The English Department's Blog

Nov 24

New rock writing

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We like interesting new writers here at Nottingham High School, especially if they come from our own ranks.  Jack Boaden is one such, and has recently had an interview published in NG5. His interview with The James Cleaver Quintet is a cracking piece of rock journalism, and we are looking forward to plenty of free tickets to gigs he covers in the future.

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 14


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This post is all about words.  About why our language is important and why we should care about it.  About how words may be dying because people are not using them.  About how words give people the power to understand themselves and make an impact on the world around them.

If you have visited the English section of the school’s website, you may have come across a link to a vocabulary site which lists 1062 words which should be in the vocabulary of every educated person – and that means you and me.

I wonder how many words you know of these words from the list beginning with A:

Abate       abeyance      abjure       abrogate       abstemious

Assiduous     assuage         atrophy         auspicious    ascetic

Assimilate     adumbrate   alacrity          ambivalent   ameliorate

Anomaly       antecedent


Now, these are just a few of the A words. There are another 1045 in the whole list.  You may know all of the words in my list – and congratulations if you do.  But if you have a feeling that you know very few of them, if you wouldn’t feel confident about using them yourself in a piece of writing, then perhaps you need to do something to pump more words into your vocabulary.

Because of its history English has become an enormous language (the Oxford English Dictionary runs to 20 huge volumes).  It has absorbed words from all the world’s major languages and it continues to grow rapidly, so much so that my little dictionary of new words already seems out of date with its chocotherapy, chuggers, Chelsea Tractors and yummy mummies.

Every time we speak we share in the history of our language, and I want to give you a few examples of everyday words that are more interesting than many people realize.  For instance, I hope all of us have experienced this morning a room called the toilet, but I wonder if you realize what an interesting and complicated history the word ‘toilet’ has. Originally, in about 1540, it was a kind of cloth, a diminutive form of “toile”, a word still used to describe a type of linen. Then it became a cloth for use on dressing tables. Then it became the items on the dressing table (which is where we get the word “toiletries” from). Then it became the dressing table itself, then the actual act of dressing, then the act of receiving visitors while dressing, then the dressing room itself, then any kind of private room near a bedroom, then a room used as a lavatory, and finally the lavatory itself. Which explains why “toilet water” in English can describe something that comes in a bottle and which you would want to sprinkle on your face or, simultaneously, “water in a toilet” – which you wouldn’t.

Or take the word ‘clue’, a particular favourite of mine.  We all know what it means now.  It’s a signal, hint, suggestion or possibility which helps reveal an answer or solution to a problem or puzzle.  But fascinatingly, the word clue derives from the ancient Greek legend of the hero Theseus using a ball of magic thread – a clew – to find his way out of the Cretan Labyrinth (maze) after killing the Minotaur. This clew/clue meant a ball of thread and is a very old word, appearing around first 1250, from Old English cliewen, Up until the 1600s, when someone used the word clue to mean solving a puzzle, the meaning was literally ‘ball of thread’, and it is only in more recent times that this converted into its modern sense, and most people now don’t know what the word originally meant and so don’t think about the ball of string which helped Theseus find his way out of the maze.

Or how about the definition of the word disaster is “an occurrence causing widespread destruction and distress; a catastrophe” or “a grave misfortune.” But the etymology of the word disaster takes us back to a time when people commonly blamed great misfortunes on the influence of the stars.

It comes from the Latin word, and originally conveyed the idea that a catastrophe could be traced to the “evil influence of a star or planet”.

Just one more.   Have you get a sense of humour?  This is something which appeals to everyone – but have you ever thought about the word ‘humour’?  Its original meaning comes from a Latin word meaning ‘moisture’.  In English the word meant ‘bodily fluid’ and this still survives in terms such as aqueous humour and vitreous humour, fluids in the eyeball.  In the middle ages it was used specifically to refer to the four bodily fluids – blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy – which had to be kept in balance to keep someone in good health.  This gave rise to the notion of ‘mental disposition’ – that your personality depended on the perfect balance of these four ‘humours’.  And then the meaning developed to mean ‘mood’ and it was only in the 17th century that the word spread even further to take in ideas of amusement.  By the way ‘temper’ means balance – so if you lost your temper in the middle ages it meant that the balance of these four fluids was seriously upset and so you were temporarily out of control.  And your temperament was the exact proportion of these fluids in your body and so the sort of personality which derived from them.

So does any of this interest in language have any practical use?  I was down in London just a few days after the riots and came across an article written by a social worker about the young people he works with.  I was interested in it because it was about language and how language teaching is an essential part of the life skills he tries to teach them.

“In the wake of the riots, last Thursday evening, there was only one topic of conversation among the young people I mentor in Peckham. Thankfully, none of my mentees were involved in the disturbances. Yet almost all told me they had received the mass BBM broadcasts, written in street slang, inviting them to join in the thuggery.

The English language is an incredibly rich inheritance. Yet it is being squandered by so many young people of all races and backgrounds. Across London and other cities it is increasingly fashionable for them to speak in an inarticulate slang full of vacuous words such as “innit” and wilful distortions like “arks” for “ask” or tedious double negatives.

It’s not a question of being a staunch lexical purist. It’s about our attitude to young people and how we educate them. Language is power. The ability for young people to communicate articulately and intelligently is of huge importance, not only for themselves but also for the way in which they are perceived by others.

Their educational opportunities and job prospects are all directly affected by the way they choose to speak.

Moreover, the more we are unable to express our feelings through words, the more frustrated we get. For young men and women in the inner-city, that can only be a dangerous thing.

So in my mentoring work I have zero tolerance towards incoherent street slang. As I constantly tell these young people, words are the best weapon you can have in your mental arsenal. Each week in Peckham we have a vocabulary slot, where we teach five new words. Be it ubiquitous, judicious, sardonic, ephemeral or plethora, we teach these young people words which can assist them, be it in GCSE English essays or everyday conversation.

Young people speaking street language is a spectacular own goal. True, their  slang limits their conversation to a select group of other young people, making it hard to penetrate if you don’t know the lingo. But in so doing, young people are effectively rendering themselves unintelligible to – and often unemployable by – mainstream adult society. This is really why street slang is anathema to me: it is reckless self-sabotage.

Acceptance of “ghetto grammar” by teachers and others in authority amounts to a betrayal of young people, trapping them in stereotypes. The young people I mentor are not stupid – yet their street slang makes them sound stupid and uneducated.

The better they speak, the more others – especially in positions of authority – will be inclined to take them seriously. Embracing street slang leads to disenfranchisement, marginalisation and ultimately the dole queue. Embracing “proper English” unlocks an intellectual feast.

But to help them do so, we must confront this insulting and demeaning acceptance of street slang. We owe it to them: we have a duty of linguistic care.”

Now you may be thinking – what has this to do with a school like this?  Surely we are all well-educated and destined for wonderful exam results and glittering careers.  Well maybe.  But it is also true that most of us do not know as many words as we should.  Although I have no scientific proof, it seems to me that the number of words in people’s vocabulary has shrunk over the years I have been teaching.  And this is strange, since it has never been easier to look words up and make them one’s own.  Dictionaries come as books, as electronic pocket reference devices, on mobile phones and as a standard part of ebook readers.  And yet I meet people almost every day who guess at unfamiliar words rather than spend a few seconds looking them up.  I have known groups of sixth form students who have failed to understand crucial parts of texts because they have not used a dictionary.  I have known people who have returned from university interviews because they have been asked to comment on an article and have not known the meaning of words upon which an argument depends.

Words are power; words allow us to express ourselves with precision and subtlety.  My message this morning is that all educated people should be curious about language and should take more pleasure and pride in their inheritance of English.  It is overwhelmingly rich and fascinating and I would urge all of us to make an effort to add new words to our vocabularies and to enjoy using them.  If we don’t, then words can become extinct just like living creatures.  If we don’t use them we will lose them; if this happens, then our ability to think and understand the world around us will shrivel and decay.  Expand your vocabulary if you want to expand your opportunities.

William Ruff

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Nov 10

The future of education?

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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

A New Year Begins

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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

How to write good

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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

Google Slang

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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.