The English Department's Blog

Jul 04
Image by Kevin Walsh

Image by Kevin Walsh

Those of you who have ever been into my office will know that I have a collection of toy animals.  I haven’t had any new addition for some years now, so I was very pleased to be given a new creature for my birthday a few weeks ago.  For those of you who can’t see, or who don’t know, this is a toy dodo and it was given to me by a retired English teacher who used to work at this school.  The dodo is perhaps the most famous example of a creature that is now extinct – or more precisely one that became extinct because of human beings.  It lived in Mauritius and one was last seen alive in 1662, the rest having been hunted by Dutch sailors, their domestic pets and by other species introduced by the sailors.

So why give me a toy dodo?   I know I am retiring next week, but I hope that doesn’t mean that I face imminent extinction.  No, the point is that both I and the person who gave it to me are genuinely concerned that some of the things which we have valued most in our lives, the things that were such an important part of our childhood and education, are not nearly as healthy as they were and as they should be.  Perhaps even threatened with extinction.

Things like reading, showing respect for the English language – or studying a subject for its own sake rather than as a qualification for getting a job.  Things like concentrating on a book or a piece of music without being distracted.

And in my final assembly I am going to be very ambitious.  I want everyone here to do their bit to fight against this threat of extinction – even if it simply means reading one or two more books this summer than usual.

People of my generation have seen a lot of change.  I was born at a time before most people even had televisions, let alone computers and mobile phones.  So first of all I want to tell you about some of the changes I have seen and then try to explain what I have learned from them.

I was born in 1954, the year in which rationing finally came to an end following World War 2 and in which Winston Churchill was coming to the end of his final term as Prime Minister.  The 1960s and 1970s were when I was educated, starting infants school in 1959 and leaving university in 1977.

The 1960s saw the rise of television.  At the beginning of the decade most people did not own a TV and by the end most people did.  Coronation Street was first aired in 1960 and the first live trans-Atlantic television broadcast was made possible by Telstar, the satellite launched in 1962.  BBC2 went on air in 1964 and was the first channel to have colour (1967).  I remember vividly the first episode of Dr Who in 1963, on the day after President John Kennedy was assassinated.  It was also the decade of man in space.  I was 7 when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth and 15 when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

I did my O Levels, the forerunner of GCSEs in 1970.  The 1970s are not exactly the most fashionable decade, defined by clothes with outrageous floral patterns in vibrant colours and flared trousers for men and women together with platform shoes. If you were to visit the 70s in a time machine, you would probably not want to stay very long.  There were no home computers, no mobile phones, no digital technology of any kind.  Most cinemas showed just one film at a time and if you missed it, you would probably have had to wait five years before it appeared on TV.  And there were only 3 TV channels.  If you were dragged back to the 60s and 70s, you would probably be very bored, because there was much less instant entertainment, nearly everywhere shut on a Sunday and, without texting, Facebook and email, people had far fewer opportunities to contact each other.

If you could go back to my old school in the 60s and 70s, you would find it a very different place from this school in 2014.  Some things you would expect to be different: for example, blackboards and chalk rather than iPads and interactive white boards.  But there is also another key difference and one that you might find quite surprising.   School exams – O Levels and A levels – were simply not taken as seriously as exams are today.  The world was less complex and competitive; teachers were generally much more relaxed about exams, their attitude being that if you were good at a subject you would do well in the exam.  And so we read lots of books in English, not just the set texts.  My school did not even bother with mock exams.  And, as if to emphasise that exams were not the be-all and end-all of the educational process, grades were not included on O level certificates.  We were told what they were, but the official piece of paper just had a list of subjects passed.

This same attitude was shown towards A Levels.  Again I remember being told by my teachers not to waste too much time on work for the exams.  And things were much the same when I went to university to study English.  The important thing was the reading – with Tutors providing just two hours of teaching per week, many lecturers refusing to lecture on anything to do with exams – and most of the time spent reading – usually several thousand pages every week.

All this is very different today, of course  – with exams being considered very important indeed, results determining the future not only of students but also of schools and teachers. We also live in a world of many more opportunities, with so many more school activities to be pursued.  There are people here who not only work hard at their school subjects but who are talented musicians and sportsmen, who are members of the CCF, take part in DofE, and have some sort of lunchtime club every day of the week.  This is wonderful and is a particular strength of a school like this, one that aims to develop a student’s full range of talents to the full.  Amidst all this excitement and activity it is, however, becoming more difficult to find the peace and quiet for reading and thinking.  On Wednesday the Headmaster spoke in the Prize winners’ Assembly of the need for time to switch off, to think, to reflect, to read and to listen. There was a lot of quiet time when I was growing up but now we have to make a special effort to find time to explore beyond the exam syllabuses, to understand the limits of our knowledge and to engage with minds greater than our own.

There are other things which take up much of our time too.  The development of digital technology is one of the chief wonders of our age and it has enabled us to do things which, when I was a schoolboy, would have been thought the stuff of science fiction.  Apart from all the undoubted benefits, we are now living in a world where it is not unusual for children to retreat into their room on returning from school to spend hours transfixed in front of a computer.  It’s a world where it is utterly unremarkable to observe people talking and texting into mobiles as they walk along a street or eat in restaurants.  We live in a world of concern for a global social networking profile, and a world of instant thoughts and views.

As a student and as a teacher I have seen much change.  When I started, the world of the student had two main locations: the library and the student’s own room – full of books, a comfortable chair and silence, as free from distractions as possible to enable maximum concentration.  We now live in a world that offers so much instant communication and instant fun that we may be losing our ability to concentrate for prolonged periods. Reading has become a relatively endangered activity – not yet faced with extinction but whose long-term survival we need to be concerned about, especially as public libraries close and most independent book shops have lost the battle to Amazon.

I have been exceptionally lucky to teach for so many years a succession of talented pupils at such a good school.  I have been lucky to spend so much of my life immersed in the work of writers, artists and composers of genius and have seen how the lives of so many of my students have been enriched as a result of being introduced to them.  However, as an English teacher, as organiser of the Arts Society and as someone who has written hundreds of classical concert reviews for the Nottingham Post, I have seen how far fewer people find time for reading now and how audiences for more serious forms of music and drama are becoming smaller, are growing older and are not being replaced by younger people.  In short, I have seen how rapidly our national attention is being diverted towards forms of instant entertainment rather than things which take time and effort.

The arts in general and reading great books in particular open your mind to alternative ways of thinking and feeling.  The people who have publicly burnt books in the past have tried to destroy ideas different from their own.  Reading does the opposite.  It encourages doubt, it distrusts certainty, it punctures arrogance.  Reading makes you see that ordinary things are not ordinary.  Reading is vast, like the sea, but you can dip into it anywhere and be refreshed.

So this is my final thought in my final assembly:  start the fight back now.   This coming holiday create that space with no distractions, read more books, listen to some great music and think some great thoughts.  And make sure these activities do not suffer the same fate as the dodo.

Mar 21

Nottingham High School’s Bridge Cup competition has been running annually ever since 1947. It is such a long-running event and one that has become such a distinctive part of high school tradition, that it is sometimes easy to forget just how unusual it is.

It was the brainchild of Mr R.S. ‘Beaky’ Bridge, a former master and one of the school’s most memorable characters.  He was Senior History and Geography Master between 1920 and 1954, and he presented the Bridge Cup in memory of his father, who had been Principal of Trinity College of Music and Organist of Chester Cathedral.  It was to be awarded for an annual inter-House competition in Music and Elocution.

This year the four conductors each tackled the challenges in imaginative ways, reaching very high standards. After considerable debate the judges decided on the following order:

1. White’s

2. Cooper’s

3. Maples’

4. Mellers’

Congratulations to all the conductors and their choirs.


Feb 27

ClichesGood morning. Later today, many of you in Year 7 and 8 will return to the Player Hall for the Cooper’s Valentine Disco, wearing different clothes and large quantities of hair product and deodorant. I hope you enjoy it. If I’m perfectly honest, Valentine’s Day fills me with dread. This morning I spent almost half an hour staring at a blank card, wondering what to write for my wife. This happens every year. Eventually I throw something together that I hope sums up the way I feel about the person I share my life with, but it isn’t easy. Recently, while moving house, my wife found a box which contained all the Valentine’s cards I’d sent her since we met fourteen years ago. I was pleased she’d kept them, but my heart sank when I read the messages inside. After hours of thought, it seems that I’d repeated myself, almost word for word, year after year. The message usually read: ‘to the queen of the universe, with all my love on Valentine’s Day.’ Despite my best efforts to be witty and original, I’d fallen into clichés, familiar phrases that have been used so many times they’ve lost their original power and meaning.

This is one of the tricky things about love; it seems you can only express it with corny clichés: I love you with all my heart; I would do anything for love (but I won’t do that); I will always love you; everything I do, I do it for you; roses are red, violets are blue…. The list goes on and on. No matter how hard you try, you end up sounding cheesy when you most want to sound sincere. Of course, Valentine’s Day is built on clichés like these: the cards, bottles of wine, boxes of chocolate, bunches of roses, hideously expensive candlelit dinners, cuddly toys,  heart-shaped balloons, terrible films, soppy songs, bad poetry…. For many Christians, Valentine’s Day is another example of a religious feast that’s been emptied of its true meaning – along with Christmas and Easter; I imagine most of us have no idea who St Valentine was, or why this day is named after him. The whole day has become one big cliché: how did that happen?

You’ll probably be relieved to hear that I’m not going to talk about the history of Valentine’s Day. Instead, I want to talk about clichés:  why do we like them so much? Are they bad for our health? Is there a cure?

One of the reasons we like clichés is that they help us communicate. The author Terry Pratchett has said that ‘The reason clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication’: they help us get the job done.  There is a danger though: the more often these words and phrases are used, the less useful they become. The word ‘cliché’ is French, and it originally referred to a metal block used by printers to make multiple copies of engravings. Some people think the word was inspired by the clicking sound made by a printing press as it operates. You could say that a cliché is like a tool that is used over and over again in a mechanical, almost automatic fashion. Instead of using clichés to do a job, like tools, we often let them do the work for us, like machines. In fact, you could say that a cliché is an expression that does your thinking for you. This is why clichés are so attractive, and why they can be so dangerous.

Let me give you an example.  Whenever I sit down to write school reports, I have to remember to avoid those famous clichés we’ve all read before: ‘so-and-so could do better’; ‘he must try harder’; ‘he needs to apply himself’; ‘he needs to pay more attention’; or, ‘so-and-so is a hard worker’; ‘he has natural ability in the subject’; ‘he is a pleasure to teach’.  The trouble is, of course, sometimes these comments are true, and they need to be said. What should a teacher do? If you don’t say them, you are leaving out an important piece of information; if you do say them, you run the risk of sounding insincere.  In my own reports, I often write: ‘I look forward to supporting so-and-so’s progress next term’ – and I mean it, I really do. But whenever I re-read my reports, I worry about these words. It’s the same problem I have with Valentine’s cards: will anyone else believe what I say?

Some of you may be wondering: ‘what does this have to do with me? Dr Burton is obsessed with words. That’s his job: he’s an English teacher.’ Well, think about this next time you forget your homework. We’ve all been there: you arrive in a lesson without your assignment. The teacher calls out your name, and you need an explanation – fast. And what comes out? My dog ate my homework; my hamster died; I’ve done it … I just haven’t got it; I left it in my locker/on the kitchen table/in my other bag/at a friend’s house; I accidentally spilled something on it; I emailed it to you, but something went wrong with the attachment; I forgot to save it; I accidentally deleted it; my computer has a virus; the internet was down; there was a power cut on my street; my printer ran out of ink.  As we all know, these are clichés.  If you Google ‘homework excuses’, you’ll find these, and many more among the 2,810,000 results this search produces. There are entire Wikis, blogs and Facebook pages devoted to the subject. There are so many clichéd excuses out there, it’s virtually impossible to sound convincing, even if your printer really has run out of ink.

Even if you do remember your homework, it’s still hard to avoid clichés. This is particularly true when we write stories. How many of us have written about events that happened ‘as quick as a flash’ or ‘all of a sudden’? How many times have we been ‘literally scared stiff’, ‘literally scared out of our wits’ or ‘literally scared to death’? How many of our characters are ‘a chip off the old block’, ‘a loose cannon’, ‘a pain in the neck’, ‘armed to the teeth’, ‘as old as time’, ‘bad to the bone’, ‘a bat out of hell’, ‘a bull in a china shop’, ‘down and out’, ‘down to earth’, ‘dressed to kill’, ‘eagle eyed’, ‘fit as a fiddle’, ‘a force of nature’, ‘a force to be reckoned with’, ‘fresh as a daisy’, ‘a green eyed monster’, ‘happy as Larry’, ‘high and mighty’, ‘hot under the collar’, ‘in a jam’, ‘in hot water’, ‘a jack of all trades’, ‘rich and famous’, ‘the real McCoy’, ‘too good to be true’, or ‘your worst nightmare’? Like the homework excuses, there are millions of phrases like these. I’m tempted to say it’s a minefield, but that would be another cliché.

Now, I know most of you don’t want to write stories for a living. Perhaps you see yourself as a businessman or a politician. If so, welcome to the world of clichés. If you believe in the appliance of science, or Vorsprung durch Technik, you are using a cliché. If you want to get back to basics, or back to the good old days then (guess what?) you’re using a cliché. If you believe in best practice, the big picture, the bottom line, being proactive, circumstances beyond your control, considered opinions, the cutting edge, defining moments, drastic action, the feel-good factor, and continuous improvement going forward, you, too, are using clichés. Of course, many of these phrases are helpful – if they are used with care: they help us convey ideas quickly and efficiently. The danger, though, is that clichés can be used by politicians and spin doctors to get their own way, to lead us into thinking that more or less has been said or done than really is the case.

As an English teacher, it’s part of my job to help people spot clichés and avoid using them in their writing. It’s not an easy task, though. After all, some of the greatest writers in the world have struggled to escape from clichés. William Shakespeare wrote some of the most famous, brilliant love poetry in the English language. People regularly send his sonnets to their loved ones on Valentine’s Day. Yet even Shakespeare worried about clichés. In one of his most famous sonnets, he says ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’. He’s rejecting the famous clichés found in love poetry: your breath is like perfume, you walk like a goddess, your voice is like music to my ears. At the same time, though, Shakespeare worried that his own writing seemed clichéd. In another sonnet, he asks ‘Why is my verse so barren of new pride?’, meaning ‘why can’t I think of anything new to say?’ In fact, he even admits that ‘all my best is dressing old words new’ – all he can do is repeat what other people have said a hundred times before. It’s ironic, then, that Shakespeare is the source for some of the most popular clichés in English, including ‘the green-eyed Monster’, ‘sound and fury’, ‘the stuff that dreams are made on’, and ‘all’s well that ends well’.

So is there a cure for clichés? If Shakespeare can’t escape, what hope is there for the rest of us? We seem to be back where we started, lost among a list of clichés: back at square one, back to drawing board.  Perhaps it’s best just to give up, throw in the towel, call it a day, cut our losses, go with the flow, and follow the crowd. After all, at the end of the day, when all’s said and done, to be honest, to be frank, to be fair, aren’t most clichés basically true? It’s often said that the reason clichés become clichés is that they tell us something important about life. This is a comforting thought, but, as you’ve probably guessed, it’s also a cliché. Some clichés may contain a hint of truth, but they’ve been used so many times that we no longer pay any attention. The novelist Martin Amis has said that all writing is a ‘war against cliché’; when we write, we need to reject corny, tired and worn-out expressions and aim for freshness and energy. We may not win the war, but, to use another cliché, at least we can win some battles on the way. So whatever you do today, be on guard for clichés, from your teachers, from your friends, and from yourself. And remember: Clichés are for life – not just for Valentine’s Day.

May 30

Asking questions

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Dürer’s ‘Knight, Death and the Devil.’ It has no relevance to this post, but it’s great.

A blog post that has attracted a lot of very positive attention lately is ‘Should we use questions to teach‘, by the very interesting @kris_boulton. He discusses how teachers can use questions more effectively in the classroom. I’ve been experimenting lately with encouraging students to ask better questions, and have come up with a quick list. The intention is to begin with straightforward questions, and move on to more sophisticated levels of thinking.

My approach has been to read a poem and then let the students formulate their own questions, with a view to modelling the sort of language use described by David Didau in his blog post on how teachers use language. The students then pose questions which lead the discussion of the text in hand. In my experience this makes for a much more illuminating exploration of the text than me dictating how we go about reading it.

Questions to ask about writing

  1. What does this word mean?
  2. What does this sentence mean?
  3. Can you explain what happens / is being said here?
  4. Why did the writer use this word / phrase?
  5. Why did the writer use this word and not X?
  6. How should I interpret this word?
  7. This word has several meanings; which one did the writer mean?
  8. Does this word have any other meanings?
  9. Is this a metaphor?
  10. Is this an allusion to something else?
  11. What is the significance of this word / phrase?
  12. Is this typical of this style / genre / form?
  13. How representative is this of the writer’s work?
  14. What have I missed?
May 21

Evernote is one of those tools that I think every teacher should know about. If you ever need to save a web page for later, and then find it again, it’s really easy to use, especially if you install the Chrome add-on. I particularly like the way that my Google searches now include results from the notes I’ve saved on Evernote.

The homepage of Evernote for Android

What I’m experimenting with at the moment is using the mobile app for Evernote, as a means of providing immediate feedback on students’ work. Through the app I can take a photo of a boy’s work, tag it for finding later, and in a few seconds put it up on the board for discussion and review.

Let’s have a look at how it works. Firstly, install the desktop app or Chrome plugin. Then, install the mobile app (iOS, Android, Blackberry) to your phone.

And from there on in it’s dead simple. I wander round the room and use the snapshot function to capture an image of a student’s work. I tag it, and then upload it. Moments later, as soon as the Evernote app on my computer has synced, it can be viewed on screen.

When I’m marking essays at home I often grab a snapshot of a particularly effective paragraph, or perhaps something that hasn’t quite worked. Lately, Year 8 have been writing press releases for a project they’re working on. I came across one lad’s work which I thought had lots of good qualities. So, I snapped it, and this is the Evernote note which I created.


evernotescreens21. Open the Evernote app on your phone or tablet, and select the camera. Then, choose Page Camera – it’s the little icon on the bottom right. Page Camera is most effective, as it’s designed to capture documents, not just ordinary images. I’ve highlighted it on the image opposite).

2. Give the note a title and tag it.

3. Use the Chrome extension or desktop app to display the image. You may need to sync the app to make sure the image is showing.

4. From the desktop Evernote app you can open the photo in any software you wish (Skitch, also by Evernote, allows you to add quick annotations)

Apr 15

Improving Pupil Feedback

This blog post supplements the mini-INSET which I delivered at the beginning of term. I hope it fleshes out my thoughts more fully and points you towards the experts whose ideas I have so shamelessly cribbed for the purposes of this presentation. If you’d like a link to my presentation, you can find it here.



I was really inspired to experiment more fully with pupil feedback and critique by the work of Ron Berger and David Didau. Ron Berger is an elementary school teacher from the USA who has done some amazing work in cultivating what he describes as an ‘ethic of excellence.’ He has written a book under that same name which I can heartily recommend: it’s a compelling argument for his philosophy, and written in prose unencumbered by the usual jargon of educational theory.


Austin’s Butterfly

An excellent introduction to Ron Berger’s work is this short video about Austin’s Butterfly. If you can look beyond positive attitude and emotional sincerity which distinguish our transatlantic cousins from us bitter, chilly Brits, you’ll find a brilliant example of the ‘ethic of excellence’ which Berger espouses. I have showed this video to my Year 8 and Year 10 groups, and both were impressed by the progress which Austin made over the various stages of his drafts, and, in the case of the Year 10s, seemed to encourage the boys to be much more thorough in their re-drafting.


You can find the original images of each stage of Austin’s drafting process here. When I showed the video to my classes we spent some time discussing what we could learn from looking at how Austin had progressed between each stage of the drafting process, in particular, that he seemed to go backwards between stages 2 and 3, and that stage 4 represents a synthesis of what has been best about his previous two drafts. We talked about how this reminds us that progress is not always easy or even linear, and discussed the sort of specific feedback which would be needed at each stage of the process.


Why isn’t all student feedback this effective?

It was this blog post by David Didau that articulated a great many of the unvoiced 

Helpful feedback?

suspicions which had been lurking in my mind.  He presents the “statistic” (the inverted commas are out of deference to Ben Goldacre), drawing on the work of Graham Nuthall, suggesting that although 80% of the feedback a student receives comes from his peers, 50% of that is not helpful. (if you think this is all getting a bit Anchorman, then I agree!) Hence, it’s vital that we start getting it right.

David Didau suggests the following reasons why peer feedback may not achieve what we want it to:

“even when students’ feedback isn’t wrong, it can be pretty bland and meaningless.”

I agree, but I think there are a few other points to take into consideration:

General Feedback: in my experience students often rely on seemingly helpful comments such as ‘you need to write in more detail‘ or ‘use PEEL more‘. These sound good, and mimic the sort of language I use when teaching, but they can leave the recipient of the advice all at sea, not knowing what sort of ‘detail’ to include, or how to fit ‘PEEL’ into their writing.

Using unhelpful criteria: as an English teacher, much of my life is governed by all-powerful ‘AO’s and some of the most opaque mark schemes you’ll find anywhere. Given that rooms full of experienced teachers often cannot agree on whether a piece of work is operating at the level of ‘evaluation’ or ‘analysis’ (words used by AQA to differentiate between Band 6 and Band 5 work in AS-level English, and which seem to me to be lazily cribbed from Bloom), how should we expect a student to do so successfully? Even when put into ‘pupil-friendly’ language, assessment objectives, or grade descriptors, or whatever, remain abstract and general.

Untimely: in the past, I’ve tended to use feedback at the beginning and end of a piece of work, sharing or commenting on ideas at the beginning, and offering some sort of formative assessment at the end. These are all well and good, but if our aim is for the feedback to have some effect on the work itself, then these can’t cut the mustard. At GCSE, where essays may be knocking on for a thousand words, how can I expect the person giving feedback to be able to go into sufficient detail to make a real difference? Equally, if I’d spent ages on something and someone came to me and said, ‘Right, you need to change this, and this and this,’ wouldn’t I be justified in feeling a bit deflated, especially as I might be rather proud of the work I’d produced, or simply overwhelmed by the scale of the task before me?


How can we make feedback better?

Giving good feedback is something which needs to be taught. As a teacher I’ve spent my career learning how to offer advice to young people at different stages of their lives and educations so that they can make progress. Expecting a fourteen-year-old to be able to identify specific strengths and weaknesses without any sort of guidance is, put politely, unrealistic.

How to teach feedback:

  1. Model it: put an example of a student’s work on the board and critique it together, as a class, identifying good qualities and points which need re-working.
  2. Model examples of good work, so that everyone can agree what they’re looking for.

The Principles of Effective Feedback

Didau draws on Ron Bergen(dy) and argues that good feedback is characterised by being:

  • Helpful
  • Specific
  • Honest (but kind) (the emphasis of this last I have reversed from Didau’s original)

The principle of being helpful is that all feedback should be linked to a specific outcome, a goal linked to the agreed focuses of what makes work good. For example, simply saying, ‘Begin this sentence with an adverb’ is less helpful than saying ‘Begin this sentence with an adverb to create a bit more drama and tension’ helps the recipient of the advice understand that they are learning something which can be applied in other situations. If you understand why you’re doing something, you’re not only more likely to do it, but you’re more likely to do it again like that in future.

Specific feedback is just that: it picks up on specifics which need to be reworked. It’s very important to distinguish critiques from target-setting. Targets are long-term, broad and can be applied to many different situations. Critiques respond to the actual piece of work in front of us.

The last characteristic of good feedback is that it is honest (but kind). Didau follows Bergen(dy) in emphasising kindness over honesty, but I prefer it this way around. If someone is doing a poor piece of work, they need to know, but they need to be told in a way that will encourage them to do it better next time. Again, teaching children how to deliver this sort of feedback is important, and will equip them with a very useful skill for life beyond the craggy walls of our school.

Returning to dear old Austin, it’s very important that feedback tries to solve problems one step at a time. Austin’s advisers told him first to focus on the shape of the wings, then to add the pattern and then to add colour. In my work I often stress a specific aspect of writing that I want boys to give each other feedback on, such as how an essay is organised, or the quality of descriptive writing. Once they feel that they’ve mastered that, then they can go on and address the next stage of the task. This can help avoid the situation (and it’s one I encounter all too often with my own work) of pupils spending ages doing the things they’re already good at, and hoping that their weaknesses will look after themselves.

Feedback is only as good as what’s done with it

I’m a singer, and in the context of a singing lesson I will often be pulled up and given a specific critique of my performance by my teacher, abiding by all the principles I’ve outlined above. However, if I dutifully take a pencil, annotate my score and then crack on with the next phrase, there’s very little chance that my teacher’s critique will have any effect. In fact, it’s highly likely I’ll open my score a few days later and the cryptic scribble above a word or note will mean little or nothing to me. What I need to do is have another go, attempt the phrase again so try to put the critique into practice, and to keep doing so until I’ve achieved what I need to do to make the music work properly.

Returning to the idea of timely feedback, I’ve tried to get more frequent, smaller-scale critiques into my lessons, intervening while a piece of work is underway, so that students are more open to the idea of making changes.

Lately, I’ve tried to build time into my lessons to allow students to re-draft their work, focusing on immediate and specific responses to the critiques they’ve received. Y8 boys in particular found this helpful, especially as it made them more confident that the work they were doing was ‘good.’ It takes time, quite a lot of it, and may not be appropriate for each piece of work they do. However, re-drafting is a great way to demonstrate progress, and for students to reflect on what made a second (or third, or fourth) draft better than the first, which, in turn, helps with target setting

The benefits of this approach are manifold:

  • Students submit better work
  • You spend less time correcting mistakes and more time praising excellent achievement
  • The focus of assessment becomes formative, not just summative
  • Students become more self-reliant. (This may seem paradoxical, as they are more  closely managed through the drafting process, but the improvements come from within, and the process of re-drafting encourages them to see work as something which they can transform, rather than something which is merely submitted to a teacher for us to pass awesome judgement upon.

Pitfalls, problems and the like (after Christopher Smart)

My cat Jeoffry

Differentiation: critiques and re-drafting are obviously useful for boys who struggle with work: it gives them concrete advice and opportunities to improve. Hence, pairing up a bright boy with a weaker one has obvious benefits for the latter, but what of the former?

That’s where I’ve found I need to be flexible and a bit creative in how I organise my groups. Sometimes I’ll pair up boys of different abilities, but it’s just as important to pair up bright boys together. Doing this shifts the focus of the critique, moving away from immediate corrections towards emphasising an academic debate about how one has interpreted or presented an idea. This can yield some very high-level discussions, and offer opportunities for boys to practice presenting their ideas robustly.

Planning work:

A blooming, colourful taxonomy

It’s pretty obvious that this approach to pupil feedback is best suited to open-ended tasks where students are producing original work. If all you’re doing is giving them a worksheet or asking them to memorise a list of vocab, then there’s little opportunity to improve or make meaningful progress.  I’ve found that tasks which draw on skills up at the higher end of Bloom’s taxonomy (Analytical or Evaluative tasks) are those which are most likely to have a real benefit for the boys.

Assessment: As above, this is a good opportunity for students to demonstrate progress, not just take a snapshot of attainment. I intend to experiment with assessing how well a student has responded to feedback as well as assessing the level of their final piece. This, I hope, will be a way of rewarding those boys who can never hope to attain glittering grades, but whose efforts are nonetheless considerable.


Jun 15

AQA are refreshing their English Literature A-level syllabuses.  These aren’t wholesale changes, but texts are being changed, jigged about a bit, and I thought the changes being made to the Gothic element of the A2 ‘Texts and Genres’ unit were worth a bit of scrutiny. If you want to read the specification for yourself, you’ll find it here (the relevant part begins on page 11), and the full details of the changes can be found here, squirrelled away at the very bottom of the page.  That latter point leads me to wonder, how many centres will overlook these changes – they’re hardly flagged up for all to see – and prepare their students for books not on the exams?  Changes to the AS units have already caught out a few schools, and I can see it happening again here, but that’s another blog post.

So, what’s new? Well, let’s start with the old, shall we?  The original selection of texts for the Gothic element of ‘Texts and Genres’ ran as follows:

William Shakespeare Macbeth
Christopher Marlowe Dr Faustus
John Webster The White Devil
John Milton Paradise Lost, Books 1 and 2
Geoffrey Chaucer The Pardoner’s Tale
Post 1800
Mary Shelley Frankenstein
Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights
Bram Stoker Dracula
Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber

Now, you’ve probably raised an eyebrow here: for a unit about Gothic literature, there are surprisingly few ‘Gothic’ texts on offer, at least, not in the canonical, conventional sense of the word.  There’s nothing from the first flowering of Gothic writing in the late 18th century, no Otranto, no Udolpho, no Monk. Moreover, none of the texts in the pre-1800 category would ordinarily be found included in a collection of Gothic fiction, or listed under that heading in the Oxford Companion to English Literature.  Several of them were, I grant you, very significant to writers of Gothic fiction – whence Ambrosio without Satan, for example – and it is right to read them when studying later works, but as Gothic texts in themselves, it’s a bit of a stretch.  In the end, the guidance from the board is that these texts deal with similar ideas to ‘real’ Gothic writing, and produce some similar effects, so that’s ok, we can shove them in the same ‘genre’ and off we go.

So far, so moderately unsatisfactory.  But now, the changes.  In place of Milton, we are offered Middleton’s The Changeling, and in place of Dracula, Northanger Abbey.  All of a sudden, the picture begins to look very bleak.  It is now the case that the two principle periods of Gothic writing – the late eighteenth century and the fin-de-siecle of Stevenson, Stoker and Wilde – are not represented at all on an A-level syllabus calling itself ‘Gothic’.  There is no longer any poetry, and it is entirely possible for candidates to go through a whole A2 unit without reading a novel.

The losses must be keenly felt, too.  Of course, Austen is a greater writer than Stoker, but Northanger Abbey is a parody of gothic writing, and a satire on the reading habits of young ladies like Catherine Morland.  Parodies are often an excellent way of understanding the object of their laughter, caricaturing and magnifying as they do the object’s characteristics, but if one wishes to understand a genre, surely it is better to start with the genre itself, before looking in from the outside.

The Milton is a dreadful loss to the syllabus. He towers over English writing and for all Middleton’s lively interest as a playwright, it is a great loss to any bright student who wishes to read English at university to be denied the chance to grapple with Paradise Lost. We are now left with a ‘Gothic’ unit where almost half the texts are Renaissance plays, and there is a gaping hole between The Changeling (first performed in 1622) and Northanger Abbey (written in 1798-99 and published in 1817). The board offers no explanation or justification for its choices, beyond saying that the texts are “representatives of [the] genre” and “individual texts will be explored and evaluated against some of the commonly accepted principles of the chosen genre.”  How it will be possible for any student to form a coherent understanding of the ‘commonly accepted principles’ of the ‘Gothic genre’, or, heaven forbid, to form their own critical appraisal of those principles, is beyond me.

Mar 12

Exploring Poetry with

Posted in GCSE      Tagged , ,       1 Comment »

A little while back, Jose Picardo blogged about jux, a newish site that offers a free blogging service based around pictures rather than text. It is pretty slick, quite easy to use and makes an admirable alternative to PowerPoint, especially if you want students to look at one another’s work. I used it recently with my Year 10 class to explore poems in their GCSE English Literature anthology, asking them to find pictures that they felt expressed lines or images from the poems.  This has led to a piece of written work in which they have to explain and justify their choices, and also critique the work of another student.

Jux does have its limitations: posts are added in strictly chronological order, so, unless you want to spend time at the end changing the date stamp on each one, you have to work backwards, and each user can only have one jux, so if I wanted to use the site again with that class, I might have to ask them to delete the work they’ve already done.  Lastly, its inbuilt flickr search is a bit clunky: you’re better off getting students to search flickr directly and find images which allow you to use the direct link code from the image.

Grabbing an image link on flickr


Lastly, this is a good way to teach students how to search well.  Often on an exercise such as this they will simply use the words from the poem, which may yield unsatisfactory results.  Teaching them how to phrase searches in such a way as to pull out interesting images is a good way, too, of getting them to engage with the poem: what are they really seeing when they imagine the ‘great broken rings’ of The Wild Swans at Coole?

Here is a selection of good examples:

Yeats’ The Wild Swans at Coole –

Simon Armitage’s The Vision –

Wordsworth’s The Prelude –


Jan 25

Way back in the heady early days of post-structuralism, Rolande Barthes declared that the author is dead.  Not just sleeping, or pining for the fjords, but a member of the choir immortal and an ex-author.  From now on, we would be free from the tyrannical father-figure of the author, looming over us and imposing meaning on a text; now at last we could read the writing which emerged as the author entered into his own death.  So far, so 1967.

And this old saw is still trotted out – I heard an A-level chief examiner say it without a trace of irony a little while ago, and Image, Music, Text is as indivisible from second-year reading lists as freshers’ flu is from late September – despite the problem of the author’s apparent resurrection in Foucault’s essay What is an author? of 1968.  Is he dead, or isn’t he?  Why won’t he just make his mind up?

For me as a reader of texts the author is a problematic figure, sometimes vivid in the fleshy details of a good biography, or sometimes hardly known at all: it remains a critical commonplace to comment archly on the volume of biographical material produced about Shakespeare being inversely proportional to what we actually know about his life. As teachers we continually tell our students not to attempt to infer biographical details from texts (as though Hamlet were a very extended diary entry, all in iambic pentameter), but to look rather to ‘context’ and how apparently universal moral sentiments are reflected in whatever work we happen to be reading.  Authors are steps on which we must fall down, or else o’erleap.

But now we have Twitter, and many millions of us publish bits of writing every day, everything from the most trivial banalities to the deepest secrets of our lives, and we, as writers, are there, caught up in our tweets.  Sometimes this is deliberate, but what is dangerous is when we think that we either have complete control over our online publications, or that once published, we, the author, die when we close the laptop.  We don’t.

by Mr Luke Hard


So perhaps its time to rethink the author.  Yes, our tweets and Facebook statuses may be social performances, decentered constructs of language where ‘the author’ keeps slipping out of sight, but we, real people, are attached to them, and it’s worth thinking about where this leaves us, as our tweets and names trend their way around the world.





Jan 10

Kindle – nearly ace

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Lamp of Love, by alternate Eyes

I’ve had a Kindle for several months now, and I think it’s marvellous.  True, it’s nowhere near as satisfying as reading a really well-made book, but for practical reading (research and so on), it’s very nearly ace.  Ben Goldacre loves his, too.

And ace it is in many ways.  The fact that my annotations on books I’ve downloaded are synced between my Kindle and the computers I work on is an absolute boon.  I hate reading on screen – it’s too easy to find myself doing that thoughtless skim-reading characteristic of reading web pages – but having read a passage on the Kindle, later to be able to look up my annotations and make sense of them for future work is hugely useful.

And at last I can read those long, worthy articles from the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books for which I cannot otherwise stir myself to get through, by using the Send to Kindle extension for Google Chrome.

But there is a catch, and I suppose this blog post is intended in whatever way it can to stir Amazon to rectify the problem: the articles I send to my Kindle cannot by synced with the desktop versions of the Kindle software.  I can make all the notes I want, but they will forever remain trapped on my Kindle device, losing out on all the wonderful cloudy goodness (I’m starting to sound like which makes the Kindle work so well.

So, Amazon, please let me sync my documents as well as the books I download from your website.  It really would be a huge boon to me as a reader, and would make the Kindle a seriously useful research tool.