Dear AQA, It’s time to talk about ‘Tissue’…

Dear AQA,

We’ve been together for a long time. For over a decade now, you’ve been a part of my life: reliable and reasonable, dependable and decent,  occasionally formidable but consistently fair. As in most relationships, there have been periods where my affection for you has waned. There have, I must admit, been times when I’ve considered leaving you. Periods when I’ve gazed with yearning at WJEC’s saucy little grade boundaries. Times when I’ve had dalliances with Cambridge and her wantonly appealing iGCSE. Days when I’ve thought I might have to get to know OCR and find out what she’s all about.  Welsh board put me off with her indifference to my advances; she went two whole weeks once without returning my calls. I left message after message. Maybe she sniffed my desperation for an answer. Cambridge, if I can speak frankly, turned out to be a big mistake. Finding out what she was up to, and getting a straight answer out of her, left me pining once again for your straightforward charms.  The walls of Kafkaesque bureaucracy she built up around her had me, and many others by the look of it, running back into your matronly embrace.  Yes, I’m sticking with you. We’re in it for the long haul. So, I am going to be honest with you; you once told me you appreciated my opinion, and I’m sure you weren’t just saying that to get me to like you more. To speak plainly, you’ve done something that’s upset me. I’m not alone by the comments that people have been saying about you behind your back. Well, I’m going to give it to you straight, as real grown ups do when their partner does something that causes them pain. It might seem like a little thing to you but, I’m sure you’ve been around the block enough times to realise that these seemingly minor things can escalate. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about: one minute your partner’s nose-picking is a mere irritant, the next thing you know you’re sleeping in separate bedrooms and muttering the d word under your breath. What is this minor crime that causing major friction then? It’s time we had a serious talk about…’Tissue’.

2-used-tissue-blog.jpg

To those fortunate enough to be uninitiated, ‘Tissue’ is a poem by Imtiaz Dharker that features in AQA’s new Power and Conflict poetry anthology. I’m going to quote it here, in its entirety, for ease of reference. If you have a weak heart or strong aversion to very “poetic” poetry, you may want to drink some whisky or antifreeze first:

 Tissue

by Imtiaz Dharker

Paper that lets the light
shine through, this
is what could alter things.
Paper thinned by age or touching,
the kind you find in well-used books,
the back of the Koran, where a hand
has written in the names and histories,
who was born to whom,
the height and weight, who
died where and how, on which sepia date,
pages smoothed and stroked and turned
transparent with attention.
If buildings were paper, I might
feel their drift, see how easily
they fall away on a sigh, a shift
in the direction of the wind.
Maps too. The sun shines through
their borderlines, the marks
that rivers make, roads,
railtracks, mountainfolds,
Fine slips from grocery shops
that say how much was sold
and what was paid by credit card
might fly our lives like paper kites.
An architect could use all this,
place layer over layer, luminous
script over numbers over line,
and never wish to build again with brick
or block, but let the daylight break
through capitals and monoliths,
through the shapes that pride can make,
find a way to trace a grand design
with living tissue, raise a structure
never meant to last,
of paper smoothed and stroked
and thinned to be transparent,
turned into your skin.
Yes, my dear AQA English, it’s a poem about paper. Or rather, as BBC Bitesize artfully puts it, it’s about ‘how paper can alter things’, with paper used as an extended metaphor for life. But you already knew that didn’t you? You chose it of course. Either by group discussion (on a Monday morning after a heavy weekend, perhaps) or more likely, it was the pet favourite of the Principal Examiner. I’ve met quite a few of your principal examiners and have found them to be rational, thoughtful and thoroughly sane. How this monstrosity slipped through is quite puzzling.
What is my issue with ‘Tissue’ then? Having known me for a while, you might not be surprised to hear that I have multiple concerns. Think of them as a list of demands, screamed down a red telephone line during high stakes negotiation with an unhinged poetry extremist:
  1. It’s utterly incomprehensible. Yes, it’s clearly about paper but the extended metaphor is as shaky as a gold-miner’s sieve. I consider myself pretty decent at understanding and analysing complex ideas about poetry but this one has got me stumped. Lots of colleagues, in school and on Twitter, (some of them much cleverer than me) have admitted feeling the same. It is impossible to comprehend  (etymology: ‘grasp’ and ‘together’ and none of us can). I feel it’s my duty to tell you that others – on TES forums and eduTwitter – have been very unkind about the poem. I wouldn’t ever do that kind of thing in public, of course. Someone called it the ‘worst poem ever’. Somebody else said it was ironic that it was called ‘Tissue’ because they wouldn’t wipe a certain part of their anatomy on it. I recently bumped into a colleague in my department who was purple in the face and swearing at the wall. I thought he’d split up with his wife or had been assaulted by a child. No, he said, he’d just had to teach ‘Tissue’.
  2. It’s pseudo-profound codswallop. This is the kind of thing normally associated with juvenilia.  Deeply philosophical but totally superficial outpourings of multi-layered guff.  And I say that as someone who otherwise respects Dharker’s skill. I’ve enjoyed teaching’This Room’ and ‘The Right Word’, both complex but accessible, well-written poems that have appeared in previous AQA anthologies. Certain parts, such as ‘An architect could use all this…and never wish to build again  with brick’ are hard to read aloud with a straight face, which isn’t helpful when the audience is 26 Year 11s.
  3. Nobody knows what it means. Ok, this is pretty much the same point as one and two but in what way is paper an effective metaphor for life? It wears away and disintegrates? It gets old? No, it turns into skin: you and the paper become one. We always say poems don’t have to mean anything but we know that’s largely bollocks of course. We like them to have some sort of conclusion and message, no matter how tentative and enigmatic. This one doesn’t even tantalise, it merely mystifies, regardless of however many times you scrutinise for hidden symbolism.
  4. It’s not really a poem about Power. Or Conflict. Unless it is and I’ve missed the point (see points 1, 2 and 3).
  5. It’s too difficult for GCSE. Someone – go on, be brave – may be able to convince me that they understand what it’s about. But they still won’t be able to convince me that it’s an appropriate choice for the exam.  Especially on a new tier-free paper. In the old days you only had to subject your top pupils to ‘next to of course america i’. Now my pupils with a grade 2  forecast (not that that means anything of course) will have to steel themselves for the prospect of this Bernard Matthew’s style turkey of a poem.
  6. Is it (whisper it) perhaps something of a tokenistic gesture to get more ethnic minority voices into the anthology. I have no issue with that. You just picked the wrong poem my love. How about something like… erm… ‘The Right Word’ by Imtiaz Dharker instead?
  7. There’e no escaping it. With the choice of questions, last year’s cohort could have one Get Out of Jail Free card, to enable them to duck a poem – just one mind – that they found to be not to their liking. If this turns up as the named poem – good god, just imagine! – they have no hiding place. Those old apocryphal tales of pupils committing hari kari by ramming pencils into their eyeballs might start to come true.

But you wouldn’t do that to us, would you, my dear old AQA? This is not just the rantings of a disgruntled teacher who can’t stand a particular poem. Since time immemorial, English teachers have enjoyed whinging about certain poems they hate. Think ‘On the Train’ by Gillian Clarke. Or ‘I love to See the Summer’ by John Clare. We all have our personal bete noires. This is not what this letter is about. The poem shouldn’t be there. Someone made a mistake. We’re human: it happens. So, go on, admit you ballsed up and take action. That promiscuous rival of yours, Edexcel, did this just the other day: she admitted she’d been foolish to include 28 poems on the Poems of the Decade A level anthology and, after ‘feedback’ from her clients, hacked the collection back to a more shapely 20.

Come on, my old friend, let’s do it. I’ll stand by your side while you make the necessary arrangements.  Although, actually, you don’t have to go public on this. It’s ok for us to have our little secrets. I know it would cost a fortune to reprint and distribute new anthologies. Let’s just nod and wink, and tap our noses, and say we’ll not make it the named poem. Ever. You could put a mysteriously unexplained asterisk next to it on new editions of the anthology.That way we can all just ignore the damned thing and get on with teaching challenging but worthwhile texts like Ozymandias. We’ll go through the motions of course. We’ll teach it on a wet Wednesday in November, then forget we ever did.  Everybody wins: me and you stay together, Imtiaz Dharker gets paid, pupils’ eyeballs remain intact.

Forever yours,

Mark

UPDATE: The good natured folks at AQA English provided a humorous and, ahem, phlegmatic response to my blog. I’ve attached that below, along with my reply:

Dear Mark,

We’re not going to lie, your recent letter took us by surprise and we have to confess to being a little hurt. Yes, your eyes have wandered in the past but we have, and always will, value our long and trusted relationship. During those moments when you were tempted by those glossy offers, we reflected and did our best to step up and be the ideal companion. We’d like to think we’re continually growing and doing the best we can by offering you support and fair, quality assessment for your students. Our question papers will always be accessible and we have designed the mark schemes to reward students for what they can do, rather than penalise for what they can’t. You may call this a matronly embrace, but we call it fair.

You have been honest with us and we’d like to be honest with you. The linear GCSE English Literature is untiered and so we need to provide an anthology that contains a broad collection of poetry that will challenge the full ability range. Tissue isn’t just your 1-ply cheap option; think velvety 3-ply and you’re getting close. You’ve asked us to own up to making a mistake. We’re an honest bunch and would hold our hands up if we were in error, but we love Tissue and know of many students that do too. But isn’t that variance of interpretation and opinion one of the things that we both love about literature? Life would be boring if we all liked the same things so why not embrace that difference?

One thing’s for sure, we’re dependable as we’ve always been and we’re not going anywhere. We aren’t going to let a small difference of opinion get in the way of our flourishing relationship. We love to talk about literature and would be more than happy to arrange a time to discuss the multiple interpretations of Tissue. We don’t mean to be overly forward, but our phone number is 0161 953 7504 and our email address is English-GCSE@aqa.org.uk if you did want to get in touch.

Forever yours,
The AQA English Curriculum Team

P.S. But more seriously, thank you for raising your concern with us. We always value feedback from teachers about how students are engaging with our choice of set texts and use it to inform the resources and support that we can develop in future.

Remember that the questions in the exam will seek to allow students of all abilities to interpret a poem like ‘Tissue’ in their own way and select evidence from it to support their own insight of the theme ‘Power and conflict’. The mark scheme does not presuppose any particular view or interpretation of a poem.

 

Dear  AQA English,

It was jolly good of you to get back in touch. Exam boards are not known for their sense of humour, but your heartfelt response explains why I fell for you in the first place. I’m glad that we’re on intimate terms again; time – and half-term – is a great healer. So is not having to teach ‘Tissue’ for at least a week. But I do appreciate your efforts: as the tragic travails of Kylie Minogue and Nigel Farage have made it all too painfully aware, the strongest relationships need to be worked at. I still do take issue, or take ‘Tissue’ rather, with a few of your points:

  1. You said that the aforementioned poem ‘isn’t just your 1-ply cheap option’ but is more ‘velvety 3-ply’. I must, I’m afraid, continue to demur. Rather than seeing a luxurious, deeply layered and comforting tissue, I instead perceive the thinnest and scratchiest absorbent paper known to all mankind. Think of the industrial standard bog roll that used to be found in hospitals, lunatic asylums and secondary school toilets in the 1980s.
  2. Despite my desperate pleas for reason, you insist that you ‘love Tissue and know of many students that do too’. I understand why you feel the need to defend the honour of ‘Tissue’ – once you’ve invited it into the family, as with racist brothers-in-law and little puppies that defecate all over the carpet, you feel obliged to stick by it. But please don’t drag the innocent children into this too. I’ve yet to find a pupil who hasn’t physically recoiled after encountering ‘Tissue’ and am shocked that you claim to have unearthed ‘many’ that are fond of the monstrosity. Who exactly are these students? Please produce examples of their work and sworn affidavits that they weren’t paid to knock out a couple of PEA paragraphs.
  3. Life would indeed ‘be boring if we all liked the same things’. As I said in the original blog, however, this one’s not about personal preference. I’ve taught many a stinker over the years but this transcends whether I like it as an individual. It’s not going to allow pupils ‘of all abilities’ to access it. It doesn’t fit in with the rest of the cluster. It ultimately lacks genuine meaning. If it was just me, I would have received plenty of stick for my blog. English teachers on Twitter are not shy at coming forward to lambast idiots who slag off quality pieces of work. I’ve copped my fair share at times, usually with good reason. Yet, the English teaching public have spoken: it’s not exactly scientific but you’ll have noticed that the blog attracted many comments on Twitter. Over a hundred in fact, which is a decent sample (as well as over 2500 views of the blog itself). Apart from 4 masochistic souls, all of them were united in their strong aversion to the text. There was a near consensus: not only is it a bad poem, it will strongly disadvantage lower ability candidates should it, god help us, appear as the named poem.  You end by reminding me that ‘the mark scheme does not presuppose any particular view or interpretation of a poem’. It will be interesting to see if any pupils, given that their teachers are genuinely flummoxed, can come up with any view or interpretation of the poem.

It was good to hear from you. Do keep in touch. The next time we meet though, let’s perhaps not talk about ‘Tissue’. The hurt may be too much. I may cry. Just in case, you bring the Kleenex and I’ll bring a 100% cotton handkerchief.

Yours with affection,

Mark

 

‘Remains’ by Simon Armitage – A Guide (AQA Power & Conflict poetry)

Before I begin with my interpretation of the poem ‘Remains’, a quick word on how I approach my own analysis and teaching of a poem. Generally, I like to go into it unseen and usually like my pupils to do the same. When I first started teaching poetry, I used to read the revision guides, study the websites, have a nosy on youtube and scrutinise the poet’s biographical details. These days, unless I find a poem particularly obscure or complex, or feel that it is essential that pupils know the context in advance, I prefer to discover a poem for myself and get my students to do the same. I’m the same with film or book reviews: why would I want to read someone else’s opinion of a movie or a novel before actually seeing it for myself? For me, I’d be going into the experience with someone else’s viewpoint embedded in my brain and I personally find that an unwelcome distraction. I invariably go back and read the reviews after I’ve watched or read it, to see if I was missing something. I mostly expect the same with my pupils and poetry analysis: only after they’ve given me their first impressions do I start to fill in the gaps. This also, obviously, helps develop skills for the unseen section. So this guide is my take; I haven’t read BBC Bitesize or watched the Armitage documentary on youtube. I will in good time but for now this is my take on this accessible, impressive and affecting poem…

Summary

Briefly, the poem is told from the point of view of a soldier in an unnamed conflict, which given the references to ‘looters’ and the ‘sun-stunned, sand-smothered land’ I presume is Iraq. The soldier and his colleagues shoot dead one of these looters; the speaker is left to reflect on the decision he has taken and deal with the psychological consequences of this action upon his return to civilian life.

The title

‘Remains’ is ambiguous and ironic – literally referring to the corpse of the dead looter but also reflecting the persistent memories of the victim that haunt Armitage’s military persona. The image of the man’s body – the noun ‘remains’ – are forever juxtaposed in his mind with the insidious and pervasive image that continues -the verb ‘remains’ – to stay with him.

Self-defence versus murder

The crux of the poem comes early in the speaker’s uncertain testimony that the looter was ‘probably armed, possibly not’. The syntactical positioning of the pair of adverbs is instructive: the soldier assumes the worst, with ‘probably’ suggesting a high likelihood of danger and seemingly justifying the decision to open fire. Yet the second adverb ‘possibly’ implies there was a chance that the looter was unarmed, making the course of action a war crime. Given that the previous line ‘legs it up the road’ – with the idiom ‘legs it’ denoting an escape and implying that the looter was running away – the reader  is more likely to view this as a callous act, involving shooting the looter in the back. Armitage’s use of diacopic repetition later in the poem, but this time in a dream-fuelled flashback (‘Sleep, and he’s probably armed, possibly not’) indicates the recurring replaying of this fateful moment in the speaker’s mind.

Collective responsibility?

The polysyndeton of ‘Well myself and somebody else and somebody else’ evokes a chain reaction of involvement. All three are ‘of the same mind’, suggesting a sense of agreement in the moral correctness of their actions, or perhaps rather a psychological conditioning (brainwashing some might say) that encourages soldiers to think the same and act the same, linking nicely with ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ and ‘Theirs is not to reason why…’. While the anonymous indefinite pronoun ‘somebody’ conveys the code of honour and silence among comrades, and appears to evade culpability, the positioning of the first person reflexive pronoun clearly represents an admission of involvement – indeed primary involvement as the first to fire – of the speaker. The fact that they were ‘letting fly’ certainly suggests a reckless abandon rather than precise targeting.

The body

At this stage the poet adopts grotesque imagery to emphasise the physical mangling of the body and the indifference shown to the victim at the moment of death. ‘One of my mates …tosses his guts back into his body’ is deeply disrespectful towards the corpse, with the dynamic verb ‘tosses’ highlighting a careless, inhumane attitude towards human life. The plosive of ‘back’ and ‘body’ amplifies the visceral image of the sloppy innards being casually thrown back into this shattered shell of a body. The indignity is further reinforced by the mode of transportation for this hapless criminal: ‘carted off in the back of a lorry’. The choice of a vehicle known mainly for distribution, as opposed to an ambulance or a hearse, displays the objectification of the cadaver – discarded like a broken and unwanted item.

The volta

Now the location changes but the action doesn’t. Armitage sends the soldier home on leave but condemns him to a perpetual reimagining of the scene:’I’m home on leave. But I blink/ and he bursts again through the doors of the bank.’ The caesura suggests a clean break but the enjambment swiftly reasserts the invasive memory of the victim. The narrative shifts from anecdotal to confessional and we witness the mental deterioration of the persona.

PTSD 

The American Psychological Association defines post-traumatic stress disorder as ‘an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events, such as combat, crime, an accident or natural disaster.’ They go on to explain that ‘people with PTSD may relive the event via intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares…’ It is pretty clear by now that the guilt caused by taking a life in combat (especially an innocent one in a gruesome manner) and the trauma is provokes is the central theme of the poem. Specifically, the theme of intrusion is key: the murdered looter is now metaphorically ‘dug in behind enemy lines’, a phrase of profound irony as the speaker was initially the one stationed deep in opposition territory, and significantly as the ‘enemy’in this instance is the soldier’s own brain. The verb phrase ‘dug in’ emphasises the intrusive, relentless nature of these revenge attacks on his conscience.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists notes the symptoms of the condition includes an hypervigilance that means sufferers are unable to switch off. Other symptoms include the futile abuse and misuse of drugs and alcohol, evident in the line ‘And the drink and drugs won’t flush him out’. The idiom ‘flush him out’ works on several levels: firstly, suggesting the disposal of undesired waste products, which links with the disposal of the looters body; secondly, illustrating the original intention of bringing enemy ‘combatants’ out into the open; and thirdly, getting a toxic product – in this instance the intrusive memories – out of the system before it causes long-term damage. Interestingly, the RCP also spell out the situations that will heighten the effects of PTSD: the involvement of mutilation -the physically ‘torn apart’ victim ultimately reflecting the eventual mental anguish of the perpetrator – being a key indicator of severe long-term trauma.

The use of cliche

Many of the colloquial metaphors that Armitage employs are cliched:

  • ‘legs it’
  • ‘letting fly’
  • ‘broad daylight’
  • ‘carted off…’
  • ‘end of story’
  • ‘near to the knuckle’

The use and subversion of cliched expression is a common feature of Armitage’s oeuvre; a Armitagean trope if you will. In ‘Remains’ it could perhaps convey a lack of education. After all, the average reading age of 40% of British Army recruits was recently found to be 11. I favour another explanation. Use of cliche reflects a lack of original thought, linking back to the unity of decision making at the start of the incident. Cliches are phrase that are worn out through repetition, highlighting the continual destruction and loss of life witnessed in warfare and the repetitive intrusive memories of the soldier.

So that’s my take on the poem. I suppose I’ll have to have a look around now and see what everybody else makes of it.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

 

 

“Super, smashing, great” – modelling the language of evaluation: superlatives (part 2)

Those of you of a certain age will remember – fondly or otherwise – the 1980s ITV game show Bullseye. It was a Sunday evening staple in my grandma’s house, a winning combination (for an 8-year-old anyway) of darts, or rather ‘arrers’ in Yorkshire, not-too-taxing general knowledge questions, glamorous prizes, such as Breville toastie makers, and its affable, diminutive host Jim Bowen.

jim-bowen

Dour and deadpan, Jim became best known for his anodyne catchphrases: the rhyming couplet’stay out of the black and in to the red, there’s nothing in this game for two in a bed’, the pleading imperative ‘listen to Tony’. and most famously of all, the random asyndetic list of superlatives, dished out in either congratulation or commiseration – ‘super, smashing, great…’.

Last time, I looked at grammatical superlatives and how they can be a very useful tool for language analysis. This time, I’m looking at the other meaning of the term: a general adjective used in praise to recognise something of the highest quality.

In theory, superlatives should only be encountered, therefore, when assessing acts of excellence. A supreme moment of sporting skill, a pop single of majestic beauty, a novel of breathtaking scope. The problem is that superlatives have become overused in modern discourse to such an  extent that they are slowly becoming worthless, or in certain cases have keeled over and died, thrashed to death my merciless wielders of hyberbole. The moribund superlative has become the stuff that cliches are made on. Let’s look at these examples:

  • brilliant – used to mean ‘dazzling, shining’ but now means really good.
  • wonderful – used to denote ‘inspiring a sense of delight and imagination’ whereas it now merely suggests something was very nice.
  • incredible – previously an ambiguous word literally meaning ‘hard to believe’ which has now lost its use and has become synonymous with quite surprising.
  • great – the most overused and downgraded adjective of all, once meant ‘exceptional or highly significant’ but now means… well, anything you want, from decent to good to slightly above acceptable.

I’m a big fan of Sky Sports’ football results extravaganza Soccer Saturday. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s basically four inarticulate and overexcitable ex-pros getting overexcited about a football match they’re watching on telly that you can’t see. It sounds awful but it’s highly compulsive. The anchor, Jeff Stelling, holds things together with his eloquent bursts of statistical know how, interspersed with knowingly dreadful puns. Recently though, I’ve started to lose interest; my affection is beginning to wane. The main reason? The excessive use of the superlative ‘great’. A pass that is a bit better than normal is ‘great’; a goalkeeper doing his job and keeping standard shots out the net is having a ‘great’ game; a team that wins three matches in a row are on a ‘great’ run etc. etc. etc.

How does this relate to teaching English. Well, obviously, we want to prevent our pupils from falling into the trap of reaching for the hackneyed superlative and encourage them to seek out more interesting and meaningful adjectives of praise in their own writing – specifically in the GCSE evaluation question:

  • ‘Capote’s consummate use of spatial shifts at the start of In Cold Blood contributes to…’
  • ‘Steinbeck’s flawless use of zoomorphic imagery cleverly depicts Curley’s animalistic aggression…’

This is all well and good, but what else can we do to model an avoidance of tired superlatives. If we’re being honest, we can make sure we stamp them out as much as possible in our own teacher talk and written feedback:

  • ‘That was a brilliant answer’ could become ‘that was a really nuanced answer’
  • ‘A wonderful piece of analysis’ might become ‘your understanding of different types of repetition is faultless’
  • ‘Great answer, John’ might become ‘The first part of your answer was excellent, John, but to make your answer first-rate you need to reconsider your understanding of…’

Thanks for reading, you’re all my wonderful,

Mark

 

I am the greatest blogger – the superlative (part 1)

What’s the point of getting pupils to learn word classes? It’s the biggest waste of time, especially as the exam board have said – and I was at a recent training session – that just writing ‘the word “suddenly” suggests…’ rather than messing about with ‘the adverb “suddenly suggests…’ will suffice.

Anybody who has followed this blog for any length of time will know that I disagree strongly with the paragraph above. For some time now, my argument has been that technical terminology isn’t fancy frippery, designed purely to impress the examiner. Instead, it allows, I contend, a deeper insight into the writer’s craft, particularly when considering the effect of word choices. And let’s be honest, a large part of our time as English teachers is spent on just that. Let’s take a look at three possible pupil analyses of the opening to my second sentence as an example:

  1. The writer uses the word ‘biggest’ to show how important he feels this pointless exercise is. By using ‘biggest’ he implies that there is nothing more significant in taking up time than word class.
  2.  The writer uses the adjective ‘biggest’ to describe how important he feels this pointless exercise is. By using ‘biggest’ he implies that there is nothing more significant in taking up time than word class.
  3. The writer uses the superlative ‘biggest’ to emphasise the importance of the pointless exercise. Superlatives are used to show extremes, the highest degree of a quality, so by using ‘biggest’ he implies that no other area of knowledge could have such significance in taking up time than word class.

Through understanding what a superlative does, what its grammatical function is, a pupil gains an added insight into the intended effect of the writer’s diction. They might intuitively grasp that ‘fattest’, ‘tallest’, ‘grimmest’, ‘worst’ are highest or lowest example of a quality, but an awareness of the purpose of superlatives makes that kind of clear explanation far more likely.

An example of how this might be taught, can be seen in the following link, with slides from a Year 9 Of Mice and Men scheme I made:

loneliest

This most famous of quotes hopefully takes on a new lease of life (especially when combined with historical context) when seen through the lens of the function of a superlative. Interestingly, pupils usually pick up on the lonelier/more lonely comparative option and want to know why you can choose. This naturally helps with their own creative writing and helps avoid erroneous words like ‘unpleasantest’. I usually give them an explanation from David Crystal’s Rediscover Grammar (amusingly titled for me as my teachers mostly failed to allow me to discover it in the first place):

superlatives.jpg

When it comes to the GCSE English language evaluation question (such as AQA Paper 1 Q4), an appreciation of the role of the superlative can really enhance a pupil’s ability to weigh up what a writer was trying to do and whether it’s been effective. Try this out with the opening paragraphs to The Good Soldier (which Ford Maddox Ford originally intended calling The Saddest Story) or A Tale of Two Cities and get pupils to think about the importance of the superlatives used:

The Good Soldier

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy–or, rather with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them. This is, I believe, a state of things only possible with English people of whom, till today, when I sit down to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair, I knew nothing whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Yet the superlative also crops up frequently – and usually quite early in the extracts – on the non-fiction paper (Paper 2 on AQA). Non-fiction articles obviously deal often with factual information (‘Everest: The world’s highest and deadliest mountain’) and this allows pupils an easy way in to potentially dry pieces of text lacking in figurative language. But the real beauty of spending time thinking about superlatives is the benefit of noticing the hyberbolic nature of opinionated phraseology: the subjective superlative if you will. The worst film I have ever seen. Quite the rudest man in all of Christendom. The biggest liar in school. The most disgusting thing I have yet to have had the misfortune to digest.

We recently did a practice paper on a non-fiction extract ‘The Boat to America’ by Dickens from 1842, which had a few juicy superlatives that my pupils thankfully picked up on and made good use of in their analysis:

We all dined together that day; and a rather formidable party we were: no fewer than eighty-six strong. The vessel being pretty deep in the water, with all her coals on board and so many passengers, and the weather being calm and quiet, there was but little motion; so that before the dinner was half over, even those passengers who were most distrustful of themselves plucked up amazingly; and those who in the morning had returned to the universal question, ‘Are you a good sailor?’ answered boldly ‘Yes’ and with some irritation too, as though they would add, ‘I should like to know what you see in ME, sir, particularly, to justify suspicion!’

Notwithstanding this high tone of courage and confidence, I could not but observe that very few remained long over their wine; and that everybody had an unusual love of the open air; and that the favourite and most wanted seats were invariably those nearest to the door. The tea-table, too, was by no means as well attended as the dinner-table; and there was less card-playing than might have been expected.

So there you go, the greatest bit of grammar teaching ever witnessed. Not quite. But very useful stuff nonetheless and worth the time it takes to drill pupils on more specific word classes. A word of caution though: as you’ll know, but your pupils probably won’t, separated from the grammatical meaning, superlative means something different as an adjective in its own right. I’ll be talking about that amazing, brilliant and outstanding word in my next wonderful installment.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

Perspective: Teach second? Teach for life?

I’m not a big believer in perspective. Not the artistic technique, obviously. I do accept that it is possible to make things look realistic and have depth on paper. No, I mean the proverbial ‘perspective’, as in: ‘now that puts things into perspective’. This is usually uttered around the time of a mass disaster, act of terrorism, tragic death of a celebrity, abduction of a poor child. It’s meant to signify that one’s own problems are insignificant in comparison to the scale of misfortune and suffering that we encounter at times to help us… well…put things into perspective. My opinion is that any shift of viewpoint is short-lived: our reality dose software update soon reverts to a factory setting refocus on our own personal strife and woes. Maybe it’s just me.

Where I do believe in perspective, though, is when it intrudes into the personal sphere. If bad or unpleasant stuff happens to my family – or, let’s be honest, specifically to me – then I’m far more likely to adjust my Weltanschauung for more than a few days. We’re far more likely, it would seem, to set up a campaign group or donate money to a charity if it involves a cause that has directly affected us. I accept that some people are naturally more altruistic than others (my wife is nicer than me, for example) but I think the general point still holds.

What’s any of this got to do with teaching then, eh? Well, there’s been a few fascinating discussions flying around eduTwitter recently about whether a) people who come into teaching later in life make better teachers (presumably after doing other jobs, rather than a life on the dole, but you never know) and whether b) teaching is a sustainable lifelong career these days.

Having come into teaching in my late twenties, I have views. My views are: firstly, I have known, and continue to know, some exceptional career teachers, who have been teaching kids good stuff since they left teaching college (or wherever). They’ll generally tell me that, like a stinky bit of blue cheese, they have got better with age but, to me, they seem made for the role. Usually, but not always, they have a parent who teaches or taught. Secondly, I think it is often advantageous to have come into teaching late – “Teach Second” as Ms Keenan put it nicely on Twitter today. This hunch is purely anecdotal of course. Having discussed the topic often with fellow Teach Seconders they regularly tell me that they a) feel more mature and balanced as an older practitioner and b) having had another job (or jobs) helps them to put teaching…into perspective.

I agree on both counts. I’m not saying that I’m better than other teachers because of what I’m going to euphemistically term my ‘life experience’ BT (Before Teaching). But I am definitely saying that I’m a better teacher than I would have been as a fresh-breathed 21-year-old. Not that I’d got my degree by then, so that’s kind of irrelevant. The reasons why? Immaturity. Poor work ethic. Issues with authority. Behaviour that may fall short of the teaching standards (or any other standards for that matter). Undeveloped communication skills. Lack of motivation.

So instead – I say this but my 16-year-old self would have laughed in your face if asked if I fancied teaching as a career – I did the following full-time jobs first:

  • factory picker
  • spray painter
  • electrical fitter
  • telesales
  • barman
  • dole office admin
  • filing clerk
  • civil servant
  • hospital complaints officer
  • chef
  • barman (again)
  • journalist

What motivates me to teach isn’t the money (ha); what motivates me is the belief that education can change lives. Trite but true. Which explains my decision to re-train as a teacher. But one thing that definitely motivates me to work as a teacher is not working as a spray painter. Or not working in a call centre. And certainly not working in a dole office, watching, from across the counter, lads you used to go to school with passing out mid signing on as the heroin hit kicks in.

Junkies aside, what was so bad about some of these jobs? After all, perspective should have taught me that at least I had a steady job. As I’ve said, I ignored perspective’s nagging voice and felt sorry for myself. Why? Because, without wishing to sound too much like Adrian Mole, it’s bloody difficult being clever in a job that requires little intellect. At school I kept my mouth shut and learned not to answer questions to which I knew the answers. I disrupted lessons. I fought. Later, in the factory canteen I kept my mouth shut as others talked ignorantly about topics I knew quite a bit about. Eventually, in one office staff room, I finished a crossword in seconds that had the others stumped. Don’t be impressed: it was the Daily Star Quick Quizword. My nickname from then on? Wordsworth. (I’ve yet to find any biographical detail on the Cockermouth bard’s crossword habits.) It was time to move on; I could keep my Smart Alec gob shut no longer.

The beauty of teaching – unlike spray painting – is that it is never boring. Tiring, stressful, relentless, unnecessarily bureaucratic, overly politicised etc etc etc. Yet, significantly, it allows you to have stimulating (or semi-stimulating) conversations each day. Personally, I tend not to feel the grind. Yes, of course there are days. Those days that we all have, where we trudge back to the car park questioning our sanity and pondering the wisdom of dealing with large groups of teenagers or young children. Still, I find these days (or weeks occasionally) are nothing in comparison to the spirit crushing anomie I felt when I worked as a filing temp and was asked if I knew how to file stuff alphabetically. The guy before me hadn’t. So I feel very lucky to teach. And I remind myself of this whenever things get a bit shitty. I’ve felt like this for over a decade. The job’s got harder, I’ve taken on more responsibility – though significantly I still teach a fair whack – and  still I feel lucky, punk. Will it always be like this? Is it a feasible lifelong occupation? Can I imagine myself at 65, rattling on once more about A.C.Bradley’s view of the Shakespearean tragic hero? I think yes. And the reason I think this can be found in perspective. Personal, selfish perspective, of course, not the general ‘other people have it worse variety’.

I was reminded of this the other evening as I re-read Orwell’s seminal, incendiary piece of non-fiction The Road to Wigan Pier. I first read it back in my early twenties. Now, looking back, I started to truly appreciate the hardships described, specifically thinking about the job my grandfather did all his life: mining:

It is impossible to watch the ’fillers’ at work without feeling a pang of envy for their toughness. It is a dreadful job that they do, an almost superhuman job by the standard of an ordinary person. For they are not only shifting monstrous quantities of coal, they are also doing, it in a position that doubles or trebles the work. They have got to remain kneeling all the while–they could hardly rise from their knees without hitting the ceiling–and you can easily see by trying it what a tremendous effort this means. Shovelling is comparatively easy when you are standing up, because you can use your knee and thigh to drive the shovel along; kneeling down, the whole of the strain is thrown upon your arm and belly muscles. And the other conditions do not exactly make things easier. There is the heat–it varies, but in some mines it is suffocating–and the coal dust that stuffs up your throat and nostrils and collects along your eyelids, and the unending rattle of the conveyor belt, which in that confined space is rather like the rattle of a machine gun. But the fillers look and work as though they were made of iron. They really do look like iron hammered iron statues–under the smooth coat of coal dust which clings to them from head to foot. It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men, they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere. In the hotter mines they wear only a pair of thin drawers, clogs and knee-pads; in the hottest mines of all, only the clogs and knee-pads. You can hardly tell by the look of them whether they are young or old. They may be any age up to sixty or even sixty-five, but when they are black and naked they all look alike. No one could do their work who had not a young man’s body, and a figure fit for a guardsman at that, just a few pounds of extra flesh on the waist-line, and the constant bending would be impossible. You can never forget that spectacle once you have seen it–the line of bowed, kneeling figures, sooty black all over, driving their, huge shovels under the coal with stupendous force and speed. They are on the job for seven and a half hours, theoretically without a break, for there is no time ’off’. Actually they, snatch a quarter of an hour or so at some time during the shift to eat the food they have brought with them, usually a hunk of bread and dripping and a bottle of cold tea.

My grandfather was a very intelligent man but was forced by family poverty to leave school at fourteen to enter the mines. Born a generation earlier, I may well have followed in his weary, begrimed footsteps. Like me, he believed in the transformational power of knowledge. When he finally finished down the pit he spent his redundancy money (£3000 for 50 odd years of backbreaking toil) on a cruise. He won the ship’s quiz night. There was a sense of shock among the other thousand or so  entrants when he responded to the compere’s question about what job he did.

He would be incredibly proud of me entering a ‘profession’ – especially one that gave young people the opportunity to accrue the knowledge  he was forced to accrue himself from the local public library. Whether they always appreciated my efforts to teach them would not seem that relevant to him.  He died as a result of his industry: pneumoconiosis, caused by decades of breathing in coal dust, got him in the end. His brother James, my great uncle, had been killed in an accident, in the darkness, half a mile underground, on his 26th birthday. Family folklore says that his mother had had a premonition and begged him not to go to work that day. Knowing the dangers of mining and knowing that each day at work could be your last takes its toll on a man. While teaching is a tough, noble profession, for me it lacks that sense of fear, and physical and psychological destruction. I’ve read, with great sympathy, some upsetting accounts of mental burnout caused by the demands of teaching. But placed next to my personal escape from the drudgery of manual labour or office based tedium I feel fortunate to be enveloped by the madness and chaos that often characterises the modern world of education.

So I’ll carry on teaching, thank you. I’ll whinge every now and then. I’ll grumble to my wife when my lessons bomb. I’ll swear at the telly when the latest government educational policy disaster is announced or blindly defended. I’ll resent the pile of mock papers. But I’ll keep on doing what I’m fortunate to be able to do.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

 

 

 

My most viewed blogs of 2016

In reverse order:

10. Comparing texts – next steps – GCSE English language – in which I offer practical strategies for comparing unseen texts in GCSE language exams

9. Boy Trouble: some questions to help close the gender gap in English – a reflection on ways I have tried to improve the performance of boys in English (although other subjects leaders apparently found this useful too)

8. How to be a Head of Faculty – my advice for all new and aspiring heads of faculty/department

7. How to compare texts – a general guide to comparison. I had about 17 followers before this was retweeted by some Twitter heavyweights, such as Geoff Barton, Tom Sherrington and Chris Curtis

6. Part 3: Some proper exemplars for the GCSE English Language Evaluation question – an initial rant inspired by a frustrating AQA training day that went on to offer my own take on what pupils will need to do to succeed with the new English GCSEs

5. Exam essay questions, and how to avoid answering them – as Andy Tharby noted wryly, this off the cuff blog wasn’t one for the purists. My cheeky take on how to manipulate exam questions to play to your strengths. It turned out Stephen Fry used the same approach at Cambridge

4. Teaching structure – a model answer – my guide to producing model answers, with a specific example for the infamous structure question

3. Etiquette, sexual repression and body snatching – A Guide to the context of Jekyll & Hyde – a bibliography of context resources for Stevenson’s classic novella. With a little help from Rob Ward and James Theobald

2. Teaching the Evaluation Question for GCSE English Language – in which I introduced the creaky mnemonic GRANDDAD to the unsuspecting world, as I way to try and slay this 20 mark beast

And by far the most popular blog:

1.  Teaching Structure for the new English GCSEs – English teachers around the country were apparently desperately searching for a way in to this topic. Like a snake oil salesman, I knocked out a structure elixir (hopefully without any dubious long-term side effects)

Thanks for all your feedback this year,

Mark

 

 

The cliché that is not a cliché

When is a cliché not a cliché? That’s a question I asked my pupils during a recent lesson. They had been reading through an article from The Guardian that appeared to be full of the little horrors. They had taken great delight in criticising the writer’s hackneyed turn of phrase. They had clearly paid attention to my recent lessons on avoiding clichés like the plague. They weren’t pulling any punches: it was no holds barred stuff. The reason they were enjoying themselves so much? They’d realised that the writer of the article was their teacher.

‘This is weird sir… the writer’s got the same name as you.’

‘I know.’

‘Did you write this?’

‘Yes.’

‘But it’s from 2005.’

At which point I always explain that many, many years ago, in the years BT (Before Teaching), I used to work as a journalist. They’re usually impressed. And then they normally say, with pity glistening in their lachrymose eyeballs, something like ‘So why on earth are you teaching?’. Then I say – in full truthfulness – something like ‘because I enjoyed writing for a living but I love teaching much more’. We then drift off into a scene made for flashback, in which I regale them with tales of perks and glitzy events, and nerve-wracking interviews with minor celebrities they’ve never heard of. I sometimes tell them about the time I interviewed the then poet laureate, Andrew Motion, who was in a very grumpy mood, for half an hour before realising I’d forgot to press record on the dictaphone. Usually, I recognise that I  have digressed away from my… ahem… lesson plan, just like I have now digressed slightly off the topic of this blog.

That didn’t matter though. It’s rare that kids get to quiz a journalist about a piece that they’re critiquing, even if it was an obscure column tucked away in an obscure (now defunct) supplement.

Anyway, during the discussion on clichés, one of them came to my defence:

‘What do you call it, sir, when the writer – you I mean – uses a cliché but sort off… knows it’s a cliché and is, well, doing it deliberately? Playing around with the words. Doing a pun with it.’

I call this a subverted cliché. Have a look at the column and see what you think:

True tales

The orange man takes his revenge

  • Mark Roberts
  • The Guardian, Monday 20 June 2005

An amiable and tolerant person, Jules was nevertheless a man with an obsession. The only thing that could get him through the long tedious days our office specialised in was an artificial stimulant. Jules was a non-smoker and was indifferent to chocolate. If offered crack he would probably say he could take it or leave it. For Jules craved only one substance: he was addicted to orange Fanta.

When I first joined the company, Jules used to buy six tins a day from the vending machine. Given our paltry salary and the prohibitive cost of the cans, it became evident that he was spending a fair chunk of his wage on his sugary vice. Like all addicts, he demanded as pure a hit as possible, so insisted that his pop was as cold as the boss’s wife. His solution was to buy a two-litre bottle each day and stick it in the communal fridge.

In it went on his arrival at 8.30am, allowing it to cool sufficiently to quench his raging thirst by exactly 10.27am. Until then he would fidget nervously and chew on a biro until his mouth was blue. When the magical time arrived he would hold aloft the frosty Fanta and make the sound of the contents of a mop bucket being poured down a drain.

Despite the torturous daily wait, things went smoothly until something mysterious happened: Jules’s Fanta began to evaporate. Initially he questioned his sanity – in his pre-Fanta haze had he somehow misjudged how much was in the bottle? Or perhaps the supermarket from which he procured his fix was selling faulty Fanta in leaky bottles? After a week of hell Jules came to a sinister conclusion. One (or more), of our esteemed colleagues was stealing his Fanta.

Jules did the sensible thing. Certain that the thief or thieves would see the error of their ways if they realised it was not a victimless crime, he put a large sticky label on his next bottle, which read: “Jules’s pop – hands off!” Alas the stealing persisted.

Suddenly Jules turned into Agent Orange and life in the office resembled a deranged hybrid of Quincy, Poirot and Murder She Wrote. A man possessed, Jules the Fanta Fiend began the kind of interrogation that would make the Stasi squeamish. Despite wild accusations – aimed at everyone from the company accountant to the 76-year-old toothless cleaning lady – the bad cop/bad cop routine failed to extract any tearful confessions. Subtler methods were employed. Anybody going to the staff room was discreetly followed to see if he could catch them orange-handed. The thorough reconnaissance stage proved equally disastrous – the Fanta vessel continued to empty, but his in-tray overflowed.

Gripped by tartrazine rage, Jules now abandoned attempts to catch the culprits and set out for old-fashioned retribution. He clearly agreed with the adage about revenge being best served ice cold. One day as I entered the gents I saw Jules leave the cubicle zipping up his flies with one hand as he screwed back on the top of his Fanta with the other. He winked at me and told me that he was officially switching to tap water from now on. He said the Fanta thief would eventually come to the conclusion that orange Fanta “tastes like piss”.

They felt the following, were examples of subverted clichés:

  • ‘the bad cop/bad cop routine’ – exaggerating the unpleasant atmosphere in the office and amplifying the intensity of the addict’s obsession
  • ‘catch them orange-handed’ – taking a clichéd metaphor and tweaking it to fit the motif of fixation on the colour orange
  • ‘revenge being best served ice cold’ – The insertion of ‘ice’ saved this by linking back to the second motif of refridgeration
  • ‘tastes like piss’ – the obvious colloquial insult was rescued by the removal of the profane simile with the substition of a more literal fact

So that’s it. Case closed. I’d proved that I was so clever that I could manipulate tired, overused langauge to humorous effect.

Except a few of them suddenly began to “piss on my bonfire”. They started to notice –  as I stood back like a proud, doting father – some genuine, bona fide clichés:

  • Suddenly – a word I had specifically banned in their writing a few weeks ago!
  • A man possessed
  • see the error of their ways
  • raging thirst

I could go on. Strangely, they didn’t pack up and walk out in protest. They’d admired my writing and were impressed that I’d been able to get published (regularly, I naturally added) in a respected national newspaper. They were reassured by the fact that the cliché is so invasive that I – an expert writer in their eyes – had succumbed. They found it interesting that I considered myself a much better writer now, as an amateur scribbler. Growth mindset and marginal gains and all that, innit. You’d never find any clichés in my writing these days, of course, I told them. Any that you did spot would be used knowingly, with a nod and a wink to my educated audience. They would be thoroughly and utterly subverted.

Thanks for reading. Have a nice Christmas,

Mark