Learning to Teach English in the Secondary School, 4th Edition

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Wow, it has been a while since I’ve actually finished a book enough to write a blog post on it, hasn’t it! And I haven’t actually finished this one yet, though I feel I’ve made my way through enough of it to put some opinion out there! Between this and wading through Great Expectation, which I have almost finished at last, there hasn’t been much time for reading anything else, but there’s nothing like a bit of studying to get me excited about starting my teacher’s training! Only 5 weeks to go now, so it’s really not long. But, enough about that.

It’s been a while

I graduated university in 2013. It has been a while since I have picked up such an intensely academic book. I got overexcited and thought I could read it cover to cover, and that was my first mistake. This is a book of entries written by a variety of authors about a plethora of topics. From the development of the curriculum we have now, to teaching media in English, this book is packed with useful tips, fascinating facts, and a lot of teaching theory.

I got cocky after the easy reading of ‘The Confident Teacher’ by Alex Quigley and assumed that I would love all teaching books. But this is an effort to read. Not only that, but it’s filled with activities and tasks for you to do with a fellow trainee teacher, or to talk with a qualified teacher about, and I have none of those things around me at the moment. As a result, I skipped over a lot of the tasks, and as a result have probably missed out on a lot of the value of the book as a whole.

Because it is very coherent, it moves swiftly but carefully from topic to topic, author to author. Each chapter is linked to ones that have gone before, and they are all filled with expert knowledge that is invaluable.

Unfortunately, this just isn’t the right time. This is a book that needs to be worked through as part of a teacher training course, where you attend lectures and break into seminars, and have colleagues around you to help you work through it as well as the practical experiences that go with placements in classes. This isn’t light reading before bed or in preparation for teaching, this is to have in your bag constantly while you are learning to teach.

I have read 7 of the 14 chapters, and have learnt a lot about reading, writing, curriculum and critical practice, but there is so much more knowledge to be gained from this book. For now, I’ll pop it on my book shelf, and perhaps, once I’ve started my teacher’s training and have a little more experience, it will support me in my learning more than it has now.

That said, each article is well written, thoroughly researched, and comes from an expert in the field being discussed. I definitely feel that every trainee teacher will benefit from having this on their bookshelf, and I look forwards to using it for its purpose rather than forcing myself through articles I just don’t have the practical experience to benefit from!

Stone Cold, Robert Swindells

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There is nothing I like better than going into a book with absolutely no preconceptions or idea what I’m getting myself into and this was one such example. Whereas with the previous curriculum texts I’ve been reading (Lord of the Flies, Skellig) I have read them with the singular purpose of learning to teach them, I had no idea what this book was about and so decided to keep it that way, as with reading for fun. I’m really glad I did, and actually I think I’ve finally found a book that I would be genuinely excited to teach for its content as much as for its literary value and societal implications. It’s hard trying to prepare to teach when I don’t even know what local authority I’ll be in, let alone what school I’ll be in, and as a result no matter how much reading I do I still might miss the text that my school will teach. So it’s hard to control the excitement regarding the novel when there is a distinct possibility that I might not even end up teaching it! That said, I am excited to blog about this as a book I have enjoyed, and not just one I have had to make myself read.

The Premise and the Golden Circle

Throughout the training days with Teach First that I’ve had so far, and the wider reading and research I’ve done, I have come across ‘the golden circle’ several times, the concept that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Robert Swindells is very clear in his final appeal that this book was written as the result of many personal interactions with homeless young people in London, and a desire to help them. The support the novel has received from the charity Crisis supports this, and gives the novel a much deeper meaning and purpose than simply telling a crime story, expanding its reach to tryiing to make a change for the few young people that it can. As a result, the story telling feels more poignant and I can absolutely see how the fact that this could be a real person the age or only slightly older than the pupils I would be teaching, would make a personal response to this novel much more viable.

Link, our protagonist, leaves home after his abusive stepfather and oblivious mother become too much for him to handle. At first he stays in Bradford, but shame and necessity cause him to relocate to London where he thinks that pickings will be a little bit easier to gain. After his first two weeks staying in a dirty, expensive bedsit, Link ends up on the street.

Running parallel to this sad tale of a teenager with no support or love to see him through, is the story of an older man who has also been kicked out of his home. Shelter served in the army for many years, and, having been discharged on medical grounds, he has lost his purpose of taking the young trainees sent to him and turning them into effective and disciplined soldiers. He has taken it upon himself, therefore, to rid the streets of London of those young people he considers in need of training, killing them and creating his own army corpses.

Some Analysis

Gloomy, I know! But actually, very effective. It’s obvious from the start where the stories are going to collide, and as an adult reading the novel, it was predictable and basic. However, the heart of the story is Link, and I was genuinely very distressed reading about his treatment by other humans. The novel certainly achieved Swindell’s purpose of warming the heart towards those nameless figures we so often hurry past and ignore on our way to so much more important things.

Paralleling Links’s rejection with Shelter’s rejection from the army ensured that there was a modicum of sympathy for the antagonist, whose back story of service and war created a figure who was to be pitied rather than hated, a fact often missing from ‘villains’ in literature for young people.

Aside from the standard literary techniques that you would study with a class, this novel is especially effective because it gives a character that everyone can relate to. As an adult reading, you feel sympathy and sadness for the young person thrust into this situation. As a young person, whether it’s Y7 or Y11, Link is close to their age, and the situations that he experiences at home, or out on the street, are stark and realistic and totally accessible for the target audience. Perhaps if every class read this novel, there will in a decade or so be an adult generation in a position to help and with the motivation and desire to do so.

Conclusion

As I say, this is more a review than an analysis as I enjoyed the book sufficiently that it didn’t feel like work reading it! I would definitely recommend anyone with teenagers give them this novel to read in order to appreciate the struggles that come with homelessness and poverty. That said, I would also recommend it for reading as an adult, as I can guarantee I will think twice before walking past a homeless child again.

Lord of the Flies, William Golding

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This is the first text that I’ve read with a view of how to teach it – ie how to use my ‘expert’ knowledge that I’ve gained during my degree and life experiences to teach a novel. Of course, a key part of Subject Pedagogical Knowledge, as defined by Quigley, is knowing and adapting teaching to your class and the students you are speaking to, which is something that I cannot yet do! However, I have tried to look at this novel with an idea of teaching it and what it can teach me in the process of breaking it down. There is, of course, far too much to go into one blog post, mostly because I will bore you, but I’ll briefly spin through a small number of ideas.

Background

Lord of the Flies (henceforth LOTF) was published in 1954 by William Golding, a member of the Royal Navy, present at the sinking of the Bismarck who taught in universiteis and colleges and was knighted in 1988. The influences of WWII and the Cold war are evident in the opinion of the boys  that the world as they know it has ended, that ‘they’re all dead’ (p. 9). Golding presents the children of a society which is poised to destroy itself, and as a result it is no wonder that the young boys in his tale descend into madness and anarchy.

Dehuminisation

The huminisation and dehuminisation of the characters throughout this novel are stark reminders of the degeneration of their makeshift society. Initially, after the crash, the boys are described as ‘the boy with the fair hair’ (p. 1) or ‘the reverse fat boy’ (p.2), until finally a name is given on p.3 – ‘Ralph’. It is clear from the fact that he doesn’t ask Piggy’s name until much later that he does not appreciate or understand how names can create and make a a person so that they cannot be harmed. By adopting Piggy’s hated nickname, Piggy, Ralph initiates the destruction of his humanity which ultimately leads to his death when others see him as nothing more than a source of fire (because of his glasses).

After the initial pause in giving names and creating the characters as human, Golding allows them all to retain their names and individual preferences. Jack and the choir start to hunt, while Ralph and the ‘littluns’ set up home. It is clear that there is little desire to know about anyone – Piggy gives up trying to make a list of all the names, the ‘littluns’ are bunched into a group called just that. There is a slow and steady decline towards not viewing the others on the island as human, or equals. However, those characters that enforce these stereotypes (Jack, Ralph) are given personalities, responsibilities and ideas that make them stand out as individuals, humanising those who will later become enemies in an equal and effective manner.

The worst dehuminisation comes when Jack’s new ‘tribe’ lose their names and their status as children and become simply ‘the chief’ and ‘savages’ (p.186). In taking Piggy’s glasses from him, they take his humanity and his necessity from the island, and the inevitable slide towards his death begins.

Roger, armed by the rock, looks down on the two boys who are challenging the leadership of his tribe. But he doesn’t see them as boys. Instead ‘Below him, Ralph was a shock of hair, and Piggy a bag of fat’ (p. 199). Piggy is no longer a person to the minds of the ‘savages’ and so his death means little.

However, there isn’t an irredeemable ending, despite the shocked views on the society that Golding created. The Naval Officer who arrives as their rescuer sees them as children – ‘a little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his red hair and who carried the remains of a pair of spectacles at his waist…’ (p. 224). For the past three chapters, Jack has simply been referred to as the chief or, rarely, by his name, or as a mask behind which he hides. But the reader is reminded that these are young boys, that to the world outside they are vulnerable and need protecting. The reader knows the darkness and fear that overtook them, but they are still children and still need rescuing. So, after an entire novel dehuminising the group of boys, Golding offers that hope at the end that despite what they have witnessed, perhaps they can become people again.

Pathetic Fallacy

Of course, to teach English you must be willing to express your ‘expert’ knowledge in the themes of technical language, as well as literary and contextual understanding. Here, I will focus on Pathetic Fallacy. From p. 1, the island and nature show outwardly the damage and harm that has been done to the boys on their crash.

‘The Scar’ (p.1) is automatically named as such because of the damage the falling plane has done to the island. The use of the noun ‘scar’ implies that it will never fully heal, that there will always be this damage and harm caused human kind on the island.

When Simon is killed, the children are fuelled by the storm and their fear of the night. The lightening that should have lit up the sky enough to save Simon and remind them that he was human instead are the motivator for their actions – the close weather and the heat and the storm are all a part of what drive the group into a frenzy. The storm shows the weather echoing their mental state, which is fragile and at the same time, powerfully harmful.

When the boys find the Naval Officer, ‘the sky was black’ (p. 223). This represents that their rescue has come too late. They have committed murder and turned on the vulnerable in their society. They have proven themselves no different from the generation of adults in their lives that are fighting a war that could destroy the earth. The black sky takes away the final beauty of the island, because between the fire and the deaths, there is nothing beautiful left to admire.

Overall

Of course, there are many other themes and ideas buried in LOTF. The degeneration of language which represents the degeneration of society. Fragmented speech and the twins, samneric, becoming one person. The conch and what it represents. The parallels between the attempted killing, eventual killing and chasing of the pigs, and the deaths of Simon and Piggy. The parts of humanity that really matter, and why those aren’t always the bits that the boys try to keep. It is a rich and full text which offers plenty of teaching material and some memorable quotes.

A few activity ideas to finish

I know that I’m not yet a teacher, and I know that I’m not yet the expert that I need to be. But, whilst reading, I have had a few thoughts, and I thought I’d share a few of them here.

What if you set a class a task and just left them to it, before even starting teaching the novel? Let them see how hard hierarchy and order can be to establish.

Drawing ‘the beast’. Fear is a key theme throughout the novel. Have pupils take all the ‘descriptions’ of the beast throughout the novel and draw what it would look like.

Design your own rules for the island in groups, and then narrow them down to a shared class sheet.

Pick a side – whose ‘tribe’ would you join and why? – Debate.

The Confident Teacher, Alex Quigley

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I suppose by writing and posting a review of this book, it makes it a little bit official. I have been offered, and have accepted, a place on Teach First 2017 cohort, where I will spend the next 2 years from July 2017 training in a school to become the very best Secondary School teacher that I can be. I am really excited to take on this adventure, but I have a lot of reading to do before I get started! So, reading for fun will probably just take a side seat for a little while now. But this blog is for things that I have read, and they don’t have to be popular, or fictional, for me to be able to enjoy them and share a bit about what I’ve learned. So here we are, the first book that I have read as a start to my new career.

Overview

This was  fantastic book, filled to brimming with great ideas and good advice, all mixed in with science and research to back up each point. Quigley is a competent and engaging writer. I believe that English is the subject that he teachers, which was really helpful for me as this is the subject I’ll be undertaking, but he takes a range of examples from a variety of subjects which means that this book is relevant and educational for teachers at all ends of the spectrum.

That said, I would say that this book would better serve a teacher with a minimum of a year or two of experience. Whilst it does sell itself as ‘an essential resource for all qualified and trainee teachers wanting to reach their full potential’, I can understand why ‘qualified’ is referred to first. The Confident Teacher requires an extent of experience that trainee (and future trainee) teachers might not yet hold, especially those on the younger end of the spectrum. I have thoroughly enjoyed and learned a lot from reading the book, but will return to it in a year and see how much more it will impact my work then.

Why I Bought It

I purchased this book because of its tagline: ‘Developing successful habits of mind, body and pedagogy’. I had very little understanding of the role of the teacher as pedagogue (which essentially boils down to not only understanding your subject, but being able to take that knowledge and package it up and hand it out as a teacher). I’m still not a hundred per cent confident that I have a full understanding of the role, and that is something that I’m going to continue exploring in my reading as I am well aware that its a deficit going forwards. But Quigley really does bring to life the importance of the role of a pedagogue, and offers some interesting perspectives on it.

I found interesting his take on the setting of a classroom. He is well aware of the difficulties for teachers in less well-funded schools, where sometimes the classroom isn’t as well equipped as might be preferred, but he is adamant that ‘no matter the setting, learning happens’. (p. 169)

His references to ‘Subject Pedagogical Knowledge’ (p. 172) helped me to better understand that it isn’t just the subject knowledge which is important. In fact, ‘once you reach a certain degree of subject knowledge expertise, beyond what the students are required to know, the returns in the classroom begin to diminish’. (p. 172) Subject Pedagogical Knowledge is ‘a combination of knowing the content matter, the students, and a wide range of teaching strategies’. In short, the same subject matter will require different techniques, explanations and examples to be taught depending on the students, and as ‘expert’ teachers, it is our job to know as many techniques as possible in order to be able to educate those we teach. It’s a daunting task.

Other things I liked

So, other things I liked about this book, aside from the descriptions and definitions of pedagogy which I very much needed to be broken down.

Quigley describes teaching as a series of steps. The task would be insurmountable if we took it as a whole, but he describes just making one small change, such as pausing longer between asking a question and giving the answer, which will have a huge impact. (pp. 107-198) His suggestions are small and manageable, and you can see how in the long term, they will bring a satisfying return.

There is a huge focus on school leadership. Not yet working as a teacher in a school, I can only hope I have the support and leadership that Quigley suggests throughout his book.

There were a lot of small, bullet pointed lists of suggestions for teaching, feedback exercises and many other areas. These were great as I’ve already been able to note down some of my favourites and plan how I might put them into action.

Overall

I really enjoyed reading and engaging with this book, and would definitely buy other books by Quigley to study in the run up to commencing my teacher’s training. I am hoping that he has other books which are aimed more at a student teacher audience, as I feel I would definitely benefit more from that in the first instant. But overall, this is a must read for any developing teacher, and a great introduction to some of the difficulties I may face in the coming years, and how to overcome them.