Category Archives: Education

On Grammar Schools

On Grammar Schools

angelast-maries

In 1966, my class was told we were going to do a test. I think we had a good idea what it was for. It tested three types of intelligence, though I later found out there were a lot more. Later, we had letters from the local authority, telling us we had passed – a total of six, out of the 56 girls in our year. I was very relieved, because I’d heard the local secondary modern was ‘rough’, and as a kid with specs who always had her nose in her book and was terrible at sports, I knew I’d be on the receiving end of some nastiness. So thankfully, I set off for grammar school, in a city 12 miles away from my home town, with a briefcase and a tie, feeling like the world was at my feet.

 

Even at 11, I felt the system was unfair. Why not, I thought, simply ask children if they wanted to go to a school where they would study hard subjects and get a lot of homework, or whether they wanted to go to a school where they learned in a more practical way? I admit I was naive. The secondary modern was a brilliant idea, but it was underfunded and pupils who were sent there were made to feel like failures by a system which didn’t care and wanted more factory workers than office workers.

 

I was unaware that the pass mark was kept deliberately high so not too many working class kids got through, and I only found out recently it was even higher for girls. But for me, going to grammar school was a chance my parents hadn’t had and I intended to make the most of it. The teaching wasn’t great, but at least we were encouraged to aspire and most of the pupils wanted to learn, not to misbehave. There was an expectation we would go to university, and I wanted that more than anything.

 

Flash forward to 1988. I’d begun teaching creative writing in adult education, and later A level at FE college. Some of the people I taught had been badly let down by secondary modern schools. They were bright people who lacked self-confidence. I know there were some very good secondary moderns, but shaking off that sense of being on the scrap heap at 11 took a lot of undoing.

 

1992 saw me starting teaching at a comprehensive school, which had in the past been a secondary modern. I had a few issues with it. There was an immense faith in their setting system, but in reality, it wasn’t really working. It favoured compliant well-behaved children and so there were too many very bright kids coasting in lower sets, bored and unchallenged. Less bright kids were made to feel they could not achieve and many did not gain access to higher tier GCSE exams. Some were not even allowed to take any GCSEs but we shunted off sideways to keep league tables looking good. There was a habit of making classes work in silence, and excessive control over creativity and discussion work. There was too much ‘busy work’ designed to keep kids under the thumb rather than challenge them. Even worse, there was an anti-intellectual culture, in which ‘swot’ was a term of abuse. I hadn’t heard that insult since my own primary school days. Thankfully, there have been some changes since I left in 1998.

 

Six years down the line, I was fortunate to get a post in a girls’ grammar school. It was a very different culture, though I did miss teaching boys. The school didn’t use the 11+, but had its own entrance exam. I didn’t think the pupils any different in ability, for the most part, than the comprehensive. The things that made this school so special and the pupils so successful fascinated me, because they agreed with my own philosophy of education. These are some of the things which made that school distinctive:

  • Each pupil was valued
  • Teachers spent time on corridors chatting to pupils rather than telling them off
  • Teachers were expected to be knowledgeable about their subject and were respected because of it
  • There was a good deal of trust displayed
  • There were few behavioural problems
  • The deputy head advised no shouting, a reprimand where needed was enough
  • The headteacher was approachable and knew the pupils’ names
  • There was an emphasis on good manners and kindness
  • There was a culture of aspiration and praise
  • Teaching was in forms of mixed ability
  • The year tutors took their roles as pastoral heads to mean caring for and looking after their year groups, rather than being administers of punishments
  • Punishments were rarely needed because there was no battleground between staff and pupils
  • Lessons were active, fun and challenging
  • Although some of the classes were large at Keystage 3, it was a smallish school overall, with only 850 pupils on roll when I started

 

I could go on.

 

The current government has mucked about with our school system for no good reason. A two-tier system has already failed. They brought in academies, now want new grammar schools. As a child, I couldn’t understand why the Labour Party was against grammar schools, because mine was great for me. But education has moved on. Parents need clarity, not a jumbled mess. The league tables have put schools in competition with each other for all the wrong reasons.

 

At my grammar school, I wasn’t allowed to take Horticulture O level because I was in a top set. Practical subjects like that were barred to me. Every child should have a balanced curriculum and the same chances of success. There should be no snobbery about the type of school attended.

 

So, no, I do not want a return of grammar schools. There is already enough confusion about schools: parents and employers are bewildered by it, teachers are exhausted trying to get the results demanded by the league tables.

 

What I would like to see is educational changes left to education professionals; teachers and pupils given a time of stability to thrive; every school to have smaller class sizes; teachers to be under less pressure; and more creativity and kindness all round.

 

 

 

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Positive Classroom Control Techniques

P1000269 (2)I normally blog about poetry matters, but I was a secondary school English and Drama teacher for 16 years, and still write teaching materials, work with exam boards, lecture at study days for sixth formers and lead poets-in-schools workshops.

Now schools have gone back, I have been thinking about some of the classroom control techniques I used to use, having refined my practice over the years. When I first went into schools from F.E., back in 1992, the school I was working in had a great back up system but many of the older style teachers there were heavily into shouting and intimidation of pupils, detentions and lines were imposed freely. I didn’t like it and felt at times it built up resentment. Teachers who didn’t shout were seen as ‘soft’. Relationships between staff and pupils were not as good as they could be. I experimented with more subtle classroom controls. After 6 years, I changed schools and observed there a different way of working. Staff and pupil relationships were warmer and more respectful, and shouting was discouraged.

In my first school I had learned the usefulness of establishing a classroom routine. This takes about three weeks to do, but once laid down, pupils will automatically follow it. Having a seating plan demonstrates the teacher’s control over the space and helps with the vital task of learning names fast. But alphabetical order is used by most teachers, so best avoided. Find out a bit about the class from their previous teacher. Don’t put all the naughty ones at the front, where they will drive you crazy. Instead ring fence them with compliant pupils and scatter them around the room. One of the most visible places can be at the back of the room, depending on the layout.

The routine of standing behind chairs to exchange a greeting, before inviting pupils to sit down, gives a clear start to the lesson, and the same thing at the end of the lesson, but with the addition of checking tables are clear and no litter has been dropped before dismissal, makes the classroom pleasant for the next class. I always kept my teacher’s desk clear of anything which wasn’t relevant to the actual class I was teaching at the time. Some teachers line up the pupils outside and have them file in for each lesson, which is a good routine if there is time, but be welcoming to the class and do not start to shout at them if misbehaving, instead only allow in those who are coming in ‘nicely’.

Once in the classroom, your own classroom rules come into play. It’s best to decide on these beforehand, and share them with the pupils. I used to have a ten point plan, which included the important information about how they were to hand in their homework and any other practical things. After years of experience, I boiled these down to one rule. It sounds simplistic to say that my rule was BE NICE TO EACH OTHER, but it actually worked, and it applied to me as well.  If a pupil spoke over another one, I would point out that they were not being nice to that person, to disrespect them by not listening. If a pupil spoke when I was speaking, rather than go straight to a reprimand, I would politely enquire whether there was a problem. Sometimes there was! And the student could tell me and have it sorted out. If there wasn’t, the student would look embarrassed and reply no, there wasn’t, and subside. This showed them respect. And if you show respect, you get it back, as a year 11 student told me once.

It’s vitally important to realise a teacher never teaches a class. Instead they teach a group of individuals who have been randomly put together by age. Each one may need a different approach. I found making an effort to get to know each student and find out what they were interested in, helped me to bond with them, and gave me good ideas for what to bring to lessons in terms of teaching materials and analogies. If a student looked unhappy, I showed kindness by asking them what was wrong, and listening to the reply. A bit of sympathy can break down antagonism in a flash. For example, I arrived in my classroom to teach the first lesson after break. A few students had already arrived, as they were allowed to go in, there being no room to line up outside. One girl was ranting to her friends and seemed angry. I called her over, nicely, and asked her what was wrong. She was very cross that she had been told off for untidy uniform. I explained to her that the member of staff (golden rule – never ever slag off your colleagues to students, it’s like parents, a united front it vital) was not being personal but just doing her job, and that if she hadn’t, she could have got into trouble from the senior team, for not following up rules. I asked her if that made her feel better, and it had. Then I said that she could now forget about it as she was in my lesson and she loved English. She went smiling back to her friends.

In short, shouting can make things worse. There is always a better way. Be in charge but treat your pupils with respect. There is a good side to every child and the teacher’s job is to find it. Being a teenager is hard.

 

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Poems from the Roald Dahl workshop at Huddersfield Library #2

More poems produced by children during my workshop in Huddersfield Library. Caution: may include our own made up words – because anything Dahl can do, we can too!

Mrs Guillotine

The meanest teacher ever found
was from France, and lived a mile underground.
A language teacher originated,
saw the Queen be coronated.
At school she is a complete terror
and if you ever make an error
you’ll find out Mrs Guillotine
will lock you in the school store cupboard.
If you run down the corridor
she will scream at you, making you fall to the floor.
So beware! Do not bump into Mrs Guillotine
or you may end up executed.

by Mei Rivett (age 9)

Miss Lovelyhug

Miss Lovelyhug is a nice teacher.
She has long hair and she is tall.
She wears a butterfly teeshirt
and she moves like a butterfly.
Miss Lovelyhug has blue eyes.

Louanne (age 7)

Butterfuly t shirt

Teachers

Miss Strawberry is very sweet
with strawberry blond hair and a lovely dress.
She usually says ‘good boy’, ‘good girl’.
She gives you double playtime when you’re good.
She lets you do what you want
and sometimes finish school early.

Mr Tuffnut has spiky hair and spiky nails.
He wears a waistcoat and a top hat.
He sounds like a roaring lion.
Most of the time he says DETENTION
even if you move.
He makes them do double work.

Evan Harris (age 8)

The Wizzle

Miss Littlepeach is nice.
She has brown eyes, chestnut hair
and a lovely pink dress.

Mrs Bignut is big and mean.
She has green eyes like a cat.
She always shouts even when you’re not being naughty.

Mr Light is kind to everybody.
He likes to have a lot of sweets
and he always shares them.

Evie Grace Morton (age 7)

 

 

 

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Group Poem from Weston Point Primary School

A Day at the Seaside

Oh the salty, shimmering deep blue sea!
The sun blazes down on rainbow deckchairs,
crispy golden sand and fluffy towels.
Water is cold as ice for paddling.

Out on the wonderful big waves, a boat,
whose sailors never came back. Was it
a water tornado, a kraken or a megalodon?
Others go fishing, crabbing or exploring caves.

In the woods, it’s time for lunch and games.
Fairies fly sandwiches in. Vampires hide from light.
We play hide and seek, build dens but the Monkeysquirrel
wins the tree-climbing contest. Watch out for the Minotaur!

Before home, it’s to the pier for souvenirs.
Underneath it swims the Loch Ness Monster.
We go on the dodgems with the griffin,
then eat ice-cream and doughnuts.

It’s out of this world!

The way I write a group poem is to ask the class before playtime to think about what they would like to write a poem about. When they return, I gather the ideas and try to synthesise them. The ideas this time included mythical creatures, school, the seaside, so we decided to do a school trip to the seaside with mythical creatures involved. We decided on four stanzas, so divided the group into four, with a stanza each. Organising it by scenes was my idea. We had spoken about structure.
Each group then came up with ideas and recorded them on a mini whiteboard, with one person acting as scribe. They fed back their ideas to me after we decided on an order.
I then shaped and compressed their ideas into 4 quatrains. I think the result is fun, but more importantly, the pupils learned how to structure, control and shape a poem. They also learned some editing skills.

I must congratulate Weston Point on its marvellous reading and writing culture. There was a display of suprisingly mature poems on World War One, into which a lot of quality preparation had been invested.

The group poem was just one of the activities we enjoyed throughout the day, and the children wrote 3 individual poems.

Cover design of my children's chapbook, out tomorrow

Cover design of my children’s chapbook, out tomorrow

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Poem Doctor: 10 things to try

If your poem is struggling and refusing to breathe, here are some things you might try, to revive it and massage its heart:

1) Change the tense. Quite often present tense can make it more immediate.

2) Lose the first stanza: sometimes that’s just gearing up.

3) Look at your ending. Are you trying too hard to point up a moral? Chop it.

4) Look at your order and structure. Sometimes the ending needs to be the start.

5) Check out individual words. Is the one you have used the very, best most accurate word?

6) Consider changing the form. A free verse poem sometimes wants to be a formal poem. I speak from experience. I once had a poorly draft. Then I noticed there were two or three lines of iambic pentameter. The poem was telling me it was a sonnet. And when I listened to it, it wrote itself – and went on to be published in London Magazine.

7) Cut any parts where you have needlessly repeated yourself. Tautology is the enemy of brevity.

8) Read it aloud. Are there any parts you struggle to say? Then they need redrafting until they sound right.

9) Check your rhythm. Even free verse has a rhythm. (Metre is different, more regular). I often scan my poems out when they don’t feel right; this helps me find where it stumbles.

10)  In free verse, are your line breaks where you want a tiny pause? Don’t be afraid of having irregular line lengths and stanza lengths, because sometimes that can have the effect you want.

Good luck. It’s worth leaving poorly poems aside for a few days, or reading them aloud before you go to bed. Sometimes when you wake up the next day, your wonderful brain will have solved the problem for you and you will know what to do.

 

P1000269 (2)

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On being a young poet

When I was a young poet, inexperienced and clueless about publishing, I used to read poetry widely, discovering and taking home books from Widnes library to devour at my leisure. I kept a folder of poems which I could not live without: when I had to return the books, I’d copy out my favourite ones. I still have this file. The poems in it all helped to tune me in to the craft.

I was writing seriously from the age of 14, and used to put together collections of my poems, all neatly copied out, and get people to read them. I was fond of saying to my readers: ‘is THIS a poem?’ ‘And THIS?’ I was published in the school magazine. I made all the usual mistakes that teens often do: big words, portentous style, abstractions. But I kept at it. I was highly commended in a W. H. Smith national competition, and I was awarded a grade 2 for my creative writing portfolio which was a voluntary extra for A level English Literature. Today young poets can enter many excellent competitions and have their own network as part of The Poetry Society, These are fantastic for encouraging young writers.

I walked out of my careers interview at school because I couldn’t get the person advising me to understand when I said I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t mean a secretary. At university the career advice was no better.

I met Matt Simpson and showed him my poems, when I was 19. He said I ‘had something’. The following year, when I was in secnd year of my degree course, I had a poem published in Arts Alive Merseyside, on their poetry page. I didn’t realise that was an achievement. I showed my work to several lecturers. One loved my work, but another one was very critical – she actually rewrote one of my poems for me and turned it into appalling cliche. But I believed her and did not send any more poems out anywhere for ten years!  Instead of submitting, I bought a book called Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary by Frances Stillman, and worked my way through every poetic form she includes. I taught myself the craft of poetry, I read ever more widely, I went to readings and I performed at open mics, such as The Why Not in Liverpool. Back then Liverpool was a fantastic place for poets. There were many independent bookshops which stocked poetry books and pamphlets.

By the time I felt ready to submit again, I had graduated, married, lost both my parents after having done a good bit of looking after them, and had a child of my own. I was published in Orbis, Envoi and then had a marvellous acceptance for London Magazine, when Alan Ross was editor. I’d love to say things really took off for me, but it wasn’t like that. I’d never heard of the Gregory, so never applied for that. I was lucky to get the chance to bring out a debut collection with Stride in 1988. It was the epitome of a slim volume – only 23 poems, and I dedicated it to Matt Simpson, who had mentored and tutored me at his critique class in Runcorn library, and in letters.

Looking back, I realised the very negative effect the critical lecturer had on me. She was the only one who failed to encourage me, and many others did, But I still hid my work away. When I was pregant with my first baby, I attended a course at Arvon, led by Liz Lochhead. She told me I was a born poet and I HAD to write and publish my work. It was as though I needed permission.

Young poets can be sensitive and easily discouraged. It is so important to take them seriously and give helpful and constructive critisism. When I was a teacher, I had a saying in my classroom, which is now in my study. It says (original in Gaelic) Encourage Youth and it will Prosper.

Poets, this is your mission. Encourage young poets, tell them what is out there for them. Show them poems you love, buy them books. Be like Liz Lochhead and not like my American Studies lecturer, whose name I don’t even remember.

 

 

Angela 1975 ish

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Juvenilia #1Tales from my Attic

Image

Recently, clearing the loft, I found some exercise books from my schooldays. The following prompt was set as a writing task when I was in fourth year (what is now year 10) and it made me laugh, so I thought I would share it here.

Task: Supposing that as a result of an illness, not physically crippling, you found yourself unable to either attend school or to undertake a regular job for about six months. How would you occupy your enforced leisure?

My response:

                        In a state of bliss such as this, I would indulge in everything that pleased me most, and furthermore I could do enjoyable things which I have not usually time for, such as eating, writing poetry and sleeping.

                        This wonderful state of affairs would enable me to refrain from getting up until dinner time. This would be sheer bliss, as, not only am I bone idle, but I think that bed is the best place to read, as I am able to relax every muscle in my body and devote myself, not to keeping warm but to associating myself with the characters in the book.

                        I would try to vary each day as much as possible, to prevent myself from being imprisoned in a monotonous little rut. I would not, of course, stop doing any of the things which come naturally to me, but I would try to read different types of books, and write poetry on different topics, instead of the usual sentimental trash!

                        I should, of course, find myself with a lot of spare time on my hands, therefore for part of each day I could turn to industry. Daintily embroidering, like some young Victorian girl, would make me feel wonderfully historical, whereas, furiously knitting garments for my nieces and nephews, I would be the very essence of virtue.

                        With devotion to the musical side of my mind, practising my clarinet and piano would be a necessity. And I would prove myself to be the model of virtue, which I am most certainly not, by helping not to make a mess of the home.

                        I would find myself able to read more Bridge books and improve my game, as I long to beat my ‘brainy’ brother-in-law and my sister (his partner). Chess, too, I would try to improve my game to enable me to beat Marie, who taught me to play. That would be sweet indeed!

                        I would go for walks in the lovely countryside around us, drinking in deep breaths of fresh air, perfumed with the sweet fragrance of manure. On second thoughts, I don’t think I will!

                        Painting is something that I always enjoy, whirls of blue and orange give me relaxation of the mind, and though meaningless to the onlooker, are the bewitching children of my mind, in whom I place my sanity.

                        On the whole, during this gift of leisure time I would really enh joy myself and thank my Maker for the much-needed rest.

Teacher’s response: 7/10 and a comment ‘A bit on the short side’.

I don’t think she quite got my humour, and the way I send myself up throughout! The other thing that amused me is how little I have changed, if at all!

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