My Garden

Yesterday, I decided to take back control of my garden. The previous two lots of house owners had neglected it badly. What was once a beautiful, well-kept place had become an eyesore, an unpleasant environment. The invasive species, their progress left unchecked for nigh on a decade, had flourished. Brambles had invaded in great numbers and settled among the original inhabitants of the garden. Their roots were now deep and swift action was needed to keep their seedlings out, never mind tackling the thorny behemoths that stood intimidatingly in the hedging. Ivy had choked the life out of native trees, some of which had given up the fight and were only being help upright by the suffocating noose of the green hordes. Something drastic needed to be done. So I took control. I took back my garden.


To begin with I spent some time on the internet. My initial research led to pages of gardening advice. These experts explained how to deal with these unwelcome invaders. It would take time and hard work. If I didn’t individually root them out they would multiply and continue to spread. I soon got bored of reading the advice of these ‘experts’. It sounded like a really long, arduous process. I wanted immediate action. I was in no mood for patience. Time and inertia was to blame for the current mess. If only the previous occupants had taken decisive control earlier…

I changed track. I googled ‘industrial strength weedkiller’. I soon found what I was looking for. Glyphosate. This stuff would nuke the most resilient of uninvited guests. Of course, there were lots of other websites telling me not to use this chemical. Lots of boring research and facts about its toxicity and links to all kinds of horrible sounding side effects like brain cancer, leaky gut syndrome and birth defects. It read like scaremongering to me. Anyway, I’m not daft enough to be spraying it about while the kids and pets are outside. I’d obviously lock the door for a bit.

I got tooled up. Stuck on the blue marigolds. Cracked open the sachets (naturally I ignored the recommended levels and went for double dose to really blitz those buggers), strapped on the backpack and turned up the spray to full whack.

Then for the really satisfying part: taking out my anger on the weeds. Years of frustration unleashed in a single afternoon of herbal Armageddon. By the time I’d finished, there was no way they, or any of their kind, were coming back.

Sitting back in my deckchair yesterday evening with an ice cold beer in my hand I reflected on a job thoroughly well done. Why hadn’t the bone idle previous incumbents of the house – a great, once proud dwelling –  not taken this kind of swift, clearly necessary action earlier? Easing the pleasant throb of my aching forearm and wrist, I reached for another beer. It felt like time to celebrate.

I awoke this morning to an unpleasant scene. One of my children was standing, face glued to the patio window, quietly but persistently sobbing. A cat belonging to my next door neighbour – a lovely old Polish woman whose husband had died during the war –  was lying dead in the middle of my lawn. The lawn itself wasn’t looking too clever either: the once green areas surrounding those pesky dandelions that I’d fired into oblivion were now a vivid brown colour. In fact, on closer inspection, large swathes of the grassed area had taken on a moribund creosote hue. My wife, who’d spent the morning (while I was in bed, sleeping off the beginning of a metaphysical hangover) reading the back of the weedkiller label and those tedious fact-checker websites, was no longer speaking to me. The spray gets into the earth, she told me. It can take generations to break down. Whole villages in Argentina have been blighted, she went on, by the long-term consequences of using glyphosate. Nothing grows. The children are born with deformities. Large areas of the land have turned into mini-Chernobyls. What was I thinking of, she asked through furious tears?

My hangover grows, choking my brain cells and nerve endings with its tendrils of guilt. The neighbour came round for the cat’s body while I hid upstairs in the office. The kids aren’t allowed out in the garden. Worse still, I found out that there’s only a 50% chance that the weedkiller will actually work; some of the maker’s claims of efficacy are apparently exaggerated.

This isn’t a true story. This is an allegory. An unsubtle fable borne of anger and bewilderment. I did go out in the garden yesterday. I did start to deal with the brambles and ivy. I have the cuts on my arms and legs to prove it. I dug out the roots, ripped up the stems. One by one. It will take me ages. It’s not a pleasant job. But it’s the only way to do it and not permanently destroy my garden.

Thanks for reading,




Fathers and Sons

There are few absolute constants in life. My dad has been mine. Through the inevitable disputes, misunderstandings, relationship breakdowns, fits of pique and full-blown tragedies, he’s been there. Through the joy, elation and periods of tranquility, he’s been there. I don’t mean this in Oprah or Steve Wright Sunday Love Songs speak – “He’s my rock” – or anything like that. I mean that in the time that I’ve been on the planet, been to school, college, university (eventually – I took the scenic route), worked in crap jobs, worked in better jobs, got married, had kids of my own, he’s always been around. Not geographically – it often takes a good eight hours of travel to visit – but as a presence. That probably sounds like faint praise. Litotes in action. It’s not. As a teacher and a father of two young boys, I spend a lot of time reflecting on the father/son relationship. I’ve come to realise, as I approach what Turgenev (in his wonderful Fathers and Sons – not really a novel about fathers and sons, but never mind) calls ‘that troubled twilight time, a time of regrets that resemble hopes, of hopes that resemble regrets, when youth is past but old age has not yet come’, that having a father as a constant throughout your life is something not to take for granted.

As it happens, my dad has done more for me than just stay around. He (let’s drop the anonymity of the pronoun and name him as Jim) has proved to be an incredible force for good in my life. God, he can (like me) be bloody annoying at times! But I cannot help but feel very lucky to have had his benign influence in my life.

Increasingly, when teaching, Jim finds his way into my anecdotes about education. If there’s one thing, above all else, that I’m grateful for it’s the barbarous, regular yet deserved punishment he meted out: copying out of a book. When I tell this story to pupils they are genuinely incredulous: ‘What?! Your dad made you copy out, line by line, words from a book?’ Yes, I tell them, for hours, but not just your average Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. No, it was always either some obscure 1950s textbook (The History of Transportation Systems in Edwardian England or Rain: A Study into the Effects of Precipitation on the Landscape of Lincolnshire) or more frequently, the dictionary or an atlas of the world. The weird books were pure torture yet the dictionary – a tattered and mauled Concise Oxford English Dictionary – was secret bliss. To this day I’m an avid reader of dictionaries and other works of reference (please check out Chambers Dictionary of Slang). My pupils always laugh and shake their heads pityingly when I mention this but I can tell that they’re impressed by my vocabulary and my dad’s ingenious sanctions.

So this morning, as I open my father’s day card, I ponder that influence again.20160619_092452-1.jpg

The painting by my three-year-old son (it’s a flower by the way; I’m not sure why but it’s a pretty good one) makes me consider my influence on my sons. I’m an imperfect father. Like most teachers I spend far too much time with other people’s children and not enough with my own. But I’ll keep on trying to be a role model and a positive influence on them. I’ll play sport with them. I’ll give them hugs. I’ll try and find time and put the bloody phone down. I’ll definitely teach them knowledge both arcane and esoteric. Whether they like it or not.

As I type these words they are sat at my feet, the five-year-old reading aloud a story about ninja turtles to his younger brother. Will I inflict the same savage punishments on my children? Hell yes! The dictionaries are on a nearby shelf, begging to be transcribed…


Part 3: Some proper exemplars for the GCSE English Language Evaluation question


‘Roberts knew, before he had been in the exam board meeting fifteen minutes, that they meant to murder his soul.’

One of the problems with teaching a new (rushed through) specification is the lack of decent exam board example responses and sample assessment material. Indeed AQA, who I’ve otherwise been very happy with, have always been particularly poor, in my humble opinion, at providing useful benchmarks to share with staff and students. In their desperation to assure anxious English faculties that pupils will be able to cope with the demands of the new specs, all exam boards tend to produce “top level” examples that turn out to be anything but in the long run. I know this sounds very conspiratorial but I’ve had plenty of experience of seeing top marks given to error-riddled creative writing controlled assessments or high marks given to analytical essays that don’t, for example, actually analyse the writer’s use of language. When it comes round to the moderation/examination things revert to normality and the examiners/moderators only reward high marks to stuff that actually deserves it.

So, as per normal, I was a bit of a pain in the backside at a recent AQA session. This time, however, I wasn’t the only one. Sensible types who appeared usually less outspoken than me were going crazy about some of the examples that were being awarded top band marks for the English language evaluation. The issue, it seemed, was that these answers didn’t actually evaluate. Analyse yes, and often very well. But evaluate? Not really.

Having taught this section of the paper for the last seven weeks or so, and having just standardised a few papers with my team, I decided, as usual to bin the exam board exemplars and rely on our collective interpretation of the mark scheme along with  instinct/knowledge/experience/prejudices/pet hates/considerations of pupil motivation and anything else objective and subjective that goes into the awarding of a mark for an English response. It was a thoroughly enjoyable session (if you like that kind of thing – arguing whether something is relevant or judicious for example -and if not why are you an English teacher?) that greatly reassured us about our approach to teaching the evaluation element and also making very clear how far we’ve still to go before pupils nail it.

I was really interested to see how pupils did on Q3 (structure) but most intrigued to see how they handled Q4 (evaluation), which shall, from this point on, be known as “The Beast”.

Q3 was generally a pleasant surprise. Our approach is based on the structural features and strategies I’ve previously blogged about here and the pupils that have embraced Todorov and spatial shifts in particular did really well. I’ll return to this, looking at some examples, in another blog. But let’s focus on The Beast for now:

Pupil 1

Q4 pupil A.jpg

This response was typical of many Q4 efforts. Major timing issues led to a decent start being soon thwarted by the end of test scramble. There is only one quote and the pupil tends to analyse rather than evaluate. The focus on ‘they’ could have been interesting with more development but ultimately appears somewhat irrelevant in this response. We gave it a mark of 7 (Band 2) out of 20.

Pupil 2

Q4 pupil B 1Q4 pupil B 2

This pupil had scored full marks on Q1, Q2 and Q3 (which was particularly brilliant). Again though, timing problems led to a loss of marks for Q4 and had us pondering the strategy of working backwards through the paper like we did on the old spec. We still haven’t decided; it may be that we trial this approach at the next mock.

Whilst I would definitely quibble with the notion of Hale’s name having few connotations, the evaluation of Kolly Kibber is far more successful. The use of the archetype is off kilter, but there wasn’t anything in the extract itself to suggest his more advanced age. The pupil’s weighing up of the cliche is really astute and deeply perceptive when they evaluate the possible reasons for adopting a hackneyed expression. We’ve done a lot of work on cliches and it’s starting to pay off. This is one area where pupils can tentatively critique established writers, especially if they consider the possibility of it being a deliberate authorial ploy. Two points of caution. 1.This pupil goes too far in the final (rushed) statement. 2. Pupils have be to taught that idioms and metaphors that appear stale to a modern reader may actually have been inventive and fresh at the time of writing.

Anyway, due to the brevity of the response, we gave this 13 marks but were very impressed by the potential shown.

Pupil 3

Q4 pupil C 1.jpgQ4 pupil C 2.jpg

While this one also appears rushed in places it does manage to deal with more aspects of the text than the previous effort. The response clearly adopts elements of the GRANDDAD mnemonic which I’ve previously introduced. I will gradually wean this pupil off the ‘writing in the margin checklist’ approach but for now I’m delighted with the quality of the work produced under exam conditions (this was the first time any one them had seen the extract – one pupil in the year group said that he’d already read Brighton Rock). The evaluation tends to be implied rather than following the formulaic ‘this is effective because…’. However, a target will be to use the language of evaluation more overtly. There are some nice touches – linking the idea of reader involvement to the mystery/thriller genre for example, and noting the contrast with Hale’s demeanour and the Brighton crowds.

We also gave this one a mark of 13. The pupil was targeted a Grade 6 so I’m thrilled with this as a starting point.

Early conclusions

  • Timing is going to be key
  • The bullet points aren’t much help (other than as a starting point)
  • A mixture of evaluation and supporting analysis works best
  • GRANDDAD seems to help pupils of all abilities deal with unseen texts
  • You can criticise if you’re careful, well-read and respectful
  • This question is hard but not impossible – a crash course in the classics and the elements of the writer’s craft is the only short-term solution for non-readers

Thanks for reading,