What’s in a Name

My name hasn’t always been Vincent. 

Although this name is now formalised in all my legal and official document, including my passport, it is an invented one, not the one that I was given when I was born, 文山. The first character denotes “literature”, “arts”, “culture”, “learned” or even “gentle”; the second, simply “mountain”. It was a simple name that carried enormous parental expectations. “Wenshan”, it’s pronounced in Mandarin, “bunsan” in Taiwanese. The way the bilabial “w” and “b” force you to purse your lips into a small “o” made you look like you were blowing a kiss to the addressed. 

“Wenshan” was the name given by my parents who told me that they chose these two character was because they were easy to write. My parents were not educated beyond the age of twelve. They later told me that it would be easy for me to learn to write my name when I started school. Indeed, both character have a symmetric quality to them. Beginning with the dot at the top, followed by a left-to-right stroke with a gentle rising slant underneath, then you make a cross, starting with the top-right-to-bottom-left to complete 文. To write 山, you draw the line in the middle first, then you write an upper case, “L”, to make it look like a 4 without the middle line coming through the bottom line. To complete, you simple draw another shorter, vertical line to meet with the end of the “L”. With four and three strokes respectively, self esteem was easily built from being able to write my name clearly from an early age. 

Or maybe, my self-respect was not their real consideration. Instead, they were just trying to save face, hiding their embarrassment for not knowing more complex characters that connote more profound meanings like some of those of my classmates whose came from families of scholars. Mine was a anything but. 

My mother, despite being academically bright, was the oldest of her 7 siblings of a farming family whose studies where terminated as soon as she completed elementary school. The family needed her to help bring in cash and bringing up her younger brothers and sisters. My father, on the other hand, was a boy soldier of the Kuomintang. Orphaned before he could receive any formal learning of acquire any practical skills, opportunity presented itself in the form of an awfully exciting adventure – a prospect of fighting enemies with handguns and machetes, in forests and mountains, like heroes in some legends and folklore told with fantastical flourishes but very little reality. 文山, therefore, was a perfect choice on their part. It conveys self-respect with an unmistakably scholarly air, an understated elegance. Together with the simple characters, both its Taiwanese and Mandarin pronunciations that require the speaker to shape their mouths as if blowing a kiss belie the name’s weighty symbolism.

But, you can still call me Vincent.

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng – Part of a Book Chat

Everything I Never Told You

This is part of my conversation with by dear friend, Di Leedham, who recommended this book to me some time ago, one of the books that I must read this summer. I started reading Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You during this half term.

Serendipitously, it was only yesterday that I was alerted to series of tweets surrounding a “joke”: “And then turns out you’re Wong.”

I have responded to that particular tweet to point out that it is not funny at all if you, like me, have endured years of mock Chinese “ching, chong, chang” uttered as children walk past you, sniggering. 

But, relevant it may be in terms of racial stereotyping, this blog is not about my grievance. It’s about the delight of reading Ng’s debut novel. 

So far, after reading the first four chapters, the depiction of James’s identity erasure of his racial and cultural heritage, and his unstoppable desire to reinvent himself as an embodiment of a racial and cultural desert island is very close, too close, to my own experience. I applaud her keen observation there. 

The shifting perspectives of the relationship between James and Marilyn give the reader a clear glimpse into the emotional corners that they keep well hidden from each other. However, their relationship does strike me as being somewhat unconvincing in the sense that it develops too fast – that kiss, though explained away as part of Marilyn’s impulsive behaviour, happens too quickly. On the other hand, James’s Ready acceptance of his “luck” underpins the desperation of his quest to be just like them. Perhaps, the desire to be different and the desire to be the same explains the shaky ground on which their union is built.

The taunting episode at the swimming pool completely exposes the inadequacy of James as a father to protect his son from ridicule. It stems from his own warped sense of self, I think. After the swimming pool incident. Marilyn queries about Nath’s being “sullen and silent” at the breakfast table. James replies, “Some kids teased him at the pool yesterday. He needs to learn to take a joke.” There. Betrayed by his own father.

I want to know Hannah better. So far, she’s the “obedient” one. I want her to grow into a convincing character with substance. Nath is beginning to show more of his emotions and that’s important to hold the family together where Lydia has left vacuum.

I am also impressed by her character study. I appreciate that the plot doesn’t really lend itself to lengthy tête-à-tête between James and Marilyn, and the narrator describes what’s going on or amiss between them, nevertheless, it’d be interesting to see and hear some more interactions. It may still happen later. After all, I am only a third way through.

I like the structure so far, too. Lydia’s death has been interrupted for a few chapters until her funeral just like how she’s never noticed when alive. Even Nath misses her coffin being lowered into the ground. “It’s gone,” he realises because he’s so preoccupied with monitoring Jack’s every move during the ceremony. Poignantly, the most detailed account of Lydia comes from the coroner’s autopsy, painstakingly, as required by law, describes the process of asphyxiation by drowning, which juxtaposes with the empty pages of her journals that Marilyn has bought her each year for the 10 whole years. 

I am really looking forward to reading how Ng delves deeper and deeper under the surface of this “model” family.

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The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

When the hundreds of thousands of 16-year olds sit their first GCSE English examination next Monday, many will be putting their ink on paper and producing sentences that read like the following:

1. Stevenson uses an adverb “trampled calmly” to show how Mr Hyde trampled calmly over a girl’s body.

2. The phrase “He broke out in a great flame of anger” shows how angry Mr Hyde is. “Broke” is a verb that shows an violent action and “great” is an adjective that shows a large amount. “Anger” is a noun and it shows Mr Hyde is angry.

3. Mr Hyde is described as “pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any namable malformation”. Stevenson uses adjectives and nouns in that quote to show that Mr Hyde looks like a half-developed human.

I feel your pain. 

The first time in my teaching career when this style of writing is becoming a norm. Identification of grammatical terms, such as word classes, has become the students’ preoccupation when attempting to express their views on the writers’ use of “language, form and structure”. Grammar has now obscured clarity of expression. On the one hand, what the above three examples demonstrate is some knowledge and straightforward understanding of characterisation. Admittedly, there is plenty of improvement to be made in those areas. The real concern, however, is a slavish attitude to grammar spotting. The mechanic way of naming the part – instead of strengthening the critical quality of the response – makes the written expression awkward and unclear. As a result, grammar spotting renders a test for true appreciation of writers’ craft into a grammar-spotting exercise.

The chickens have come home to roost. 

Ahead of the new GCSE English examinations (Literature, and then Language) from next week, it has become obvious that this new way of writing has become commonplace. Anecdotal evidence sampled from students’ work shared by their teachers on social media, notably Twitter, serves as a tangible trend in the English classrooms up and down the country. 

I am talking about the identification of grammatical features in students’ attempt to “[a]nalyse the language, form and structure used by a writer to create meanings and effects, using relevant subject terminology where appropriate” as one of the key Assessment Objectives (AOs). The weighting of this particular AO is high. Take AQA’s English Literature Paper 1 for example, AO2 is worth 12 marks, equalling AO1 (“Read, understand and respond to the texts”), out of a total of 30 marks in both Section A (Shakespeare plays) and Section B (The 19th-century novel). Understandably, English teachers place greater emphasis on this particular Assessment Objective. Crucially, it can be suggested that many students as well as teachers have assigned grammatical knowledge its unintended supremacy in the context of assessment and mistaken it for evidence of quality.

But why is there such an almost obsessive focus on grammatical features? Casting our minds back to the publication of The importance of teaching: the school’s white paper 2010 might shed some light on the question. Undeniably, the current phenomenon is readily explainable by the policy that was billed to “promote high standards of language and literacy by equipping pupils with a strong command of the spoken and written word, and to develop their love of literature through widespread reading for enjoyment” (English programmes of study: key stage 4: National curriculum in England, 2014). The Spag Test for Year 6 pupils at primary schools has come to epitomise the reform introduced by then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. The purpose of this piece is not to renew the debate over the merit of his reform. It focuses instead a tangible outcome of his ideology from the classroom – the reality.

For secondary students, such clumsy written style that places Grammar as its central consideration is the direct result of Michael Gove’s legacy, seven years on. The first generation of Gove’s children is coming through the system of his education reform, and the examination results for English will be watched with close scrutiny and hopefully in-depth research to assess its impact. The preliminary evidence flags up areas for concern. 

Before the results of the marking are published, the impact of grammar teaching is evident in the above three examples. It is clear that the knowledge of grammar, apart from demonstrating that the students can name the parts, paradoxically, it impedes on the quality of writing, precisely what Robert Hudson – the man recognised to be responsible for the primary grammar test – is concerned about. 

Firstly, Hudson admits that the grammar test “was not based on good research evidence” (Mansell, 2017). His admission raises doubt over the legitimacy of grammar test for the 11-year-olds straightaway. More concerning is the long-term detriment that such drive to improve grammatical knowledge in the cognitive development of the young children. David Chrystal has also remarked that there is “too much emphasis on linguistic labelling as an end in itself” (Mansell, 2017). Sentences included in those examples illustrate a clear propensity to do just that. A voluble critic of Gove’s “back-to-basics” approach to the English curriculum, Michael Rosen, has also warned against the damage that the over emphasis on grammar teaching can do to students’ writing. Many teachers will be able to list examples similar to those we have considered. Can we draw a tentative conclusion that it is indeed the case – at least for now. 

Ironically, Robert Hudson expresses circumspection about the continuity of grammar teaching from primary schools into secondary school. Evidence from current GCSE candidates and even KS3 students at secondary schools demonstrate that “all the work children do in primary is [in fact not] wasted” (Mansell, 2017). Indeed, it has been followed with much zeal and fervour, if not more, believing that grammar guarantees gravitas. Sidelined are other literary and poetic devices – a holistic evaluation of a combination of techniques deployed by authors. 

Based on early evidence from the classroom and more than likely the test centres in England, Tim Oates is right to call for a rethink of the grammar test. In addition to a “genuine problem about undue complexity of demand” of the “language about language” (Mansell, 2017), better education in grammar teaching needs to be built into Initial Teacher Training and CPD for serving teachers to ensure that grammatical knowledge, though it can be a scholarship in its own right, serves to illuminate the beauty of writers’ art. As Debra Myhill’s research finds that grammar teaching can be beneficial to students’ writing, adding:

“The key is using grammar to open children’s eyes to the infinite repertoire of choices which are available to them as writers. Used in this way, grammar helps children understand how language works and how to express themselves with great craft and creativity.” (2014)

However, this outcome can only be achieved if Grammar is taught “in such a way that links meaningfully to how they write” (Mansell, 2017) – and read.

When Michael Gove set out his vision for the English teaching in KS3 and KS4, his personal plea of “the love of literature” would have resonated with many. Unless, we teach grammar and embed grammar in reading and writing meaningfully and discriminately, we are in danger of creating generations of young children who not only resent reading and writing but also struggle to articulate their thoughts clearly, coherently and cogently, never mind creatively.

Here’s a challenge. Re-write one or more of those sentences to improve their analytical and critical quality. In whatever colour you like as long as it’s not green. You can even simply rehearse in your head, too. Or even verbalise your attempts.

References

DfE (2010), The importance of teaching: the school’s white paper 2010 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-importance-of-teaching-the-schools-white-paper-2010

DfE (2013), National curriculum in England: English programmes of study https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-english-programmes-of-study

Exeter, University of (2014), New approach to writing changes policy and practice http://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/featurednews/title_384901_en.html

Mansell, W. (2017), “Battle on the adverbials front: grammar advisers raise worries about Sats tests and teaching”, the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/may/09/fronted-adverbials-sats-grammar-test-primary

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Should I make that worksheet?

Should I make, or use, that worksheet?

One of the many strengths of the teaching profession is sharing resources, generously. After the weekend, most of us will be back to the classroom with our attention turned to all our examination groups: GCSE AND A-Level. For a reform subject such as English, the stake is high; everyone is determined to do it right. Being the first year of the new close-text examinations, part of the pressure comes from the demand on memory, for many students and teachers alike, memory of quotations in particular. To help students to achieve that end, and indeed, to tackle new focus on “summary” and “structure” many teachers are constructing resources that hopefully will meet the Assessment Objectives set out in the Mark Schemes for the four papers of English Language and English Literature. 

Inevitably and understandably, there has been a plethora of resources shared on Twitter. These resources range from worksheets to feedback forms; knowledge organisers to revision booklets. All of them are carefully and thoughtfully constructed and professionally presented. One cannot praise the generosity of these teachers enough.

Then, there’s the publication of an eight-point Reducing Teacher Workload poster by the teaching unions on Twitter, retweeted frequently to remind us all to work more smartly: be sensible, be reasonable and be kind to ourselves. 

But our challenge is not just about striking a balance between work and our other commitments in life. As regard the creation of resources, before I decide to create any learning resources, I ask myself these questions. Maybe you should, too, particularly if you are a middle or a senior leader:

Timetable

– How many lessons do I (or your colleagues) teach in total?

– How many exam groups do I (or your colleagues) teach?

– What are my (their) pastoral duties and how many meeting and parents’ evening are there?

Marking 

– If there’s a need to mark a worksheet, then, I ask myself what is being marked? Formative? Or summative? Do I need to mark basic literacy and SPaG, too, not to mention (mis)understanding of the content? Marking can easily get out of control if we don’t take a disciplined approach.

– Do I (they) need to provide feedback on the work completed on worksheets? How? Will highlighters or pens of multiple colours be involved?

– To keep sheets safe, sticking them into exercise books is a popular solution. Then there are logistic considerations, too: are there enough glue sticks (do they work), can the students use them sensibly particularly when they have to share one between two or more (where are the lids?). Do I need scissors (some students prefer to trim the sheets to fit onto the pages in their exercise books), are there enough ones for the left-handed pupils? Do I give gold star stickers? Or smiley face ones? A well-meaning feedback lesson can easily descend into a bad-tempered shouting match or scrap.

– But I (they) don’t just teach the examination groups. Even so, in addition to worksheets, are there other types of work that need to be marked for these students, essays, practised ‘perfect’ paragraphs or homework? Indeed is there any KS3 marking, too? Are there other forms, such as feedback or tracking sheets to be completed?

Impact

– If one or two “conscientious” student respond favourably to any resources, find out ‘exactly’ in what way. More importantly, find out the reactions of the others (majority). Are they apathetical, seeing it as just another sheet? Without truly understand how the material is supposed to help, how can they benefit from it? The likelihood is the exercise will produce only superficial outcome: the boxes are filled, scores recorded, but has any of the learning been internalised and ready to be expressed in structured, continuous prose in response to a given question in the examination? 

– Does the outcome justify all this paper work and the marking? Do I really need to mark this particular piece of work? Creating resources is time- and energy-consuming, not to mention other associated costs such as photocopying, etc.

Then there are questions about the possible further bureaucratic procedures generated by the initial worksheet or even tests.

– Recording (on mark book or on departmental data)

– Analysing (do I/they need to report? How?)

– Monitoring and tracking progress (Do I have time to analyse the data?)

– Actions 

= Is further teaching needed, group or individual? How?

= Is clarification of misconceptions required, group or individual? How?

= Do I need to trigger any interventions, when? How is it going to take place? When? Break time? Lunch time? Or after school? Should I (they) contact parents?

When I return to my examination groups after half term, I will try to ask myself these question whenever there’s an urge to produce resources of any nature.

Look after ourselves and each other.

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My story so far


My story so far

Two and half years ago in August 2014, following the completition of my MEd, I became involved in clicktivism. I started a campaign to call for free access to research journals for teachers in England and Wales. I set up an e-petition on Change.org. I used Twitter as a platform to canvas for support and to highlight the importance of research in a teacher’s professional development. Very quickly, my petition attracted attention from many educators and other professionals and individuals who were equally, if not more, passionate about education. 

Many signed my petition and left testimonials explaining why they supported the campaign. Many engaged in numerous conversations on Twitter with me and one another regarding the pros and cons and many other issues related to “free access to research journals”. There were a few who were sceptical about such an appeal, questioning teachers’ abilities to use research to improve their practice. I refuted these argument and insisted on one single belief – access is fundamental to teacher professionalism. Professional autonomy was only a rhetorical wishful-thinking without the actual empowerment through knowledge construction and sharing. 

Without professional self-determinism, teachers would be forever in the mercy of arbitrary policies in a top-down model. Teachers would always be at the subjugation of political whims and ideological dogma. Teachers would never be in the position to do their jobs without constant interference or changes whenever a new fad came along.

I wanted to change that.


My e-petition has remained open and it has had over eight hundred signatories. It has since inspired a similar petition created in the Netherlands by Dr Frank Cornelissen who achieved so much more through his endeavour. His campaign has won the support of the Secretary of State of the Netherlands, Sander Dekker, and his colleagues in the Open Science Conference during the Dutch Presidency, 2016. I felt profoundly humbled by the invitation of the organisers to make my case during the same conference led by Dekker and the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas, in Amsterdam. Not everyone supported my cause, but all appreciated my effort. I felt deeply honoured to be involved in the drafting of the European Call of Action on Open Science.

Then Brexit delivered a bitter irony to my belief in knowledge without borders. 

If there’s anything remarkable in my simple quest, let it be the quiet and unwavering support from all those eight hundred and more individuals who share my pursuit. Two and half years have witnessed many changes in the landscape of British education. Nicky Morgan was replaced by Justine Greening, the Conservative government quickens its pace in marketisation of education, expansion of grammar schools and funding cuts for schools, all of which have far-reaching repercussions. 

Without access to research, indeed, without any tool with which to evaluate or challenge received wisdom, teachers remain a passive participants in education at best, complicit in perpetuating damaging policies and such a status quo at worst. Critical engagement in education is at least possible through taking part in research, as a reader, participants or conductors. Access to research is fundamental to a teacher’s critical professionalism. 

Teachers as change agents shouldn’t remain a wishful slogan; it can be a reality.

It is worth mentioning that during the early days of my one-person campaign, debates about the setting up of a “Royal College of Teachers/Teaching” and a “Chartered College of Teachers/Teaching” were also taking place. During my campaign, I also learned about the Scottish (GTCS) and the Irish Teaching Council’s offers of access to research via their respective memberships. Following the successful establishment of the Chartered College of Teaching by Dame Alison Peacock in January 2017, teachers in England can finally gain access, through their membership, to the research database provided by EBSCO which also serves Scottish and Irish teachers. 

It is clear that paying – regardless of the amount of the fees – for access is not the ideal outcome of my objective. It is a significant step forward nonetheless. A step towards a more critical engagement with, and reflection of, educational research amongst teachers. To some extent, it may just be possible that teachers can finally take the epistemological control over their professional and pedagogical knowledge to inform their practice for the betterment of the students and for the improvement of the teacher professionalism. 

It would be presumptuous of me to make any declaration of success of, to claim any credit for, or even to suggest a direct cause to, the real possibility to access research for teachers in England. Nevertheless, I take a quiet pleasure in knowing that a link can be drawn from the set up of my petition in 2014 to the continuous effort to make access a universal entitlement for all teachers in England and Wales. To make such an ideal a reality requires conviction, courage and commitment. 

If you are still interested in my story, the link below will take you to my “one year on” update:

https://fratribus.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/free-access-to-research-journals-for-teachers-one-year-on/

If you would like to sign the petition, you can find it here: 

https://www.change.org/p/the-rt-hon-justine-greening-mp-free-access-to-research-ejournals-for-teachers

Schools Week have also covered my petition on three occasions, starting with the latest:

http://schoolsweek.co.uk/english-teachers-finally-get-research-journal-access-similar-to-scots/

http://schoolsweek.co.uk/englands-teachers-miss-out-on-free-access-to-research/

http://schoolsweek.co.uk/teachers-face-high-paywall-to-access-research-free-to-scots/

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A serial failure’s proud confession

Another attempt to seek promotion at another school has resulted in a polite rejection. It was one of the several in the past few years. It is fair to say, however, I have never been particularly enthusiastic about becoming a manager, a middle leader. I was possibly more relieved than disappointed by those repeated rejections.

It means one thing, nonetheless, that I have possibly exhausted all my choices within a 15-mile radios from home. It looks increasingly more likely that I shall remain where I have always been since I was an NQT until circumstances dictates otherwise.

One observation has been made from my applications. Out of the numerous applications, I did get a couple of interviews. Interestingly enough, both were from private schools. Until now, it remains a mystery why my applications appeared to be more attractive to these two schools to such an extent that they decided to invite me for a visit. Naturally, I was flattered by the attention and the subsequent invitation. More importantly, I was grateful for the opportunity to be able to step across the invisible and metaphorical wall that divides the private and the state sectors. On both occasions, I left my interviews a slightly more informed person about “how the other half” live. 

Reaching the top of my pay scale and over the age of 50 possibly means that I am less attractive for the potential employees. Still, I go to bed happy that I can continue to do what I have done pretty well – making a significant difference to many youngsters’ lives. Those of my former students who have gone on to become doctors, teachers, others professionals, postgraduate students and even my friends, etc. are what continue to motivate me, counter all the other intolerable and nonsensical bureaucratic impositions to a teacher’s daily practice.

It is the notion of achieving against all odds that makes me proud of my job. 

Like many, however, I do ponder over my next move. Maybe combining part-time teaching with academic research? Now that appeals to me very much indeed…. 

Wish me luck.

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Brilliant Darkness 


I love looking at this picture of this single oak leaf against a low-hanging winter sun. The glowing russet draws my visual focus to its veins, midrib and sinuses. The brilliance of the sunshine radiates from the top-right-hand corner of the petiole. In fact, I was pleased with how it came out. 

But I was trying to capture something else by pointing my camera directly to the light source. I moved towards, and away from, the object. I reangled the focal directions a few times. I tiptoed and stood back down. Then I held my breath, like the moment before I pulled the trigger in my shooting practice in the army. I pressed the shutter button. I hoped that I didn’t miss it.

The feature that really captures my imagination is the diamond of a tiny glint at the bottom of the right hand side of the leaf – through a minute rip in the lobe – four of the pin-sharp light beams like icy thorns. Inconspicuousness is precisely its intense strength and its purest beauty.

Like many things in life, there are events and people who demand our immediate attention, and their conspicuousness can be overwhelming. Firstly, their brilliance wows us; their confidence intimidates us and their brightness blinds us. Dazed, we easily overlook many of life’s real treasures: an ostensibly insignificant event that profoundly shapes our lives; a casual encounter that rekindles our long-forgotten emotions, an unexpected experience that inspires us to reevaluate our beliefs. 

We blink. Behind our eyelids, the radiance becomes a cloud of darkness. We realise that the most dazzling is not always the most lasting. We find values often in places where the bright light doesn’t reach. 

Maybe that’s how they retain their purity, unbleached by the blinding brightness.

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Ten Years a Teacher

When I return to school after the New Year, I will be starting my eleventh year as a qualified teacher. 

The history of my role in the classroom, however, goes back further than that. In fact, from the age of five when I set my tiny feet inside my local Catholic kindergarten back in Taiwan, I have never left the school environment. Even during my national service, I was based at a cadet school only twenty-minute bike ride from home. I had given English tuitions to high school students as an undergraduate in Taiwan; I had done the same to high school students from Taiwan whilst visiting my parents in Los Angeles in the summer after my Master’s; I taught Chinese in the Language for All programme and to a few linguistics undergraduates when I was studying for my doctorate. But as a regular classroom teacher, I didn’t really start until I took up some English lessons as an unqualified teacher whilst working also as a Teaching Assistant at a 11-16 comprehensive in Essex in the early 2000s. Within this context, my career as a qualified teacher of English of some ten-year standing is particularly significant to me.

I had an ambitious career plan when I took up my first post as a Newly Qualified Teacher. I was thinking of becoming an Assistant Head in charge of Teaching and Learning in three years. Ten years on, I am still a classroom teacher. What’s happened to my high expectations for myself? What’s happened to my ambition?

The reason is more straightforward than some might think. I quickly realised that I wasn’t a career builder – not in the job that I found myself at least. I realised that I found reward, meaningful reward, from doing my job well and seeing my students achieve. It was the only sustaining, nourishing and reinvigorating source of my professional pride; it continues to be so. I value my time with my students: being there with them when they cry, when they laugh, when they get angry, when they feel sad, when they want to talk to me or when they prefer to be left alone. I am there. Becoming a manager will take considerable amount of my time away from my students, hundreds of them, I have reasoned. Or, at the back of my mind, I have always known that I am not really a “leader” material, not in the job that I am doing anyway.

So. Into my eleventh year, I continue to relish my role as a Form Tutor and a classroom teacher. 

Or do I? 

I have felt tired, burned out and doubted that I have the energy to offer the best of my teaching to my students. It is a crippling feeling. Some say, when you are feeling like this you need to go. But I don’t believe that’s the right reason to leave a job, any job. 

Instead, I see this hiccup as a timely reminder that new opportunities are waiting to be created. It’s time to reevaluate my priorities, adjust my focus and embark on new challenges. Whatever happens, I can be certain, I will still remain in education. Or will I? I hope I will. Education is my natural habitat.

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Leaves in the Wind

Leaves in the Wind

I can see in my mind’s eye the leaves riding in gusts of wind, higher and higher over the rows of metal skips labelled for Paper, Cupboard, Garden Waste, Scrap Metal, Plastic Bottles, Hardcore, Timber and, if in doubt, Landfill. The clothes banks are dribbling with last year’s fashion and the bottle banks vomiting a cocktail of mixed-strengths joyfulness and sorrows.

The words on the pages are finally set free. Letters fluttered in the cold winter’s air mixed with putrid stench of the crushed rubbish and the damp sweetness of the decomposing leaves.

And what a strange sense of relief. It had taken me over twenty years to finally let go of the manuscript of my Master’s dissertation, and fifteen my doctorate’s. In this season of taking stock and counting our blessings, I decided to carry out my intellectual laundry. I see my younger self at different stages of my life, traversing strange paths and landscapes: from the blinding lights of the cities to the astonishingly clarity of darkness of the high mountains…. I was soaring above ordinariness and mediocrity. And it was only right that I believed that my words were my wisdom and my wisdom should be preserved…. 

We are so sure of our immortality. Each sound we utter, each word we chew over, each sentence we form, each paragraph we craft and each piece of writing we construct. We believe that they are our gift to mankind, gospel to be learned and to abide by. How laughable that notion seems now…. Our imperishable intellect. Our precious cleverness.

The wind turns over another leaf. It creeps along under the mighty scraps of metallic waste. But, you look up. Close your eyes and listen

the night skies are bejewelled with shimmering stones by the shy seamstress the many rivers tell the strangest of the tales in poly-tongues and glisten like silver wires holding the beleaguered wildernesses in one piece the ferns and moss that reassure the bewildered forests and the mantis that persists to threaten its imaginary challenger with hyperbolic gesticulations of its weightless machetes a single snow flake melting in a gloved palm

and the gentlest of the ebbing that coaxes the stubbornest rocks

The soldiers of our regiment. Words. Words. Words. The prisoners of our pride. 

I came home and set other inmates free

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Teaching Grit, Character and Resilience through Literacy

Also known simply as “check your work before you hand it in!”

As English teachers, we lament and resent the relentless repetition of highlighting basic literacy errors in our students’ written work. Yet, we never seem to be able to eradicate this accuracy deficiency. All too common is because of the amount of work we cover in our curriculum, compounded by the need to mark several pieces of work produced as a result. It is hardly surprising that under such time pressure, inadequate attention was spent on some “natural” part of the the writing process, checking, proofreading, redrafting, checking again, until the piece is free from glaring errors. Unsurprisingly, such rush to produce written work has encouraged some sloppy attitudes towards work in our students as a consequence. “The teacher will do it”. 

It is time we made time. Bring back responsibility, pay attention to details and start crafting.

And the way to do it is through checking basic literacy errors, proofreading, drafting and redrafting. Highlighters and pens of various colours may be useful, too.

This is how I have been doing since last year after some calculation of estimated time required to mark all classes as a teacher with a full teaching load across all Key Stages (3 – 5).

My basic principle is simple. I direct my students to check their extended writing tasks in English by means of a literacy checklist after their initial drafts. Instead of collecting their books in to mark straightaway, then we move on to complete another piece of writing, I slow down the process and reduce the number of tasks. I spend the next lesson or two, including homework time, to guide them through the process of checking, proofreading and redrafting.

The result has been pleasing. In this way, I am able to give more feedback on developing reading and writing skills, plus addressing some stylistic issues relevant to the individuals or the group. Less time is spent on correcting basic errors. 
I use these lists and I customise to suit the nature of the writing tasks.

My drafting and redrafting process:

Start with basic literacy skills required in almost all types of texts.

1. Capital letters at the start of each sentence (green, or whatever colour, pen in hand)

2. Capital letters for proper nouns (people’s names, place names, days of week, month of the year and the Bible, etc.)

3. Full stops at the end of each sentence (unless it ends with a question, exclamation or ellipsis)

4. Possessive apostrophe 

5. Common homophones: there/their, our/are, were/where/we’re, etc.

Then depending on the task, customise by using key skills in Assessment Objectives, scaling up to the top band.

Reading:

Check PEEAL – or PEDAL or whatever acronyms that are used – first (first draft) before using the checklist, then check…. 

6. Quotation marks

7. Hinge words/connectives/discourse markers

Writing (select features relevant to types and purposes of the texts:

6. Adjectives (use Dictionary app or online thesaurus to replace “nice” and “bad”

7. Adverbs

8. Similes

9. Metaphors

10. Alliteration

11. Repetition

12. Hyperboles

13. Oxymorons

14. Tones (humour, sarcasm)

15. Adverb sentence starter

16. -ing starter

17. Double adjective starter

18. One-word or a short sentence paragraph 

19. Imaginative paragraphing 

20. Full range of punctuation 

21. Statistics

22. Anecdotes

23. Technical language

24. Expert endorsement

25. Passive voice

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