Posts Tagged ‘English teacher’

End of Term Blues: Why am I still teaching?

July 11, 2015

Why Am I Still Teaching?

It’s nearly the end of another teaching year – too many to count now! But I end this year sad and uncertain: what is my purpose, what am I actually doing as an English teacher in this country, under the latest changes?

Up until recently I have been confident about the importance and purpose of my subject and my job. English is central to the life opportunities of the young, as is Maths (yes, and other subjects are important too!). English is about the basics: reading and writing, but it is so much more than that – it is about communicating, thinking, creating, exploring, arguing; using the imagination. Well, it was, and maybe it still is at home, in Oz. But in the UK, with every change that is implemented English becomes an impoverished subject; ironically like most of the students whose life chances it purports to support.

In the reaction to the endemic cheating or gaming of the system through Course Work and then Controlled Assessments, key questions were not asked. No-one scratched their head and said: Hey, why are all these schools and teachers cheating to get better results? Why is this happening? Dots were not joined and so we have a subject that should be about nuance and thought, time and consideration, about planning and editing and drafting that is being wholly externally examined. My subject has been bastardised by people who have no idea about English and certainly not the first idea about young people. My subject has been hijacked by people who did not struggle at school, who have not listened to teachers or parents, who reside in some sort of alternative universe where education is stuck in the 1950s.

bookshevles2

Here are some questions that should have been asked before the latest changes were made.

1. What is the point of English in schools?

2. How can we make this subject relevant to non-readers, to those who don’t write, or see much of a future for themselves?

3. What skills and knowledge do we want them to have?

 

I used to think the point of English was to foster a love of reading, to encourage students to read for information, for pleasure, to develop their own language and ability to extract meaning from a text, to think about ideas and meaning and come to their own considered opinions. Fiction’s purpose was to start a dialogue, to tap into their experiences and move them beyond that, to consider other views, other world’s, other ways of being and seeing.

Reading lead to discussion, exploration, arguing, justifying an opinion. It led to accepting there were other points of view, other ways of seeing and understanding things; it also showed you were not alone, not the only one feeling the way you did. Reading lead to writing – personal responses, essays, critical analysis and creative responses, a story, a letter to a character, an extra chapter, and alternative ending, something original using an element from the text. Writing meant thinking, planning, writing, experimenting, crafting, drafting and editing before producing a final product worthy of ‘publication’ or assessment. Not a tick box exercise about triplets and wow words and as much punctuation as you can shove in to get an extra mark.

How many skills can you identify from that paragraph?

There is a large body of evidence that shows that reading fiction, especially good quality well written fiction, is good for us. It enhances empathy, our ability to connect to others, to understand people and how to work with them. Reading also develops our ability to concentrate, to sustain activities, as well as develop our vocabulary and understanding of how language works – the nuts and bolts of punctuation, sentence structure, vocabulary choices and effects. We learn how to be good writers from being good readers.

books

But the new curriculum is not about love of anything – certainly not books or kids. There is nothing modern or particularly accessible on the new list for GCSE – a raft of Shakespeare, as to be expected, 19th century texts that many will never access – Great Expectations is a great story but too long; Pride and Prejudice a bit too much romance and marriage; Jekyll and Hyde may be short but its language is impenetrable. Most of the 20th century texts stop short of the 1960s. I’m not sure what these texts bring to a modern child, how they will find reading less of a chore, a king-size bore from the xenophobic list created by Michael Gove, the master educationalist.

I’m not sure what future the politicians see for young people, I’m not sure what they think they will achieve by a retro Sabre-tooth Tiger curriculum that takes no account of the modern world, of the impact of technology on language, on the way we create and receive information. I wonder what world these students are being ‘prepared’ for.

dead angel

I wonder how I will connect texts and tasks to their experiences, to make them see the relevance of what we do for 5 hours a week. I wonder how I can resist the pressure to make everything we do about exam skills and preparation, because that will be the push, the fear from above about exams now that we have nothing else to tell us how students are progressing.

I wonder how much longer I can do this job, dictated to by idiots and fools who have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager, to be at school, to be constantly tested, to prepare for a future from within an education system that is not fit for purpose. (Images from Private Collection)

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An English Teacher’s Tale

February 21, 2012

Extreme Reading – A story for modern times.

Once upon a time there was an English teacher who had lost the will to live. She had been teaching for more than twenty years and in nearly all of that time had loved her job, enjoyed the kiddies, but most of all had rejoiced in reading: in teaching books to students. Reading novels with them: discussing character and plot; setting and atmosphere; themes and ideas. Most of all themes and ideas: all the things you could learn and think about just from reading.

She loved that reading took you to different places, where wonderful things happened, where you met interesting characters, travelled to different places and times, where words were beautiful and magical, where the imagination was king and all things were possible.

She had loved reading to her own children when they were young: bringing them the beauty of words, the possibility of language and the power of reading and discovering things for yourself. She still read for herself: life was incomplete without a book to read. It was not a proper birthday if there wasn’t at least one book amongst the present pile. When she had moved across the world she had brought many of her books, collected over a whole lifetime, with her. How could she live without reading?

But now her energy had gone, her life’s work rendered meaningless in the face of too many students who did not give a shit about books, who did not believe as she did. Who came from homes where reading was a chore not a pleasure, where books barely existed. Who did not care as she did about books and reading.

She tried all her usual tricks – read to them, chose a class novel that was interesting and accessible, shared the reading and the discussions, set engaging assessment tasks. She took them to the library – the new shiny library with the new shiny wonderful librarian. She let them choose books they were interested in.

She did not force them to read classics or anything at all – Manga and cars and football stars and vampires all the way. All she asked was that they read. But still too many wandered the library listlessly, picking over the books like vultures over carrion. Or sat with a book only pretending to read.

She was tired of the negativity: Reading’s boring, Miss. She was fed up with the passive resistance: My book’s at home; I left it in my locker; I didn’t get it renewed. She was irritated beyond belief by their ignorance: Why do I need to read? Reading novels won’t get me a job. My brother says reading’s stupid.

It was too late for her prince to rescue her: he’d come years ago and had not been rich enough or famous enough to save her from a life of work. But it hadn’t mattered then. Once, not all that long ago, there had been joy in teaching English, in a classroom where everyone read something and knew books were the key to their future and wanted to talk about their experiences of the text.

And so, one night towards the end of her Spring half term holiday she awoke from a frenzied dream where Michael Wilshaw (the saviour of Ofsted and defender of all students who deserved better teaching) was casting her out, having her sacked because none of her students would read. ‘You are a failure,’ he boomed at her. ‘And so you must be gone. Do not darken the doors of schools in this country ever again. You should be ashamed of yourself.’

Alarmed and afraid she rushed outside into the cool of the dark night. ‘Oh,’ she cried to the black sky, ‘help me. I have lost my way and don’t know what to do. My students hate reading and I hate them because they hate reading. It’s true I am a failure. I no longer care. What can I do?’

The sky rumbled for a moment and then said, ‘Get a grip. You’re meant to be intelligent, you’re meant to be imaginative, think of something. Get over yourself, woman and do your job. Think like a teenager, not one from your generation but one from now. Even your own daughter only reads that Twilight rubbish and loads of Manga.’

‘But what?’ she wailed. ‘What can I do?  I have no idea.’

The sky seemed to laugh. ‘Well, I guess Wilshaw will have you sacked if you can’t out-think a bunch of fourteen year olds, and deservedly so. Get competitive, remember you’re tough, don’t let the other guys win.’

In the morning the sun was bright in a pale blue sky and she had the answer. Extreme Sports – Reading for ENA2. Select your teams, read your books, discuss your books, earn daily points; win weekly Vivos and the big end of term prize. Which team is the best at reading?

She imagined the teams in her head, saw them at their desks, reading every lesson, no books forgotten. Then on Friday a lesson spent discussing in detail one aspect of the novel – begin with central characters, ask challenging questions. Share each book, decide which character was the best, award points for each response, share with the class. Vote on the most informative and engaging speaker. Award team points, declare a weekly winner. Set up a league board – see the points amassing. Raise the stakes for the next week…

She would make them readers if it killed her. And it probably would, but she would rather die trying than give up altogether. She was not about to let her nightmares come true! (Images from personal collection and courtesy Google Images)