘The Vicarage, Harcourt St, Anthony, Hants’, have chosen to speak up. We are, for the most part, trying to find our voice in the scary world of Edutwitter. And who can say that at some point we haven’t tweeted something we later regretted or were embarrassed by. When I joined Twitter seven years ago, the educational landscape was a fairly empty one. Now it is a ferocious island where, it seems, it is every man for himself.

So you may think you are right in everything you say; you may even be right. But it takes bigger person to recognise the teacher behind the idea; the teacher tentatively stepping on to the beach, finding their way. It takes a bigger person to welcome all to the debate. Our humanity is based on how we treat others. Social media should be no different. If we don’t consider that, like the characters in ‘Lord of the Flies’, as soon as proper adult turns up, you just look like little boys again.


With the broken backs and the pac a macs…⤴

from @ Just Trying to be Better Than Yesterday

I teach at the school attended by Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera and the reason I make that clear from the start is that ‘We Could Send Letters’ was the song to which I first properly listened to the lyrics, a song probably written when he was there. Indeed, in many ways, the album ‘High Land Hard Rain’, followed closely by ‘Rattlesnakes’, ‘Swoon’, perhaps the first Smiths album, saw the beginning of a love affair with words. It seems strange that I reflect on the fact that my life long love of words does not originate in a lifetime of reading great books but I suspect it’s true.

Before that I’d mostly listened to my parents’ music and, believe me, I thank them for that. Endless country albums, Elvis, Buddy Holly. Latterly Simon and Garfunkel. Flicking through piles of LPs, listening to everything; in the process inadvertently developing a wide ranging knowledge of music. LPs meant you pretty much had to listen to every song. However, while we decry the lack of attention span and awareness of great music in our young people, we have collectively ruined music for them. Young people don’t listen to albums any more. They choose only their favourite songs to download. Why listen to a whole album? But we criticise them for that even though it wasn’t a teenager who invented the iPod.

And their experience of TV and cinema is similar. Download only the programmes and movies you want to see; no more sitting through boring ‘black and white’ snorefests on afternoon TV. Those advances in technology have provided such a plethora of choices that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between the good and the bad; all choices are merely choices. But we criticise young people for that even though it wasn’t a teenager who invented Netflix.

So perhaps school needs to be a place with fewer choices. Not ‘no choices’ but fewer and of greater quality. Like sending a reluctant reader to the library without your assistance or advice, kids don’t always have the knowledge or experience to make the best choices for themselves. Like my parents’ collection of LPs, perhaps we should parachute them into an environment filled with greatness; the best books, the best music, the best movies, the best art, the best everything. Maybe then, their choices will always be good ones.

Roddy Frame wrote those wonderful songs when he was teenager in East Kilbride, walking the corridors of my workplace (although that’s technically a lie as we’ve moved in to a new building but bear with me). Listening to his lyrics now merely confirms the greatness of his work. I’d like to think hearing them when I did changed me forever, along with the records I inherited. Passing on the best of the past so that our young people can appreciate their present and cope with their future should be the goal of education.

School should be a place where the only choices available are not merely good ones but great ones.

‘And now the only chance that we could take
Is the chance that someone else won’t make it all come true.’


Clever(ish) Lands⤴

from @ Just Trying to be Better Than Yesterday

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 17th March 2017)

There are some striking moments in Lucy Crehan’s ‘Cleverlands’. The author spent time in five of the world’s most successful school systems – in terms of PISA results anyway – looking for patterns and clues. It is a fascinating read and, regardless of your opinions of PISA, should appeal to those with an interest in curricular change. What struck me most, however, was that amongst those systems, there were characteristics which we in Scotland hold dear.

Indeed, there are moments which raised a smile, considering the transformation we are attempting: performance standards mainly used in the classroom, an outcomes-based approach to assessment, attempts to create an increasingly more research-aware profession. All the more frustrating that we seem to be struggling to implement our flagship Curriculum for Excellence.

The obligatory stop in Finland reminds us of the good stuff going on there but also highlights the reasons why teachers, and education in general,  are so much more respected over there. Finland is a country of only five million people: they were determined to utilise the talent of all citizens. They couldn’t afford anyone being left behind so developed an educational system to support that. Scotland should listen.

Finnish teachers have complete autonomy and decide to teach using strategies underpinned by research. The research they conduct together allows them to collaboratively reach those decisions. And here’s the thing: despite having the freedom to choose what and how they teach in their own classrooms, they all teach in very similar ways because they have come to understand the most effective ways to teach. All kids in Finland experience similar high quality classroom experiences as a result.

So, while we can never replicate the systems we most admire, there are undoubtedly models which provide us with ideas and aspirations. We are currently trying to shoehorn an exciting new curriculum into a set of structures unable or unwilling to accept it. We seem unwilling to waver from the same rigid timetabling in secondary school which allows any leeway or freedom to innovate. We seem unwilling to take research seriously.

‘Cleverlands’ reminds us that we have the ability to change education systems if we really want to. But if we are to truly implement a creative curriculum which wants us to work in cross-curricular ways then we need to change the structures to allow us to do that. Otherwise dump the idea. If we are to truly develop a research-savvy teaching profession then provide us with the time and resources to do that. Otherwise dump the idea.

Great ideas which are poorly supported create the conditions for guaranteed failure. If we don’t have time then we don’t have time to waste. Let’s stop wasting it.

 


The Higher English Folio and Equal Writes.⤴

from @ Just Trying to be Better Than Yesterday

There won’t be an English teacher in Scotland out there who isn’t currently stressing over the marking of written Folio essays for both Higher and National 5 classes. A pile which never seems to shrink; another pupil who’d like you to take another look; the demoralising realisation that deadline day is fast approaching. Indeed, over the course of my eighteen years in teaching the assessment of writing in the senior phase has changed several times, arguably not in a good way. I would argue that, at a time when equity in education is so much in focus,  the way we assess writing now has never been so unfair.office-594132__340

The new exam system is now in its third year and, while this might surprise some,  I have been mostly pleased with it. Teaching Don Paterson poetry has been a joy; spending time with Hamlet has been fantastic. The rest has been a chore. Time seems to be constrained; deep learning, at times,  rare. However, the writing folio – one creative piece and one functional piece of  a maximum of thirteen hundred words each – is externally assessed by the SQA and is worth thirty percent of the final grade. So, a good grade for Folio can take you much of the way to a pass.

The writing is assessed using a marking grid which every teacher and pupil can access during the writing process. So far, so fair. But not really. It would be difficult to argue that the external assessment is unfair; perhaps there is an argument there but that’s for another day. The real problems become clear, however, when we consider the preparation and support given. The SQA guideline suggests ‘reasonable assistance’. It also says this;

‘Assessors should not provide specific advice on how to re-phrase or improve responses, or provide model answers specific to the candidate’s task. It is not acceptable for the assessor to provide key ideas, to provide a structure or plan, to suggest specific wording or to correct errors in spelling and/or punctuation. This would go beyond reasonable assistance.’

Those who can, rush straight to their tutors for help. And yes, despite the above advice, tutors do. Parents often insist upon it. Those who can afford it get more help. those who can’t, struggle on. Different approaches are followed all over the country. It’s a system which, while appearing to be equal in terms of assessment is, in fact, anything but.

So perhaps, if we are to assess writing more fairly, it needs to return to the final exam. Why the hell not? It might re-emphasise our need to teach writing properly. Our whole curriculum was supposed to be a move away from our traditional exam system but it doesn’t appear to have worked. What was intended to be an attempt to narrow the gap appears to me to be exacerbating it. Let’s face up to that and do something about it.


What do we mean by ‘Educational Aspiration’?⤴

from @ Just Trying to be Better Than Yesterday

Here’s the full version of my article in TES Scotland 17th February 2017

Reading J. D. Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is a humbling experience. His beautiful memoir of a crushingly challenging upbringing and the aftermath of fraught family connections rang a few bells and brought me back to thinking of the lives of the children I teach. Returning to school after the Christmas break, I was reminded that there are those in my classroom who will not have had the same happy holiday as everyone else. There are those who, while being asked to raise money and bring in donations for the local Food Bank, will have had to turn that very Food Bank for Christmas dinner.

Vance’s thesis throughout the book is that poverty is generational. He grew up in communities where having a job is rare and barely surviving was normal. His parents and their parents and their parents were mired in a system which, they were convinced, was not for them; a system which lies when it says that hard work pays off in the long run; where Grandparents worked themselves to death just to keep afloat, and aspiration was survival, and avoiding homelessness and starvation. It is no wonder that the poverty gap is widening with showing no sign of reversing that trend. Throwing money and resources at the problem will fix nothing.

There is also an endemic perception that education is for others. The poor don’t go to University; you certainly don’t see many lawyers and doctors coming from poor backgrounds. There are few role models to change that, no heroes returning to transform their community. And perhaps that’s an area worthy of focus. If we are to convince those in poverty that education truly can be transformative then wouldn’t it be good if we showed them that too? Perhaps ensure they visit a University at a younger age than sixteen; match them with a mentor for a term to discuss the life of a Uni student and the possibilities which could be open to them.

To what should be our great shame, some children, having lived their lives in poverty, begin school already behind their peers in so many ways. Our system often fails to overcome those barriers and these kids leave school twelve years later still behind their peers, but with deep-rooted resentment of a system which has failed them. Oh yes, we comfort ourselves by creating qualifications for them so that we can repeat, year after year, ‘at least she’ll leave school with something’. A line which should shame us.

In his book, J.D. Vance overcame horrific odds to reach University and succeed. He realises that there were significant adults who consistently told him and reminded him that aspiration was transformational; who never lowered the bar but raised it and helped him get there. If education is to be for all, then let it be for all. For all time.


Reading for Pleasure- A Passport to Everywhere⤴

from @ Just Trying to be Better Than Yesterday

The sight of a brown box, just delivered, slammed down on the hall rug might not sound special or appealing but it was the most glorious thing that has happened in my professional life. Almost two years in production, I could now stop telling people that I had a book coming out. And, perhaps, that moment was the most nerve-wracking of all. The anticipation as I breathed in, found some scissors and began to open the box, slowly and carefully, for my first sight of ‘How to Teach – Reading for Pleasure’. My words in print. My book.

As long as I remember I’ve been in awe of books. The covers, the spines, the very feel of them; the remarkable nature of words and stories captured inside. Like many of you, no doubt, I loved having them and seeing them on my shelf. Before University, working in factories and shops, I longed to be able to afford more; to fill up my shelves with the complete works of Hemingway or Roth or Updike. It was never a status symbol; they never made me feel clever; I wanted them around me because they were aesthetically pleasing as well as filled with memories. Like a long curated record collection, nothing says more about you than your books.

So what brought me to this point? Why would I write a book about reading for pleasure? There are other books on the subject. And, as a classroom teacher, I’m not convinced that this thing called ‘pleasure’ is my main focus. I want kids to read and read well because literacy is the benchmark for their place in society. I want them to be readers because good readers succeed in life. I am convinced of that. But what I wanted to achieve in writing this book was both a tale of my reading life and a series of, hopefully, relevant strategies which would allow the children in my classes to begin to develop the habits of a reader.

imageAnd I’m really proud of it. I wanted to capture my own approach to reading, perhaps with a touch of humour and a wee bit of memoir. Either way, I think I’ve achieved that. Every strategy in the book has been successful in  my classroom at some point: no, I don’t use all of them all of the time. I use them when necessary and when I’d like to inject a little bit of enthusiasm for reading. It, for the most part, works successfully for most kids.


But holding your own book in your hands? That’s a moment which will stay with me for a long time. The new book smell, the untouched pages, the sight of my name on the front: the proud tears. In  my initial communication with Phil Beadle, who so kindly made this all possible, I said that I wanted to write something of which I was very proud. I’ve done that. Books come and go but our words, in print, last a lifetime. Almost two years after I began, I have a book out. And it’s a wonderful feeling.


An Island Life⤴

from @ Just Trying to be Better Than Yesterday

To find myself sitting on a rock, slightly precariously peering down into hefty fall, was a sobering experience for me at that point of my life. My downturned Rushdie novel dismissed in front of me – a difficult novel for such an important time – and Scott Walker soulfully accompanying me on my Walkman, it had only been a week since my departure from Aberdeen. Here, on my own idyllic Greek Island, this boy from East Kilbride had finally made it.

The sea appeared to me as blue slate. Such calm I had never seen; this was not Ayr, Prestwick, Aberdeen with their rough, choppy, threatening waters. The blue a shade of blue I had never witnessed either. A painting and a happy hopeful one at that. If I strained my eyes I could, just about, make out a distant island but this was, more or less, as isolated as I had ever been in my life.

syrosMy earlier departure from Aberdeen had hinted at something big, something breathtaking and this was it. From hapless student to Teacher of English. And, thus, my life had taken a newer course.

I had reservations about here, about Greece. Would an Island be too far away? Would it be too quiet or even too busy? Neither. Just perfect. The rock I sat on became very familiar very quickly. Even at night I sat here, in awe of the stars above me. Even at night the sky took on bluish hue which I had never seen before: a breathless blue.

I sat here and watched the ferries carrying business in and out of the island. Three times a day. And for some reason I watched with a slight regret as it left. Perhaps it was symbol of another time, another place, my only means of departure. Perhaps it reminded me of my dad, who had his lived all of his earlier adult life on boats. A navy man throughout.

And look at me now. On a Greek Island. My first professional post. My new life. My hours suited me very nicely throughout my time in Syros. Five O’clock in the evening until nine, Monday to Friday, two until six on Saturday. My classroom had two tables with three seats at each. Six seats. Six only. My room was cramped and through the back of the small school but I was, more or less, left on my own.

I had a pleasant relationship with the school owner, certainly in the first year, and he trusted me and left me alone. Occasionally, I would come into school to complete some preparation or to check for mail, which was sent here. No computers at this time you see. However, for the most part, I tried to keep away outside working hours. My walk home was the same every day. I walked up a whitewashed set of stairs, passing a small grocers at the top. When I turned around at this point, half way up a steep hill, I could see forever. Over the town square, scanning the harbourside, into the distance of blue Mediterranean Ocean. It was glorious. It felt like heaven and it went through my mind on several occasions that I would never leave here. I would though; when things went wrong.

Not far from here, my apartment sat back into a garden area. It was small, white and had shuttered windows which I loved opening in the morning. Large open windows. I would sit here, pretentiously, on a pillow with coffee and read for much of the day. The view was, again, magnificent. I had neighbours: another single man – a soldier, I believe – on the left; a family of four on the right. No-one around during the day, mind you. I read more than I ever had, throwing books over my shoulder as I went and, little did I know, I would be developing a habit which I carry with me still. Always a book in my hand, my pocket.

I had never really been abroad before, this boy from East Kilbride, and, I am embarrassed to say, that I was too shy too eat out in any of the Tavernas for about a month after I arrived. Don’t know what I expected. Too expensive perhaps, too Greek. Nothing in English. Evenings would find me walking along the sea front, pondering over Menus, little realising the delights I was missing. So I ate at home. Pasta, meat and potatoes, exactly what I had been eating at home. Eventually, sickened by my repetitive diet, I took a breath and went out for dinner. Socially, that first night was to change everything.