Teaching poetry

Poetry is important to me. As a writer, as a teacher, as a reader and listener. Life can be framed by the mundane or can be wonderfully exhibited before you in language shaped and crafted into meanings both intended and consequential.

Poetry is a mindset. You can look out the window and see the sea or you can watch the swarming waters clamber back and forth in the tempest of their endlessly repetitive march.

Our understanding of the world is still just the best version of the story that we know. If we start to limit the ways we can express that story and our ideas then we limit ourselves.

To all of the “why not just say it as it is” crowd – well in my opinion because a poem is often a better way to get across a concept than a piece of prose. Brooke’s ‘Peace’ tells us more about the naivety at the start of the war than a World of War documentary can. They are Brooke’s words- shaped and crafted to express the meanings and the truths of his time.

It’s my favourite part of the year when we get to the poetry units. In particular I love teaching contemporary British poets to KS3 and giving them the tools to start to unpick the world of popular culture around them. The most moving pieces of writing I have read from pupils came as a reaction by “bottom-set-white-working-class-boys” (or whatever the pseudo-scientists are labelling them now) to Simon Rae’s “Ballad of Hillsborough”.

I love the indignation pupils have as we unpick Benjamin Zephaniah’s “What Stephen Lawrence has taught us” or their confusion at the stupidy of racial slurs in John Agard’s “Half Caste”.

When it comes to KS4 an in-depth understanding of the Enlightenment and the Romantics is essential for all – not just those who intend to pursue English at a higher level. These are the ideas our society is based upon. These were the ideas that created America, these were the ideas that forged the modern British soul. They are not high brow – not the preserves of the elites – they are our words and frame our meanings.

Teaching poetry is teaching truths and can be a much more valid way to develop critical analysis than looking at extract after extract. It’s hard not to analyse and evaluate meanings in poetry!

Examples of work by Year 9 pupils on the Romantics can be seen here – highlighting that nothing is too challenging.

http://www.englishenrichmentactivities.wordpress.com click on the Romanticism tab to see all content.



My spade digs deeper holes.

“Everyone should have a spade.”

I’m going to make it my mission to make everyone use a spade as it digs deeper holes than I used to dig without it.

I don’t have time to personally visit every hole but I can contact people speaking my vision online!

Step 1: targets people digging with hands – encourages them to use spade – now dig deeper holes. More people believe spades dig best holes.

Step 2: contacts people digging with gardening forks – advocates use of spade on basis of success with hand diggers – person digs deeper holes. More people believe spades dig best holes.

Step 3: contacts everyone – encounters person with JCB – advocates spades – convinces them that everyone agrees spades are the best – harrasses and pesters them online till they acquiesce – person digs shallower holes.

“Just don’t look” #Bloguary 1

Behaviour management tips from the Simpsons or me thinking about work too much? Either way 28 mins of writing:

Day one:

In today’s Simpson’s repeat, another tree house of horror episode found itself on the January tv  schedule.

One of the stories in this episode involved giant advertising signs coming to life following Homer’s theft of a giant donut. The signs are tearing up the town and at first it seems all Homer needs to do is to give up the donut. It isn’t. He gives them what they want and they continue to maraude through Springfield.

Lisa finds the solution and they are advised that the best way to get rid of advertising is to ignore it. Alongside a catchy jingle the “just don’t look” approach works and despite initial efforts from the adverts to destroy even more of the town, not being given attention brings about their speedy demise. 

All the adverts wanted was attention and in our classrooms I have found that low level disruption, the bane of many a classroom, is often caused by the same desire for attention. I had long suspected this, however currently working as a supply teacher has given me a host of different classroom experiences and I have found the best way to deal with low level disruption is to ignore it. At least to ignore it directly.

Rather than fire fighting all lesson – stop tapping – who’s clicking – I can hear who ever is whistling etc it is much more effective to ignore the tapping and start praising people who are doing what you want them to do. The tappers still want attention and quickly conform si that they too receive praise. Just remember to praise them when they are doing what they should

“Just don’t look” – look at the rest of the class and praise them – Homer have them what they wanted and they kept going – keep the donut ( at least for the good ones) and ignore it.


Heresy does not hold the gravity that it used to…

In the year 1209 Pope Innocent III launched a military campaign know as the Albigensian Crusade. The intention was to eradicate a group of French Christians deemed to be heretics for their belief in consolamentum and borderline polytheistic ideas about God and Satan.

Consolamentum was a religious right that involved a spiritual purification and absolution from sin. Following the ritual Cathars became known as Perfecti. They were expected to live a pure life and renounce all sins including abstaining from eating meat and avoiding all sexual contact. This meant that through their virtue they were recognised as angels manifested in human form by their followers and worthy to perform the rites and rituals of the Cathar Faith. If they broke their vow at any time then the sacraments they had performed were deemed to be invalid.

The idea that in order to administer sacraments the person performing the sacrament must be pure could not have been popular with the wealthy, powerful and often corrupt Roman Catholic Church in the 13th Century. It was also the nail in the Cathar coffin. It amounted to a heresy defined by the Church as Donatism.

Donatism was a concept the Church had been fighting since 313 and they quickly stamped it out during the Cathar Crusade. Their argument was that the sacrements themselves were sacred not those who performed them. Jesus had built his Church on Simon-Peter – ‘the rock’ and the first Pope. Peter was not sinless, he famously denies his Messiah three times in all four of the Gospels but they believed he was deemed worthy of leading the Church by Jesus himself.

Those of you still reading may be wondering what relevance this has to teaching and why the history lesson. Firstly it’s because it’s my blog and I think it’s interesting but more importantly there are lessons to be learned from history here. Expectations on teachers today border on this ancient heresy. I have seen colleagues taken away and “told off” like naughty children because they have been seen drinking in catchment at the weekend. I know colleagues who have to wear long sleeves all year to hide their taboo tattoos.

As teachers we can all be treated as sinners by senior leaders leading to a constant attempt to absolve ourselves by jumping through every new hoop in the hope that we can be the perfect teacher.

There are no perfect teachers. We are all perfect teachers. Maybe there are lessons to be learned from the arguments for the Albigensian Crusade. Surely it’s the content of the lessons and what the pupils take away from it that matter, not the “outstanding” individual that taught them. Our sacraments are far more frequent and far less sacred in schools than the Cathars and we think of them as lessons not sacraments but in the same way as the early Church of Rome argued against Donatists it’s the quality of the lessons and quality of the learning, not the personal quality of the teacher, that matter. Let’s end this heresy today.

Leaving School

This Christmas I spent quality time with my family, caught up with friends and for the first time since the ‘noughties’ didn’t have a feeling of constant guilt that I should be working nagging at the back of my mind. I left the classroom at the end of the winter term and I am now embarking on a new business endeavour supported by the flexibility of supply work.

Looking from outside the microcosmic goldfish bowl of the classroom it is clear that in order to do all the work it takes to be a great teacher the job is all consuming. It’s not because of targets or performance-related-pay or league tables that teachers drag themselves to collapse each half-term; it’s the deep sense of social responsibility and desire for the pupils in our charge to gain the best possible life-chances. It’s because everyone wants to do a great job.

The problem with the current workload debate is that education in its current form in England demands that a lot of work is done by the teacher outside of working hours for our pupils to succeed. It is an unfortunate truth that although the workload is all consuming, getting it done is the best way to teach our pupils in our schools.

I know from experience that marking is fairly meaningless unless it is immediate and when you see a class of 30 four times a week, that means just spending one minute per book involves two hours of marking for just one class. Add five more classes and that’s 10 hours marking minimum, and that’s spending just one minute per book.

The problem when considering ways to tackle this immense workload is that when marking is immediate, it has great results. The pupils do better. If it is not immediate then it is not worth the time it takes. Everyone wants their pupils to do better but there just isn’t the time in the day.

As a professional I had a decision to make. Do I continue to grind away displaying Boxer-esque stoicism or do I decide that, despite all the voices claiming ‘we are all in this together’, I need to have a life for myself.

Boxer from Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ is a particularly pertinent character to analyse when considering the teaching profession. Boxer believes in the ideology of the pigs. He works as he feels it is his duty and the right thing to do. He works and works building a windmill for the pigs and works until he can no longer work. Then the pigs sell him to a glue factory.

The tasks Boxer had to do were almost insurmountable and in performing his duty he destroyed himself.

How many teachers are not sleeping enough, eating enough, drinking too much, passing their children like ships in the night and only seeing their partners eating or asleep? Teachers cannot do more and many do way too much already.

If we cannot change teachers then must we not look instead at the ideologies driving this high demand on staff time and change teaching?

Why not have more than one teacher a year? Why not have a different teacher per unit? Why not let teachers collectively design a rotation of specialisms in each year group and take responsibility for that unit all year? It works brilliantly in Design Technology departments around the country, why not do the same with all subjects? Project based learning on a rotation with different skill foci. When we teach the same units we have the chance to refine our lessons and deliver even better provision without needing to reinvent the wheel. Won’t this reduce workload?

Why not allow the pupils responsibility for their learning and facilitate it by providing a range of specialised tools and resources designed to deliver specific subject content and a task that will show the skills and knowledge gained at the end? A proper project that’s properly resourced. Not only would this be a better proxy for the learning that has taken place but wouldn’t this reduce workload?

The problem is that as teachers get more experienced and expensive, they get promoted and then teach less, meaning a school has higher outgoings but less capacity. This only leads to young teachers teaching more lessons and getting paid less. Why not have all teachers on the same manageable timetable and then expect managers to do their extra duties on top of teaching their timetable or if they do not want to do this then take away the value of their teaching salary if they are not teaching? They are paid extra to do extra right?

There just isn’t the money in schools to alleviate the pressures of a full teaching timetable in the current system. Why are we paying experienced teachers not to teach? For teachers to have less classes then there need to be more teachers teaching classes. If a head teacher can no longer teach classes surely pay them their management money but reallocate their money for teaching to employ another teacher? Wouldn’t this reduce workload?

Since leaving school (again) the best part has been learning for myself that there is a world beyond school and hopefully my time in the real world will help alleviate some of the pressures in schools so that I can return to a job that can be done brilliantly without sacrificing everything else.

This April I am launching a bespoke learning platform to deliver the English GCSE curriculum via a range of multi-modal online learning courses. revisenglish.com @jcoleman85

Collaborative Revision – Pedagoo Hampshire

Pedagoo Hampshire – 26th Sept 2015

Morning everyone.

Right now, I am making this chap look a picture of health.

With iGCSE exams a few weeks away, I’m having to deliver this remotely so I can make sure I don’t miss school and don’t pass this demon virus on to all you lovely shiny people.

I have discussed in part how I have been using social media and online tools for revision here.

In summary – using WordPress, I have set my GCSE and A Level groups home learning and additional assessments throughout the year, culminating in a personalised bank of resources for the pupils when it comes to revision that they can access anywhere.

Examples can be viewed here and here.

In the run up to the exam I also used Twitter to share revision tweets in a #chat everyday at 18.30 in the run up to the exams. Think up the questions during the day, then save them as drafts ready to unleash them during revision. #rbotcrubh is a good example.

I told the pupils what the subject was in advance so they could tailor their revision to fit the #chats, ensuring that all topics were revisited and reviewed.

The pupils performance in the poetry exam, following the Twitter revision, was better than their other (excellent) exam results.

Essentially the core message that I want to pass on is that in order to reach every pupil, as a profession teaching needs to embrace the digital world.

In my Drama lesson yesterday, we were improvising stock characters – one of the suggested locations for their improvisation was a school – from their performances, the pupils see teachers as a group of boring old people that can’t work their phones! (Not Drama teachers though apparently – smarmy lot!)

Pupil screen time is only increasing outside of school, isn’t it time we took some of that time and made it screen learning time, rather than FIFA 16 time!

In order to do that, we need teachers to embrace digital media as a way of enriching learning, not inhibiting it. 

I can only apologise for not being there in person, however at least if you are reading this, we have some sort of proof of concept.

Your thoughts and comments appreciated. If anyone wants to discuss it further please feel free to tweet me – @jcoleman85