This much I know about…Mortimer & Whitehouse and their motivational tomatoes!

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a Headteacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about Mortimer & Whitehouse and their motivational tomatoes!

Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing is the BBC’s unlikely jewel. It follows two ageing comedians as they go fishing, chat nonsense and eat good food. Its success is rooted in the way its simplicity combines with moments of profundity, when the idle chatter suddenly gives way to wisdom. Here, right at the end of a recent episode, Mortimer and Whitehouse suddenly discuss what motivates them to get up of a morning.

So, as the vast majority of us who teach prepare to return to work tomorrow, be sure to identify for yourself a motivational tomato or two…

One of my tomatoes
Just to my left a trout, no more than four inches long, hurled itself out of the shallow water.

I had been fishing just outside Danby village deep in the North Yorkshire Moors. I am not sure there is a place on this planet where I feel as content as I do when I stand on the bank of the Yorkshire Esk, spellbound by the prospect of catching a wild brown trout. There is nothing quite like it.

I began the afternoon session at the Beggar’s Bridge, having bought a pork pie for lunch from Ford’s the butchers in Glaisdale. Like the fishing, Ford’s pork pies are beyond compare. At £1 a pie, the more you eat, the more you save. I then worked my way along the wooded stretch of the Esk at Rake’s Common and finally fished the winding stretch towards Danby upstream from Duck Bridge.

I took three rods: fly, float and spinner. I found success on each one. At Rake’s I caught a perfectly formed small wild brownie on a dry fly. I had seen the trout rise several times; the moment my black gnat hit the river’s surface the fish obligingly rose to take it. It was one of the day’s many highlights.

Wild brown trout live their lives in streams and rivers. They are fine, slim line predators and sparklingly beautiful. From the preternaturally large, coal black eye, the tapered array of innumerable black spots gives way to a carefully arranged pattern of a dozen or so red counterparts. The gills emit a mother of pearl shine. The dappled grey flanks merge into a creamy underbelly. And the red adipose fin is a sure sign that the trout is a wild brown.

By the time I had plonked myself down amongst the meadow grass to fish a small but inviting pool, I had landed more than a dozen wild brownies. They fight hard, no matter how minuscule, wriggling intensely. When they are spent, they lay across your hand in all their aesthetic glory.

My float was dancing about indeterminately when the trout jumped. The fish’s belly-flop re-entry made a larger sound than one might have expected. It was enough to attract my attention. A heart-beat later, from upstream and around the corner, I heard a much bigger splash and two airy wafts. A heron appeared fleetingly before stepping into the cover of an overhanging tree, directly opposite where the leaping four-inch brownie had landed.

I kept watching. It wasn’t long before the heron began tip-toeing elegantly towards its quarry. Its delicate, grey-fawn neck feathers were perfectly groomed. It was a picture of predatory elegance. Four steps in, it stopped. Its amber eye caught mine. For the briefest moment it could not compute what it saw. Its stare dolly-zoomed towards me until it was inches from my face. We were locked together, eyeball to eyeball, beak to nose, bound by the pursuit of the same prey. I held the bird’s glare. The river flowed on.

And then the heron beat its broad, grey wings and was gone.

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This much I know about…the value of choosing English Literature A Level

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a Headteacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the value of choosing English Literature A Level.

Studying English Literature A Level changed my life.

In September 1980 I had embarked upon biology, chemistry and mathematics A levels. I was, essentially, a scientist. But I was obsessed with golf and I hadn’t got the golfing thing out of my system. To have persisted with an education at that moment would have been fruitless. I left school in December 1980, making a brandy-fuelled farewell speech at the sixth-form Christmas disco.

That winter I began two years of working hard to be a golfer. I was moderately successful. I won the Sussex junior championship two years running, captained the under-18 and under-23 Sussex teams and played for the full senior team. A number of my peers went on to play in the Ryder Cup with Ballesteros; I ended up cleaning cars to subsidise my golf. In the end I didn’t practise hard enough for long enough. I made a lot of what I had, but it wasn’t what was required to forge a career.

And so, on Saturday 28 August 1982 at around 10 p.m., Cliff, the barman at the local pub, offered me a job behind the bar; on the following Monday I went back to school. Ron Hunt, the terrifying deputy who bid me farewell nearly two years before, agreed to give me a second chance. When I returned to school that September, I had forgotten the basics of the sciences but I could do mathematics. I didn’t need the O level to take A level economics and was left scratching around for a third A level. English Literature was the only reasonable option open to me.

That linear A level syllabus was assessed through three, 3 hour closed-book examinations; papers 1 & 2 contained questions on the texts and the final paper was on unseen prose and poetry. We had to write twelve essays, at 45 minutes per essay. We studied:

  • Moll Flanders;
  • The Return of the Native;
  • The Mill on the Floss;
  • Antony and Cleopatra;
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost;
  • Playboy of the Western World;
  • Seamus Heaney’s poetry;
  • The General Prologue and The Wife of Bath’s Tale.

Unpredictably, my A level English teachers, Marion Greene and Dave Williams, nurtured in me a love of literature. The writing enthralled me. I still amaze my students when I quote verbatim the opening speech of Antony and Cleopatra – “Nay, but this dotage of our general’s, o’erflows the measure…” or from Synge’s introduction to Playboy – “In Ireland for a few years more we have a popular imagination that is fiery and magnificent and tender…”

Poetry can transform lives. Marion Greene opened the course with Wallace Steven’s “Sunday Morning”. She identified Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” as the poem which made her believe that poetry had the power to affect things beyond the page. For me, as a country lad from an uneducated background who had been potato picking on his hands and knees for 651/2 pence a day, it was Heaney’s “Digging”. When I heard him years later read that poem I wept openly as its sounds opened an auditory sluice gate of memories, about my dad who died during my first term at university, and about how Heaney’s poems affected me beyond anything I had ever known; I still go to his Selected Poems for my comfort read.

I think Chaucer is quite the nimblest, sharpest writer. At York I was privileged to hear Derek Pearsall lecture on Chaucer’s elusiveness. I disliked Love’s Labour’s Lost, but sought out a critical analysis of the play in our local library and worked my way to a decent understanding of Shakespeare’s turgid comedy. The novels of Defoe, Eliot and Hardy were deeply rewarding in an almost physical way, like you feel when you have walked, say, the Yorkshire three peaks in a day.

My English Literature A Level took me to the University of York, where the likes of Sid Bradley, Michael Cordner, Pippa Tristram and Geoff Wall helped me to discover literary worlds I had never imagined.

So, without English Literature A Level I wouldn’t have become a teacher. I didn’t choose teaching as a profession because I had an overwhelming moral purpose to help young people. When I was close to finishing my English degree I faced up to the inevitable fact that I had to get a job. I wanted to get paid for discussing literature and the only way I could do that was to become a teacher.

As part of my PGCE at Sussex, I wrote a volume of verse. Here is a cack-handed sonnet, from a sequence I wrote in the autumn of 1988, which celebrates the central place of literature in my embryonic working life:

Days III

November’s mellow rays yellow my face
To terminate another working day.
Home time. Three-twenty. Adolescents race
To flee this place – can’t wait to get away!
I sympathise with them and feel quite sure,
If questioned (just once more) they would with me –
Tomorrow we’ll return to all endure
Tomorrow’s academic drudgery.

And yet today’s seen Hardy, Frost and Blake –
My luck their work and mine should coincide;
Poetic fervour stirs inside to make
These ill-considered sentiments subside.
Sun-beamed birches spread amber disarray –
One could do worse than work with verse all day.

I am so grateful I left my science on the fairways of several Sussex golf courses. English Literature A Level was the anvil upon which I have gone on to shape my life. It didn’t trap me into a soulless career cul-de-sac; it led me, quite unexpectedly, to a life of infinite variety, to a life filled with meaning, one where I have always known the benefit of what I do.

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This much I know about…why I am not taking my pension (even though I could)

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a Headteacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about why I am not taking my pension (even though I could).

A teacher’s 55th birthday is significant. At 55 years old a teacher can apply to take his pension early. At 2.20 am today I turned 55.

Good people have chosen to “go early”, and after teaching for 93 consecutive school terms – over half of those as a secondary headteacher – I can see the attraction. A life filled with family, fishing, writing, golf, volunteering and the odd bit of edu-consultancy is pretty attractive.

But, I don’t feel ready to quit the classroom quite yet. And here are three reasons why…

  1. I still love the core part of the job – teaching! I have a whole load of advantages that come with the designation of headteacher, for sure, but just the sheer satisfaction I get from teaching well – teaching with as much energy, expertise and enthusiasm as I have ever done, teaching with moral purpose front and centre – is enough on its own to keep me in the classroom.
  2. It has taken me this long to put the job in perspective and I don’t want to give up now. I have always rejected the phrase work-life balance; I prefer work-home balance. I am not defined by my job, but it is an important part of who I am. Despite the financially challenging times ahead,  I can only do the very best job I can, but that is all I can do – no more. It is an attitude I emphasise to my colleagues frequently and it helps create a workplace environment that is challenging but, ultimately, supportive and humane.
  3. The first book I read this summer was Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. As sometimes happens, an author articulates what you have worked out yourself about life, but with a clarity you could only dream of; so it is with Frankl. The Auschwitz survivor defines “three main avenues on which one arrives at a meaning in life”: creating a work or doing a deed; finding someone to love; and, lastly, by turning a personal tragedy into a triumph. I don’t know if teaching is the best job in the world, but it is surely one of the best in terms of finding meaning in your life. I think I still have a lot to do in education (and in life generally), on all three of Frankl’s avenues.

So, on this personally momentous day, my 55th birthday – “how did it get so late so soon?” – I am enjoying my holiday whilst feeling genuinely inspired by the academic year ahead.

My pension can stay where it is for now.

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This much I know about…how I have transformed my own teaching

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a Headteacher for 16 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about how I have transformed my own teaching.

I never thought I would transform my teaching in my 50s.

After 31 years of being in the classroom, I have never enjoyed my teaching more. For the last term I have been teaching Business Studies, a new subject for me. We had a challenging, 22 student, all-male Year 10 class. Relationships in the class were broken. I agreed with the teacher that I would remove the ten most disruptive students and teach them myself. When I told those students to stand up, pick up their bags and follow me at the beginning of their first lesson after Easter, they had no idea what was going on. I took them to my office, cramped them round my meeting table and explained, in forceful terms, that I would be teaching them right through to their GCSEs next summer.

Looking back now, after 28 lessons, it strikes me how I have adopted many aspects of my teaching only in the last five years. And these aspects of my teaching are close to being second nature to me having been engaged in the development of the Research School network since 2014 and adopted a more evidence-informed approach to my practice.

Text books & pre-lesson (Cornell) note-taking homeworks
There is an AQA-endorsed Business Studies GCSE text book. Each student has a copy. I gave the students two A4 notebooks, one for work in class and one for taking notes from the text book. At least once a week I set a note-taking homework in preparation for the next lesson. I inspect the notebooks weekly to check the notes have been done properly – I taught the boys, in our very first lesson, how to use the Cornell note-taking technique and that is the only style of notes I accept. These lesson preparation homeworks ensures that the students have at least covered every single page of the subject knowledge detailed in the text book. I give time in the lessons for the students to ask me questions about anything they found confusing about the text book content.

Low-stakes, frequent testing
One of the students commented recently on how much I focus on checking they have learnt what I think I have taught them. His comment chimed with what Mark McCourt says in his Teaching for Mastery book: “I do not consider something to have been taught unless the desired learning has taken place.” I assume nothing. Progress is slow. I check and double check, questioning relentlessly. And we use MCQs liberally – no publicising how many each student gets right, but just enough for me to know who has learnt what so that I can amend how I teach what to whom.

Memory skills
There can be no learning without memory. The boys can forget something just minutes after I have, supposedly, taught them something. They have untrained memories. According to the text book there are three advantages and three drawbacks for businesses to globalisation. So, how do we remember those? Well the advantages thus: Rapid Growth (Usain Bolt was the most rapid runner they could think of); Inward Investment (one of their mate’s surnames is Inward); cheaper resources (the meal deal at Tesco’s is cheap). And the drawbacks as follows: a tiger (fierce competition) over-taking (take-overs) all the cars in New Earswick (new competition). It works remarkably well; they themselves are often surprised at their own feats of memory.

Metacognitive skills: Knowledge, Understanding and Application
For the first time ever I have explained the relationship between Knowledge, Understanding and Application. It is possible to know something but not understand it. The example I give is differentiation in mathematics. I know that 21x2 differentiated is 42x, but I have no understanding of why that is the case. So, they read the text book and make notes, their first encounter with the subject knowledge. They then ask me questions about the content of their note-taking. Subsequently, I explain that it is my role to spend the lesson helping them understand the knowledge, using the text book, any other materials I find useful, a whiteboard and a marker pen. I have never before used so much direct instruction. Once I feel they have understood the knowledge, I find real world business examples for them to which they can apply their understood knowledge, most of which come from the excellent text book. The students now clearly understand this process. It has improved their metacognitive skills; they are able to stand back and manage their own learning and thinking. And the whole learning cycle ensures that the students encounter what they have to learn three times, crucial to them internalising that learning, according to the research of Graham Nuthall.

Modelling writing
I use my visualiser to model my thinking as I write 12 marker answers and the students copy my extended writing verbatim from the board. It helps emphasise the application element of the Knowledge-Understanding-Application process. I would claim that my visualiser is by far the most important piece of kit as a teacher.

Emphasising the absolute basics
In Business Studies, the fundamental basics that all students need to understand are few and simple:

  • The overwhelming majority of businesses aim to maximise profits.
  • Revenue minus costs equals profit.
  • In most cases, the higher the price of a product the less demand for that product.

I have drilled these basics endlessly and 28 lessons on, I reckon they are embedded in the students’ brains. And the reason this is important, is that I am finding that we can move on a bit quicker now and make up in specification coverage terms for the slow, hard graft pace of the opening lessons.

Vocabulary
We have spent a long time at Huntington working on improving our students’ vocabulary skills. I teach prefixes and suffixes, just simple stuff, like how to remember the difference between ex(exit)ports and im(in)ports. Easy stuff, but easy stuff that gives these boys another academic tool to enable their learning.

Seminar-style lessons
The advantage of teaching in my office is that it is cramped. There is no chance of the boys working in groups. I critiqued how they behave when they do group work – they sit back whilst someone else does all the work – and they all concurred that I was spot on. That is not to damn group work, but group work for these boys does not work, or, rather, these boys do not work when put into groups to work. The seminar-style means I am right on top of the students all the time. They have no chance to lose concentration. I never ask for hands up so they all have to be listening all the time. And I have had the odd big shout when they have drifted off, and that works too.

So, my teaching is now riven through with evidence-informed practice, something that it wasn’t for the first 26 years of my career. It feels potentially dull, but it is highly effective. All my summative assessments show that my students’ progress is increasing rapidly. And the win-win of me taking these boys on is that the remaining 12 students in the group are getting on famously with my colleague. All 22 of the students are now learning.

Of course, all this is underpinned by relationships, and I know my designation as head teacher gives me a myriad of advantages . That said, we have the occasional chat about fishing and football. I big them up. I tell them they are all going to be captains of industry; one of them will rule the world! We have the odd laugh. And our last lesson was dubbed Fat Rascal Thursday. A few weeks back we were discussing a bakery business and somehow I discovered that none of them had ever eaten a famous Betty’s Fat Rascal cake. I took out a small mortgage and we all had an end of term celebratory face-fill. It was a blast!

And my boys are enjoying it a great deal. How do I know? Well, there is another group, parallel to the original group of 22 boys, and there is now a waiting list to join my class.

Posted in School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 6 Comments

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.

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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.

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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