Here’s the news in Irish education:
Schools aren’t churches
Those are the headlines, have a happy return to school…
Here’s the news in Irish education:
Schools aren’t churches
Those are the headlines, have a happy return to school…
Here are seven things I read this week that made me think, inspired me or taught me something I didn’t know
Eric Nebbia: Ways Teachers Avoid Saying “No.”
Gary Kaye: Education is a marathon, not a sprint
The Quirky Teacher: Are teachers their own worst enemy?
Interesting Literature Blog: A short history of word ‘serendipity’ and its literary origins
From the Archives of the Irish Times May 30th, 1959: The first VW ever built outside Germany was assembled in Ballsbridge
Find all my Reads of the week on Twitter here.
And the archive of previous posts is here.
This started as some self-reflection and planning for my Leaving Certificate English teaching. It’s an interesting exercise, to try to write down everything, or almost everything we do, and it takes ages! There may be something you can use here for your own class, or you may think I’m way off the mark, but here it is.
First we* take a look at the weekly timetable and break up the week. We make one day for Poetry and one day for Language. They also help as a constant: if it’s Monday it must be poetry! The other three are Reading days.
On the dedicated Poetry day, we read one poem a week, six poems, with biography at the beginning and an overall exercise to finish. This might not sound like a lot of time on each poem but it works. It means I need to know everything I can about the poems, in case of questions, and I need to draw in the poem from the previous week to build an picture of the poets work. (This is a type of Comparative exercise too, comparing poems as texts). At the end of each class I set an exercise and they build up a collection of these which we discuss before they write a piece of their own.
I don’t give notes though. They’ve got to listen, write and contribute to make the poems come alive, not everybody likes it, but everyone has to think or sink. I like to read four poets’ work in 5th Year.
On the dedicated Language day (or Paper One day as it’s called), we begin with some basics around how a paragraph works. We look at the marking scheme very early on and very briefly to see how their papers will be marked and we always do a marking exercise with an exemplar (usually from the Examiner’s Report, or something I’ve copied from a previous year) for homework. This is always fun. I keep a file of things I’ve read that we can use and I’m turning more to Instapaper to keep some track on these. For example I have two reviews of the same restaurant which are wildly different (an unavailable online, sorry), I use them to teach language and register as well as how to include, or exclude, readers in your audience.
The latest and greatest innovation on Language day is our blog. Each week someone is given the job of writing something either from an exercise or topic that we’ve been talking about or something that’s been on their minds. I read the post to the class on the day and they’re a great source of pride for the writer and inspiration for the students who have still to write. These posts are not marked. I insist on this because the Leaving Cert student is over-marked today, marked into oblivion. It’s good to have a place where they can escape this constant judgement and still know they’re doing something that helps their writing. It keeps the writing steady and helps us ‘build from the back’, writing more as the months go on. And everything they write counts.
The students have access to the blog from home so they can log on themselves. We have a class gmail account and that’s useful for Google Docs too, more on that later.
On the Reading days in Fifth Year we read all the texts with the fewest pauses necessary. We do this because we can read them straight through for pleasure, not study.
When we’re finished reading them we spend a class or two talking about them and do an exercise called ‘What’s it all about?’ which is really about drawing out some general ideas on themes we can see or motifs we liked. It goes on the whiteboard and we photograph it.
Comparative choice should be up to students to a point, I chose the single text always, but the girls chose at least one comparative text. Often it’s the movie.
We always do a movie. It fast, it’s something with which most teenagers have a language fluency and you can see three easily if you’re being very strict about your planning.
By the time we’ve read and settled on the three Comparative texts (a play, a novel,a movie) , we can start to find similarities between them. Here’s an example where we were still deciding which texts we’d include and the rough comparative exercise helped us chose. This is an Ordinary Level group where we were still deciding which movie to settle on and we’d chosen Juno and the Paycock and My Sister’s Keeper so fitting a movie with them was the exercise.
I exert only minor influence on this whole process and it pays off when you can get a long conversation about ‘mothers vs fathers’ in the texts before they’ve even begun to think about Comparative Language. If we’re lucky we might have performed or seen the play in Transition Year if I’ve got my act together!
What we’re driving at here is composing a Comparative sentence to draw the three texts together. It might look like this:
But the picture doesn’t capture the discussion about what goes in an what we need to, sometimes reluctantly, drop.
It’s my job to keep the Comparative Modes in mind, or to fit the sentence with the modes later.
I always mark to the standard scheme, it’s a laborious task, and I’m very slow but I’m trying to improve! I sometimes hold on to work so I can return it when it serves a purpose, I might hold on to an initial response to a poets work and return it when we’re revising so the student can see the progress they’ve made or not made. The reason it takes ages it because good feedback is so important and I need to think about that and tailor it to the student. Without feedback, there’s no improvement, that’s all.
The Reading classes are used to read the Single Text in 5th Year too. The first reading again is for enjoyment, there’ll be less enjoyment later, but I think we should try to enjoy one Shakespeare text before we pass out of Secondary School!
in 6th Year we use a double class (we’re lucky with the timetable in that we get an extra period in 6th Year) to read it for depth. It’s always a Shakespeare play, that’s a decision we made a long time ago and makes ordering books easier (we have a book rental scheme in our school). After reading it and probably seeing it on film in 5th Year we return to it for a close reading. I introduce character study and maybe a key theme at that stage. I like to have it read a second time by November. The third reading isn’t strictly chronological because we’ll cover characters, themes and motifs in more detail. All of this depends on which play we’re doing: Macbeth we can motor through, with Hamlet we have to take more care. It’s always better to get to see the play performed, but if it’s not possible, we try to see at least two if not three versions on film. YouTube clips can be great for character study and I put some of them up on the blog too.
Poetry Day Part 2
We also have a Poetry day in 6th year. If things go according to plan we should finish six poems from each of six poets by January of 6th Year. The we go back to each, the girls can decide the order for revision, and I give them some revision pointers and a seventh poem to tie some themes together. This is a shot of one Yeats revision class:
When we reread the a Comparative texts in 6th Year we have that comparative sentence in mind, but now we’re search for key moments so it’s a closer reading. Each student has a list of key moments of her own, we can write better from our own work, I don’t provide a set list, it’s not my study, it’s personal to them. This almost always works, if the students are listening and contributing, but that’s teaching all over isn’t it?
I’ve started to use Google Docs to collaboratively write sample answers. I used to spend hours writing them myself but now each student writes an opening paragraph on a topic we’ve chosen for practice. Then we switch everyone around, so someone different does the second paragraph. This can be done at home or in the Computer Room and I annotate it to sharpen the writing. Here’s a link to a sketchy, unfinished one:
This is what I do, and it works for me and (most of) my students but what I haven’t been able to put in here is how building a bond between teacher and student is crucial. I miss my classes when they’re finished, no doubt they don’t miss me but all of the above falls flat if you don’t include the students, give them a voice and make sure they’re comfortable expressing an opinion. I got very little chance to do that in school, my students will get every chance.
* It’s almost always we, hardly ever they or I, we’re in this together.
Feedback? It’s always good:
or comment below.
I enjoyed this blogpost and I have a few observations about the teaching of poetry, indeed of English in secondary schools.
Nostalgia. Nothing like it used to be, nostalgia. The copies of the old Soundings textbook we all treasured and passed from sibling to sibling (I have a set of 25 old and 25 brand new copies in our school bookshop) were great, and a great marketing trick to bring them back into print, but they belong to a different era. Gus Martin was my lecturer too in UCD and his trusted associate Veronica O’Brien taught me much of what I know about teaching English. But Soundings had its day. With Interim, as you say emblazoned across the cover it was always to be replaced.
As a teacher my reading habits were assaulted when the new English course arrived ten years ago or more, and in poetry I can only say that was a good thing. Taking the opportunity to refresh the list of prescribed poets every year has reinvigorated many a classroom and allowed those of us who taught the old course (and studied it!) to mix the old with the new.
But teaching poetry has never been about the particular poet for me, it has always been about empathy with the poet writing the poem, experiencing something that we can all attempt to understand. Yesterday I read Diving into the Wreck by the recently deceased Adrienne Rich with a 6th Year class, and Fear no More the Heat O’ the Sun by Shakespeare with 5th Years, a good mix of the old and the new. With the same classes I have done Hopkins, Frost, Kavanagh and Boland. We talked about patriarchy (a class of girls love that), we talked about grief, we talked about putting people in boxes and we talked about absence. I never had those conversations when I was a boy, I never had them when we used Soundings.
So what if there are no poets older than Frost on the course this year? It is not that the canon has become uncool, canons have become uncool and the interest of a class can as easily be pricked by Derek Walcott or Elizabeth Bishop as by Wordsworth and Shelley. The mention of Latin is a red herring: I never studied Latin ( philistines in schooldays outnumber those of us who opted for it and it was dropped), but I read Chaucer in school and UCD. It is to underestimate students today to say that they cannot get the same enjoyment out of those poets that we got out of Andrew Marvell. It isn’t that students can’t engage with Pope today, it’s that there’s more poetry to choose from and they can chose it. Every year I ask my students to read the poets widely and we’ll do one that they are particularly taken by, they’ve chosen Heaney, they’ve chosen Plath, are these poets not worthy of study? We may as well argue over the merits of the Beatles vs the Smiths vs Oasis and whoever else. It’s taste, and tastes change.
To take a poem, so many mere words printed on a page and change into something that a student can appreciate understand and enjoy is one of the joys of my job. (And I’ve never memorised a poem in my life except through repetition, so I can’t force my students to do what I can’t.) I don’t give notes, I don’t summarise, I talk about poetry. And often these teenagers talk back. That is what poetry should be about, a conversation between writer and reader, and if I can facilitate that once a week, I can safely say I’ve done my bit.
PS I use my Exploring English Short Story Anthology all the time at Junior Cert, Bryan MacMahon’s Windows of Wonder comes to mind. The teacher in that story was doing what we can only hope to do every time we present our students with a work of literature, opening their minds…