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:  i)"Why write? Why read?", ii)"Writing for Pleasure and the one on approaches to  iii) "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

If you would like copies of the booklets:

i) "Why write? Why read?"
ii) "Writing for Pleasure" 
iii) "Poetry and Stories for primary and lower secondary schools"

you can get them through my website:

Click on 'Books' in the menu and you'll find them there. )