Perspective isn’t something I thought much about before the year 2020 but it has now become a word that pops into my head almost every day. It’s a word that’s getting me through each week and helping me to digest all that 2020 is throwing at us. Perspective is a word that’s made this year, not one to disregard or write off rather it’s made 2020 the year of change. This is the year we have all been waiting for.
How long could we carry on giving one month (if that) to discuss Black History? How long could we teach children to celebrate Christopher Columbus as a renowned explorer who ‘discovered’ the Americas? How long could we only give a platform to any Muslim country when explicitly teaching about Islam in an R.E lesson?
As teachers, we already know our own education in this country was a very diluted, lesser, bias version of real events and thanks to 2020, we have been given the push we have desperately needed to demand that the same lacking education we received isn’t given to the children of today.
Since returning to school on June the 4th, I was met with mixed emotions. Blogging had overnight become my new undesired forte during the lockdown, spending my weeks either in school or at home tirelessly trying to find accessible, engaging activities for my class that didn’t require resources, limited parent input and was worthy of 10 minutes away from Tik Tok.
Numbers on the blog dwindled and comments from my students such as ‘ thx miss i did this bye’ were enough to drive me back into wanting my classroom back open for business. But when it did happen I had to bite my tongue when we received an all-staff email from the Learning Trust (all working from home) thanking us for our dedication and commitment to our local communities in enabling schools to re-open. As if we had a choice. My borough was at the time estimated as having the 3rd highest COVID related deaths in the UK so you can see why many of us saw this as a huge juxtaposition.
But, that word perspective comes back again. With planning out the window, work in books to remain unmarked, numbers of pupils unknown I essentially could do what I wanted in class. They gave me an inch and I ran with it. With no real guidelines to follow apart from some maths and English each day I took this as an opportunity to respond to what we were seeing in the news and to say to these children that they deserve more in their education and they deserve to know the realities of the world we live in.
Luckily enough, my inner London school did provide a very broad, diverse and engaging Year 5 curriculum. We have spent the year studying the likes of Malala Yousafzai, the Suffragette movement, Frida Kahlo, global warming, human rights and inequalities. So I’m proud that my children already have a minor head start on these issues but it was nothing compared to what came next.
The Black Lives Matter movement gave us the perfect motive (not that we should need one) to understand, read about and discuss systemic racism, segregation, apartheid, discrimination, racial profiling, white privilege, fake news and everything that came with these topics. We were inspired by female Black and POC creatives in our art lessons, we looked at key Black figures in history that had been left out of the curriculum, we understood the term segregation and compared the South African apartheid to real modern-day circumstances where it still exists.
The response? The children loved it. They were finally being treated like humans that were part of the wider world, not machines that had to conform to classroom restraints that would only enable them to become cogs in a wheel in their future workforces. They debated, they dissected arguments, they demanded justice, they thrived.
After months of feeling like a fraud in my profession, I felt like I had my purpose back in my life. Teachers without their students are worthless. But worthless teaching is what exists. The pressures of SATs in primary schools have marginalised subjects and topics that are far more worthy then test results. Our children are being robbed of life lessons which even with a maths degree are set up to fail in life, predominantly if they are Black, a POC or of an ethnic minority. We have been teaching history dishonestly inside and outside of schools for so long now that it takes the death of an innocent man murdered by a police officer for us to wake up and contest the status quo. Learning doesn’t stop after school, learning has to and must continue for the rest of our lives else we are doing future generations no favours in the improvement of humanity.
Towards the end of the term, I was yet again to receive an all-staff email from ‘above’. One that did reflect on the well-being of our families. It stated that actions will be taken to ensure that ‘our curriculum models challenge received perceptions, particularly some of the received messages from history’ and ‘talking and more importantly listening to the concerns and opinions of our communities’.
So yes, 2020 has been a disaster in so many ways, but from my perspective, if 2020 has made everyone question history, questions our laws, question our educational system, question our beliefs, question our morals then some good has come from this year and hopefully our future selves can look back on it as the year the world woke up.
A conversation with Luke* via email or creating a safe space.
This blog post is sort of about an email conversation that took place over the whole school shutdown period (so far), with one particular student: Luke. It is about the value of the interactions we’ve had despite the fact that he has not submitted one single piece of work set by the English department on the VLE. Rather than worry that Luke will have learned less about Macbeth than his classmates (which of course is a worry to an extent because I don’t know how he’s going to be assessed when the time comes and whether this time off will be a problem), I’d like to take a look at what else has gone on between student and teacher during lockdown. What it is also about, however, is the importance of setting up your classroom as a place of dialogue and community: a Safe Space as Luke defines it later.
Luke is a GCSE student who identifies as Gay and as a ‘BAME’ student. I have discussed this term with him and he knows that’s part of the context of how his words are being included here. It’s not a perfect term but it gives you some context for the conversations we have had and an idea of why I feel Luke has things to teach me. Most of the learning that has gone on over lockdown in our teacher/ student relationship has been him teaching me and expanding my understanding. What can also be seen is the importance of a safe space for all students. Luke writes eloquently about this idea in a piece I have shared. I think that the dialogue I have had with Luke during lockdown is an intensified version of the conversations we’ve had and the relationship that has built since I began teaching him in year 7.
The emails with Luke began after I sent the one below. It was tricky to word and I think I’ve got better at them over this period but it was one of the first, a week after the Easter Holidays ended (essentially 2 working weeks into school closure):
I haven’t heard from you since we ‘came back’ so I am sending this to check in. If you are able to, could you send me an email just to let me know if there is a reason I’ve not seen anything from you (it is fine and you are not in trouble either way).
I’m just emailing to check you are ok and have been able to access the work set. I know this is a hard time and that working from home can be really tricky especially with other people in the house who need to do their work and use computers and things like that. I also hope you are safe and well and that your families are ok.
If you can’t do work on Macbeth right now, that is really ok. If you are able to, however, you do need to do the work at some point because we aren’t sure when you’ll have time to come back to it next year- so now is a good time!
If I don’t hear back from you then your head of year will give your parents a call to check in. Just to be clear, you really are not in trouble, we just want to be able to support everyone as best we can so if we don’t hear from you for ages, we check up. This would be the same if you hadn’t turned up to school for ages or if you were being super quiet in class and we thought you might not be ok.
All the best to you and your family
Ms Marshall 🙂
The email was sent to eight students in the class, all of whom did reply, most of whom I have had to send similar emails to subsequently.
Hi Ms Marshall
Sorry about all that, I’ve tried clicking on the links on [the VLE] but they haven’t been working for whatever reason. Also I’m confused about the Macbeth Workbook, is that the writing booklet you gave us before closure? If not can you send it to me please?
I will get the booklet for you today. I think most people seem to have printed it out and written in the booklet. That’s odd that the links don’t work.
Thanks for getting back to me and, as I said, very glad you are ok!
Luke received the Macbeth booklet but still has yet to send me any of his work on Macbeth. What this email chain did open up, however, was a bit of dialogue between Luke and me which allowed me to know how he was and to talk to him regularly. So, he didn’t get any more ‘chasing emails’. He joined in the Teams meetings we introduced so he has had some teaching on Macbeth, but only 3 hours in 9 weeks.
So what had Luke been doing with his time?
He wrote a poem, a book review and an article for the school magazine, which I edit, and he also spent time suggesting books I should read that he thought were important or that I would like. This is the first thing I’d like to talk about. I sent this list out to my class near the start of the school shutdown. I compiled it by asking them for suggestions and the list is created from those emails and I kept the recommendations in their own words because then it felt more communal and personal. People they knew had suggested the books, rather than just me. Accompanying the list was a little bit about what I was currently reading which Luke replied to – this was around a week after the above – with an emphatic response that prompted another chain of emails.
Dear Ms Marshall,
You should definitely read The Colour Purple! It’s a really good story about lesbians of colour. From sexism, to racism, to homophobia, this book covers a lot of topics and I feel like you’d really enjoy. Quick story: my mum had this on her reading list when she was at [the school he now attends**], but before she had the chance to read it, Margaret Thatcher pulled all books from schools that “promoted the homosexual lifestyle” and it simultaneously took the only book about people of colour from the reading list.
I hope you enjoy the book,
Oh hello Luke! How nice to hear from you! I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it and will get reading as soon as it arrives. I am currently reading another book you might enjoy (though it is a little more YA than The Colour Purple) and you have probably come across it: it’s called Black Flamingo. It might seem a bit ‘nail on the head’ as recommendation when you read the blurb but Ms N. and I were reading it and thought it would be a great recommendation for year 10/11 students. Let’s just say Margaret Thatcher would definitely have pulled this book out of schools!
All the best and glad you’re out there in the email ether!
Yes I’ve seen that book! It’s in the LGBT section in the Westfields Waterstones. I’m friendly with a few of the people that work there (because they’re lovely: if you’re ever in there ask for Alice or Sabrina*** as they manage the section, but all of them are wonderful) so they let me basically just sit on the floor and read: they don’t seem to be bothered by it – they’re actually more likely to offer me a chair! When this is all over, I’ll definitely sit down and read it.
I have a couple of recommendations for you: What If It’s Us? by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth and the ongoing Heartstoppers series by Alice Oseman, which she updates on her Tumblr regularly (I know you don’t like Tumblr but the series is definitely worth it).
When I recommended Dean Atta’s Black Flamingo I was apprehensive because I didn’t want to pigeonhole Luke and assume he would like the book simply because of its subject matter and the acronyms that might be used to describe him (LGBTQ+, BAME). I think though that for Luke being recommended this book actually opened a door. He’s always been very open with me and we’ve shared reading ideas before and he has sent me pieces of his writing, but the medium of email allowed him to open this up, send me a reading list of things that I might like but also that he thought it was important I read.
I’ve never told Luke which way I vote, and this doesn’t need to be about that. But I do think it’s interesting that he shows himself to be someone who has grown up in a home that lived through Section 28 and opposed it. He also identifies me as someone who would be on his side of that debate (which I then suggest I am in response to his invocation of Thatcher). He’s right, I couldn’t have recommended him that book in my capacity as his English teacher during that period. The lockdown has been an era of booklists and mine is long. The Colour Purple is on my pile and the others on my long list of YA I’m trying to work through.
Our conversation continues (I won’t include it all). This little bit below was the very next part. I think it’s clear that having shared the books, Luke wants to move the conversation on to share his own writing, rather than the writing of others.
I’m working on a piece of writing at the moment to send to you. I’ll try to send some semi-regularly, but I seem to have less free time than when I was at school… it’s strange. I hope you enjoy them and you can expect the first one soon-ish.
Looking forward to sending the writing,
Than [sic] you Luke that’s fantastic! I’m so pleased you have a friendly book shop- it’s so so important.
I have 2 questions about sharing some of what you’ve share:
Are you ok for me to share the book recommendations with a few others on a new list I’ll send out in a few weeks? And secondly, I use twitter quite a lot and I would love to tell the Waterstones Westfield how great they are without sharing your name but I won’t if you don’t want me to.
Please do send me some of your work and, as always, if there’s any that would be [school magazine] friendly, let me know but otherwise I’m just happy to read it.
Thanks for being in touch Luke it’s lovely to hear from you.
That would be wonderful on both accounts, although I am obligated to say that the Miseducation of Cameron Post has some adult themes and Heartstoppers is a comic. If it’s okay for me to recommend another book in prose by Alice Oseman, I would recommend Radio Silence: it’s truly wonderful.
I’ll update you if I find anymore good books,
Oh keep the recommendations coming Luke!
In this exchange we both show an awareness of the limitations of what is allowed to be shared in school even today, Section 28 or not, or what he might feel comfortable sharing with his peers. When I said [school magazine] friendly, I meant that I would want him to be comfortable sharing it in that form as he’s let me read lots of his work before and never let me put it in. His caveats are interesting too. The adult themes comment might show that despite the way things have moved on, a book on sexuality would be ok for a booklist sent to his classmates by me, but maybe not in the official school publication. His point about the comic book is, I suppose, that it might not be deemed challenging or part of a ‘reading’ list.
But Luke did send me writing to put in the magazine this time:
I wrote a 1103 word essay on Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces in modern internet culture and if you could read it, it would mean a lot to me. Originally I meant it to be a short piece to put in the [school magazine], but I got a bit carried away. If you still wanted to put in an extract, I would very much appreciate it!
I’ve included the piece as a separate blog post which I think lots of people would benefit from reading. But what I am pleased by, having read the essay, is the email above. The request that I read it in its full form is something that would ‘mean a lot’ to him. As a teacher, especially as an English teacher, having a student want you to read their work is always good because it means it’s something they are proud of and want you to see. But this isn’t just that, it’s, I hope, an acknowledgement that this email chain, and my relationship with him, is safe, the thread of emails is an online ‘safe space’ that he is arguing for:
‘…the idea that the world is unavoidably brutal and that people simply need to “stop being so sensitive” lends itself to a toxic mindset in which those who have suffered trauma need to change, rather than the environment they’re in.’
His essay made me realise that the work that we do in our classrooms is probably even more important than what goes on online in this regard. Now that our classrooms are virtual, are we, through what we send home, potentially having even less opportunity to do this? What are we doing to create safe online spaces? How do we ensure that our students don’t feel like they have to change themselves to fit in either in the real world classroom or the online one?
When Luke realised I wanted to publish his work and also to write about it here, he sent more. He wrote the poem ‘We Are Human’ in response to the BLM protests. In the poem he firmly situates in solidarity with the movement though, as far as I am aware, has not suffered at the hands of the police. But his use of ‘we’ all the way through and in the title is powerful. As he says in his article, it isn’t about never arguing or disagreeing, but about showing support at the right times. I’ve heard him debate on a number of issues with other students in the class and he always has a nuanced perspective. I think it is interesting then that in this piece that is for publication and as a response to BLM he makes the choice to simply show he is there for his fellow humans and sees the affronts to their humanity as an affront to his own.
There is a difference between Luke’s pieces that he knew would be read by lots of people, and the ones he thought would only be read by me (initially, he’s fully aware I’m publishing his words now). He himself acknowledges the need to caveat words and ideas for public consumption. In both cases in this thread of correspondence the process of editing yourself happens, reducing, to an extent the fullness of what could be said. Where one of these moments seems a shame because it has the potential to exclude the books he likes from a published list, the other is inclusive and empowering. Luke’s writing shows the sophistication with which young people edit, squish and squeeze themselves into different personas on and offline through the use of language.
I actually cherish the opportunity I have had to correspond with Luke. In school, this kind of talk can’t always happen, not least because there are 30 students in his class. The writing process is also very different to face to face conversation. He and I have both had lots of time to think about what to say and how to say it and through that he has produced reems of writing (not all included here). Overall though, I am sorry I couldn’t see my class, but glad I got to know them in this alternative way and that some more expansive thinking was able to take place for both Luke and me.
I do have some concrete takeaways from this in terms of what might be important in building strong relationships even if we’re still teaching online:
*Luke is a pseudonym.
** bits in square brackets are to protect the school identity
At the last conference, and actually at pretty much all of our conferences, L.A.T.E members have been enthusiastic to talk about teaching poetry. Whether this popularity for workshops on the subject or performances comes from a passion or from trepidation, I do not know. My guess is that there are bits of both for a lot of people. Who can argue that watching students from Alexandra Park School perform or working with Jacob Sam Le Rose isn’t a great way to spend a Saturday morning? But perhaps when it comes to teaching it there is sometimes a worry about a clash between personal love and the exam board, or personal hatred and necessity. Either way, we’ve had a lot to do with poetry this year and below are some of the L.A.T.E highlights as well as some resources to take you into next year. Poetry Please
Alexandra Park students perform at our conference in memory of Morlette Lindsay, celebrating her love of poetry, performance and young people doing both.
L.A.T.E members discuss and write poetry with Jacob Sam Le Rose at our conference held in conjunction with the BFI’s Black Star season (stay tuned as our Autumn term conference is always with the BFI and is always great!
At the 2015 BFI conference, for example, we held a workshop on using films to introduce tone, mood and structure when teaching relationships poetry (the BFI season was Love). See the link for a PDF of the presentation on ‘The Language of Love’ BFI Presentation
This summer teachers from Twyford C of E High School looked at how you might incorporate personal response, discussion work and creative writing into your poetry teaching. Poetry Please here’s the link to the powerpoint!
We asked other teachers at the session to give us their top tips too (in the form of the very exciting speed dating revision technique we were pioneering…)
What they said:
During the overwhelmingly useful ‘Poetry Please’ speed dating I initially struggled to think of fun tangible tips – I’d only taught a tiny amount of poetry after all – but after hearing a few other brilliant ideas I remembered a lesson which did go well (thanks here due to Cathy for the fab idea) – we read Ozymandias together as a class (having listened to the Breaking Bad trailer recital – it’s fab though I did get accused of showing spoilers) The class were asked to call out a character when they spotted one, they then became that character and were asked to stand at the front. We managed to find: the narrator, the traveller, the statue, the sculptor, Ozymandias, the sands, the reader and then, out of sheer desperation to stand up at the front of the class, one boy dug deep into his thinking-resources and came up with a triumphant ‘the writer!’ The rest of the class then had a lot of fun putting these students first into the order of when they occur in the poem; then into historical order; and finally in order of who has the power. This great fun: the class didn’t agree on who should stand where. There was a heated debate on who was more powerful, the reader or the writer with the two students representing these tasks switching places pantomime-stye each time a different view was put forth. The seated members of the class had to call on all their persuasion skills to get the line at the front to changes places instinctively using quotes from the poem to back up their arguments.
Next time I will get the boys to hold a sign saying who they are as there was some fun (but riotous) confusion when a couple forgot who they were supposed to be! Two Ozy’s in the room – now that’s some competition for power!
How to encourage independent meaning-making when studying poetry.
1) Read through the poem as a group and write one sentence summarising what it is about.
2) Underline any words you don’t understand and look them up in the dictionary or failing that, buy definitions from the “word bank”. Annotate the poem with the meanings of these words.
3) Analyse the language and structural techniques used!
Find examples of the following techniques and highlight and label them. Explain how these link to the topic of the poem.
4) Analyse the context!
6) Identify themes!
Write down three themes (ideas) that the poet explores.
Complete the themes table and compare with other poems from the anthology.
Once tasks are completed, it is important to take whole class feedback to ensure that all students are sharing ideas and have a range of annotations. Depending on how much time you have, you can either do this at the end of the lesson, or the next lesson for more detailed feedback.
What is really striking from teaching poetry in this way, is how capable the students are at making-meaning independently. Because of the competition element, they are fiercely determined not to ask me any questions, and it’s amazing what ideas and interpretations they can make from themselves and each other.
This method of course doesn’t have to be restricted to the teaching of poetry; for example, I have used the question tokens in other lessons such as analysing Shakespeare with Key Stage 3 students, with similar results.
We really hope you have a lovely summer full of rest and relaxation! A massive thank you to the committee and to all those who have run work shops, attended them, given key notes, performed and listened. We need you all and hope you’ll come along again next year. For those of you new to LATE we hope to see you at an event next year. Please email in to firstname.lastname@example.org or A.email@example.com or J.Yandell@ucl.ac.uk for queries relating to tickets or the website. We’d love any ideas you have for future events.
LATE_summer_conf_1706v4 web (link to our most recent conference programme)
At Late we think it’s a great idea to make the most of London and her resources. In the last few posts I’ve mostly talked about how we can use it in our teaching and with our students but of course we should be using it ourselves too. Galia is a member of the LATE committee and is an avid theatre goer. Below she shares some of the theatre she’s loved recently and in future we’ll be posting about some of the other theatrical and cultural highlights for London English teachers. Please do comment if you’ve got any other ideas or recommendations.
I See Things by Galia Admoni
I’m a Lead Practitioner at a school in North London and I see things. Not dead people or anything. Theatre, mostly. I’ve lived in London my whole life and I’ve been lucky enough to have visited lots of theatres across the city over the years, however since becoming a teacher the visits have become more and more frequent. I think I might have a problem actually. I’m really excited to be sharing my top theatre picks with you and I look forward to hearing your views too – you can comment below or follow me on twitter here: @galiamelon
So read on, and turn yourself into a regular Samuel Beckett with conversation starters like… “what is that unforgettable line?”
My London theatre highlights for April 2017
Consent by Nina Raine (National Theatre) – playing until 17th May 2017
What they say: Why is Justice blind? Is she impartial? Or is she blinkered? Friends take opposing briefs in a rape case. The key witness is a woman whose life seems a world away from theirs. At home, their own lives begin to unravel as every version of the truth is challenged. Consent, Nina Raine’s powerful, painful, funny play sifts the evidence from every side and puts justice herself in the dock.
What I say: ‘Painfully funny’, this is a beautifully acted piece of drama that succeeds elegantly in making the political, personal. The dialogue is fast-paced, holding a mirror up to the intelligent humour and terrifying flaws embedded within the modern legal system. Some of the characters, at times, are truly abhorrent, and yet Raine’s considered character exploration means that they also seem so very human, so very complex and all illicit a measure of sympathy from the audience, in surprising and affecting ways. Nina Raine is definitely a writer that I’ll be looking out for in the future.
See this if: you are interested in how societies’ ‘big questions’ actually impact on people’s everyday lives; you are open to seeing something that might challenge your views and you are comfortable with laughing at what some may deem ‘inappropriate’!
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare (National Theatre) – playing until 13th May 2017
What they say: A ship is wrecked on the rocks. Viola is washed ashore but her twin brother Sebastian is lost. Determined to survive on her own, she steps out to explore a new land. So begins a whirlwind of mistaken identity and unrequited love. The nearby households of Olivia and Orsino are overrun with passion. Even Olivia’s upright housekeeper Malvolia is swept up in the madness. Where music is the food of love, and nobody is quite what they seem, anything proves possible. Simon Godwin directs this joyous new production with Tamsin Greig as a transformed Malvolia.
What I say: As a confirmed Bardolator, it’s unsurprising that I loved this play. What is perhaps surprising however is that so has everyone else I know who has seen it – it’s been an all-out-smash! Tamsin Greig brings a spicy, yet sympathetic flavour to Malvolia; in fact the entire company dazzle in this raucous and beautifully designed piece. The ‘vintage’ feel of the design is really appealing to watch and Shakespeare’s language never fails to impress, whether touching or vulgar!
See this if: you want a feel good, easy watch, but still enjoy the challenge and intricacies of a full length Jacobean comedy.
Ugly Lies the Bone by Lindsey Ferrentino (National Theatre) – playing until 6th June 2017
What they say: ‘Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone; beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own.’ After three tours in Afghanistan, Jess finally returns to Florida. In a small town on the Space Coast, as the final shuttle is about to launch, Jess must confront her scars – and a home that may have changed even more than her. Experimenting with a pioneering virtual reality therapy, she builds a breathtaking new world where she can escape her pain. There, she begins to restore her relationships, her life and, slowly, herself. Award-winning American playwright Lindsey Ferrentino makes her UK debut with this honest and funny new drama, directed by Inghu Rubasingham (The Motherf**ker with the Hat).
What I Say: A beautifully subtle yet powerful examination of some incredibly relevant, contemporary issues, through the lens of one family’s struggles. High concept design and a heartbreaking performance from all, flecked with touching comedy to keep it all feeling so, so human. Ralf Little and Kris Marshall’s performances are both highlights.
See this if: you like theatre that addresses up-to-date issues.
My Country; a work in progress in the words of people across the UK and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy (National Theatre) – on tour until July 2017
What they say: Britannia calls a meeting to listen to her people. Caledonia, Cymru, East Midlands, North East, Northern Ireland and the South West bring the voices of their regions. The debate is passionate, the darts are sharp, stereotypes nailed and opinions divided. Can there ever be a United Kingdom? In the days following the Brexit vote, a team from the National Theatre spoke to people nationwide, aged 9 to 97, to hear their views on the country we call home. In a series of deeply personal interviews, they heard opinions that were honest, emotional, funny, and sometimes extreme. These real testimonials are interwoven with speeches from party leaders of the time in this new play by Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate, and director Rufus Norris.
What I say: The poetry of Carol Ann Duffy is a melody that sings mellifluously above the ‘human music’ of this piece. The audience well and truly performed the ‘sacrament of listening’ throughout the performance. I have never experienced verbatim theatre in the flesh before and it was a visceral and emotionally charged occasion. And you couldn’t really get more relevant! Heartbreakingly funny too – because we all have to live together through the consequences of the decisions that we made for this country – for better or worse. Listening to the voices in this play though, helps me to feel like it’s not all doom and gloom. Real people should be listened to more often – if anything, that’s what this piece is a testament to.
See this if: you have an interest in people; you’re not afraid to have your views challenged and you love listening to gorgeously poetic language.
In today’s blog I thought I would share some of the amazing work on poetry that English teachers did at our last conference. The conference was in memory of our good friend and colleague Morlette Lindsay who had a passion for poetry (and hailed from South Africa). Thus the poetry shared below is all inspired by the exhibition on South Africa recently held at the British Museum. The work shop was run by the wonderful Joanna Brown who works with Africa Writes Education and Film Africa working with the annual African literature and film festivals to inspire young writers. I also considered some of the interesting conversations we had on the day.
Igniting the flame
In this work shop we were given postcards of paintings and artifacts from the museum and were asked to write a poem based on a postcard of our choice. As well as sharing our work we had a lengthy discussion about how museums can inspire curiosity. The previous post to this one LATE was encouraging you to use London as a resource for your teaching and the PGCE students from Kings College came up with some really innovative ideas about what the places can be used for and how children might interact with them.
What came out of the Igniting the flame work shop was a discussion about how young people (a) feel they should interact with museums, galleries and other cultural spaces like theatres and (b) how they actually want to interact. Arguably, writing poetry based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of an object found in a museum might seem like a misuse of the museum’s resources; however, as Joanna and Jen Wilkinson showed us, the work created from that slight misunderstanding can be beautiful. If you are interested in further reading on this topic I recommend Theatre and Museums by J. Jenkins who has concisely written about the performative elements of culture, museums and galleries and how the public and cultural spaces are changing the way they invite people to interact with exhibits. The book is about the move away from cataloging objects and chronological information towards more interactive and creative ways of presenting and using information.
A selection of our writing (more in the featured image if you’d like to read)
Below are links to a fantastic scheme of work written by Lindsay Home, currently a teacher at Parliament Hill School for Girls. She developed the resources for her scheme of work and gathered the wonderful examples for the presentation, whilst working at an international school in the Netherlands. Her varied experiences inspired her to draw on the vast range of cultural experiences her students had in her teaching of poetry. Basing her scheme of work around that idea ties in wonderfully with the sentiment of LATE and this particular conference. As Harold Rosen so rightly said: The content of the curriculum which the teacher brings to the classroom must respect and incorporate the culture, language and experience which the learner brings there.
A number of members of L.A.T.E have started a teachers as writers group this year. We got together recently at the British Library (where better place to start) to do some writing, have some tea and cake and have a chat. We based our writing on the British Library’s Victorian Entertainment exhibition. During the sharing of our writing we began sharing our favourite books that were, in one way or another, related to the exhibition or the things it has prompted us to write about. Below is a list of the recommendations we gave one another- preparation for some Easter Holiday Reading!
Two non-fiction and 3 novels, hopefully a little something for everyone but all recommended by teachers to teachers!
Geek Love – Katherine Dunne
This book was discovered as part of a course on literature and bodies at Birmingham university by one of our writers. It tells the story of a woman who imbibes all manner of things in order to breed the perfect carnival act.
The Reason I Jump- Naoki Higashida
13 year old Higashida has a form of autism which means he cannot speak, but in this book he shows how learning to type allows him to express himself articulately and imaginatively. The book takes a Q & A form and he explains the way he behaves to those who might not understand. The book was translated into English when David Mitchell’s wife came across it in the original Japanese and it helped them understand their own child. The book ends with a story written by Naomi.
Nights at the Circus- Angela Carter
Set at the turn of the century, the magical realist novel follows a circus tour as it moves through Europe (London, Siberia, St Petersburg). The novel is typical of Carter’s style exploring sexuality, gender and is both dark and funny.
Middlesex- Jeffrey Euginides
A modern take on the grand American narrative following a second generation Greek immigrant, hermaphrodite protagonist through life and love. Its a fantastic read but a longer one that the others on the list.
Sapiens – Dr. Yuval Noah Harari
This books uses the fields of biology, anthropology, palaeontology and economics to understand how we have become what ever it that we are as a species today. It takes huge questions such as why we believe in Gods and charts the impact of language acquisition, agricultural innovation and much more.
Galia, our resident theatre buff gives her top picks for the season here!
I’m a Lead Practitioner/Second in Department for English at a school in North London and I see things. Not dead people or anything. Theatre, mostly. I’ve lived in London my whole life and since becoming a teacher I’ve dedicated most of my spare time (ha!) to visiting the city’s many theatres. I’m really excited to be sharing my top theatre picks with you this month and I look forward to hearing your views too – you can comment below or follow me on twitter here: @galiamelon
So read on, and turn yourself into a regular Samuel Beckett with conversation starters like… “what is that unforgettable line?”
Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht (TheYoung Vic) – playing until 1st July
What they say: “If one masterwork seems more timely than ever, it is Life of Galileo – I can’t think of a more prescient play for our times.” The Guardian, March 2017. BAFTA Award-winning film director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) returns to the Young Vic after his celebrated production of A Season in the Congo. Brendan Cowell plays Galileo following his acclaimed performance in Yerma. Galileo makes an explosive discovery about the universe with his new invention – the telescope. The show is performed in-the-round on a stunning set designed by Lizzie Clachan (Yerma, A Season in the Congo). The show will have original music by The Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowlands and projections by 59 Productions (Feast, WarHorse).
What I say: There are very few things more attractive to most people than talent. A talented man, playingthe part of an insanely talented man, talking all things space and physics in a theatre studio – that’s definitely nothing to complain about! Brendan Cowell is magnetic in this Brecht production – he bounds about the space like he’s trying to power up the LHC with only his physical energy as fuel. The rest of the ensemble, along with their gorgeous puppets, is also a joy to watch. The addition of a huge digital planetarium suspended from the ceiling and thumping music from The Chemical Brothers only adds to the overall beautiful madness of the spectacle. I booked floor seats on the stage itself, which is in the round – well worth going for these if you can, as you’re thrust into the action along with the players, but also given ample time to reflect on the awe of our universe and the majesty of mankind’s imagination and drive in cracking it open. The Young Vic’s vision combined with Brecht’s script is a real hit here.
See this if: you enjoy innovative and dynamic theatre. Sit on the floor seats if you can – the back ache is worth it!
Common by DC Moore (National Theatre) – playing until 5th August
What they say: An epic tale of England’s lost land. Mary’s the best liar, rogue, thief and faker in this whole septic isle. And now she’s back. As the factory smoke of theindustrial revolution belches out from the cities, Mary is swept up in the battle for her former home. The common land, belonging to all, is disappearing.
What I say: ‘Common’ has so many fantastic elements – an interesting set, brilliant performances from Anne Marie Duff et al and a fairly poetic script- I’m a fan of the hyphenated word and this script makes use of many, as well as a plethora of swearing and insults. It seems strange therefore that with all of these elements, something just isn’t quite right. I’m unsure about why so many people have been quite so hyperbolic in their hatred of this play, but I’d definitely agree that it’s a little off. I’d say it’s certainly a play worth seeing, because then maybe you can tell me what’snot quite right about it!
See this if: you enjoy a snappy insult and are happy to forego lots of plot for an amazing character study.
Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellams (National Theatre) – playing until 8th July
What they say: One day. Six cities. A thousand stories. Newsroom, political platform, local hot spot, confession box, preacher-pulpit and football stadium. For generations, African men have gathered in barber shops to discuss the world. This dynamic new play leaps from a barber shop in London to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra. These places where the banter can be barbed and the truth is always telling.
What I say: I’m almost at a lossfor words, as Barber Shop Chronicles may have just become one of my all-time favourite productions. This ensemble piece is cast with a group of flawlessly talented actors and the design is the perfect balance of warm and familiar juxtaposed with new and refreshing. The script balances humour with poignant moments in such a smart way that you can’t help but ache to be part of the groups portrayed on stage and this, alongside the music and dance used adds even more vibrancy. At times the script is elevated to mellifluous poetry; at times it’s base and gritty. One thing that amazes me is how a play written for a company of all black, male actors can speak to me on such a personal level- I recognised myself in so many of theconversations about family, love and what home means that these characters have. That is a true testament to the power of this play. I also feel so privileged to have had a window into the lives of so many of my students and can’t wait to share what I’ve seen tonight with them and learn even more about their culture and heritage. All this sounds very heavy going, I know, but one of the victories of this production is how uplifted the whole audience seemed to feel by the end of the show. It has so many laugh out loud moments! I think I could write reams about how in love I am with this production! Genuinely so impressed with the National for staging something so unusual and innovative and feel so blessed to have experienced it from the front row. Incredible.
See this if: you want to feel uplifted and moved.
DNA by Dennis Kelly (NYT Holloway Road) – playing until 24th June
What they say: Amongst the darkness of an unnamed wood, a lawless gang are trying to bury a dark secret. The group need someone to take charge, but who can they trust? Who do they follow? While lies spiral and tension mounts, everyday adolescence twists and turns into an anarchic game of survival.
What I say: I’m still not convinced about this play. Having taught it to my GCSE class, I would say I have a fairly good understanding of it, and yet I still feel like I haven’t quite ‘got it’ – there’s something about the script that leaves me feeling a bit cold, but not in the way that perhaps Dennis Kelly intended . The premise is really interesting though, and this production makes good use of movement and staging in the small space available to the company. It’s also really lovely to see young people perform in such a confident way. My students really enjoyed seeing it and it’s certainly worthwhile seeing any play that you teach brought to life.
See this if: you’re teaching it!
Hamlet by William Shakespeare (Almeida Theatre/Harold Pinter Theatre) – playing until 2nd Sept
What they say: ghost / devil; acting /madness; be / not be – Andrew Scott makes his Almeida debut in the title role and Juliet Stevenson plays Gertrude in a new production directed by Almeida Associate Director Robert Icke (1984; Mr Burns; Oresteia; Uncle Vanya).
What I say: It is so hard to capture in words how effortless, light and honest this production is. I have seen this play several times before and never have I been so enthralled and captivated by it. The design of this production is contemporary, which allows the play to thrive without the weight of history on it; however, it’s not just the design that achieves this effect. Andrew Scott is a phenomenal Hamlet. It’s as if he is speaking his own words throughout; as if they are coming to him in each moment as a thought might occur in everyday life. He lives this character in a way that I have never seen before and it is hauntingly beautiful to behold. The music of Dylan is such an interesting choice here – folky and earthy, it somehow keeps the play grounded. The contemporary design is flawless, familiar, decadent, rotten and even with all that, still sort of irrelevant, as this is a production that in no way relies on design to sell it. The poetry of this play never ceases to captivate me; it never changes and yet here it feels as fresh and alive as I imagine it did 400 years ago when it was first performed. Absolute magic – a must see.
See this if: you can get a ticket. It’s phenomenal!
Gloria byBranded Jacobs-Jenkins (Hampstead Theatre) – playing until 22nd July
What they say: New York. A city that runs on ambition – and coffee. In the offices of a notorious Manhattan magazine, a group of ruthless editorial assistants vie for their bosses’ jobs and a book deal before they’re thirty. But trapped between Starbucks runs, jaded gossip and endless cubicle walls, best-selling memoir fodder is thin on the ground – that is until inspiration arrives with a bang… Branden Jacobs-Jenkins spins a razor-sharp comic drama about ambition, office warfare and hierarchies, where the only thing that matters is moving up the ladder and selling out to the highest bidder.
What I say: Never have I been more ashamed to be associated with a social group (millennials). If you want to see a bunch of self-obsessed yuppies moan about how terrible it is that they actually have to work at work and reflect on how every tragedy on a minute to global scale is actually all about them and only them, then this is the play for you! This, alongside some completely gratuitous violence that achieves nothing but laughs, makes this play incredibly frustrating. I can’t help but wonder whether the writer intended it all ironically. I ruddy hope so. But if that is the case then this play really falls short of the mark. It was only night 2 of previews when I saw this, so maybe some rehearsal will help some of the performances connect more, but I suspect that nothing is going to rescue this play from its script. A shame for Colin Morgan, who I’d say is the only one who comes off fairly well in this car crash of a piece!
See this if: you enjoy whinging.
Watch this space for more teaching ideas, reviews and other english teaching related blogging.
We’re a cultured bunch here on the LATE committee and we like to share our culture our ideas, culture and new found enthusiasms with you and also our students. Here is my (Myfanwy Marshall @Miff_) round up of the Hay Festival and how I’ve used some of the experiences in the class room this week.
Myths and Legends
Neil Gaiman has been one of my favourite authors since I was about 11 and I read Coraline which I enjoyed and was spooked by in equal measures. When I heard that he was retelling the Norse mythology I was therefore extremely excited. Whilst Stephen Fry may have tried to steal Gaiman’s limelight at the session, I felt Gaiman’s story of Fenrir the giant wolf outstripped Fry’s amusing retelling of a Greek myth. Norse Gods is dark, mysterious and powerful whilst also being hugely entertaining. It’s perfect for younger readers (secondary school age I’d say) but has certainly captured my imagination too.
Also out at Hay was a new translation of the Mabinogi. Lesser known that Thor, Odin, Zeus and the Minotaur, the Celts have a strange, ethereal and Authurian set of myths all of their own. Matthew Francis has, according to my Welsh speaking grandmother, done a marvellous job of capturing the essence of the sometimes strange poetic language in his English translation. As a non-Welsh speaker who sits in London clinging to her Welsh roots I love it too and think it’s beautifully written.
In the classroom: I decided I wanted to mix up the Greek Myths SOW in my department so taught the story of Pwyll and Arawn to year 7s. In the story Pwyll, a hunter, steals the Prince of the Unworld’s trophy stag so as punishment must swap bodies with him for a year. During this time Pwyll has to defeat Arawn’s enemy for him before he can return. Though a seemingly happy ending, several of my female students pointed out that Arawn’s wife is rightly angry when he returns as he’s been ignoring her for the whole year- a woman caught up in the petty feuds of men…interesting starting point for a class discussion. I taught the story of Fenrir from Norse Gods too, leading to a brilliant discussion of hubris, pride, the value of friendship, power and fear. Both will be used as inspiration for the writing of our own myths.
Masculinity- Owen Sheers inspires
It seems apt then after looking at those two myths which raise such interesting questions about masculinity, strength and power that I promote this link to Owen Sheers’ talk a Hay. He gave a truly thought provoking and intelligent talk on masculinity directly addressed to his daughters entitled ‘The men you will meet’. Really worth a listen and something that could be used in pastoral, political, RE, Philosophy and English classrooms. There are aspects of it relevant to all ages but generally speaking you should listen as I think it made me think about the men I know and the young men and women who I teach.
In his Q and A he talked at length about the men he’d worked with from all walks of life.
Galia is Lead practitioner for English in her school, a member of the LATE committee and is an avid theatre goer. Below she shares some of the theatre she’s loved recently and in future we’ll be posting about some of the other theatrical and cultural highlights for London English teachers. Please do comment if you’ve got any other ideas or recommendations. Personally I loved Rozencrantz and Guildenstern and am still really looking forward to Salome and the Ferryman later this month.
I see things…by Galia Melon
I’m really excited to be sharing my top theatre picks with you this month and I look forward to hearing your views too – you can comment below or follow me on twitter here: @galiamelon
So read on, and turn yourself into a regular Samuel Beckett with conversation starters like… “what is that unforgettable line?”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard (The Old Vic) – playing until 6th May
What they say: Against the backdrop of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this mind-bending situation comedy sees two hapless minor characters, Rosencrantz (Daniel Radcliffe) and Guildenstern (Joshua McGuire), take centre stage with David Haig as The Player. Increasingly out of their depth, the young double act stumble their way in and out of the action of this iconic drama. In a literary hall of mirrors, Stoppard’s brilliantly funny, existential labyrinth sees us witness the ultimate identity crisis.
What I say: Existentialism at its finest here. It’s definitely a thinker, but beautifully performed and Radcliffe and McGuire have an electric chemistry. There is just the right amount of Shakespeare to keep a Bardolator like myself interested and this, alongside some lovely sets and costumes, make this a very enjoyable piece to watch.
See this if: you like a bit of puzzlement and humour when you see a play.
The Treatment by Martin Crimp (Almeida Theatre) – playing until 10th June
What they say: New York. A film studio. A young woman has an urgent story to tell. But here, people are products, movies are money and sex sells. And the rights to your life can be a dangerous commodity to exploit. Martin Crimp’s contemporary satire is directed by Lyndsey Turner, who returns to the Almeida following her award-winning production of Chimerica.
What I say: Power. Control. Blindness. Truth. A truly engaging play; still very fresh and seemingly timeless considering it’s about 20 years old. I loved the use of technology here – it was apt to use film considering the filmic content of the story and it didn’t jar at all. The performances from the whole company were fascinating, often verging on menacing.
See this if: you enjoy powerful pieces that comment on current social issues.
Salome by Yaël Farber (National Theatre) – playing until 15th July
What they say: The tale retold. The story has been told before, but never like this. An occupied desert nation. A radical from the wilderness on hunger strike. A girl whose mysterious dance will change the course of the world. This charged retelling turns the infamous biblical tale on its head, placing the girl we call Salomé at the centre of a revolution. Internationally acclaimed director Yaël Farber (Les Blancs) draws on multiple accounts to create her urgent, hypnotic production on the Olivier stage.
What I say: Frustrating and beautiful in equal measure. This is an absolutely stunning production – the music, design, staging and choreography really push the boundaries of what the National can do. The opening sequence alone is worth going to see the whole play for. What a shame then that the script is so jarringly clunky! It really does the actors a disservice, though they do the best they can with what they’ve been given.
See this if: you value style over substance and are able to overlook cringe-worthy dialogue!
Woyzeck by Georg Buchner/Jack Thorne (Old Vic Theatre) – playing until 24th June
What they say: The multi-award-winning Jack Thorne (This is England, Let The Right One In, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) breathes new life into Woyzeck, one of the most extraordinary plays ever written. It’s 1980s Berlin. The Cold War rages and the world sits at a crossroads between Capitalism and Communism. On the border between East and West, a young soldier (John Boyega) and the love of his life are desperately trying to build a better future for their child. But the cost of escaping poverty is high in this searing tale of the people society leaves behind.
What I say: Grotesque. Uncomfortable. Sort of beautiful. The set and music design for this production are outstanding – I really like the choice the designers made to show the world through Woyzeck’s eyes, where things become less and less trustworthy and it all feels a little like it’s going to fall in at any moment. The performances, while engaging, were for me a little too much like watching ‘acting’ rather than real people, which is maybe what a play like this needs in order to really hit home. Certainly worth a watch though.
See this if: you like to feel moderately uncomfortable and have a thing for ‘heightened’ acting.
Angels in America by Tony Kushner (National Theatre) – playing until 19th August
What they say: America in the mid-1980s. In the midst of the AIDS crisis and a conservative Reagan administration, New Yorkers grapple with life and death, love and sex, heaven and hell. The cast includes Andrew Garfield playing Prior Walter, Denise Gough playing Harper Pitt, Nathan Lane playing Roy Cohn, James McArdle playing Louis Ironson and Russell Tovey playing Joe Pitt.
What I say: 7 hours and 40 mins. A marathon of suffering and joy. What I love most about this play is that it’s not afraid of the ridiculous, which is vital to get through this slog of a piece. How anyone can write a play this funny about a subject matter so devastating is beyond me. Watching the pain and suffering of these characters is at times beyond uncomfortable and yet impossible to turn away from. Performances by the entire company are phenomenal, including Russell Tovey, Nathan Lane, Denise Gough, James McArdle and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett but the highlight has to be Andrew Garfield, whose luminous performance as Prior is captivatingly magical. Alongside classically stunning National Theatre design, this production is truly once in a lifetime and this performance, for me, was one that I will remember and treasure forever.
See this if: you can get a ticket! There are no other reasons not to see this!
At the last conference there was a huge celebration of the ways we can utilise London in our teaching of English. Museums are just one area that London has to offer and of course there are many others. We can look to our wide range of formal cultural institutions like the galleries and theatres, but also to the streets, parks and rivers that surround us.
Shared below are some of the fantastic ideas shared by King’s College London PGCE students for how to make the most of our beloved city. As we look to that slightly more relaxed summer term or perhaps make plans for next year these trip suggestions could come in handy. You may well know all about the museums below and assume they have an education programme; however, the students have had time to explore the museums and consider other, creative ways you can build one of these museums into your study of a range of areas of English.
Dickens Museum and 19th Century London
Charlotte, Fahmida, Henna and Mariam explored the Charles Dickens Museum
The activities they came up with were aimed at understanding Dickens’ life and times. The museum offers its own programme of activities exploring Dickens’ texts but here are some ideas that could be used for understanding context in particular. For example you could create freeze frames in each room showing how it would have been used; create found poems using the plaques and extracts from Dickens’ writing; or take a walking tour of the area. They pointed out some of the fantastic apps you can use such as the blue plaque walk around the area.
Foundling museum at Coram Fields and 19th Century non-fiction ideas
Also in the Bloomsbury area is the Foundling Museum. Danielle Ashford, James Gallagher, Caroline Gooden, Zoe Mariner and John Moller visited to see how they could use the museum in the practice. They realised that the museum was potentially useful for a number of modern and Victorian texts such as: Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, An Inspector Calls (the institution was open until well into the 20th century), Coram Boy (the book is based on this specific foundling hospital) and Hetty Feather.
As well as being useful for exploring these literary texts, the museum is also a good base for research and introducing students to non-fiction writing. The following types of writing can be found in relation to the museum, such as testimonials from past residents scattered around the building, but also could be written by students after a visit:
Responding to war at the IWM
The students who visited the Imperial War Museum had a difficult task in considering how they could students for an emotional trip full of quite gruelling details. They came up with creative ways of helping younger students to enjoy the day and be both informed and engaged with the tricky content of the museum.
They suggested introducing students to war literature before their visit so that they could understand the issues at hand and relate the things in the museum to their work in class. Texts they suggested were common class readers , such as the Boy in Striped Pyjamas or The Diary of Anne Frank as well as more unusual texts like Maus, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich and poems by holocaust and concentration camp victims.
One of the most interesting discoveries they made at the museum was RAF slang used by pilots. Trying to have conversations using the slang and exploring the language of war and battles was something the PGCE students found fun but also fascinating. In order to process some of what they have seen on the day, the students suggested a number of creative writing and discussion activities. Some of the best were: writing a postcard home from different types of people involved in the war and staging a radio show reporting on a key event from a war that they did not know much about before visiting.
The final group to present at our spring conference offered some interesting ways of using the Victoria and Albert Museum when teaching a play text. An important part of their proposed day out was familiarising the students with the museum set up, which is often crucial for students who do not regularly visit museums. For this they suggested a scavenger hunt around three of their personal favourite galleries, however it could be worth tailoring your hunt for interesting objects to the unit you’re studying.
They were particularly engaged with the theatre collection which is organised into different areas. These areas allow students to explore staging, costume, lighting and play scripts with hands on experimentation, dressing up and obviously historical artefacts. They suggested exploring the impact of all these different areas through actually seeing them and trying things out and then, when you get back to school, applying them to the text you are studying.
Things to note