The English Department's Blog

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Nov 24

Reports have been hitting various news websites of a study published by Dr Kenneth Heaton, a former gastroenterologist, which argues that doctors should turn to Shakespeare, who had a remarkable insight into the way that physical symptoms can be caused by psychological problems.  It certainly seems like a really interesting idea, although I can’t comment on its scientific accuracy.  Are there any doctors out there who could comment?

What it does remind us, though, is that great writing, be it Hamlet or The Crucible, has the power to reveal us to ourselves in extraordinary ways.

Nov 10

Afghan Schoolgirls (from

I love the Boston Globe’s Big Picture website. It presents a constantly changing diet of the best news photography in the world, picking up stories that might otherwise be overlooked, or images that, while not as striking as those that make the headlines, often have powerful stories to tell.  Today, while looking through this excellent series on Afghanistan, I was struck by this picture of schoolgirls at a camp for displaced persons.  For a moment I thought they were holding iPads, but just as quickly realised it was blackboards and chalk that they had in their hands.  And it reminded me that education is not just about exam grades or technology, but about giving people the chance to shape futures for themselves.

Nov 09

For a long time now I’ve been an enthusiastic user of Google Chrome: it’s lighter, faster and much less annoying than Internet Explorer, and doesn’t eat system resources the way Firefox used to (that said, I’m looking forward to seeing what Version 8 has to offer).  What makes Chrome great for me as an English teacher, though, is that it offers some excellent functionality that I can make use of in my lessons.

The browser itself looks rather plain at first sight, but it can be customized through the Chrome Web Store, and so I thought I’d pop a thought or two together on some useful apps and extensions that have proved valuable in my teaching.

Astrid Tasks is a light, easy to use to-do list which I can sync with my mobile phone.  I’ve set it as one of my homepages so that I can keep track of what I need to do and when.  I really like the way it is intelligent enough to know that if I say “Photocopy Year 10 sheets for Friday” it sets the deadline automatically for Friday.

Mind42 is a neat little mind-map app which allows you to import .xml files.  I used to like but about a year ago they ‘upgraded’ their functionality and you could no longer import or export .xml files. Being able to give an .xml file to a whole class for them to work on in a lesson is a great tool.

Day-to-day tools I’ve found to be very useful include Send to Kindle, a fantastic, lightweight button that sends documents smoothly and accurately to my kindle.  I love this for reading articles from sites such as, the London Review of Books, or the New Yorker.  AddThis is a great little extension that allows me to share links with a huge range of web services; I use it chiefly for, especially as the delicious app for Chrome was a real disappointment.  And there are, unfortunately, still times when only Internet Explorer will do, and I was particularly pleased to find a decent IE tab app here.

Lastly, there are some great fun little games to finish lessons with.  Panda Poet is a simple little word game, but with a competitive edge; Wisdom of the Ages is a real challenge, but good for whole groups; Word Ruffle challenges you to make as many words as possible out of a rack of letters.  There are many others, which I will experiment with over time.

And lastly, the amazing Chrome Experiments website presents work by a huge range of people which makes use of Chrome’s powerful Javascript and html5 capabilities.  Much of it is consists of clever animation and rendering, but there is a great game called Z-Type, in which you destroy oncoming aliens by typing.

So, there we are.  Seamless integration of google services, docs, calendar, maps, images et al, and some fun extensions, make Chrome a very useful tool in the classroom.  Give it a try.

Sep 22

Image by kim77_au

The first orchestral concert of the new season is next Friday, Sept 30 at 7.30 in the Royal

Concert Hall.  Tickets are, as usual, only £5.  Please let Mr Ruff know if you would like to go.


André de Ridder conductor

Alban Gerhardt cello

Suk: Scherzo Fantastique

Dvořák: Cello Concerto

Ravel: Une barque sur l’ocean

Debussy: La Mer

For the opening concert Nottingham Classics welcomes back German cellist Alban Gerhardt who made such a big impression on his last visit to Nottingham. His sense of adventure is ideally suited to Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, the composer’s heroic farewell to his stay in America. Dvorak’s son-in-law, Josef Suk, provides the joyful opener – fifteen minutes of fairy-tale waltzing that flashes with warmth and wit.

Mirroring these Czech masters are the twin pillars of French Impressionism, Ravel and Debussy, here contemplating the sea in all its vast magnificence. Une barque sur l’ocean is a seductive evocation of the ocean’s deep currents whilst La Mer is a brilliant study in light and movement, beginning with the sea emerging at dawn and ending in a tumult of crashing waves.

By: William Ruff


Sep 19

Photo by neurodoc2010 (

It is a bit of a meme for teachers to bemoan the beginning of September, but here at Nottingham High we in the English Department are looking forward to a really good academic year. The new Year 11 boys are set to build on some excellent module results from last summer; the lower school will host visits and workshops from more outstanding writers of children’s fiction; and the Arts Society has acquired tickets at knock-down prices to some really great plays and concerts. Here’s to a really successful 2011-12.

Jul 05

This week, we’ve been reviewing our schemes of assessment.  Now I know that sounds like the sort of activity usually reserved by Heads of Department as a particularly nasty punishment for their minions (some might even call it this), but two of us put a lot of hard work in last summer to draw up some new assessment objectives, which would, we hoped, be more useful to teachers and students alike. As with all such enterprises, some of what we did then worked, and some didn’t, so we sat down and tried to cut out some of the dead wood and make it all better for next year. It was interesting; it was challenging; at times, it was even fun, and it certainly made us reassess what we expect of our students.  At times I wanted to reduce the writing assessment objectives to something like this or this, but in the end we pulled together something that looked like it might be ok.

Having done that, we decided, following the principles of ‘pupil voice’ and all that, to find out if our efforts had not been entirely in vain, so we asked some boys in the Lower School what they thought.  We wanted to know if the new assessment grids were comprehensible, the sort of thing that they might consult before starting a piece of homework, and phrased in language they understood.  What impressed us was the quality of the feedback we received, especially from boys in Years 7 and 8, who were sharp and incisive in their comments, and always quick to identify jargon or unclear phrasing (if only they were so good when reading their own work!), and we came away with some really useful ideas.  Not all of them can be put into practice; some of them are irreconcilable; yet they will help transform documents designed by teachers into tools to be used by students.

I’ve been quick to praise Years 7 and 8, but what of Year 9?  I know for a fact that many hundreds of my students read the English Department blog, and I don’t want to belittle their efforts.  They were mature, thoughtful and about as good as one could hope for on a stuffy Wednesday afternoon in the dog days of June.  Yet their comments were far more mechanistic: tell us what do do, they said; tell us how to write so we can get an A*; don’t make us sit and read all this text, just tell us what to say and we’ll say it.

So it was with some happy interest that I read a post by the marvellous Texan photographer Kirk Tuck.  Entitled “What does it take to succeed in photography? I’d say discipline is near the top of the list” Tuck draws on his experience as a keen swimmer to set out the principle that the one, the only way to be successful as a photographer is to practice.  He writes of going on workshops and seeing photographers who are uncomfortable with their gear, or complain that manual focus is hard.  His response, practice.  Get to know your gear, practice with it, get out and try stuff so you know what works and what doesn’t.  As Tuck says, ‘if you do it over and over again you’ll find a side benefit.  Your own inimitable style will emerge.”  Perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves, and our students, that there is no easy way to become good, let alone great writers.  Technology may appear to offer quick fixes and instant engagement, and good assessment is a very useful tool, yet what matters is those hours putting the yards of ink in, keeping your eye glued to the viewfinder.







Apr 07

After a keenly felt period of absence, one of my favourite poetry websites is back up online.  The Wondering Minstrels presents a poem every day, along with a little comment and often some nicely illuminating discussion.  They have a great archive, going right back to 1999 (remember then? It could take a day to load a single sonnet), and I’m really looking forward to reading them every day.

Apr 04

At the moment, Year 9 are looking at spoken forms of English, studying how language is used in different places, contexts and forms.  It’s interesting stuff, and the interweb is full of all sorts of delights, such as Lauren’s outbursts against injustice; a wry report on the BBC about Doctors’ jargon, and the wonderful google ngram viewer.

We spent a lesson looking at slang terms, and used ngram as a means of exploring how usage has changed over time.  For example, “wicked” enjoyed a great flurry of usage in the seventeenth century (perhaps, one student suggested, because of that period’s fascination with witchcraft), but has declined fairly steadily since then. Looking, however, at the Twentieth Century’s use of the word, the picture changes.  Marked increases during the two World Wars, and then a slight increase – or at least a flattening out – from 1980 onwards.  Clearly, the new slang meaning of the work has had an impact on its popularity.  Will it ever reach the dizzying heights of the 1600’s, when it accounted for 2 out of every 10,000 words printed that year?

Ngram is a great tool.  The ability to compare word usages over time invites students to think critically about how and why language has changed over time.  Good fun.

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.

The verse reading sections of the competition seem to fly in the face of modern trends. It is no longer fashionable for people to learn poems off by heart. However, the first round of the individual verse section of the competition (held in November) requires participants to learn a poem of about 15 lines and to recite it to a judge. Each Year in the school is given a different test poem. For instance, in Year 10 it is Hardy’s poem “In the Time of the Breaking of Nations” and in Year 13 it is a Shakespeare sonnet. Each house enters a team of six boys in each year to recite this test poem and it is the job of the judges to award marks and to select the best performance in each House. The Finals are held in March and consist of the top boy in each House in each Year competing right to be the best in his Year. The seven winners (one boy from each House from each Year) are then invited to perform their poems again at the Bridge Cup Concert at the end of the spring term.

Every year nearly 200 boys altogether participate in the individual verse reading competition.

The competition’s most distinctive feature, however, is the event in which each of the four House verse choirs recites a poem chorally.  Much responsibility falls upon the shoulders of the senior boys who act as organisers and conductors, without any help from teachers.  Standards are generally extremely high, the most imaginative performances often exploiting the different pitches of the boys’ voices and the spatial possibilities of the school’s assembly hall.

This year’s Verse Choirs competition was distinguished by commitment and a seriousness of purpose. Each House was very well prepared and the judges understandably found it very difficult to come to their judgement. The criteria for success remain the same every year. It is very important that the audience can hear the words of the poems: not easy when such large forces are involved. Then the judges look for a performance that captures the spirit of the poem. And then there are considerations such as variety of pace and rhythm. Are the conductors taking advantage of the contrast between broken and unbroken voices – or between unison and solo contributions?

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

1. Mellers’: The Five Students (Thomas Hardy)

2. Cooper’s:  Rhapsody on a Windy Night (T.S. Eliot)

3. Maples’:  The Listeners (Walter de la Mare)

4. White’s:  The Going of the Battery (Thomas Hardy)

Congratulations to all the conductors and their choirs – and especially to Mellers’.

(Postscript: Mrs Turner filmed the event with an iPhone. Apologies for the very poor video footage, we’ll film this event properly next year.)

Meller’s House

Cooper’s House

White’s House

Maple’s House

Mar 14

I wasn’t looking for this when I checked this morning: I’d found this video of the Japanese tsunami, and hoped to find some writing about it that I could look at with Year 9, who are studying non-fiction at the moment.  As it turned out, there wasn’t yet, but there’s bound to be some there soon.

Nevertheless, A.A. Gill is always good value for money, and I found his dystopian description of Dubai fascinating.  I don’t know the place, and don’t pretend to judge the article’s truthfulness or accuracy, but as a piece of word-painting, it’s excellent.  I’ve clipped some good bits using Amplify, which I hope will encourage you to reflect on how Gill achieves such a distinctive prose style.