Monday, 24 September 2018

Best review I've ever had!

Hi Michael,
I’m a teacher of English at a secondary school in Cambridge. I just wanted to send you a word of thanks for your recently published work on reading and writing, particularly the three booklets that came out this year (Why write? Why read?, Writing for Pleasure and the one on approaches to Poetry and Stories for primary and lower secondary).

Jaded after another year of feeling that I’d done an efficient job of teaching adolescents something called ‘GCSE English’, but next to nothing about reading, speaking and writing, I spent a week over the summer reading and fileting what you’d written. What most struck me most were two things: the way you boiled reading (or hermeneutics) down to five, essential and graspable emphases (narratology, stylistics, pragmatics, intertextuality and ideology); and the basic method for getting students to engage with a text from the inside of their experience, starting with ‘Does this remind you of anything in your life?’

Your writing gave me a sense of ‘permission’ to think about reading, writing, talking and teaching in these ways again. Combining your insights with a couple of ideas of my own, I knocked up a little nine-page booklet to share within our English department, facetiously but earnestly called ‘Proper English Questions’. I did this first to clarify my thinking; second to give some pointers to new English teachers; and lastly to encourage others in our department – several of whom I knew to be bridling at a nationwide English-teaching culture which seems to be more like accountancy than it is about words and ideas.

Last week, I talked the approaches through at a CPD session with a handful of department members across Key Stages 3, 4 and 5, and with a total of around 70 years’ teaching experience. They went away and gave some of the approaches a go in their lessons – a lesson on Blake’s ‘The Tiger’ with Year 7s, a Year 11 lesson on Jane Weir’s ‘Poppies’, a Year 12 IB Language and Literature lesson on different texts in the #MeToo debate, and in my case, all my Year 11, Year 12 and Year 13 lessons.

Each teacher came back to me separately, fizzing with excitement, revivified, ‘slightly scared’ in one instance – all by the responses of their respective kids. A few comments:

· ‘Absolutely brilliant – they had full-on debates about how successful the articles were in achieving their aims.’

· ‘They were coming up with links and contrasts that I’d never have seen.’

· ‘They hated reading through it three times at first… but then they really got into it.’

· ‘It really made me hear that poem differently.’

· ‘We got some ebullience back!’

· ‘God, it made their thinking clear!’

Just by considering your wisdom and tinkering and adapting it to our own hunches and practices, we seem to have given ourselves a really good inoculation against test-itis…

It really does come down to trust, and this is a hallmark of your work with teachers and young people. Trust in the activities of reading, writing and talking, which have – who’d have guessed? – been on the go for centuries before GCSE accountability and edublogs. Trust in English teachers to pass on their skills and ideas to their students, by modelling the questions we ask ourselves instinctively (but perhaps not consciously) as practised readers. Trust, most importantly, in the young people themselves to be capable of genuine intellectual activity, at whichever age, from whatever background.

In the high-stakes testing environment, that trust can seem like a luxury. It’s not. These booklets of yours remind us that it’s the foundation of all we want to do. Teach and learn the subject well, and the qualifications will follow. Teach the qualification well but not the subject and not only will the grades suffer; more importantly, you’ll have hobbled your students’ reading, speaking and writing powers, most likely irreversibly.

All in all, then, huge thanks. These booklets are wise, humane and practical guides for teachers who want to teach English, not teach to the test.

Best wishes,

Neil, English teacher, Cambridgeshire

Friday, 21 September 2018

A and E appointments at last

As part of a new efficiency drive
the government is giving hospital A and E
a much-needed shake-up. After years
of overcrowding, the government have
what may well be a solution to the crisis:
an appointment system for Accident and
Emergency Departments. This is how it
will work: if you think you are likely to
be knocked down in the road, fall out of a 
second storey window, walk into a sharp 
object, or swallow some bleach, then simply
call your local hospital A and E department,
tell them which accident or emergency you
think you are likely to experience and they
will find you a slot for you in that day's schedule.
No more confusion or panic, no more
red lights flashing, and alarms going off. 
Instead, when you have your accident, 
simply make arrangements to get yourself
to the hospital and a team of world-class
medics will be on hand. 

Monday, 10 September 2018

Unexpectedly quit

The file you have been working on for the

last hour is going to crash. We are going to

quit. This computer is going to do that thing

where your screen is going to revert to that

naff image you’ve got on your desktop. The

file that you were working on will stop existing.

It won’t be anywhere. There is a button called

‘diagonistics’ which you can press, wait for about

three weeks and get a message which will say

that an error called something like DF110 (which

is in fact a painkiller) has just happened. This

implies it is your fault that the file has

disappeared. Usually we find that the files that

disappear are ones that punters like you have

grown overly attached to. Perhaps it was a story

or a poem or an article. You were probably

getting locked in, fully engaged with what you

were trying to say, getting that satisfaction where

the words felt right, the phrasing had a kind of

rhythm and the ideas seemed to flow from one

part of the file to another. We expect there

were one or two jokes in there that you had just

made up. OK, not exactly jokes, perhaps more

like wry comments, or that thing where you

repeat things but in different ways for effect.

The weird thing is, we could lay money on it,

you’ve probably forgotten the best bits. That’ll

be because they were so new. And extra-weird

that you had only just made them up, so surely

they were right at the front of your brain so

for goodness sake they should be still there.

But they’re not. Gone. You’ll notice that we’ve

used the word ‘unexpectedly’ before the word

‘quit’ which is not strictly true. It’s not ‘unexpected’

for us. We do it all the time. We roam

round the world unexpectedly quitting all over

the place. Wherever we see a computer that’s been

running along in a fine and dandy way, we

hurl in an ‘unexpectedly quit’. Have a nice day.

All We Like Sheep

It wasn’t that we were enthusiastically Christian.

In fact, we weren’t Christian at all but my brother

who loved singing was in a choir that was going

to sing the ‘Messiah’. Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and he

practised at home. From another part of the flat,

we would hear, ‘Every valley shall be exalted’. It

came into my head: ‘Every va-alley’. And it was

going to be exalted. And the ‘exalted’ came out as

‘exal.....ted’. But which valleys? Where were

these valleys? We went on camping

holidays and walked up valleys. We camped in

a valley in Wales. Would it be exalted? And what

is exalting? How do you exalt a valley? I was 12

and I didn’t have the answer to these questions

but because my parents started singing it round

our flat, ‘Every valley shall be exalted’ as well as

my brother, I didn’t ask. It was just an obvious thing

that you could sing about. The valleys were going to

be exalted. And there were other bits that stuck too:

‘All we like sheep who’ve gone astray-ay-ay-ay-ay....’

That was the valley in Wales again. The farmer had

hundreds of sheep and some of them went astray.

My mother thought this one was funny. I had no idea

why she thought that was funny. We might be

listening to the radio and some item on the news

would set her off singing, ‘All we like sheep have

gone astray-ay-ay-ay....’. And everyone would join in.

Me too.


It took me some time to discover that some

emails intended for me sometimes arrive

straight into a folder called ‘Deleted’. I

hadn’t deleted them. They contain

important information. Stuff that I need.

Like where I’ve got to be. And when. And

yet they’re in ‘Deleted’. Who decided that

I shouldn’t know where I should be. And

when. For some time people had been saying

to me, ‘I sent you the information the other

day.’ And I would say, ‘No, it didn’t come in.’

And we would say, ‘Hah! Email, eh?’ like

these emails had disappeared into a space

we couldn’t describe, a dimension that doesn’t

exist a square-root-of-minus-one dimenions

or, there is a vacuum cleaner in California that

hoovers up emails. ‘Hah! Cyberspace!’ we said,

like we were saying something that had any

meaning. And then, I don’t know why, one day

I peeped into this place called ‘Deleted’ (if it is

a place) and there was an email full of

information about where I was supposed

to be. It was hard not to feel for a moment that

a hidden hand had intervened in my life, saying:

‘Hey you, I don’t want you to read this!’ but then,

I thought it was kinda worse to think of it as odder

than that: machines randomly ranging across

humankind, deleting millions of messages under

the pretence of doing us a favour. Like even at

the moment of creating instant worldwide

conversations, it prevents them happening too.

And I thought how yesterday I forgot a thing that

I had only just remembered. It was as if I had

sent it from one part of my brain to the other

and then deleted it without asking for my permission.

But, hey, at least I did that. I think.

Friday, 7 September 2018

Wow! someone's leaked me this speech from the Department for Education

[smile at everyone]

Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity today

to talk to you about standards.

[pause for effect]

You will have seen in the press a good deal of alarmist headlines about so-called cuts in funding and provision. Let me leave to one side the matter of whether these really are or are not cuts.

[look up at everyone to make sure that this point is understood]

The issue for all teachers, parents and children is standards. So whether there is or is not less money in the pot, what counts is the standard of education that our children are getting.

[if necessary repeat this point with a gesture with the right hand]

And let me make it quite clear right from the start that when I say standards I don’t mean the standard of education. What I mean is the standards reached by children in the tests and exams they do right from the off and all the way through their school lives. It would be a great mistake to confuse the matter.

[prepare for a change of tone, be sneery but not too sneery]

Yes, of course, due to the last Labour government’s complete mismanagement of the economy, we’ve all had to tighten our belts and in the case of schools, it might have been that we’ve even lost the belts themselves, so there isn’t much left to tighten.

[pause for laughter].

As a result, I’m told that there are schools cutting back on school journeys, art, music, teaching assistants - even the school day itself.

[appear slightly regretful at this point]

But this has nothing to do with standards.

[right hand forceful movement]

I repeat, standards are the standards achieved in the tests and exams. So long as they stay stable or better, there is no decline in standards.

Now some might say that the tests and exams are regularised and moderated so that we have comparable outcomes. I apologise if that sounds like jargon, that may not mean a great deal to everyone listening to this.


In effect, it means that once the exam results are in, a group of highly trained

[try to sound like Michael Gove at his best here]

mathematicians look at the results overall and if there is any sense that there is slippage, they make sure that the results come out with the overall scores we want.


This way we know that standards are maintained.

So, what I say to all the prophets of doom out there is: never mind the standard, focus on the standards.

[raise the voice at the end of the sentence and pause for applause[

Yes, never mind the standard, focus on the standards.

[stay standing while people applaud.]

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