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On scaffolded descriptive writing openings

This is a great post by a colleague on Twitter: Thanks Rebecca.
I post it for my Yr 10s and 11s as they approach exams and exam prep – the ability comment is not an issue for me – this applies ot all who need to boost their creative writing marks… give it a try.

The Learning Profession

bournemouth beach

My low attaining year 10 class (average aspirational target of a grade 3) have been struggling with descriptive writing. I have provided some structure (e.g. using zoom boxes to focus in on areas of the image) and we’ve explored what makes good descriptive writing, with lots of modelling and practise, but, invariably, students in this group have found it difficult to move from writing with ‘some success’ to producing writing that is ‘consistent and clear’. In timed conditions, they have been struggling to get started and some have barely managed a couple of paragraphs in the time allowed.

I’ve been reading a lot recently about cognitive load theory and I’ve come to the conclusion that, for these students, the cognitive load in our descriptive writing lessons has been excessive and therefore their learning has suffered. They’ve been battling a plethora of demands: starting effectively; structuring sentences accurately; using paragraphs; using a range…

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Unseen Practice for A level: possible links.


This is a work in progress table to help OCR A level students prepare for the Unseen in Dystopian Literature.  The texts cited have either been used in part as unseen practice or have been read by the students.

Typicality and textual reference in unseens

Narrative voice 1st person: Handmaid, Delirium (Oliver), Divergent, Maze Runner


  3rd person: 1984, Station 11, The Road
Narrative tone Factual: We (Zamyatin), NLMG
  figurative: time  machine,
Future improved


Brave New World, we, Ender’s Game
Future degraded The Road, (anarchic, post-apocalyptic), I am legend, Station 11, Riddley Walker, The time machine, Delirium, F451
Location Earth?


Totalitarian/ police


1984, Fahrenheit 451, Handmaid, Delirium (?)

Hunger games, the dispossessed

Location elsewhere Ready Player 1,
Location town (protection) 1984, Handmaid, We, Hunger Games
Location country (to be feared or a sanctuary)  

1984, Station 11, The Road, I am legend, Logan’s Run (sanctuary)

Time of day  
Character types  
names Ofred (offered and belonging, (Regal), Winston Smith, anonymous so universal – The Road, F451 Guy Montag – new beginnings, August (Station 11) -power
jobs 1984/F451 – destruction of (written) language, mundane employment: 1984, We, Handmaid, F451(?), War of Worlds, Wyndham novels, Children of men: Lippiatt has a high status role, Station 11 – ‘the prophet’
skills In YA skills can be more evident-  Castniss
Action Passive Handmaid
Action Active Winston Smith
Past was better 1984 – Winston perceives past as better, official documents disagree. Handmaid. Delirium, Brave New World – reservations The Road, Riddley Walker, NLMG
Capitalist or Communist takeover F451, There will come soft rains, Body Snatchers – USA 1950s/60s, Animal Farm, 1984
Destroyed individuality NLMG,1984, We, Hrarison Bergeron, Cloud Atlas (Sonmi 451)
Control by state NLMG, 1984, BNW
Mankind corrupted The Road, Chaos Walking trilogy, F451, Handmaid, Time Machine, Maze Runner
Individual against corrupt society The Road- Man and child seek redemption
Class ‘warfare’ Hunger games, Time Machine, 1984, brave new world

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Class feedback: IGCSE language Paper 1

This is my powerpoint give back of class improvements for Edexcel IGCSE English Language paper 1 for my Year 11 class.

give backPaper 1

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Oral commentary: Merchant’s Tale lines 945-999

In my endeavour to focus Y12 on AO2, I recorded this today in a lesson. Please take a lesson – it was not pre-prepped and I make no apologies for the rough edges…

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Chaucer: discussion sound file. Lines 943-999. Merchant’s Tale.

A discussion of an essay submitted to consider the presentation of Januarie and May at a turning point in the poem.

The discussion is 35 minutes long and there is a slight corruption of the file at the end of the session. Plenty of interesting stuff here though.


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H is for Hawk (for Edexcel IGCSE

A powerpoint, based hugely on the Edexcel text book.  PLease feel free ot use it.

H is for Hawk

From H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
[When Macdonald’s father died suddenly of a heart attack, Macdonald was
devastated. An experienced falconer, she adopted a goshawk to distract her
from her grief. In this extract Macdonald meets her hawk for the first time.]

‘We’ll check the ring numbers against the Article 10s,’ he explained, pulling a sheaf of
yellow paper from his rucksack and unfolding two of the official forms that accompany
captive-bred rare birds throughout their lives. ‘Don’t want you going home with the
wrong bird.’
We noted the numbers. We stared down at the boxes, at their parcel-5 tape handles, their
doors of thin plywood and hinges of carefully tied string. Then he knelt on the concrete,
untied a hinge on the smaller box and squinted into its dark interior. A sudden thump of
feathered shoulders and the box shook as if someone had punched it, hard, from within.
‘She’s got her hood off,’ he said, and frowned. That light, leather hood was to keep the
hawk from fearful sights. Like us.
Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box.
Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow,
flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled
free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and
talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an
enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and
deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The
hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting
the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine1. Two
enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen
angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary2. Something bright and
distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette3 of wings, legs and lightsplashed feathers. She is wearing jesses4, and the man holds them. For one awful, long moment she is hanging head-downward, wings open, like a turkey in a butcher’s shop, only her head is turned right-way-up and she is seeing more than she has ever seen
before in her whole short life. Her world was an aviary no larger than a living room. Then it was a box. But now it is this; and she can see everything: the point-source glitter on the waves, a diving cormorant a hundred yards out; pigment flakes under wax on the
lines of parked cars; far hills and the heather on them and miles and miles of sky where
the sun spreads on dust and water and illegible things moving in it that are white scraps
of gulls. Everything startling and new-stamped on her entirely astonished brain.
Through all this the man was perfectly calm. He gathered up the hawk in one practised
movement, folding her wings, anchoring her broad feathered back against his chest,
gripping her scaled yellow legs in one hand. ‘Let’s get that hood back on,’ he said tautly.
There was concern in his face. It was born of care. This hawk had been hatched in an
incubator, had broken from a frail bluish eggshell into a humid perspex box, and for the
first few days of her life this man had fed her with scraps of meat held in a pair of
tweezers, waiting patiently for the lumpen, fluffy chick to notice the food and eat, her
new neck wobbling with the effort of keeping her head in the air. All at once I loved this
man, and fiercely. I grabbed the hood from the box and turned to the hawk. Her beak
was open, her hackles raised; her wild eyes were the colour of sun on white paper, and
they stared because the whole world had fallen into them at once. One, two, three. I
tucked the hood over her head. There was a brief intimation of a thin, angular skull
under her feathers, of an alien brain fizzing and fusing with terror, then I drew the
braces closed. We checked the ring numbers 45 against the form.
It was the wrong bird. This was the younger one. The smaller one. This was not my
So we put her back and opened the other box, which was meant to hold the larger, older
bird. And dear God, it did. Everything about this second hawk was different. She came
out like a Victorian melodrama: a sort of madwoman in the attack. She was smokier and
darker and much, much bigger, and instead of twittering, she wailed; great, awful gouts
of sound like a thing in pain, and the sound was unbearable. This is my hawk, I was
telling myself and it was all I could do to breathe. She too was bareheaded, and I
grabbed the hood from the box as before. But as I brought it up to her face I looked into
her eyes and saw something blank and crazy in her stare. Some madness from a distant
country. I didn’t recognise her. This isn’t my hawk. The hood was on, the ring numbers
checked, the bird back in the box, the yellow form folded, the money exchanged, and all
I could think was, But this isn’t my hawk. Slow panic. I knew what I had to say, and it
was a monstrous breach of etiquette. ‘This is really awkward,’ I began. ‘But I really liked
the first one. Do you think there’s any chance I could take that one instead . . .?’ I tailed
off. His eyebrows were raised. I started again, saying stupider things: ‘I’m sure the other
falconer would like the larger bird? She’s more beautiful than the first one, isn’t she? I
know this is out of order, but I … Could I? Would it be all right, do you think?’ And on
and on, a desperate, crazy barrage of incoherent appeals.
I’m sure nothing I said persuaded him more than the look on my face as I said it. A tall,
white-faced woman with wind-wrecked hair and exhausted eyes was pleading with him
on a quayside, hands held out as if she were in a seaside production of Medea. Looking
at me he must have sensed that my stuttered request wasn’t a simple one. That there
was something behind it that was very important. There was a moment of total silence.

1 porpentine: a type of porcupine animal
2 bestiary: a (medieval) descriptive passage on various kinds of animals
3 marionette: a puppet worked by strings
4 jesses: a short leather strap fastened to the leg

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Merchant’s Tale draft essays for comment

The task: Explore the presentation of the character of May in lines 734-774.  Be sure to comment on the typicality of Chaucer’s writing in the extract.

This is an extract from a student essay: I’d love some feedback and suggested marking comment.

This passage comes after it is revealed that Damyan is lusts after May and is one of the first times in which the character of May is properly developed by Chaucer and used as a bathetic, ironic tool within the fabliau and satirizing the common tales of courtly love.

The passage begins with the description of how Januries ‘taketh hire and kisseth ful ofte’. The use of ‘taketh’ is akin to how one may handle a possession and perhaps indicates to the reader that the displays of affection which Januarie show’s by ‘kisseth ful ofte’ is not requited and instead the quote portrays May as an unwilling submissive partner in the relationship reminiscent of the scene earlier in the tale in which she is described as ‘still as stoon’ during the consummation of their marriage and the fact that the garden which acts as an extension of the bedroom for Januarie is described as ‘walled with stoon’ demonstrates that May to an extent, is portrayed as a prisoner within the relationship and this image is recurrent in this passage with the possessive verb of ‘taketh’ which shows that May is handled as a possession. The submissive nature of May within the relationship is further explored within the passage through the use of ‘How that he wroghte, I dar not to yow telle , or whether hire thought it paradys or helle’ in reference to Januare’s love-making.  The ‘how’ is stressed with the trochaic substitution and the sentence encourages the audience’s imagination to run wild whilst implicitly stating that the act which Januarie performed can be likened to rape. Furthermore the reference to May’s ‘paradys or helle’ forms a parallel phrase with the earlier statement in the passage in which Januarie describes how her clothes ‘dide hym  encombraunce’ and how she obeyed with ‘be hire lief or looth’. As both of her thoughts are likely to be the latter in the parallel phrases, Chaucer emphasizes to the reader that May as a character is dominated by Januarie and his demonstrations of affection are not requited by May showing how she is perhaps unwillingly dominated.

Furthermore, the ironic nature of May’s character is explored in this passage as the satirical nature of the tale begins to unravel. The ironic nature of her character is illustrated by the epithet ‘faire fresshe May’ with the alliterative epithet presenting May as wonderful and ‘faire’ however this is ironically undercut by the fact that she later plans to cuckhold Januarie in the passage by having an affair with Damyan. Thus the epithet can be seen not only to be seen as the ironic undercut provided by the Merchant who is aware of what she shall do next but also representing her deception as Januarie certainly holds the opinion that she is ‘faire’ and ‘fresshe’ but perhaps in actual fact she is rotten. The ironic undercut is prevalent later in the passage as Chaucer describes how ‘pitee renneth soone in gentil herte!’ when she reads Damyan’s letter. This is ironic as ‘gentil’ refers to the virtuous actions of a noble woman commonly seen in courtly love however in the particular setting May is anything but noble as bathetically the letter is read and discarded whilst upon the toilet and her supposedly ‘gentil’ heart looks onto Damayan’s ‘lust suffise’. Irony is seen throughout the Merchant’s tale demonstrated by the prologue in which the merchant references women from the Bible in what appears to be a glowing appraisal of women however this is ironically undercut by the infamous actions these women such as ‘Eve’ and ‘Rebekka’ performed – often acts of deceit. In this passage we see May being showered with positives epithets and the praise of having a ‘gentil’ heart however this is undercut by the fact that her ‘gentil heart’ seeks lust and not the typical romantic love shown in a traditional courtly love tale. Whilst on the surface May is presented as ‘faire fresshe’ and having a ‘gentil’ heart in this passage, this passage is perhaps notable for the development of the ironic and satirical purpose of her character.

I like it a lot – plenty of AO2 emerging and a clear understanding of how iambic pentameter works in the trochaic substitution comment. Is there enough explicit ‘typicality’ here?

What of this one?


   Towards the end of the fabliau, the titular characters of Januarie and May can be seen to develop and change. It is the setting that aids their ever-changing representation, as well as events that have taken place before they enter the “gardyn.” The garden is successful in satirizing that of the Garden of Eden ironically, [considering the acts of debauchery and adultery that occur within it ironic? It is a satire, so I would expect something of this kind. ] Despite the negative connotations of the irony of the garden, Januarie appears to show, maturity, pragmatism and affection towards May, and in contrast she betrays him with the “lechour in the tree,” Damyan. 

   At this point Januarie is as “blynd as a stoon,” and walks into the garden with May in “hand.” It can be argued that Januarie has been ‘metaphorically’blind throughout the whole poem, as he has not recognised the deceptive nature of May and Damyan. Januarie and May enter into, what is called, the “fresshe gardyn.” Considering “fresshe” is frequently tied to the character of May, the irony that Chaucer wishes to create is apparent, as only filthy acts of sexual corruption occur in the garden, at the hand of Januarie or Damyan, or later at the command of May. The idea also makes May assume the role of Eve, and insinuates that she could become impregnated in the garden, but is unclear who. This represents May as an important character, as she is the one who could continue Januarie’s line as he wishes her to, but due to the debauched nature of the garden, it is unclear how this will be achieved.

    While Januarie displays a genuine affection for May in this passage, she can be viewed in the opposite, and therefore negative, light. Januarie initially wanted to marry to ensure that his acts of debauchery were not judged negatively, as they would have been permitted within the “bond” of marriage. However, by declaring that May is the “creature that I best love,” Januarie appears to have cast his old desires aside, and appreciates May’s presence as well as her beauty. Januarie would rather “dyen on a knyf” than “offende” his “deere wife.” The rhyme and iambic stress of the couplet emphasises his strong feelings for May, and makes it clear that he does have genuine affection for her, and doesn’t just view her as a sexual plaything. However, sexual undertones can still be detected with the use of “dyen,” which could be a reference to the orgasm, as well as “knyf,” which on their wedding night was used to label Januarie’s genitalia. This could be perfectly innocent and accidental, but does make the reader consider whether Januarie could ever fully purge his desires. This quote is also relevant to May, as it is she who will wield the ‘knife’ as she is about to stab Januarie in the back, as she is soon to betray him with Damyan up the pear tree. Their roles have appeared to change since their marriage, as it is now May who has the power to inflict such pain on Januarie. She does not escape the label of the adulteress because of this, unlike Januarie who can be seen to change and show his wife genuine affection. [Well written, though I would like you to be clearer about the atypical presentation of Januarie here.]

    Januarie can also be seen to be thinking about the future of himself and his family. Januarie is seen to trust May so much that he “chartres a yow leste.” He makes her heir to his estate and promises that this will be complete “sonne reste.” The rhyme and iambic stress of the couplet emphasises the significance and the importance of this action. He asks that she kisses him to seal the “covenant,” and this also can be seen as a small act of affection. Although this seems to be a normal act between a husband and wife, as they share everything, Januarie could be seen to be attempting to buy the loyalty of May with his belongings and wealth. This could be one of the reasons she agreed to marry Januarie, and if Chaucer considered this idea, it inspires pity from the audience for Januarie, as he appears to be so desperate for companionship. He can be seen to be thinking of the future of his belongings and heritage here, as he has assigned them to May. This is just as Justinus warned. At the beginning of the fabliau Januarie noted that a positive feature of marriage is that it could result in an heir for himself, and when listing the reasons why May should be “trewe,” he mentions “myn heritage.” Januarie is also thinking about the future of his family line, and is hoping for a legitimate heir. He acknowledges that if May were unfaithful he would be raising an illegitimate child. [ I’d like to see a little more context emerging.  The AO2 is excellent and well considered…]

    Januarie is also represented as a mature and repentant character. He apologises to May if he seems “jalous,” and encourages her to take no notice of it. Januarie appears to realise that he does not want to lose May, as he is increasingly old and lonely. He later frankly tells her that her “beautee” is unparalleled to the “unlikely elde of me.” The contrast of “beautee” and “me” emphasises the difference in age and appearance of Januarie and May, and insinuates that Januarie does realise that he was wrong in marrying her. The rhyme and emphasis on “beautee” reminds the reader of what attracted May to Januarie, but it is now used in a different context, and not one that is concerned with sexual attraction but more her “compaignye.” This further emphasies the fact that Januarie doesn’t want to lose May, and that perhaps going blind has made him realise this even more, as without her he will have absolutely nothing. He appears to mature, which encourages sympathy for him from the audience, as just when he appears to be genuine, May proceeds to be more deceptive than ever.[ Contextual humour found in old/young marriage plots from drama back to 4C,BC]

 While May is represented as a slowly maturing character, May is represented as the stereotypical conniving adulteress, perhaps because it was Eve who sinned and ate the forbidden fruit first. The Merchant was correct in saying that marriage causes “wepying,” in the prologue, but May’s “wepe” is seen in a much more deceptive light. She is aware that Damyan is present, and further wishes to deceive Januarie. The use of “benyngely” also hints at her deception, as the word is commonly used when she is thinking about Damyan. She notes that her “wyfhod” is like a “tender flour.” This is ironic, as flowers can be cut and destroyed, much like her “honour” and virtue. In a hyperbolic fashion, she claims that if she does “lak” virtue, Januarie should “strepe me and put me in a sak.” This rhyme emphasises her dishonour and lies, and insinuates that she should be thrown into a sack, as she does lack honour. Her declaration that she is no “wenche” is humourous for the audience, as they understand the dramatic irony behind Chaucer’s words. As Januarie is a poor judge of character, and responds well to flattery, as seen in his conversation with Placebo, Januarie believes the deceptions and lies of May. However, one could argue that it would be foolish for her to behave any other way, as she would not want to become a social outcast because of her adultery.

    After insinuating that women are untrue and can be unfaithful, May is represented as offended, and takes considerable action in response. Januarie previously listed the reasons why May should be true to him, which could imply that he is aware of her adultery. May seems offended that he would even allude to such a thing, and claims that “men been evere untrewe.” As men have always been unfaithful, May argues that Januarie has “noon oother countenance,” or reason to accuse her. It would have been more serious for May to become pregnant by Damyan, as the baby would be illegitimate. However, if Januarie was adulterous and fathered a child, the baby would still have his blood, and therefore could be seen as legitimate. This is the reason why it was more serious for a woman to be adulterous, and it is this idea, coupled with Janurie’s desire for an heir that makes him list the reasons why she should be faithful to him, which clearly offends her, and could explain her next actions.

    Immediately after this, May notices Damyan. She “saugh” him, and with a “cough” and “sygnes”


 he understands that she wants him to get up the tree. May is represented here as a sexually corrupt character, as it is she who is commanding and orchestrating the affair. She is totally in control of Damyan, and takes advantage of Januarie’s vulnerability, which makes her seem even more cruel, especially as he has begun to show genuine affection for her. The speed in which she signals Damyan to get up the tree emphasises the desire that she “longeth” and has for him. The fact that the “fruyt” on the tree are pears also emphases her corruption, as they have the appearance of the scrotum. [Rather an abrupt statement which suggests yourt thoughts rather than an awareness of medieval plant lore.]

Januarie’s insinuation of her adultery could be the reason she speedily signals Damyan, as she may wish to get back at him for his assumptions, as well as the grievances she has also suffered with him, such as their wedding night. Whether this be true or not, it is clear that May is represented as an increasingly sexually corrupt and cruel character.

    Both Januarie and May appear to develop in this passage, and can be seen to change in contrasting ways. Januarie’s growing maturity and acceptance of his own actions allow the reader to sympathise with him more, especially as May appears to be more deceptive than ever as she continues her adulterous affair.


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Jerusalem (Butterworth) feeling the ‘beat’ extracts

6 extracts pdf’d for students to work on to disucss the significance of the Beats as outlined in this post.

new doc 2017-04-03 18.57.33

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Jerusalem (Butterworth): feel the ‘beat’

Following a comment by Martin Robinson in his excellent presentation at Research Ed: Language, I am going to engage students with some specific focus on the ‘Beat’ stage direction which appears throughout the text.

Students can be confused by a text which contains both the word ‘pause’ and the word ‘beat’ in stage directions.  We need to explore what the play-write intends by the altogether stronger word.

Robinson was very clear: the BEAT suggests a pause of enough significance to show a shift in the prevailing atmosphere of any scene.  Something is different, in other words, because of the beat. I thought I would look at  a couple of sequences from the beginning of the play and in the lesson, ivite lower 6th boys to focus on 1 or 2 beats and explore the possible shifts.

new doc 2017-04-03 17.04.22_1

This is the first meeting between Johnny and Ginger, his loyal sidekick. The atmosphere is still light – the previous scene has seen Johnny thwarting the jobsworths from the council imitating a dog -Shep- and generally establishing himself as the Lord of Misrule   – filthy language and spectacular drinking habits.  Ginger enters and asks about the detritus-strewn setting. For the audience this is the next humorous encounter, but after the initial sparring – 4 lines of stichmythia – something alters.  The audience need to notice that Ginger has challenged the veracity of Johnny’s position and that Johnny does not like it.

At this stage not much comes of it, but the line ‘It was a gathering’ must be more significant than a simple exercise in telling the truth: it establishes several things:

  • Johnny does not like being challenged directly
  • Ginger is aggrieved and feels let down by Johnny
  • Johnny does not expect to be further challenged and feels that his position of power is undermined.

He moves on and avoids confrontation by claiming a headache and his intrerrupted ‘Ginger-‘ at the foot of the page suggests something of a backing down and will lead to the Girls Aloud story and the establishing of the ‘sexual prowess’ myth.

A little later in the scene we read

new doc 2017-04-03 17.06.43_1

Here the same thing happens again – Johnny is making his excuses and devising stories to aggrandise his behaviour and Ginger challenges him with the bald statement ‘that’s not the fracas I’m talking about’. Once again Johnny is on the back foot and Butterworth wants us to notice this as significant. As the scene moves on, it is Ginger who tells the tale and it is one that does not show Johnny as a ‘Hero’. Half way through there is another ‘beat’. This one establishes the humour of the scene – the ever more hyperbolic stories all leading to the fracas – but also draws attention to another element of Johnny’s character – Johnny as a feral being with the morals and responses not of society but of an animal. This is not just adulterous sex, but it is sex with the wife of a soldier away serving his country. We laugh, but we notice.

new doc 2017-04-03 17.06.43_2

In the pair of pages above we read a typically fast-paced passage of stichomyhia ending in the beat as the Professor tries to get Johnny to simply say ‘Ginger’s a DJ’ to keep the peace. The passage has moved quickly with Ginger clearly desperate for Johnny to give him this affirmation.  As the squabble breaks down to childish proportions, so the pace builds and the tension increases.  The beat allows for a pause, but one which has weight. As we turn the page, Johnny remains silent and Ginger: ‘(points to Johnny) You’re a cunt. (points to the professor) You I like.’

This moment, though designed to produce  laughter and signal Ginger’s defeat (Johnny may well have been saving this up after the challenges already discussed), is echoed at the end of the play: ‘Once a cunt, always a cunt’ says Ginger as he leaves the stage. Ginger is Johnny’s only loyal disciple, but here we see him emotionally respond to Johnny’s cruelty and use the taboo language as a weapon, rather as punctuation in banter.  The audience laugh but will also recognise Ginger’s hurt. The second half of the quotation shows him restoring his equilibrium and coming back for more. This is significant and will not happen at the end of the play.

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Research Ed. A reflection on #rEDlang

I was driving to Oxford for Research Ed: Language brochure on Saturday and was trying to recall when and why I joined Twitter.
I failed.
But at some point in around 2010 I joined Twitter as  teacher – @mrpeel – and a new world opened. At that time, there was a relatively small group of paedagogues online. I read @David Didau (in his @learningspy incarnation) and watched as someone called @oldandrew seemed to disagree with everyone else. I discovered that I could not only follow Geoff Barton, but could occasionally interact with him. Authors such as Patrick Ness and Catherine Johnson welcomed my posts of work completed by my classes – and responded by liking and re-tweeting examples of children’s work, much to the pride of the creators.
Not only that, but I became aware of the growing trend of teachmeets and T&L conferences which were initially publicised through the Twitter forum. And thus begins the journey of last Saturday.  In previous years I had attended Nick Dennis’ wonderful and ground breaking #TLAB conferences in Berkhamsted and realised that we could all take part in discussion and debate around teaching – at this stage I came across Daisy Christodoulou, before Seven Myths was a ‘thing’- and I was stimulated by all I heard – my teaching developed as did my cynicism as a well-intentioned member of SLT led a session on Brain Gym or VAK learning at an interminable September INSET.
Tom Bennett’s brainchild: researchEd seems to me to be a natural progression for my development. I ma quite an old dog and need to view new tricks with care, but this conference and its cousins across the world, offer a chance to engage in thought and exploration of my classroom practice. Often an area in which teachers are happy to use intuition and ‘good ideas’ rather than to engage in study of research, this conference has grown from a recognition that what Bennett called ‘folk teaching’ is not enough. In the last years there have been a raft of outstanding Education books which have made such research easily available for all teachers. The conference is a chance ot bring ideas together and , while networking happily, discuss and develop our teaching practice.
I have heard it said that TeachMeets are like car-boot sales. If this analogy holds, then #rEDlang was like sitting in Christie’s auction rooms with a few thousand quid to spend – not enough to buy everything on offer, but enough to make sensible decisions about the high quality material before taking the plunge and buying.
The menu for the day was huge and my choices seemed ot create a day which created great links and an opportunity ot reflect on ideas highly relevant to my former life before teaching.
So, Session 1:
 The relevance of Latin in teaching English.
Arlene Holmes-Henderson.
Arlene focused on the impact on cognitive development of engaging with the study of Latin at KS2. She offered a broad histoy of latin as key to university  entrance and subesquent reduction in curriculum place until rebirth in recent times 2010. I was hooked, not just be a wonderful energy in her presentatiojn but because my first degree is a Classics Degree (KCL, class of ’81). I need no convincing of the importance of Latin in schools and was pleased top see my ‘eccentric’ habit of referring to the subject through Latin references (‘It’s an imperative… Latin… Impero, imperare, imperatus sum, from which we get words like?’ ’emperor’. ‘Yes! and emperors give orders…’)  is something which was used in the presentation.  More importantly my twitter feed was full of tweets saying how much colleagues missed their Latin and so on.  A group of 40 or so teachers, on a Saturday morning, early, were enthused by games involving seeking Latin derivations of well known words, such as rubefaciant.
Arlene’s research project to find out about impact of Latin and work out if it can be a viable subject at KS2,is ongoing research indicates huge impact in literacy levels when schools take latin in kS2. Current data mainly from London and Solihull, and the absence of control groups seems a little disconcerting if we are to accept the improvements found as solely being due to Latin teaching, yet there seems to be a significant improvement in literacy levels in the schools in which she is working. One reason, she suggests, is the lack of settled pronunciation which makes it easier to engage with at basic level. Links across the curriculum are huge and it is clear that Latin should not be the province solely of G&T. Indeed, the literacy improvements seem to be mainly at lower ends of the ability spectrum.
We were off. I had relived my student days and begun to consider how I might be able to use this in my classrooms… ‘Salve Pueri, sedete, hodie Medicus Jekyll studiamus’.
Next was one of two sessions subtitled ‘the Micaela Way’. Little has polarised twitter debate in recent years than the establishment of the Micaela Community College in Wembley. Unashamedly confrontational to many, unashamedly individual and proud of its success ot others, I visited the school last week and wanted to see more of the thought behind the practice I had witnessed and read about in their ‘Tiger Teacher’ book. I don’t want to write at length about my visit and the school here. I had left the school both enthused and troubled and spent much of the next few days considering what I had seen – essence I was hugely impressed but concerned that many of the structures of the school could only be successful in the context of a school such as this, founded with only a Year 7 cohort in which to establish the regime and from which to develop it.  The staff are highly motivated  and whilst their book offended many by its ‘no compromise’ tone, the fact that a staff body have collaborated to write an influential work of paedagogy is remarkable and they should be congratulated for this sense of collegiality and common purpose. My concern is that SLT elsewhere, in search of a quick fix, will try to cherry pick ideas and impose them unwisely into a totally different environment. Micaela works because it is Micaela.  Micaela-lite would be a disaster.
So, Show sentences, the Micaela Way.
Katie Ashford
This focused on the need to actively plan for strategies to improve writing in student essays and longer work.
Katie cited capitals, spellings, syntax, agreements, conjugations, and use of fullstops as hindrances to showing content knowledge.
She  demonstrated the typical errors: if dictating (often a Micaela lesson content) errors abound, often due to low working memory and panic which derives from being left behind. She also commented that bottom sets show a huge range of ability and writing issues.
This, she suggests, the need to plan actively for range of common errors is clear.  We should not allow these errors to become embedded
we can give a tighter structure to the task of writing.
Grammar, she says, needs to be taught and not guessed, but activities cannot be pointless so that grammar can be fun. At Micaela, all English teachers
teach syntactical rules, part of speech and grammatical rules.  Micaela gives 20% of  time in y7&8  to grammar. Without grammar, students will find analytical writing too hard.
All at Micaela use the show sentence, rather than PEE. Ashford was scathing of PEE and therefore presumably of PQE, PEARL and all the other derivations. For her a good paragrpah moves from: X combines (or another useful verb) technical descriptors….embed a quotation… which shows…  Also, students are using a range of synonyms for technical lexis. This can be drilled each day, something which I saw in my visit when students were warming up by finding for a range of subject specific lexis to use in essays.  This sounds simple and clear and the examples given from student work (low sets) were almost all excellently crafted mini paragraphs. However, I did not feel that they were analysis – it seemed to me that these were assertions, written with skill and presented in such a way that they were convincing and suggested good subject knowledge, but with no indication that the students really understood how the effect was generated. There was no engagement in detail with the text and no attempt to develop the thesis by engaging in close analysis. Currently Micaela works with students up to Year 9. With GCSE looming I expect this will be tweaked further in order to engage with the detailed subject understanding required for top grades. Micaela is a thinking school and re-assesses its policies regularly. I feel this one is work-in-progress. What is clear is that the confidence of the students in writing well-crafted and mature paragraphs will make the development of closer critical responses eminently possible. I will watch this space with interest.
I moved then to Session 3: The classroom as rehearsal room. Jacquie O’Hanlon from the RSC.
For most in the room, first encounters with Shakespeare are usually at school. A feeling of engagement or disengagement starts from this point.
O’Hanlon asked us to consider what happens when rehearsal room paedagogy becomes classromm practice.  Shakespeare is seen as daunting for students and teachers alike. For this she shared aspects of RSC education department paedagogy.
Since actors on day 1 have the same fears as students on day 1, maybe a key is the rehearsal room environment which creates the right environment for study.  Language must be engaged with and spoken aloud, movement is to be encouraged. Try: whispers, movement types all of which develop a shared purpose in the classroom/rehearsal room. She also explored the idea of restraints as a means to deepening understanding of a scene -refusing actors in certain roles movement is a means to exploring strength of character or power shifts. Now all this was familiar territory for me – as  a professional opera singer for many years, I am used to using these techniques in the rehearsal room when exploring character. I, like many, am wary of bringing them into the classroom, partly because of the time taken to working this way, and also because of the sense that we are not necessarily confident in our own ability to lead such activities. I also recall the numerous little techniques I might use at times to subvert such activities… what might year 10 come up with?
She is clear that learning through collaboration leads to deeper engagement.  She offered evidence that Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development requires students to be on the edge of their capabilities and supported by the teacher. Thus, she says, if stretched in this way, group and teacher can develop the ideas through discussion and further work.
I enjoyed the session and will look into making more use of this, possibly in revision, once the text is well-known.  I am not sure that i want to dive into such overt group work or drama lesson paedagogy with a group of students who are not yet familiar with the text and who stumble on each and every polysyllabic word.
It was a useful juxtaposition to follow this session with Jo Facer on what to do less of in the classroom.
Jo Facer is Head of English at Micaela. Her session got to the heart of a school in which teachers do not mark books and in which paired work, group work are anathema and there are no carousels,  no work sheets, no video clips… no powerpoints… (the last a reference to a blog post of hers in which she outlined her dislike of the medium to outrage in the Twittersphere). In Q&A she was clear – no group work means no standing around chatting – the group is the classroom as a whole and discussion between teacher and class is what she sees as acceptable group work. I tend to agree.
Where she and O’Hanlon would diverge is that for Facer, lessons are sedentary and based on close study of the text with annotation (often modelled on the visualiser -woop!) the focus of reading Shakespeare in class. She advocates a reduction in activities and a rem,oval of activities designed for ‘fun’. I agree and this sense of the potentially condescending approach of many activities in the classroom would emerge again later in the day. What I am not sure about is whether removing movement and speaking of Shakespeare is not reducing the engagement with what is a play, not a passage of writing to be viewed in isolation.
She gave an entertaining story of the over marking inherent in most school marking policies before suggesting that we try whole-class feedback in class as opposed to individual marking. She makes quick notes re common errors and merit/demerit notes and then prepares to reteach the common errors to ensure all is understood and re-embedded. Micaela makes use of Knowledge Organisers to reduce homework and prepare for weekly tests.
Behaviour is at the heart of the school. She says all is futile unless behaviour is good –  I agree. This needs clear sorting out – low level disruption issues.  What I would say is this was presented as very ‘at Micaela’ whereas this seems to me to be something which should be part of education in any environment and is extremely well handled in many schools of which I know, with a possibly lighter touch than Micaela currently presents. What is true is that Micaela children are impeccable – silent in class unless addressed and moving round the school in a silent human train as they move briskly between lessons – no time is wasted and all time is used for education.
Q&A raised  issues of differentiation. She advocated consistent deployment of strong teaching for weakest children. Lower ability sets are given extra time – 1 hour a week so that all students complete the same tasks, but some can take longer.
Jo Facer is a great communicator and would be a wonderful teacher in any environment at all.  It is a pleasure to listen to her. The fact that i have areas of disagreement is stimulating for me – I would hate it if I were not challenged to consider my best approach. Like many teachers, I am a magpie and I have much food for thought here. Micaela has challenged much that we take for granted and I will not write it off because it is not convenient to be made to challenge our preconceptions.  It is, therefore, research in practice – in two years they will have their first results form a GCSE cohort which will give many a chance to rate them alongside other schools. I wish them luck. There are as many ways to teahc as there are teachers.  There is no single path which all must follow.
In session 5 –proper acting for proper teachers, Martin Robinson led a highly engaging and storng review of some of the issues around Drama and English teachning of Drama in schools. For him the is no need for classroom gimmicks… it’s about acting.  Again we heard that ‘constraints are the root of creativity’. He presented evidence in the form of  Rules for constraints from repertory theatre and stressed that we need to know the rules before we can break them…  (how true of poetry writing as well).
  1. establishing gestures- such as the Olivier Richard III allowed for a brilliant pastiche of Olivier’s hunchback, and made the point that without even uttering a word, a character had been presented.  He linked this to Anthony Sher’s depiction of the same character. The interactive session included a wish that all directors in schools would  stop ‘top of the head’ acting. Audience need to see faces – angst is not best shown when the best seats in the house wouod need ot be in the actor’s shoes!
  2. significant gestures – Using Dad’s Army as a medium for teaching this, he gave links links to Walker, Fraser, Mainwairing et al, and established their roots beyond rep and into Commedia Del Arte.
  3. use the one to nine – as demonstrated in the table below.
  4. think frying pan heads. As seen from above, imagining a round head with big nose- up-powering can be attained by following numbers on stage and frying pan heads… 9,7,2,1, is a clear path to power.
  5. where you come from and where you go to… Here was another chance for some Richard III as Robinson demonstrated the entrance from  a large ot a small space and so on.
8 usr the good character entrance
7 usc
9 usl the devil’s side….
5 sr
2 main area sc
6 sl
3 dsr
1 king dies: avoid dsc
4 dsl
R hero entrance
L devil’s entrance
row of power
death of Kings
  1. Effective entrance effect: window or door?  surprise or expectation? Robinson demonstrated that all entrances must change the atmosphere in a room – there will be a reaction of some sort from all whether of higher or lower status.
  2. Beat: the moment of pause which alters something in the room/scene.  This brief slot has inspired me to plan specifically for Jerusalem (Butterworth) in which the playwrite regularly uses the idea of a ‘beat’ as a punctuation or gear-shift in a scene.
  3. physical endowment tricks: clumsy? imagine fingers made of bananas. Shy? imagine a miners’ lamp on the head opposite. Again, what fun we could have with Lear 1.1 using this idea.
  4. Character development by choices. How many choices? – more choices, more depth… and which do the character actually reject and why. It is important to show the choice in the acting. Again, I see links to my teaching of Shakespeare and the study of ‘ideas’ in a soliloquy is an indicator of the relative stability of a character.  Plenty to work on.
  5. Inter personal, intra personal, extra personal plotting and the use of actioning: explaining what the character wants to do with the person they are acting with.Verbs of action such as ‘mocks, cajoles, taunts’ can hugley increase awareness of character development.


This was a great session in which Robinson – author of Trivium21C, one of the most influential books on teaching I have ever read – exuded passion and enjoyment for his subject.  For me it was also a reminder of the singing days – no sugar paper, but ‘proper acting’. I recall a one hour session on how to use a walking stick to establish character on stage. I was so happy to be translated back 20 years and also to be gaining so much material to store up an use in my current role.
Session 6: David Didau: importance of reading fluency.
 One statement caught me at once: reading is taught in primary schools – secondary teachers not necessarily fluent in teaching the ‘how to’ element in reading. David stressed the lack of common agreement about where education research is actually heading before. stressing a key rule:
poor reading skills are not an indicator of poor intelligence. Reading difficulty is an inability to fluently decode. There are a number a number of potential reasons according to  learning and research:
  • glue ear – medical and often undiagnosed. Students can hear but might not easily differentiate the nuances of language. The NHS estimates that 8/10 children may have suffered with this at some point between the ages of 4-10
  • Visual problems – undiagnosed problems in sight are numerous in primary schools as children grow up.
  • English Orthography  – much better recognition and accuracy of word reading in y1 in early years. Research suggests that at 9 years’ old, French children  are worse than Spanish at accurate recognition of the orthography of their language and English children trail far behind – English does not sound as read and spelling is hugely inconsistent… it’s difficult.
  • Memory: Didau used Willingham and others to establish the, hopefully, widely understood concepts of the working ad the sort term memory. Since fluency relies on automatisation of knowledge of English Orthography- no longer conscious of knowledge. Skilled readers store a range of concepts such as inferences and clarification in their long term memory – if the process is very slow and not then fully discussed , ideas may be retained only in short term memory. Then comprehension is much harder to achieve. His powerppoint featured an amusing and worrying demonstration of the issues around slow decoding using a passage from Pride and Prejudice and some very simple and almost unanswerable comprehension questions.  I teach in a school in which slow decoding seems to be an issue. This is one to pick up for department research.  David will be publishing his presentation on his blog – I will be re-reading ASAP.
Session 7 considered the Research Informed Teacher: Carl Hendrick…
Head of learning and research at Wellington College.
This was the graveyard shift and it brought much together from the whole day. He raised issues around research : teachers are too often researched rather than researchers. often we are given reponses to unasked questions and these answers are then imposed as policy – learning styles or triple marking were both cited in this area.
There is, he suggests, too big a gap between research and practice. Often research is watered down by the time it gets to schools. Dweck’s growth mindset and Dylan William’s  Assessment for Learning are obvious examples of this. Daisy Christodoulou has recently engaged with A4L in her book  ‘Making Good Progress’. I will not sully her work with paraphrase.
Much research is prey to McNamara fallacy which measures what is easy to measure and ignores all else. This tends to highlight the lack of collective agreement about the direction of education research.
He gave some personal examples of research which has impacted his recent work:
  • The working memory is not large: it holds around 6 pieces of information and is easily overloaded.
  • Dylan William suggests that cognitive load theory (Swelling) is the most important feature of teaching in last few years. This refers to the effort needed to complete a task. Too much or too little renders the task too difficult. An awareness of short term memory and use of chunking is required in the classroom. He stressed an idea: ‘understanding is remembering something in disguise’ (Willingham).
  •  He used a poem, Nettles by Vernon Scannell as example here and I will be stealing it for use elsewhere in my IGCSE teaching – little gems cropped up everywhere during the day.
  • Cognitive load can be reduced by increasing knowledge and awareness and also by scaffolding material such as exemplar essays which are then fully discussed – a great example by @heymrshallahan appeared. She was in the room. Woop!


  • Students remember what they think about. We need to engage thought processes
  • Get back to teaching: challenge and take students to a new world rather than playing to your perception of their current interests. This was a cry against spurious ‘relevance’ and patronising of students. Put away the sugar paper, drop the ‘what would Romeo’s tweets look like?’ and do not be afraid to teach!
  • Stop privileging the extrovert. This rang a bell – too often the introvert can go missing.  We value the outspoken and reward overt participation It’s time to be more aware of the silent and the thinkers – the ones who might loathe the idea of shared actiivites and be happy when reading quietly.
  • Students need metacognitive awareness of how to study.He presented the highlighting and re-reading myth as debunked by Alex Quigley and others.
  • And finally: Direct instruction should not be shunned – relevant contextual knowledge must be in place for any sensible learning to follow. 2 students asked to discuss a concept of which they have no prior understanding or points of reference are doomed to fail to develop anything other than by guesswork. How true.
Then it was all over, apart from refreshment and a chance to meet many twitter colleagues in the flesh. I was able to meet several of the @team_english group and what wonderful company they are. This is the latest twitter group of which I am a member – it is invaluable support and a place to share ideas. Not only them, but several people came up to comment about this blog – thank you.  It started as a hobby and has grown. The fact that people find it useful is heartwarming.  We all do the same job, just in different locations and different contexts.
As a result of Saturday 1st April 2017, my friends are not tweachers, they are real people.
LINKS to posts discussed in this article:
My top books: current thoughts – these I return to on a regular basis.

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