All change: new KS4 specifications

English subject leaders around the country have undoubtedly been on the same emotional journey as me regarding the introduction of new specifications for KS4 and 5 simultaneously (not to mention the recent KS3 changes and removal of KS3 levels). For a time, I complained it was too much. How could we possibly be expected to take on such an inordinate amount of wheel reinvention? Not to mention the purchasing of new texts from already overstretched budgets.

Then, in a moment of calm over Christmas, I turned off all technology, sat with the specification, and planned. I looked at the assessment, the time, the units, the assessment objectives. And after a while it ceased to be scary.

I’d made my peace with Literature before Christmas. Having chosen to go with AQA (albeit with reluctance), I wanted to stick with as much of the same content as I could. We currently teach both Macbeth and An Inspector Calls, and though neither would be my first choice of text, I’d rather send English teachers into classrooms armed with at least some prior experience of teaching at least some of the texts.

For the nineteenth century novel, I won’t lie: my first impulse was to go for the shortest available. We teach Jekyll and Hyde in year 9, so it would have to be The Sign of the Four (a short story that begins with the injection of illegal drugs? Sounds eminently teachable to me). We want to teach every child the same curriculum in English, and if the exam is closed text, surely the shorter the text, the more manageable?

Luckily, I was dissuaded of my instinct to game by two people: my glorious line manager (deputy headteacher; fountain of wisdom, knowledge and general calmness) and my superstar NQT (so good at what she does already, I am improving my own practice with every observation). Both looked at the text choices afresh, having not been in the room when I was descanting on the virtues of a short, easy novella. Both said “Jane Eyre.

Of course. We teach in a girls’ school, for one thing, and what female (human?) has not felt left out, isolated, unfairly treated? And, of all the texts on the list, which would I most want the children leaving us to have read? It had to be Jane Eyre. Plus, we have time – despite the weight of many exams, the course content is comfortingly manageable. Four texts in two years is no great feat.

That settled, my new worry was the Language specification. Teaching fiction would be straightforward – I stuck the word “seminal” in front of the unit title, and thought we would pretty much teach any “great” literature, thus exposing students to excerpts from the best that has been thought and/or said. The non-fiction reading/transactional writing had the greatest potential to devolve into the current, mostly meaningless skill-drilling of the current AQA language paper (my least favourite exam ever).

Instead of teaching skills, therefore, I thought about what else I most wanted our girls to leave us with. I want them to be confident young women, who are armed with knowledge of the inequalities of our world that might face them, and angered enough to challenge these. I wanted them to be inspired by female role models, and seek to achieve more as a result. I wanted them to understand the journey that women as a sex have been on, and how far we have come. It was thus that the idea of “Women Through the Ages” came about: a scheme of work that would explore female journalism and feminist polemics in the context of works such as Everyday Sexism. The unit is under construction now, and I will write more about it in due course, but I am terribly, terribly excited.

But with eleven schemes of work to write over two key stages (and that’s just for us to be 2015-16 ready), how could I convince a small team to pitch in? I agonized over the department meeting, and spent a good deal of time talking with close colleagues and loved ones about how I would go about dumping a massive amount of work at English teachers’ feet; English teachers who I already have to chase out of the office nearing 6pm on a Friday, where they trudge, still laden with exercise books, home to half eat, half watch television and half communicate with their families while marking.

Under excellent advice, I simplified my initial explanatory teaching grid (it underwent many guises, including one especially confusing multi-coloured moment), and talked teachers through it. I’d spoken to the whole department about the new specs informally leading up to this moment, and I think our conversations were invaluable to trail this meeting. We went through each paper and the mark scheme, but not in a great deal of detail. I then shared a timeline for how and when these schemes would be completed: each teacher was in a team with either myself or the 2 i/c, and each teacher had a deadline for the medium term plan, first week of lessons, second week and so on.

I could not believe the response from the team. They nodded along during the meeting, chipping in helpfully, and making positive and enthusiastic comments. When I broached the making of SoWs, no-one flinched. When I asked them to go and have a think about any they might be happy taking on and let me know by the next week, one burst out with: “can I do Jane Eyre?” I wanted to explode with gratitude.

The following week, I approached my team to see if they wanted to sit down and clarify their schemes prior to beginning the medium term plans. Each member surprised me by showing me nearly fully finished plans, three weeks prior to the deadline. There was no fear, no concern; just seeming excitement and graft at the task in hand.

I could not be more grateful to the team of amazing teachers I am privileged to manage. I was expecting resistance, struggle and unhappiness; instead, the department feels invigorated, stoic and almost merry. Long may it last.

Reading aloud

I was not a confident reader in school. Fortunate enough to begin school knowing how to read, my abilities stalled mid-way through, and I couldn’t seem to move beyond the very simplest texts. I did not read much, with the exception of some truly trashy American “series” books (Sweet Valley High; The Babysitters Club). I do not recall at any point having to read aloud in front of a class.

 In secondary school, my reading repertoire remained limited. Winning a prize for English in year 9, I spent the money on The Diary of Adrian Mole, which I’d heard was good. The Head of English was appalled. I recall my first brush with Shakespeare – a valiant year 8 teacher having us perform “Pyramus and Thisbe” from Midsummer Night’s Dream. I hated it. I don’t have any memory of reading this play in front of my peers, though it seems likely I did.

Moving into year 10, my memories of reading begin to crystallise. This was the time when anxiety entered. I was, for the first time, becoming truly excited about books, prompted by a teacher of unparalleled excellence. I was also painfully aware of my shortcomings: I’d read a lot, but it tended to be extremely straightforward. Furthermore, where I’d learned new words, I’d learned them by sight, with no idea how to pronounce them. I can’t manage to forget being picked up for saying “guess-ture” for “gesture.”

Reading texts I was challenged and absorbed by in class was balanced with abject fear: would I be asked to read aloud? If so, how could I possibly make sure I was pronouncing all the words right and reading at a decent speed and putting enthusiasm into my voice? It seemed impossible. Conversely, I loved reading plays – the shortness of the lines and the space around the text lessened the fear for me.

In short, on becoming an English teacher, I had read approximately twenty-five pages of text aloud to a classroom of students in my life. Surprisingly, this did not seem to be a problem. I was advised during training that students would benefit from “guided reading,” where they sat in groups and read to each other as I circulated, checking students were on task and understood. The painful exception was my first year’s 10 set 5, who were studying To Kill a Mockingbird, and seemed unable to read this alone. I valiantly attempted to breathe life into the text, but my shoddy reading skills (among other things) meant disengaged students. (When I finished, a marathon 287 pages later, they applauded. From relief.)

As the years went on, I’d found reading aloud becoming easier – if I’d taught a text before, for example, I would feel more confident and could put more energy into the reading. Yet mere familiarity was not enough. Last year, I decided I needed to do more. Over the course of the summer, I practiced reading aloud daily – poems, short stories, newspaper articles – whatever I happened to be reading at the time. I rehearsed. I improved.

In September, with my year 10 class I’ve written previously about, this exercise was invaluable. With reluctant readers, I found for the first time that I could engage them with the sheer entertainment of me reading. I found myself putting on voices, dramatically pausing, and even walking around the room at the same time as reading (and, most impressively I feel, at one point crawling around the room, while simultaneously demonstrating a narrator’s slide into madness in “The Yellow Wallpaper”).

Then, last week, something amazing happened.

I hadn’t asked year 10 to read aloud in front of the whole class. They had done some reading in pairs, but in an extremely limited way. I had felt happy enough “modeling” good reading for them.

But last week, as I read, a student chimed in with me. My first thought was that she was mocking me, as this class so often does (this is a common theme among many of my classes. I’m easily mocked). I paused, unsure of what to do.

And the student carried on reading.

She stopped at the end of the paragraph, and I picked it up. And then a second student chimed in. I stopped. She kept reading.

It’s the strangest and in some ways most beautiful thing I have experienced, and I hope my words here do the moment justice. In this week the class has transformed itself from one where I did all the reading, to one where students are themselves choosing to publically read, and even actively asking me if they can read aloud. I’ve never put any pressure on any of them to do this, and wouldn’t want to put them on the spot – after all, I have first-hand experience of feeling terrified of this in front of peers. But I couldn’t be more delighted that they have taken matters into their own hands.

How I plan lessons

This half term, the scheme of work for my ever delightful year 10 class is organised to produce a few pieces of coursework. The general idea is that they are exposed to a number of texts – poems, stories, news articles – and along the way they practice the key skills needed to complete the coursework. They produce so many pieces for no reason apart from variety – it lets them stretch their imagination.

This worked beautifully with year 10 last year, but I’ve noted before that my new year 10 class are in need of more. They need more exposure to the very greatest texts, with more challenge and more support at the very same time. Over Christmas, I decided that the only way I could make them write more eloquently was to make them read more eloquent writing. Poems and articles had to go – we were going to go all in for the short story.

What did they need from this term? The most glaring omission was vocabulary – they needed to know many, many, many more words. The texts I would choose would have to be complex. They needed to describe in more detail, and use more unusual images in their writing – I would tear my hair out if I had to read about one more “clear blue sky” or anything that was “shining like diamonds.”

The result is a lengthy scheme of work, which includes a few lessons excerpted below on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “The Rich Boy.” Last week, I sent the lessons to our resident NQT (who also happens to be one of the most accomplished teachers I’ve yet encountered – I feel like with every observation, she’s giving me CPD) who commented: “these are amazing.” (They’re not; she’s very generous.) “Did they take you ages to make?”

And honestly? They really didn’t. I think once I’d cracked the “planning formula”, every lesson became simple to plan. My wonderful first and second year mentor (who has taught me everything I know – I should definitely rename this blog: “What Carly told me about teaching”) told me the key steps to planning a lesson, and the order you do them in. I share this wisdom now.

1. Plan the learning objective

What do you want students to learn in this lesson? No, what exactly? Think about what they can realistically either learn, practice or revise in the time given.

 2. Plan the key task

And in English, this should, with very few exceptions, be an extended paragraph. The question should invite them to show you what they have learned. For a long time, I pasted my objective onto this slide to remind me of this.

3. Plan the plenary

How will you check immediately, there and then, that they have understood? How will you address misconceptions? How will you extend the top end? How will you invite questions on the learning? How will you make students project their thoughts forward to the next lesson? A plenary should probably address one of these questions, depending on the specific context of your lesson in the scheme of work.

4. Plan the starter

This should be something every single student in the room can do immediately. It needs to be open enough to allow students to extend their ideas (there is no point in being halfway through the register and having seven students thumb-twiddling). Ideally, it should engage students’ thoughts. The harder the class, the more important this latter point becomes.

5. Plan everything else

What is the “stuff” that students will do between the start and end of the lesson to enable them to accomplish their writing task to a high level of competency? In the lessons below, this is reduced to: read. Learn the new words. Discuss the key questions. Review the key skills. More accomplished teachers than I will insert their exciting, bell/whistle moments here. I’ve never been good at this creative ilk of teaching, and almost all of my lessons are identical. (I tell myself this is good for students in a different way; the rhythm of my lesson will always be the same, giving them security and certainty. I acknowledge I should try to mix it up more.)

I’ve shared the series of lessons below. I’m not especially proud of them; they’re not my “best work.” But these are lessons that work, teach students new things, and did not take me any time at all to make. And, for an NQT in particular, that is vital.

The Rich Boy lessons

Reading exercise books

Marking as an English teacher means you spend most of your week reading. If I am honest, most of what I read is what I mark. A set of exercise books can become a novel; more than a novel depending on the class size. A novel, of course, full of repetition and analysis. Perhaps, then, more a book of critical essays.

A recent conversation prompted me to realise that while anyone I have worked with knows that marking is 1. My absolute favourite part of teaching and 2. The way I spend almost every evening, weekend and holiday, I have somehow neglected to say very much on the subject here. Below is my attempt to shoe-horn my ideas about marking into a blog about reading.

Teaching lessons: in my first year in the classroom, I found I wasn’t terribly good at it. I read Phil Beadle’s How to Teach, wherein he writes: “make no mistake: this is the most important thing you do as a teacher… mark their books with dedication and rigour and your class will fly.” Essentially, Beadle contends, you can be the greatest educator ever, but if you don’t mark, your students won’t progress; conversely, you can be a bit of a rubbish teacher, but if you mark well, great things could happen. In my first-year-teacher despair, I clung to marking.

While my mentor and line manager watched me hunched over yet another pile of books (“you’re marking again Jo?”) and begged me to instead spend more time planning semi-decent lessons, I ploughed on regardless, writing buckets of WWWs and EBIs on every page a child’s pen had reached. I handed books back, and rushed to deliver my next rubbish lesson.

Happily, what I learned from this was to balance my time more effectively. I went on to spend less time marking, to mark less frequently and say less, and taught better lessons where children went on to make some progress, as well as making my life less of a nightmare.

Indeed, as the years have gone on, it seems that the thinking around marking, at least in my sphere of existence, has become ever-more progressive and manageable. If the mantra of my mentors early on was “mark less!”, it is now “write less!”

I’ve read so many excellent blogs on time-saving marking, notably from Joe Kirby; and Alex Quigley has signalled my earth-changing, life-altering view of marking, and made me realize that “marking” as a term is horribly outdated. What we need to talk about, instead, is feedback. (Indeed, Quigley’s department has a feedback policy as opposed to a marking policy, a semantic shift I adore.)

When we mark a student’s book, they need to spend about as much time doing something with that marking as I spent giving feedback. This means that rather than writing “nice notes” as I had been advised early on (“put something on every page, so Ofsted don’t think you’ve ticked and flicked”), I do tick and flick their notes (if they are there and in good order; if they are not I tend to write “WHERE ARE YOUR NOTES?!”). I mark their extended writing closely, but not too closely if it’s riddled with errors – most of their ideas are good, and the human brain can process only so much red/pink/green ink.

At the end, I write an encouraging comment (unless they have been truly lazy) and a target. I used to check students had met their target the next time I marked their books, but I now recognize this is not the most effective way of target setting. I now phrase their target in such a way as to encourage editing there and then. And, crucially, I give students time to go back and improve their writing.

The first ten to twenty minutes of the following lesson can then be spent improving a decent paragraph and making it marvelous. The efficacy of this exercise very much depends on what you have written as a teacher; your comments need to be specific, detailed and open-ended, allowing students to add to their responses without needing you to stand beside and cajole each letter from their biro.

Interestingly, in our department’s mock-Ofsted last year, the English specialist pulled out a couple of books that he believed showed outstanding marking. These books had a relatively small amount of ink spilled, but it was done in a miraculously effective way. Teachers had written short, pointed questions at key moments, and students had responded and improved their work. Easy as that: marking not to build confidence, not to check every error, not to show Ofsted we have marked – marking, instead, that allowed students to progress, and allowed teachers to mark without wanting to kill themselves. What a relief!

I haven’t written about the state students keep their exercise books in, because it’s not something I’m especially concerned about. Perhaps another year I will endeavour to inspire students to keep their books pristine, but I’m not a very visual person, and I can’t help but overlook dog-eared covers for the glorious writing inside.

All of this sounds so painfully straightforward, I wonder if anyone is still reading. There will always be new ideas, and new approaches. Yet the core of marking is beguilingly simple: mark often, mark strategically, mark specifically, and make the students do some work too.

Being the teacher Year 10 deserve

I have what has been termed as an “intervention” group in year 10. Last year, when making the set lists, I decided to make a top set and then mix the rest of the year; it was then decided that certain students would take one less GCSE and have three extra lessons a week: one in English, two in Maths. So the two intervention groups came about, and I took one.

Why do these students need extra English? It’s not because they’re stupid – but then, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a stupid child. It’s not because they’re illiterate, although I do wish they would read more. They seem to be behind their peers, in terms of their raw data, and for that I can think of many reasons, which I would imagine are the same reasons any “intervention” child is behind. What it boils down to is time and effort. At some point, for some reason, these students have lost time in English. They have missed lessons, or they have been in lessons in body only. Many of them aren’t the well behaved angel children I am accustomed to dealing with (joking – though my year 11 class does seem fairly rammed with angels).

The bottom line is that these children deserve the best teacher. They have to cover more ground in less time; they have less than two full years, and time is ticking.

But I’m filled with doubt. Am I the teacher they deserve? Can I dedicate enough time, energy and effort myself? With all my other classes exam classes, with running a department, and with the additional responsibilities of being a member of the SLT, can I be that teacher?

These children need to be inspired. They need to feel awe and wonder in their English lessons. They need to be thirsty for knowledge, keen to read and learn and close the gap. Can I muster the energy to inspire them six times a week?

These children need to be nurtured. They need to be comforted when things go wrong, they need to feel safe in my classroom, they need to know that they have the space to get things wrong because that is what learning is. They need to be cared for, and their parents need to be told when they are wonderful, every time they are wonderful. Can I care for each and every child individually?

These children need to be in the room. They might behave in ways which eventually lead to being sent out, but when they do that in every lesson every week, it is clear that they are desperate to avoid the learning. They need to be sanctioned in multiple ways, outside classroom time, and those sanctions need to be both horrible and long. Can I improve my planning and pedagogy to the extent that I can ensure no-one needs to be sent out of my classroom? Can I follow up every sanction relentlessly?

These children need to receive excellent feedback. They need to fill their books with work they are proud of, with paragraphs that improve every week, where they understand the next steps towards achieving in English. Can I mark every book every week, let alone every lesson, with comprehensible guidance to lead them in the right direction?

I don’t think there is a teacher in the world who hasn’t had a class like my year 10. In fact, there probably isn’t a teacher anywhere in the world who doesn’t have this class right now: the class where every moment is vital, every interaction make or break, every comment taken to heart. This week, I have invited teachers into my lessons and taken their feedback, tracked down students in between lessons to smooth over issues, phoned parents and re-read parts of my go-to teacher manual Teach Like a Champion before and after every class. Next week there will be more visitors to the class, and more phone calls, more emails, more marking, more reading, more encouraging, more consoling, more understanding.

Things are improving, but I’m not the teacher they deserve.


Teaching tough texts in a world of “Twilight”

Last week, I outlined my experience at TLT and the fantastic sessions I attended. This week, I’ll outline my own session and some of the thoughts others shared.

I opened by exploring the idea of “rigour”: this seems to be one of a few educational buzz-words du jour. With the new “reformed” GCSEs in English, in particular, we are being forced to do away with such “non-rigorous” texts as Of Mice and Men (about which I have written before) in favour of more rigorous texts – which seem to be defined as nineteenth century, English composed ones. With tougher vocabulary. Along with this new rigour comes a new balance of language and literature; with progress 8 double-weighting the qualifications, no longer will schools prioritise language – a joy to English teachers everywhere.

At KS3, though, we might be mindful of balancing rigour with freedom and, dare I say, fun. Without ever losing sight of the qualifications we need to prepare students for, we also might wish to think about ways to engage and delight students in tough texts. I shared my own school’s current KS3 curriculum, with an unapologetic literary focus: we teach language through literature, and there are no “writing to inform” units or “media exploration” studies. Yet with such a tough curriculum comes a caveat: I don’t want my students to be passive recipients of literature, but rather literary critics.

Next, I shared one of my year 7’s paragraphs on poetry:

H lovely parag

Although this was meant to be an analytical essay, I couldn’t help but be proud of her. She really seemed to have engaged with the purpose and importance of poetry, even though this wasn’t something I’d ever explored with the class. Such engagement, I hope, will stand her in good stead for the tough qualifications she has ahead of her.

I didn’t want to denigrate Twilight, a book I actually really, really loved (and have written about it here), and used this as a springboard to explore personal reading. Noting the Matthew Effect (the word rich are often set to become word richer; the word poor poorer) I feel we, as English teachers, have an obligation to close the gap in our students’ experiences of literature. I cited the reading assemblies I have shared before on this blog as examples of my quest for students to take up the gauntlet of personal reading, and referred to Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and some of the ideas I’ve explored before here. While Miller’s entire curriculum revolves around personal reading, how much should we be taking from this idea? How central should personal reading be in our practice? This formed the start of our conversations in the session, and I was interested to hear the thoughts of the lovely attendees and their fabulous ideas.

One mentioned some students simply don’t know how to pick a book, and explained her students tended to look at the books without even handling them, and then said “I can’t find something” – she had to model flicking through and reading the blurb for them.

Chris Hildrew mentioned his school had set up a “media frenzy” around some high quality texts, leading to students picking these up, reading them and discussing them in the way they had The Fault in Our Stars in response to the worldwide media attention this book has drawn.

In order to create literary critics though, we need more than just readers. I explored what makes a text suitable to teach, and shared some strategies I’ve used in the past for making these texts accessible. I then asked attendees to think of a student they were struggling to engage with reading and/or literary criticism, and formulate a plan of action for engaging that student. Some excellent ideas arose from this, many of which I will be taking and trialling myself – so thank you!

Once again, I will say that I had a fantastic time at TLT. During this last week of term, I have been more full of hope and energy than ever before of that particular week, and it can only be as a result of that day of meeting, sharing, learning.

Teaching tough texts in a world of Twilight

More Reading Lists

Meeting my classes for this year for the first time, I was reminded more than ever of the great and pressing need for children to read.

I’m becoming more convinced of the power of sheer enthusiasm to move children to action. On giving the reading list below to my year 11, one student said: “Miss, can you read it out and talk about the books? It makes us want to read them more.” It was partly unfortunate, and partly brilliant, that their head of year walked in just as I was explaining Holly Golightly’s real job. A book containing taboos and crossed boundaries will be readily sought.

Year 10 needed little less convincing. They are a designated “extra English” group (they have more lessons of both Maths and English a week, having been chosen from their end of year 9 levels), and so are very small. They don’t feel “extra”; but they do feel urgent – yet they have started year 10 with the right mindset and I truly hope this continues. The very lesson after my book list talk, a third had not only taken their list books from the library, they were proudly putting them on their desks for the duration of the lesson lest the opportunity to read arose (they have not yet realised it rarely does).

Year 9 may prove more challenging. Again, an “extra English” group, there are far more of them; they are a “normal sized” class (if such a thing can be said to exist). At times, they felt like a mounting wave of apathy towards reading. Not particularly boisterous, they simply haven’t yet grasped the urgency of their need to read. Paragraphs are littered with “nice”, “ok,” and “gotta.” I’ve taken to packing them up five minutes before the end to read to them from a book I have loved, but so far they seem unmoved. I will wear them down.

A few people have mentioned that the lists are helpful, and in this continued hope to help I reproduce a couple here, in the wording exactly as has been given to the students.

*   *   *

Year 11: books you absolutely must read to take your mind off the impending doom of the hardest year of your academic lives


Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

In under 100 pages, this book explores the life of a New York woman who lives in an unpredictable way, and who expresses her dreams beautifully.

J.D. Salinger: Catcher in the Rye

Have you ever felt angry? Unhappy? Well, your suffering is nothing in comparison to Holden Caulfield, the angriest, unhappiest human in literature (probably).

William Golding: Lord of the Flies

A plane crash leaves a group of boys stranded on a desert island. In making their own “rules”, disastrous consequences ensue.

Henrik Ibsen: A Doll’s House

This is a play (so very, very short) about a woman trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, remembering she still has a mind.

Arthur Miller: The Crucible

Another play: this one explores a group of girls living in a stifling, controlling society. Once they realise how they can achieve power, all hell breaks loose… Literally.

Nick Hornby: About a Boy

A man invents a son, which brings him into a new circle of friends. Key themes include: falling in love, battling hardship, and a Christmas song that won’t die.

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath

If you enjoyed “Of Mice and Men” you will love this novel – longer, more painful, more tragic even than George and Lennie.

Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice

Whatever your preconceptions of Austen, this book is simply hilarious. A (romantic) comedy of manners, including the worst proposal of marriage you will ever read.

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina

I think you’re ready for the powerful and life-changing emotional charge of Tolstoy, and where better to start than a beautiful but troubled young lady?

Christopher Marlowe: Dr Faustus

Faustus wants to be more intelligent (don’t we all?) so he conjures the devil (as you do) and sells his soul for a few years of high-jinks. What could possibly go wrong?

Philip Roth: The Human Stain

Despite being completely hilarious, this book deals with (and challenges) the notion of “race” and our ideas about it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night

No book will ever match Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, but this novel follows a failing marriage and fascination with a young girl… And is scarily similar to Fitzgerald’s own life. (Read Gatsby first though. You won’t regret it.)

Raymond Carver: Will you please be quiet please?

Carver’s short stories, some fewer than ten pages long, paint interesting and troubling images, and show insight into our souls.

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front

A depiction of World War I told from the German perspective. Powerful and extraordinary.

Walt Whitman: Song of Myself

Why not, if you’re a great poet, write a poem all about YOU? Whitman did, and it is brilliant.

Alex Garland: The Beach

A group of tourists create the perfect world on a beach in Thailand. What could possibly go wrong? (Spoiler: everything. This book is horrifying.)

Graham Greene: The Quiet American

A journalist living overseas becomes entangled in a knot of love and politics.

Ian Fleming: Casino Royale

Like the Bond films? Read a Bond book.

Sebastian Faulks: Engleby

Welcome to the mind of an increasingly concerning individual. Enter, marvel, leave in horror.

Ian McEwan: Atonement

A well-told story, full of misunderstandings caused by children knowing too little.

Truman Capote: In Cold Blood

A book following murderers through their lives, and their experiences facing the death penalty. Based on a true story.

*   *   *

Year 13 reading list:


Useful for your exam:

Bram Stoker: Dracula

The original vampire novel. Think about how women are represented though, and what them becoming a vampire might be a metaphor for…


Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

A poem, but one which will darken your soul. Truly terrifying. And what does it mean? (Please tell me.)

Matthew Lewis: The Monk

This has been called an exaggeration of every Gothic trope imaginable. It is, but it is also very entertaining, and a little disgusting.


Edgar Allen Poe: “The Tell-Tale Heart”

A very, very, very short story but well worth reading. Dark and psychological gothic text.

Robert Lewis Stevenson: “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”

Most useful companion to Frankenstein, and less than 100 pages. Can you see the links?

Useful for your soul:

Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray

A man wishes to never be old and to always be beautiful. This wish is granted. What could possibly go wrong? (Hint: lots.)


Colum McCann: Let the Great World Spin

The intertwined stories of various New Yorkers, under the shadow of a man walking a tight-rope between two sky-scrapers.


David Lodge: The Art of Fiction

Great ideas on literature. When you finish, you can read one of Lodge’s (hilarious) novels to learn more about university life.


Donna Tartt: The Secret History

Don’t get your ideas about university life from this book, but this one will stay with you a long time.


Dave Eggers: The Circle

An oddly familiar internet company and its quest for making information freely available starts to feel a little like Orwell’s 1984.


Margaret Atwood: The Edible Woman

One woman’s quest to find herself. Amusing but important also.


Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Exploration of the impact on native inhabitants of Western “do-gooders.”

23 books which changed my life

The original title of this document was “10 books which changed my life.” It was rapidly clear that I would not be able to cut down my selection so easily.

 I made this list as a parting gift to my year 11 class. Having only taught them for one year, I am racked with the guilt of having done little more than push them through two courses, re-do coursework, and rehearse exam technique; throwing only a handful of reading lists at them along the way. Each student in my year 11 class deserves more from their education in English, and I will always regret this lack.

I have utterly loved teaching them: I’ve never bonded with a class so quickly, which is absolutely down to their warmth, energy and boundless personality. They accepted me, and trusted me; in return I put them in the best position I could to pick up a few GCSEs. I’ll also, strangely perhaps, miss their parents: the support and encouragement and gratitude I’ve heard down the phone on my Thursday evening quests for contact have made a huge difference in my students’ commitment and effort this year.

Huge regrets. If any of them go on to study English at A-level, which a surprising number have hinted they might, I hope they find more inspiration and love of literature there.

A number of students came to see me and have the list, but the year group was granted surprise study leave at the final hour, and so not obliged to come into school yesterday. In the unlikely event that one of my most dear children ever stumbles over this post, I’ve pasted the entire list below as I would have given it to them on Friday. Year 11: you are truly amazing humans. Here you go.

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With very few exceptions, each of these was read between the age of 16 and 19. I think those three years are formative, and what you read then will leave an indelible mark on you. I encourage you to read, read, read now – as much as you can.

J.D Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye

This short novel seems to me to epitomize everything it means to be a teenager. It is the rallying cry of disaffected youth.

 Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray

This story is part horror, part humour; wholly Gothic in setting and yet eerily familiar. The ending will never leave you.

 J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter

This writer reminded me that the best books to read aren’t always the ones being taught at school or university. Pure pleasure reading!

 Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot

This play made me think more than any book I had ever read before. What is it all for? Why are we here? What are we waiting for?

 Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman

I’ve never cried so much before or since because of a book. This play explores a truly human tragedy; one we can all relate to.

 Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters

This was the first book of poems I had read cover to cover, and it seems to tell the story of a once bright love crumbling, leaving only remorse.

 Jane Austen: Emma

I dreaded studying Austen – I thought it would be hard, and boring. It is, in fact, hilarious and touching.

 Shakespeare: Othello

This is my favourite play. Not only one which explores ideas of prejudice, but also one which reveals how we tick, and how we can be ingeniously manipulated.

 John Steinbeck: East of Eden

More than Of Mice and Men, this epic tome brings the suffering and hope of the 1930s West Coast of America into sharp focus.

 F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

An epic tragedy. Love, regret, carelessness and humanity, along with some of the most gorgeously expressed prose imaginable. 

E.M. Forster: Maurice

My favourite book by one of my all-time favourite authors. A beautiful romance, told beautifully and feelingly.

George Eliot: Middlemarch

The whole of human life is contained in this novel: through the microcosm of a Victorian village, we see into the minds and souls of humans.

 Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure

This book was the first which brought home to me the tragic inequality of society. For all his sins, Jude is a man doomed from the outset by an accident of birth.

Vera Brittain: Testament of Youth

An autobiography of a nurse in the First World War; no war book I have read has come close to creating the emotions and experiences of that time.

 William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying

Experimental and modernist, this text is raw with suffering and emotion. Told by one family about a dead body being transported to her final resting place.

Virginia Woolf: Orlando

All of history and gendered experience told through a single character who seems to live every life.

 John Milton: Paradise Lost

A poem which retells the Old Testament. Especially powerful on the fall of Satan from Heaven, and luxuriously worded.

 Patrick Marber: Closer

A play which seemed to me to reveal what relationships were really all about. Also quite tragic.

 Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace

All of the characters are immaculately drawn individuals, believable and perfectly recognizable.

 Nancy Mitford: The Blessing

Although pessimistic, I felt at the time of reading this novel that I understood what makes marriages work. I’m no longer sure of this assertion!

 Alex Garland: The Beach

The first book I loved. A group of individuals founds a “perfect” commune away from the “real” world. And yet, the real world cannot be escaped…

 Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca

The gift of this novel is the way the narrator hooks you in. It is only after you finish that you begin to wonder if there is an alternative version of reality hiding in the pages.

 Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood

Murakami makes real for me a country I have never been to, and in an other-worldly unfolding of events also reveals true, human emotion.

Too much fun

Perhaps it is the people whose work I encounter, but I feel recently as if, in general, the advice out there for teachers right now is: don’t have too much fun. It’s all about rigorous learning. And to a certain extent, I agree: children are in school to learn; we are educators, not entertainers, and if you plan a lesson to be “fun”, chances are students will leave having not learned much. I also know that each teacher is different, and has a different style, and that variety is part of the patternless pattern of all aspects of life.

But I also know I am guilty, deeply guilty, for having far too much fun. Clearing out my phone, I found a note written on 11th August 2013 called “new school year resolutions”. Many of these were regarding having an actual life beyond school, but the last reads: “improve rigour of learning – set the tone.”

Anyone who has met me will be aware that 1. I have zero capability of poker face and 2. I smile too much. Neither of these aspects bode well for a teacher. Somewhere along the line, I have learned to do an impression of an angry face, which is moderately effective. (Though quite a few of my students find this face hilarious, so I’m not sure it ever quite has the desired effect.)

You see, selfishly and stupidly, I still can’t quite get over my luck. Every single day I get to turn up to a place filled with wonderful colleagues, a desired level of challenge, a sense of academics, books, and children who really, really want to learn almost all the time. When I see students lining up for a lesson, even if I’ve had a terrible morning or a horrible meeting, I can’t help but grin. They’re so full of energy and hope, they give me energy and hope.

This might sound lovely to any non-teachers reading this, but too often this happiness bubbles over into fun. I’m not saying I plan lessons to entertain, I just get a little over-excited when teaching. I make only a few silly jokes and do a great impression of a teacher most of the time, but the tone of most of my lessons is a bit like a very controlled reading party.

Don’t get me wrong, I teach from the front for some time every lesson, and I make them write on their own for a quarter of the lesson. But in between that, my students can be trusted to discuss and try out and push limits and (crucially) stay on task. I still believe discussion is a necessary precursor to writing analytically. This discussion can be framed and guided; the activities around the texts can be varied and can occasionally involve a creative twist. These activities must be linked to the learning objective and the final desired outcome, but equally they must be engaging, or no-one will do them, and no-one will learn anything, and no good will come.

I have bad days and sad days, and days when it’s just not working, when I find myself giving too many warnings and even sending students out. I know I am the difference in the room, and with my usual approach that student would be sitting down doing the work. I know that extra effort on my part can make the difference, but it’s not easy to consistently manage behaviour in a completely positive way in 10 out of 10 lessons (though very many teachers do it), especially at the end of a term when you are tired and they are tired. After all, the stuff of learning is hard, and teachers and students alike both have bad, sad days.

So, where is this going? I’m not sure how much I agree with my August self. I have found that when I “set the tone” in this rigorous way, it tends to translate into overly didactic, overly controlled and overly sombre experience. I’m being someone else, and I’m not a good enough actor for my students to trust that person. I’ve always found that students respond to reality: they need to know the person you present to them is who you really are (not the same thing as knowing anything about your private, non-teacher life). And what I hesitate to add for fear of hubris is that my students do really well; often far beyond what is expected of them. If what I did wasn’t working, I would change it, immediately, despite my personal reservations and predilection for having a fun time.

Perhaps in the past too much emphasis has been placed on fun. But a lesson devoid of joy doesn’t work for me; it doesn’t make teaching a career I want to be in and it doesn’t make my students learn.

The power of poetry

I’ve mentioned it two or three thousand times before, but I’ll say it again: I love my year 7 class. I’ve had many year 7 classes before, and I’ve found them all to be cute, lovely and well-behaved, but this year my year 7s stand out in a completely different way.

Part of this, I think, is due to my time-table: in previous years, I’ve taught 3 KS3 classes and then one KS4, plus a KS5. This year, I teach all exam classes, except for my year 7: they are my one and only class I am not pushing through a GCSE. They are my one and only class who are truly mixed ability (as in: all classes are mixed to some degree; these guys aren’t set yet).

Never before have I so appreciated the freedom which comes with teaching a KS3 class. I feel relaxed around this class; I take them on wild tangents when the conversation turns. I am excited to teach them, because I’m never completely sure where a lesson will take us. I’m flexible with my planning, moving lessons and assessments around due to their emerging needs because I don’t have any hard deadlines for them, or firm content to cover.

Right now, I’m loving teaching them poetry. Some genius teacher in my department created a beautiful scheme of work on war poetry, and it has been utterly joyful to teach. We began with a lot of context, which with the topic in question is not only fun and meaningful, but also pretty easy to teach, as usually students have great prior knowledge from primary school or history classes.

We studied Wilfred Owen in so much depth, students were commenting on different poems long after we had “finished” them, in their spoken and written responses. We moved through to female poets and conscientious objectors, and finished with Japanese poets on the atomic bomb.

Throughout the year, I’ve tried to mention in every class that my aim is for them to come up with interpretations. I have shied away from doing this with previous year 7 classes, as I’d found that their interpretations were almost always insane and had nothing to do with the text. With this class I decided to take a risk.

I’m not sure what has happened, but these students are already genuinely capable of coming up with interpretations which are not only valid, but also imaginative. I do a lot more whole-class discussion with this group, partly because the room layout discourages group work and circulation (I physically cannot get to about 6 students crammed into tight rows in a tiny room) and I want to speak with every student; this might have helped them to finesse their arguments as I always want evidence from the text, something their co-students perhaps aren’t so pushed about.

The most joyous moment of the course is hard to pinpoint. I thought it was the student who was so low-achieving at primary school she came in without a level, putting up her hand and giving an interpretation that was actually amazing, which sparked an important class conversation which went on for many minutes. That same student wrote an essay a week later and neglected to use a single quote or write about a single word from a single solitary poem. I despaired.

Having just marked their final assessment on this unit, there are too many “moments” to list, but I’ll mention a few.

The student above actually put in a number of quotes in her essay and used enough technical language to wind up on the cusp of level 3, which put a massive smile on my face. One of my level 4/5 borderline students suddenly grasped how to analyse language, which pushed her over the border to the magic 5, which I know she’ll be thrilled about because she works so hard in every lesson. A number of students wrote about ideas in their final assessment which we had never covered in class; one example is at the bottom of this post, but there were many who tried something new out.

But what made me smile more than anything was the paragraph below, written by a student who also receives some intensive English catch-up.

H lovely paragWhat I loved about this was the joy in poetry that came from it. We’d not spoken specifically about the ideas she writes about, and given the parameters of the essay this came out of nowhere. But the genuine joy and love of poetry is so easy to see, and this is something which came through in so many students’ essays.

My year 7 love poetry, with the same fervour my year 11 hate poetry.

It’s easy to see why though: my year 11 study the AQA “Relationships Cluster” of poems which has some lovely poems in it, but some really, truly dull ones. I’m constantly banging on about AOs and how they need to evidence their thinking in their essays in order to hit those AOs consistently throughout. I’m also forcing them to compare poems, which is nowhere near as effective as them doing it themselves (“miss, isn’t this like…”) and feeling really smart for thinking to do it.

My new aim is to build on this love and enthusiasm; to cling to it. Is it the normal year 7 excitement which will fade by the summer term, when new priorities come into play for them? Or is there a way to continue to invest them in what we are doing?

And how do I make this happen with all my exam classes?

Interpretation parag