This much I know about…why a song speaks to my soul

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about why a song speaks to my soul.

According to Seamus Heaney, when a writer’s work speaks to you directly, “you hear something in another writer’s sounds that flows in through your ear and enters the echo-chamber of your head and delights your whole nervous system”. Well, when I heard the first chords of Fontaines DC’s Roy’s Tune, my every neuron was thrilled, just as Heaney describes.

I have played the track on repeat all week. What has baffled me, however, is why it has affected me so profoundly. Over the years a handful of songs have elicited a similar response, but I have always known why; for instance, Robert Wyatt’s version of Shipbuilding – exquisite, mournful, anti-war – or The Clash’s Stay Free – cheeky, reggae-rooted, bromantic – speak to me for reasons I can easily define, reasons which are primarily rooted in the lyrics.

The lyrics of Roy’s Tune, however, make little sense. And the track’s official video tells the story of a young shepherd who goes on an all-night bender with his mates and decides to return home to his partner and their little girl as dawn breaks. It is no help in unpicking what on earth this song is about.

Roy’s Tune by Fontaines DC

The breeze in the night time would kill you stone dead
It was the message I heard when the company said
“There is no warning, and there is no future”
I like the way they treat me but I hate the way they use her
I hate the way they use her

I never really read
I spent the day in bed
And my hair was red
And my eyes weren’t dead
I was a cool cool kid on the curbstone scene
And the lights in my eyes they were evergreen
Like you’ve never seen

The breeze in the night time would kill you stone dead
It was the message I heard when the company said
“There is no warning, and there is no future”
I like the way they treat me but I hate the way they use her
I hate the way they use-

Well I never really read
I spent the day in bed
And my hair was red
And my eyes weren’t dead
I was a cool cool kid of the curbstone scene
And the lights in my eyes they were evergreen
Just like you’ve never seen before

They said the breeze in the night time would kill you stone dead
It was the message I heard when the company said
“There is no warning, there’s no future”
I like the way they treat me but I hate the way they use her
I hate the way they use-

Hey love
Hey love
Are you hanging on?

Hey love
Hey love
Are you hanging on?
Are you hanging on?

My bemusement at how the song has affected me drove me to email my colleague, Liz, who runs a brilliant Music department. She is the most musical person I have ever met. She cannot play music in her car because she will crash, so distracted is her brain by what she hears. I sent her a simple request: I need to play you some music and then you explain to me why it speaks to my soul.  After listening to Roy’s Tune, she mailed me back:

It could be a number of things.
It could simply be the lyrics.
If it’s more than that then here’s a musical analysis:
The melody centres around a very narrow range of pitches. That’s something that happens in a lot in recitative and folk music. When you limit the vocal range the listener’s focus is on the story rather than the arch of the melody.
Think ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, Smiths 1984. The range is no more than a 4th, like the range of the spoken voice. It feels like you’re being told a story rather than being sung a song.
 
In terms of forces, it has the same timbral quality as the jangly guitar playing of Johnny Marr, raw, unsophisticated, honest.
The texture is open and transparent, again something that is often used to convey very honest simple straightforward emotions.
It’s really naive harmonically, and highly repetitive, so we’re back with the unsophisticated, uncomplicated raw honest stuff again.
 
It’s also totally acceptable to simply love it for its own sake.
 
We’ve all got different things that move us, and there’s no need for an explanation.
I was listening to the trio ‘Soave sia il vento’ from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte this morning and the sun was shining and I thought…what a lucky person I am.
It was a glorious moment. The craftsmanship in the melodic writing is sublime

Do you like/did you ever like… Elvis Costello ‘Ship Building’ or ‘Alison’

The other thing is the age of lost innocence.
We are drawn to the bittersweet.
Vaughan Williams “Is my team ploughing?” …..utterly heartbreaking.

Lots of what Liz said resonated. She even guessed that I must love Shipbuilding. To be able to have that kind of conversation with a colleague is an utter privilege.

Having thought about Liz’s observations, what I have come to understand about my overwhelming response to Roy’s Tune’s is that it is rooted in the song’s simplicity. And it is more about sounds rather than words. As its title suggests, it is a tune and the poetic lilt of its lyrics – no matter how nonsensical those lyrics might be – only adds to the song’s acoustic depth-charge.

I play the track in my car, on full volume. It creates a sense that every time I play Roy’s Tune I am watching, through my windscreen, a unique video of the song. And that, in turn, has given me a sense that the song is about everyone walking around trying to find meaning in what they are doing where, actually, there is no meaning in anything. Early yesterday morning I was driving around the city and I lodged my mobile in the windscreen to produce my first video to Roy’s Tune.

 

It might just be an age thing. I have found that a few of my mates have simultaneously discovered Fontaines DC and they have said something similar about the impact the band’s music has had upon them. Talking to one of them last night, Mike, we agreed that the rumbling bass, plaintive chords and images of low-slung guitars, a la Paul Simonon, have combined merely to reawaken our inner-eighteen year old selves. Six of us are unbearably excited that we’ve got tickets to see them play in Leeds in November.

Maybe we’re right. Maybe it’s just boyish nostalgia.

Or maybe, it’s because Roy’s Tune is true. Maybe it is the lyrics.

Maybe we are all just hanging on.

Posted in Other stuff | Leave a comment

This much I know about…why a teacher’s job is more important than ever

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about why a teacher’s job is more important than ever.

One of my favourite reads of the past year has been Richard Holloway’s “On Forgiveness”. It ends with a chilling reminder that the lack of forgiveness shown by the allies towards the German nation at the very end of the First World War proved to be the inspiration for the rise of Hitler’s Nazism.

Holloway reminds us that our seemingly established values of compassion, equality and love have not always been the norm for our species. Religion is a relatively new concept whose power launched those values into our collective psyche’s firmament. In the last 100 years Christian religion has been, to some extent, jettisoned whilst compassion, equality and love have remained at the heart of an idealised philosophy by which we live.

I was reminded of Holloway’s arguments walking back from the York Pride march a few weeks ago, a joyful, if damp, celebration of human diversity. I was chatting with Cherry, our Head of Modern Languages. We were ruminating upon the event when she pointed out how the progressive liberalism which we currently enjoy may just prove to be a blip in human history, that it is a fragile belief system which seems to be increasingly under threat.

Think, then, how I felt driving to work yesterday, when on the radio news I heard that Vladimir Putin considers liberalism to be “obsolete”.

It was new staff day. I was about to speak to over 200 colleagues, including nine new teachers who will begin at Huntington in September. I changed my talk and addressed the Putin claim directly. I wanted to remind ourselves of the importance of our job and how our ultimate aim is to see our young people leave Huntington ready to be respectful, honest and kind adults who make a positive contribution to humanity.

Considering the current political climate, it was, perhaps, ironic that I bookended my talk with the enlightened words of two German leaders. I began with Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool’s self-effacing, mercurial coach, describing the culture we have been shaping at Huntington over the last dozen years.

And I ended with a snippet from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent speech to the Harvard graduands.

Both Klopp and Merkel demonstrate the attitudes and values at the heart of everything that is good about liberal democracy. They are the perfect riposte to the hateful, corrosive and dangerous elements of national populism. It struck me and my colleagues that these two German leaders are, surely, the best possible role models for our young people.

Our job is so important. We cannot, as Merkel says, take anything for granted.

Posted in School Leadership | 1 Comment

This much I know about…helping students avoid making nonsensical interpretations of poems

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about helping students avoid making nonsensical interpretations of poems.

One of the most frustrating misconceptions I hear from English Literature students goes something like this: “I can say what I like about a poem because it is my opinion”. I sometimes struggle to refrain from writing in the margin of an essay, This is nonsense! when a student decides upon an interpretation of a poem and then wildly contorts the meaning of the words of the poem to accommodate his or her interpretation.

One of the worst cases of nonsensical interpretative contortionism happened very early in my career, when a mock A Level paper chose “Siege” by Gillian Clarke as the unseen poem. At one point in this particular student’s response, the line, Thrushes hunt the lawn,/eavesdrop for stirrings in the daisy roots, was a metaphor for Policemen in search of clues, when, in fact, it was simply Clarke describing thrushes hunting for worms on her lawn. Some thirty years on, I remember that example as though I’d read it yesterday.

Recently, however, I have invented a teaching device which means I do not have to judge whether an interpretation of a poem is credible or not; instead, students engage in dialogic talk and pass judgement on each other’s interpretations, whilst I just stand there and occasionally orchestrate the conversation. The device is called the Field of Interpretation. It works a treat.

The Field of Interpretation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recently, we were discussing Poppies by Jane Weir, a poem included in the AQA GCSE Literature Anthology. I asked the question, “Has the soldier been killed?” One student gave an answer and backed it up with some evidence from the poem. I then asked the class where they would put that interpretation of the poem, inside or outside the Field of Interpretation – a simple circle I’d drawn on the board, with a spot in the middle? And so the dialogue began. If the interpretation was credibly supported by the evidence in the text, another student sited with an X the first student’s interpretation within the boundary of the Field of Interpretation – the closer to the centre spot, the more credible the interpretation.  If the interpretation was judged by another student to be unsupported by the text, the interpretation fell outside the boundary wall of the Field of Interpretation.

All judgements of an interpretation have to be validated by close reference to the text. Often I do not have to say a thing, as the students argue constructively between themselves about where an interpretation falls in relation to the Field of Interpretation.

This simple device is rooted in two pedagogic practices: metacognition and dual coding. The power of metacognitive talk is highlighted in the EEF’s Guidance Report on Metacognition and Self-Regulation, and Oliver Caviglioli’s recent publication on Dual Coding shows the efficacy of combining images and words to develop students’ learning.

Try out the Field of Interpretation next time you are asking students to give an opinion of a text; it certainly minimises the nonsense…

Posted in Teaching and Learning | 2 Comments

This much I know about…what I am doing to make my Alastair Campbell jam jar taller

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about what I am doing to make my Alastair Campbell jam jar taller.

To say I know Alastair Campbell would be an exaggeration. I have met him a couple of times. Once when I successfully challenged him via Twitter to visit Huntington and another time when we chatted briefly after he had spoken at York University. His only other intervention into my life was when he defended me on live radio after Harry Phibbs of Conservative Home fame attacked me some years ago for calling Michael Gove the real enemy of promise.

Whilst I don’t really know Alastair, I follow his musings on Brexit, the Labour Party, football and, increasingly, upon mental health. Indeed, he wrote a testimonial for my second book, This Much I Know About Mind Over Matter: improving mental health in schools. So when I saw he had made a documentary about his depression for Mental Health Awareness Week I made an especial effort to watch it with my wife Louise. It was a fascinating, honest and, ultimately, uplifting account of managing one’s mental health.

The documentary’s narrative thread saw Alastair explore one high tech experimental cure for depression after another. None convinced him it would relieve him of his condition or of the medication he takes to help control his mood. Near the end of the programme he was introduced to a simple metaphor: a jam jar. He went to Toronto, Canada, to meet Jehannine Austin, a specialist in genetics, who explained his depression thus:

So he made a jam jar sketch-list of all the things that could make his metaphorical jam jar bigger, ranging from his lifelong partner, Fiona, family and friends to, lastly, his psychiatrist and the daily anti-depressants. They are all, he explains, “part of the jam jar mix that keeps me, most days, able to live with depression better than I have for years”.

The documentary – and especially the jam jar image – resonated loudly for me. I hadn’t realised it at the time, but at the end of the Christmas holidays I had scribbled down in my notebook my own “jam jar mix”, a list of things I was going to do which would grow my capacity to cope with whatever life was about to throw at me. It is, in many ways, similar to Alastair’s:

  • Prioritise Louise, Joe and Olly
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Fishing
  • Golf
  • Do more housework
  • Exercise
  • Save some money
  • Pare down material possessions
  • Make decisions about my future
  • Breathing exercises
  • Find time to reflect on my behaviours
  • Recondition old fishing rods

And so far, so good. My jam jar is intact and I am deliberately growing it taller…yesterday, after a short, intense half-term, during which I was hospitalised, I made sure I: went running before breakfast; spent some time renovating an old beech wood stool on our front step; sat next to our cat as she watched the river flow by; chucked out a load of clothes; tidied up the front garden; planned a fishing trip with my mates Will and Steve; ensured Olly had everything he needed for his revision; gave myself up to a fun, if – due to my hapless wagers – expensive, afternoon at the races with Louise and our mates; and finished the day with a meal at our go-to Italian restaurant, Toto’s.

All of which prompts me to ask…

“What are you doing to make your jam jar taller?”

Posted in Mental Health in Schools, Other stuff, School Leadership | 4 Comments

This much I know about…witnessing all the vulnerabilities of our health service up close, first-hand

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about witnessing all the vulnerabilities of our health service up close, first-hand.

 

It began with a tick bite. I never gave it much thought; insect bites are, after all, an occupational hazard for any angler. But a few days later my wife said I should keep an eye on it. That was on the Tuesday. By Thursday morning the redness had begun to spread.

“Well, my wife drew around it with a pen this morning and now the infection is an inch beyond that.” It was late afternoon and I was speaking to the Priory Medical Centre’s switchboard.
“I’m really sorry, but we have no emergency appointments across the whole of York. Try 111. They might have some advice.”
“I rang them before I rang you. I was in a queue for ages.”
“Well, you could ring us tomorrow morning at 8 o’ clock and see if you can get an emergency GP appointment.”
I maintained my courteous tone. “OK. I’ll do that. Thanks very much. Bye.”

The next day I secured a 4.00 pm appointment at my GP’s. I had never met her before. She was clearly concerned. She donned some gloves. The infection had spread in a perfect 4 inch diameter circle across my ribcage. She packed me off with a prescription for Flucloxacillin, but warned me that should the infection continue to grow I should contact 111.

I rang 111 on Sunday morning. By now the infection was angry and the size of side plate. I was in A&E by noon with an appointment to see the out of hours GP. Just after 1.00 pm I was in Tesco’s with a prescription for Clarithromycin.

Late morning on Tuesday I asked our finance manager to join me in the toilet. When I pulled up my shirt he was shocked. The infection was the diameter of a large dinner plate. From its epicentre in the middle of the right hand side of my rib cage it had spread to the edge of my armpit, across my sternum and below my navel. He suggested I went to A&E, as did the woman on the 111 line. I had rung my GP earlier, but by 10.30 am the city’s emergency GP appointments had all been taken.

Initially A&E was quite civilised. After three hours of waiting, it was chaotic and undignified for so many patients. At one point I asked reception if I had been forgotten. I was my politest best, because there is no other way to be. No-one was choosing to make me wait. There was a sense of anxiety in the room that grew tangibly as every single seat was taken. By the time my name was called it was standing room only. On a Tuesday, at 3.00 pm.

The A&E doctor was concerned. He rang through to the Acute Medical Unit. He wanted them to admit me. He feared cellulitis. “There are no beds free at the moment, but they are sure there will be one soon.” He smiled. I smiled back. On the walk to the AMU, I googled cellulitis. I wished I hadn’t.

It was busy in the AMU. I walked past a consultant briefing five young trainees in the corridor. It took the receptionist a few minutes to find my details. There was nowhere to put me except for the “Quiet Room”. Except it wasn’t very quiet. Every few minutes came the agonising howls of a patient. It was the sound of pure fear, laced with intense pain. I just read my book intently.

One other patient was in the “Quiet Room” with me. He was worried. His legs felt odd. He had been a Physics teacher but had a stroke and lost his ability to compute numbers. He took early retirement on health grounds thirty years ago. He now had prostate cancer which had spread and the cancer was embedding itself in his spine. He had trouble with his bowel movements and excreting could be painful. He queried whether the pins and needles in his legs were due to some odd quirk or whether they were the harbinger of something much worse. His wife was at home.

You might wonder how I knew so much about my fellow teacher. Well, the admissions procedure was conducted in the “Quiet Room” because there was nowhere else for the nurse to hold the interview with him. At one point I went out into the corridor, only to find a woman weeping, and three ambulance personnel tending to a man wearing an oxygen mask on a trolley.

After two hours it was my turn to be admitted. The doctor was hassled and apologetic. She was embarrassed to have to check my vital signs, take my blood and fit my cannula in the “Quiet Room”. She tried to lock the door, but it was broken. I reassured her that I wasn’t bothered. That I understood.

When she had finished, I asked her whether it might be an idea to look at my infection. When she did she expressed surprise. She admitted that it didn’t look that serious and that I probably didn’t need to be in there at all. “I did wonder why you fitted the cannula before you had looked at my chest.”
“It’s just the pressure,” she replied sadly. “Look”, she went on, “I am pretty sure you don’t need to stay here tonight. I think we can send you home with some antibiotics, but I need a consultant to clear that. I’ll go and find one and be back soon”. That was 5.00 pm. I never saw her again.

At 6.00 pm I sidled down to reception and enquired as to whether the doctor had found a consultant. The woman I spoke to was nonplussed. “Your bed is nearly ready”, she said. My claim to be on the verge of going home fell on deaf ears. I was told that I would be seen by a consultant soon. Apparently a couple of them were on the wards.

Half-way through the evening my wife texted me: Dad says ask them whether it is Lyme disease. NHS 111 Online’s Lyme disease page described my symptoms precisely: the bullseye pattern; the delayed onset; headaches. I put that to the consultant when she arrived just before midnight. “I’m a head teacher. I get tired of people telling me how to do my job. I’m sure you do too, what with the internet and self-diagnoses. And I don’t want to be rude, but my father-in-law says it might be Lyme disease.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Maybe we’ll get you to see a dermatologist. In the meantime, we’ll put you on intravenous Fluloxacillin.”

I changed into the night clothes my wife had popped over to me earlier in the evening. The intravenous drugs were administered. Afterwards sleep was all but impossible. My bed was next to the ward toilet. The walls were wafer thin. Cecil in the bed opposite was having shouty nightmares about being killed. The poor man next to me had trouble breathing; the sound of him drawing breath was like someone blowing through a straw into a bucket of water. At 3.00 am a nurse helped him to cough up whatever it was deep in his lungs, with the aid of a tube. By 6.30 am I was having my second lot of intravenous antibiotics.

For the umpteenth time I explained my case to a new consultant. It was 9.00 am. The spread of the infection appeared to have been arrested. I was immediately transferred to the ambulatory wing of the AMU, called the Acute Medical Centre. I was going home. I was to have a new antibiotic – an intravenous double-dose of Teicoplanin – and then I would be discharged.

I arrived in the AMC and they took my blood again. At one point, around 11.00 am, the doctor had my discharge letter in her hand. But, she remembered, they had been in contact with Dermatology, and the dermatologist would be up to see me after they had finished their morning surgery. Better not go home right now, just in case. They had told them about my notion that it might be Lyme disease.

So I waited. And I waited. And I waited.

At 4.00 pm the dermatologist arrived. Probably my age, he wandered in unassumingly, nodded, read my notes and said, “Well, you’ve got Lyme disease”.
“That’s what I think it is, having read about it.”
“Pull your jumper up…yes, look at it. Almost certain. The antibiotics you’ve had won’t touch that. You need Doxycycline. The key thing is to stop it getting into your system.”
“How do you do that?” I asked. I had read about what can happen if Lyme disease takes hold. It’s not good.
“Catch it quickly and take the antibiotics. All of them. For three weeks.” He smiled. I reciprocated, feeling, for the first time since Friday, reassured that what had been prescribed would treat my condition successfully.

He left. The ward doctor explained it would be 30 minutes or so before the drugs would be ready. At 5.45 pm, I tentatively asked if there was any news. She looked embarrassed. It transpired that the ward pharmacy hadn’t enough doses for three weeks. She was sorry, it was her mistake. She should have chased it up an hour ago. She would ring down to the pharmacy in the main building. I finally left with sufficient drugs at 6.40 pm.

It took five days to diagnose me successfully. Now, as I write this, a further five days on, the infection has all but gone.

I am not critical. At every step of the way I was greeted with a smile. Even the AMU doctor who went missing whilst in search of a consultant, was kind and sincere. She was just under intense pressure. The beds in the corridors, the dying patients, the post-bank holiday A&E mayhem, the uncertain diagnoses and erroneous prescriptions – all manifestations of an NHS under impossible strain.

I saw all the vulnerabilities of our health service up close, first-hand. If I was so minded, I could complain about aspects of what I experienced. The truth is, I am in awe of the considerate, selfless dedication of everyone working in the NHS: our consultants, doctors, GPs, nurses, porters, receptionists, and 111 call-centre workers.

I was seen by two GPs, two doctors, three consultants and numerous nurses, and was prescribed a hatful of different, expensive medicines, all within five days, and, bar two prescription fees, all completely free of charge. Any errors or oversights along the way are both explicable and forgivable. I got an expert diagnosis and subsequently a successful treatment to stop the infection spreading across my chest.

The more serious symptoms of Lyme disease can take months to present themselves. There is a good chance, thanks to the NHS, that we have caught it early, that the disease has not entered my system. Here’s hoping.

 

POSTSCRIPT: All’s well that ends well. My blood test for Lyme disease returned negative.

Posted in Other stuff | 3 Comments

This much I know about…why OFSTED should stop making 1-4 judgements of schools

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about why OFSTED should stop making 1-4 judgements of schools.

Cartoon by Stan Dupp

“Schools with good judgements can be brave and develop their curriculum in a principled way. If you’re Requiring Improvement you can’t…”
– Colleague head teacher in a conversation with me last week

 

When I talk to interviewees for a vacancy at Huntington at the beginning of the day, I say this, verbatim: ‘I refuse to compete with other schools. If you take pleasure in being “better” than another school, then you are actually taking pleasure in your young people doing better than the young people in another school and I think that, as an educationalist, is morally corrupt.’ When I say those words, I am met with smiles from around the table. My stance is at the heart of our school’s culture. We are not mugs, but we try our damnedest to help other schools perform well, even in a world of normally distributed comparative outcomes which means helping other schools logically disadvantages our school’s outcomes.

And whilst my colleagues in our Research School work tirelessly supporting other colleagues in other schools, there is one thing which makes school improvement so much harder which the DfE could do something about tomorrow: the OFSTED 1-4 grading of schools. If we accept that the quality of teaching and the quality of leadership are the two main factors affecting the quality of education our young people experience, then we have to bring an end to the OFSTED grading system. Once a school is judged to be Requiring Improvement or Inadequate, recruiting and retaining good teachers and school leaders becomes incredibly hard, within a school system which already has a teacher recruitment crisis, where MATs are advertising for teachers from any subject discipline to work in schools located in socio-economically deprived areas, promising to turn PE and Food Technology specialists – as if the MATs are human alchemists – into science teachers.

There is no logic in retaining the OFSTED 1-4 grading system if the DfE wants every school to improve. The threat of being judged Requiring Improvement or Inadequate merely breeds a culture of fear throughout our school system. It means that fear-soaked school leaders do things which make the culture of the school more penal, which, in turn, drives teachers out of the school, and, often, out of the profession all together. School leaders disappear and fearful replacements are installed as though that will be the great panacea to eradicate our schools’ ills.

I argue for the end of the OFSTED 1-4 grading of schools from a position of some strength. In November 2017 we were judged to be an Outstanding school by OFSTED. Our experience of the inspection process enabled us, first-hand, to see how flawed the inspection/judgement process has become. We did not challenge the original judgement of Good, but, after a third day of inspection which the inspectorate itself insisted upon, the final judgement was that Huntington was an Outstanding school. It was not a judgement we pursued at all costs. Rather, when the notification call came at 11.40 am on Tuesday 10 October 2017, I had not uttered the word OFSTED once that term. Since the inspection we have just got on with getting on, knowing that we still have a lot to do to provide the best possible education for our young people; the world is for the discontented.

Indeed, it is rare to find a school which does not strive to be the best it can be, day-in, day-out. An Inspectorate which has school improvement at its heart – and under Amanda Spielman there have been signs that things are moving in that direction – would have the courage to end the 1-4 grading of schools. Such a step would mean OFSTED’s leaders accepting a certain level vulnerability – there is no courage without vulnerability.

School leaders and teachers accept vulnerability on a daily basis, when they walk into their schools and teach. It is about time our colleagues in OFSTED followed suit, embraced vulnerability and did the courageous thing by ending the crass practice of labelling schools with destructive judgements.

Posted in Other stuff, School Leadership | 1 Comment

This much I know about…how to model the answer to an AQA English Language Paper Two, Question 5, 40 marker

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about how to model the answer to an AQA English Language Paper Two, Question 5, 40 marker.

I know I bang on about modelling the thinking-writing-thinking-writing process, but I have lots of good evidence which strongly suggests that the explicit teaching of the thinking-writing-thinking-writing process through commentary-based modelling is a game-changer for lots of students, especially those from less literate socio-economic backgrounds.

Last Wednesday I spent period 1 and period 3 modelling an answer to the 40 mark question on the AQA English Language Paper 2 to both halves of our Year 11 cohort of students; there are 120 students in each half. I have learnt a lot about how to make such an exercise effective over the last few years and everything I have learnt is outlined below in precise detail. I think it is so important to be as precise as you possibly can be when giving such a demonstration; the precision minimises the risk of error and failure.

I run the sessions during English lessons. The teachers bring the students into the hall in silence. All the students require is a pen. I put out copies of the question 5 section of the examination paper on each desk.  The teachers stay and ensure that student behaviour is impeccable throughout the session. The teachers also hear what I say so that in the very next lesson they can reinforce my messages when the students practise writing an answer to a similar question to embed their learning.

The layout of the room is crucial. Exam desks and chairs are laid out as though for an examination:

Notice that we have quadrophonic sound. I use a wireless speaker clipped on my shirt collar. Sound is crucial. What you say needs to be heard loud and clear by the students.

I begin with the slides below, emphasising two things: Janus-faced sentences and how I write very deliberately. The tips for writing on the eighth slide are referred to at the end of the session when I check my answer; I show how I have deliberately followed my own advice.

I use three desks so that I have lots of space. I layout my materials on my three desks thus:

I practise writing out my answer in full on single-sided paper twice the night before and once early morning on the day. I have a copy of one of those three answers laid out on the desk in case I dry up whilst I am writing. All the students can see is what is on the screen. As far as they can tell, I am writing the whole thing from scratch, in real time.

I love using the visualiser, but you have to practise a lot in order to become a visualiser expert. Here is a checklist for using a visualiser effectively:

  • Check with your ICT technician that the PC you are using in the classroom has the visualiser software loaded and working the day before the lesson.
  • Check that the connection with the visualiser is secure at both ends; have a small piece of blu-tac with you in case you need to secure one of the connections.
  • Use a large desk and clear anything you do not need off the desk.
  • Make sure that you have established exactly where to place the visualiser so that you can write freely without the visualiser/visualiser wire getting in the way.
  • Make sure that the angle of the examination paper on the desk is at the angle at which you find the physical act of writing comfortable.
  • Identify in your mind’s eye a spot on the table that you know correlates with the centre of the screen, so that you can roughly keep your pen at that point whilst you are writing.
  • Check that you can push the paper away from you as you write and that the top of the sheet does not hit the stand of the visualiser and get stuck and make writing awkward.
  • Keep checking the PC screen every 10 seconds or so to ensure the students can see what you are writing.
  • Write legibly in black ink and have a spare pen on your desk.
  • When you need to turn over the page, wait until you can see that the students have caught up.
  • When you read through what you have written out loud, read from the PC screen, not the paper copy, so that you are sure you are reading what the students can see.

Below is one of my answers, with a transcript of some of the commentary I would give as I explain my deliberate thinking whilst I am crafting an answer to the question. I begin by emphasising that they have to write down exactly what I write. I tell them I will talk through what I am thinking as I write. I tell them to be prepared to write at some pace.

“Every word on the paper matters. It is so important that you read the paper thoroughly. They make it clear you need to plan your work. I will make a plan and keep coming back to it. The form, audience and purpose of the piece of writing are key to you being successful. This is a formal letter. The audience is the Minister for Transport, a member of the government. And the purpose is to persuade him or her that you want to ban all cars in town and city centres. I have chosen to argue for a ban, but I could just as easily have argued against a ban – this is not actually about what you think about the issue in question, but a test to see if you can write deliberately, with purpose.

“Now, members of the government usually have a big ego. They like to be praised, and they like to feel powerful, so I am going to make sure that I flatter them. And I will use formal language.

“Now, planning is key and can be kept relatively simple. But once you have planned an answer, STICK TO YOUR PLAN. Sticking to a plan is one of the key ways to help you become a more DELIBERATE writer. As you can see, I am writing a plan that is only seven paragraphs long. And just a couple of words are required to remind me of what I am going to say, paragraph by paragraph.”

“The exam board do not require that you write a full address. If you feel you want to write an address, that is fine. I want to begin with something which is striking and will get the Minister’s attention. I have deliberately used the Trump phrase about making our country great again, just for a little colour. I will use the word ban in every paragraph, so that I keep in touch with the question at all times.

“To make it easy for the person marking your answer, you should leave a line between every paragraph. You get marks for organising your writing and the main unit of organisation is the paragraph, so make sure that you make your paragraphing absolutely clear by leaving a line.

“So, I have caught the Minister’s interest and he or she feels powerful. Now, for the second paragraph, I need a Janus-faced sentence looking back to the previous opening paragraph and onto the second paragraph which is, checking my pan, about how cars are noisy.

“No Minster is going to make a policy change without some evidence, so I can make up some data which sounds convincing. It does not matter if it is not true, but as long as you name the source of your data, that’s fine.”

“Notice how I have used full stops and apostrophes accurately. A full 16 marks are for technical accuracy. And I have used the word ban in every paragraph so far. And now I am going back to my plan to tick off the paragraph I have just written and think about how to shape a Janus-faced sentence to begin the next one.”

“I want to emphasise in my final paragraph how the ban is what I am after, so I use the word three times in the final paragraph. The mention of votes shows the person marking my script that I have not forgotten that I am writing to the Minister for Transport. And you can see that I repeat make our country great again to bring the letter back to where I began in the first paragraph.

“And I check that I end the letter accurately, with Yours sincerely as I used Dear Minister for Transport at the beginning of the letter. If I had used Dear Sir, I would have finished Yours faithfully.”

At the end of the session I emphasise that the best thing students can do before the examination is to practise writing deliberately-structured paragraphs, not whole examination papers nor even whole answers. Success in this question depends upon the students’ level of control over the writing process. It is not about quantity; deliberate thinking when writing is the mother of precise brevity.

 

POSTSCRIPT: I used the acronym FAP for Form-Audience-Purpose. Best check what FAP means to a street-wise 16 year old before you use it. Some students informed one of my colleagues of my unwittingly embarrassing and, to the students, hilariously entertaining use of FAP; my son confirmed the mistake. The online Urban Dictionary will tell you all you need to know…

 

Posted in Teaching and Learning | 2 Comments