You are enough. You see it on a thousand inspirational posters, swirly italic-effect fonts against backdrops of beaches and sunsets, spring flowers and rainbows and autumn leaves. Search on Etsy, and you can find it on mugs and sweatshirts, coasters and keyrings. It can be personalised, embroidered onto a cushion, painted onto something called a ‘positivity pebble’ that you can keep in your pocket. It’s the title of a book, with the subtitle ‘How to Love the Skin You’re In and Embrace Your Awesomeness’. There’s even a modified version, attributed to someone called Sierra Boggess: ‘You are so enough, it’s unbelievable just how enough you are’.

You are, really. (Source: Pexels)

The trouble is that it’s difficult to believe, in teaching, that we are ever enough. There’s always something else that we could do. Run that extracurricular group, read that article, try that new approach, sign up for that webinar, have that conversation with a colleague about that student who’s underperforming, contact that parent, think ahead to that trip we might run next year … We’ve heard a lot, over the last few months, about the feelings that have driven the current strikes: the real-terms pay cuts, the squeezed budgets, the crisis in recruitment and retention. And there’s the collective sense of burnout felt by a profession that is overwhelmed, accountable for far too many things with far too little support, battling poor behaviour and the after-effects of the pandemic, told constantly – by so many voices, but also by ourselves – that we are not doing enough.

I don’t want to claim special treatment for English teachers, but there’s something about English that is especially susceptible to this sense of not-enoughness. I’ve spent most of my career trying to describe what it is that makes English so complex – hell, I even did my PhD on it – and now, twenty-seven years in, I think I’ve finally pinned it down. In true English-teacher style, I’ve done it as a metaphor. English is a gas. Not in the sense of being funny, or enjoyable (although it frequently is), but because it expands to fill the space available to it. This is partly because in English we work with words, with texts, and words and texts, in all their various and wonderful forms, are what surround us. The conversations we overhear, the programmes we watch, the packaging on the products we buy, the songs we listen to, the websites we browse, the Twitter threads we read: all are grist to our English-teaching mill. And that’s before we even think about books, and everything that surrounds them.

The ever-expanding nature of English makes it particularly vulnerable to debates about powerful knowledge. It’s vulnerable anyway, because debates about powerful knowledge involve debates about issues that are central to English as a subject, not least the kinds of texts we teach and the ways in which we approach them. But if we take a text that is particularly powerful in the English curriculum – A Christmas Carol, say – it’s easy to see how the amount of knowledge available to us, as teachers, has grown massively over the last few years. Historical and biographical contexts, beautifully-produced resources, discussions of key quotations and motifs … It would be possible to spend a whole year teaching A Christmas Carol and still feel that you haven’t explored everything about it and its hinterland that is considered powerful. Except, of course, that you haven’t got a year, because there are three other texts – plus unseen poetry – to cover, as well as English Language. And so the guilt sets in. What if you miss out that key piece of information, that vital worksheet, that will unlock a particular concept for your students? What if that leads to them missing out on a vital grade? What if your department’s results plummet and Ofsted make their dreaded phone call? Your panic spirals. You stop trusting your own judgement, and before long, you’re paralysed, unable to make any decisions because it feels as though every decision is the wrong one.

English, as a subject, needs to change. It needs to change in many ways and for many reasons. Lots of these will be familiar to us: the inadequacy of GCSE English Language, the lack of diversity, the absence of any meaningful opportunities to develop vital oracy skills. But one that we must also address is the need for clearer boundaries around the knowledge we teach.

This is something I never thought I’d call for. I love exploring alternative readings and different approaches: there’s nothing I enjoy more than getting my A level students to examine varying interpretations, to play the unending game of critical debate. Yes, but … Well, okay, but couldn’t you also say …? But it feels, at the moment, as though the possibilities of what we could teach in English are growing at an exponential rate; and, as we all know, the stakes in English are so high that it’s easy to become completely overwhelmed by the scale of what we have to manage, the complexity of the landscape we have to navigate.

I’m mixing my metaphors wildly here, and that’s probably because I am swamped, at the moment, by the kinds of decisions I’m trying to describe. Everything in education, at the moment, feels like that other metaphor: a lethal mutation, spreading wildly, out of control. I think a lot of us feel as though we’re not enough. We might not have to walk through the desert on our knees repenting, but it certainly feels that way, sometimes.

The Bone Sparrow, The Arrival, and empathy

My Year Sevens are just coming to the end of their study of Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow, and it’s a long time since I’ve found a book that has gone down so well with a class. It’s a difficult business, choosing a new class reader. You find a book that you think your students will adore, spend ages developing a scheme of work and resources, and sometimes it just doesn’t play as well as you think it will. Some novels are Marmite, loved by some students but leaving others cold. Some fall a bit flat. What to do?

One of the difficult things about teaching English is that the subject blurs the boundary between academic domain and personal pleasure. Like all subjects, it demands that students spend time engaging with concepts and topics that they might not choose to engage with in their lives beyond the classroom. But there’s something about studying books that makes English different from Maths, or Geography, or the sciences. We are supposed to enjoy reading in a way that we’re not necessarily supposed to enjoy solving equations or exploring coastal landforms. It’s far easier for students to see these subjects as something that they simply have to learn. But reading has a different kind of existence, as something people do for pleasure, out of choice. What people read – indeed, if they read at all – is seen as more a matter of personal taste. And therefore students often really resent having to study a text they wouldn’t choose to read outside of school.

Sometimes, I growl that English is an academic discipline and that issues of personal preference shouldn’t matter. I talk about the reasons why we read and the fact that studying a text is about a whole range of complicated things: the ability to read closely and attentively; the critical exploration of novels and plays and poems that are culturally significant; the willingness to engage with lives and situations that are not our own. I talk about intellectual resilience and the need to push beyond the question of whether you like something or not. But, let’s face it, there is nothing quite like that feeling of teaching a group who really enjoy the text they’re studying, who are intrigued by it and relish the challenges it offers. There’s an energy to those lessons, a buzz. Eyes light up and ideas bounce around. The bell goes and someone comments ‘Is it the end of the lesson already? That went really quickly!’

The Bone Sparrow has been fabulous. We’ve explored narrative methods and analysed the creation of character; we’ve learned about the situation of the Rohingya people and researched the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We’ve also discussed critical literacy and the reasons why people think that particular books should be studied in schools. One of my students contacted Zana Fraillon, via her website, to ask some questions about the novel, and was beside himself with excitement when she replied, less than twelve hours later. (He declared, ‘I feel as though I’m famous!’) And we’ve also talked about being an outsider, about feeling strange and unwelcome, and how that feels.

I’ve been thinking about The Bone Sparrow a lot this week because of Rishi Sunak’s desire to make all students continue with Maths until the age of 18, and also because of two books I’ve read recently: Peter Bazalgette’s The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society, and Michael J. Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, which was explored by Claire Stoneman in her brilliant blog post last week. One of Sandel’s key arguments is about the rhetoric of rising, the idea that if we work hard and play by the rules then there is no limit to what we can achieve. Achievement is seen as a mark of merit, of worth, rather than as the result of a constellation of lucky accidents: having a supportive family, being of good health, having the kinds of talents and abilities that are valued by society and will be rewarded with a high-paying job. As you might expect, I have lots of thoughts about the valorising of subjects that are seen to lead to higher earning power, as if earning power alone is the sole criteria that should be applied when deciding which subjects we prioritise, which departments to fund, which courses to cut. Discussions about the value of the arts and humanities often defend the study of the arts by pointing to the huge earning power of the British creative industries, which, in 2020, contributed £13 million to the UK economy every hour. And yet: should this be the only measure?

From The Arrival by Shaun Tan (2007, image licensed for non-commercial use)

We’ve followed up our study of The Bone Sparrow with some creative writing based on Shaun Tan’s book The Arrival. If you don’t know The Arrival, this is something you need to remedy right now, because it is stunning. It’s a graphic novel, but contains no words. (My students love the idea of being able to tell a story without any words: when I showed them the book last week, I had a little huddle of them round my desk at the end of the lesson, wanting to have another look and note down the title so they could track down their own copies.) It’s a story of exile, of a man who has to leave his family and travel to a different country. The illustrations, which are beautiful, are in sepia tones. Some – a tearful woman saying goodbye to her husband, a man getting onto a train, a crowd of people on a ship – carry echoes of particular historical situations, most notably the Second World War, and migration to the USA in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But the country that the man finds himself in is like no other. The writing system, the buildings, the vehicles, even the animals: all are utterly estranging. And that’s the point. No matter who you are, no matter which language you speak or what kind of cultural background you’re from, this new country will be alien to you. We talked about the weirdness of an alphabet you’ve never seen before, and how significant it is that Tan does not privilege any of his readers. Nobody will find this strange world easier to navigate than anyone else. We are all equally disorientated.

Our writing, which we’ll be developing next week, focuses on one specific image, of a family walking through silent streets in a town haunted by a tentacled creature that twines itself around the rooftops and lurks menacingly round corners. We’ve discussed whether the creature is real or metaphorical, and decided on the latter. It could be war, we said, or prejudice, or some kind of idea that’s making people feel they don’t belong any more. We talked about what the characters could see, what they might smell. (That kind of rotten smell like a market at the end of a hot day when all the vegetables have been out for too long, one boy said.) We wondered whether the family would be talking to each other, or if there were thoughts running through their minds that they couldn’t put into words. Would there be people in the houses, staying away from the windows, too afraid to look out? What memories might they have of the time before the creature arrived?

In The Empathy Instinct, Peter Bazalgette writes of the capacity for empathy as being one of the foundations of a civil society. He highlights the role of fiction in building empathy, fostering our ability to imagine and to understand, to project ourselves into the lives and experiences of people who are not ourselves. Studying The Bone Sparrow, and then exploring The Arrival, has been a real journey for my Year Sevens. They’ve learned a lot academically, but they’ve also developed their understanding of a whole host of issues and situations. It would be difficult to measure this in terms of grades, or earning potential, or contributions to the economy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t massively important to the good of our society.

On meanings and complexities

Years ago, I observed a lesson on Ciaran Carson’s poem ‘Belfast Confetti’. It’s an incredibly powerful poem, conveying the confused aftermath of a bomb blast and the narrator’s sense of disorientation as he tries to make sense of his changed surroundings. The lesson itself, however, conveyed none of this. Part of the problem was that the teacher had started the lesson with a glossary of words and phrases that he thought the students needed to understand. What this glossary essentially showed was his own lack of understanding of the poem. Carson refers to the labyrinth of Belfast streets – ‘Balaclava, Raglan, Inkerman, Odessa Street’ – that the narrator is trying to navigate. In his glossary, next to ‘Balaclava’, the teacher had put ‘A form of knitted headgear’. ‘Raglan’, meanwhile, was ‘A way of fixing the sleeves to a jumper or cardigan’. Cue a group of very confused students, wondering why the poet had suddenly started banging on about knitwear.

So wrong, in so many ways (Image: Pinterest)

I’ve been thinking a lot about meaning lately, partly because thinking about meaning forms a huge part of what I do but also because of that cursed Ofsted research review. The review places a lot of emphasis on the direct teaching of vocabulary. It states, for example, that ‘While pupils of all ages will gradually learn vocabulary through repeated encounters as they read, there is evidence showing that it is beneficial to identify and explicitly teach some vocabulary.’ And given the review’s clear affinity with models of education predicated on a ‘smooth ramp’ – do this, read that, and you’ll understand this – it’s easy to see why this approach to vocabulary would have such an appeal. Teach students the meanings of the difficult words they’ll encounter in a text, teach them the text, and they’ll sail through without any problems. Get them to use these difficult words in different contexts in order to consolidate their knowledge, teach them about word roots and affixes, and you’ll be building their word power. Add in some spaced recall and you’re ticking a CogSci box as well. Simple!

And there’s nothing wrong with this, as far as it goes. I’d hazard a guess that the vast majority of English teachers will approach some vocabulary in this way. The emphasis there is firmly on the some. As English teachers, we have an array of approaches to vocabulary to draw upon. Sometimes we’ll pre-teach particular words, and we might especially do this if there’s a particular reference that we need students to understand. (Think, for instance, about the word ‘equivocator’ in the Porter’s scene in Macbeth. It links, of course, to the theme of appearances-versus-reality that runs throughout the play, and to the wider concept of equivocation in Jacobean society, but it’s the first time students will have met it, and therefore it probably needs some explanation.) Sometimes we’ll choose texts that have marginal glosses, or create our own versions, so that students get used to glancing across or down the page and picking up a reference without the need for too much intervention: it’s an important aspect of working with texts and one that they need to know about. Sometimes we’ll reach an unfamiliar word and ask the class if anyone has come across this word before: a way of empowering students and moving away from the idea that the teacher is the only source of knowledge in the room. Sometimes we’ll look at words in their contexts and work out what they mean. This isn’t an exhaustive list: it’s not difficult to think of other strategies we use.

There are a number of problems, though, with what the review says about the explicit teaching of vocabulary. I’m just going to look at two of them here. The first is the evidence base that the review draws upon. One of the sources they cite is a US report, A Review of the Current Research on Vocabulary Instruction, published in 2010 by the National Reading Technical Assistance Center. But as we’ve seen with other sources (as Barbara Bleiman demonstrates in this Twitter thread, and as Gary Snapper, Andrew Green and I have experienced in the review’s misuse of our book Teaching English Literature 16-19), the review uses this report to fit an agenda that it doesn’t necessarily support. The headline findings are there: direct instruction, multiple exposure, active engagement. But look more closely, and you’ll see that it is based on studies of children no older than Grade 3: seven of the fourteen studies it draws on focus exclusively on children in preschool and kindergarten, and two further studies focused on older children with weak literacy skills. One of the studies focuses specifically on scientific vocabulary, one on nonsense words, and several on early literacy. One focused on the learning of just three target words. Yet Ofsted present this as research whose findings can be generalised to the teaching of English at secondary level.

The second problem is just so screamingly obvious that it really shouldn’t need saying. It’s that meanings can be connotational as well as denotational. In fact, in English, it’s the exploration of connotational meanings that occupies a significant amount of our time. Nowhere does the review refer to this. It’s as if meaning is all simple, straightforward, univocal. There’s no space whatsoever in the review for the associative, the ambivalent, the strange.

In English, it’s not necessarily the ‘hard’ words, the unfamiliar words, that make us pause. It’s often the words whose meanings we think we know, used in contexts that are unexpected. Think of ‘Death of a Naturalist’, for instance, and Seamus Heaney’s description of ‘the warm thick slobber / Of frogspawn’: my Year Eights all know what ‘slobber’ is, but they’ve never seen it used to describe frogspawn before, and they also wouldn’t normally see it in the superlative light that Heaney does. We needed to think about the colour and texture of frogspawn, to imagine scooping it up and trying to contain it in our hands, to understand the sense of delight captured in that description. Or the way Ted Hughes uses ‘raw’ twice in the first two lines of ‘Bayonet Charge’ – ‘raw / In raw-seamed hot khaki’ – and, in doing so, suggests not only different meanings of the word itself but also the dazed state of the soldier as he drags himself into action, with no time to think of an alternative word. Words don’t just mean things. They can hint and gesture, be playful and ironic. We and our students know this, because we experience it every day.

My Year Twelves are starting to look at different critical and theoretical approaches to literature, and one text I love using to explore the idea of multiple readings is another of Ted Hughes’ poems, ‘Lineage’, from his 1970 collection Crow. (I’ve got Gary Snapper to credit for this particular lesson: he introduced me to it years ago, and it is now one of my absolute favourite lessons to teach.) Here’s the poem:


In the beginning was Scream
Who begat Blood
Who begat Eye
Who begat Fear
Who begat Wing
Who begat Bone
Who begat Granite
Who begat Violet
Who begat Guitar
Who begat Sweat
Who begat Adam
Who begat Mary
Who begat God
Who begat Nothing
Who begat Never
Never Never Never

Who begat Crow

Screaming for Blood
Grubs, crusts


Trembling featherless elbows in the nest’s filth

I don’t tell the students anything about the poem beforehand, because I don’t want to guide their responses. Instead, I give them five minutes on their own with the poem, to read and annotate and see what they think it means, and then give them some time in pairs or small groups to discuss their ideas. It’s a brilliant example of how meanings are constructed as part of a shared process of discussion. One thing students often spend a lot of time on is the presence of nouns such as ‘Violet’, ‘Guitar’ and ‘Sweat’: they know what these words mean, but they’re obviously being used by Hughes in a way that doesn’t correspond to their simple denotational senses. They clearly have a significance that’s given to them by their presence in this particular sequence and the fact that they’re being treated as proper nouns, but beyond that, what they mean in this poem isn’t clear. Do they point to human culture, to industry and toil, to a sense of beauty? We talk about all these possibilities, and about the other images and suggestions in the poem: the sense of unmet need, the violence and squalor, the apparent rejection of God. All of this takes a long time.

Do they know what the poem means, by the end of it? Do I know what it means? Should I be able to tell them what it means, give them a nice neat knowledge organiser? We talk about all of this, too. In the end, they decide that the important thing is not arriving at one final meaning, but the process of exploration. It makes your brain hurt, says one of them, but it’s really interesting. And they’re right. This is what makes English such an incredible and complicated and bloody amazing subject to teach, and the Ofsted review contains none of it.

Smooth ramps, adequate comprehension, and bumpy roads

I am exercised, at the moment, by Ofsted’s research review on English. I am exercised by this in many ways, but I’m just going to focus on one of them here. It’s the metaphor of the ‘smooth ramp’ as a way of articulating progress in reading, with the curriculum being designed to ensure that ‘each text bootstraps the language and knowledge needed for the next’. It’s a model derived most clearly from the work of E.D. Hirsch, in which teaching – and therefore also learning – follows a well-ordered sequence. Everything that students need to know in order to understand a text is taught carefully and explicitly, and attention is paid to the texts that students encounter as they make their way through their education: ‘An effective English curriculum will explicitly identify what it is that pupils need to learn in order to understand progressively more complex texts.’

Dentdale, photo taken by me, 2019

I’ve been teaching English for over twenty-five years now, and the thing I find simultaneously most frustrating but also most rewarding about the subject is its messiness, its porousness, the fuzziness of its edges. Students don’t only ‘do’ English in school. Their work in English will draw on, and be influenced by, all the many areas of life in which they speak and read and listen and write, by the narratives they engage with (not only in books, but on screen, in films and on television and, increasingly, in computer games) and the stories they themselves tell. Take writing, for instance. Behind the very narrow pieces of writing on which my current GCSE students will be assessed in their exams there lies a vast hinterland of written texts, only some of them produced in school and read by teachers: fanfiction, blog posts, contributions to forum threads, reviews, song lyrics, stories. Not all of these texts will ever be read by anyone. Some of them are highly ephemeral. But all of them are important, because they are all part of who my students are as writers, as people who use the written word to engage with the world beyond themselves.

We sometimes try to make links between English and other subjects – History being the most obvious one, because of the literacy demands it makes of students – but actually, I’d argue that English shares more similarities with PE. We want students to exercise in their spare time, because exercise is a good thing, just as we want students to read in their spare time, because reading is a good thing. We lament the fact that we live in a society that presents young people with easier and more attractive options than exercise and reading as ways of spending their free time. We recognise that there are barriers that prevent some young people from exercising and reading as much as we (and often they themselves) would like them to. We also recognise that young people who exercise more and read more outside of school perform better in PE and English within school. We note that young people who are encouraged to exercise and read – by parents and other adults who guide them, take them to sports clubs and fixtures and libraries and bookshops, talk to them and provide support – receive an unfair advantage. But in the end, we have to accept that we cannot control how much our students exercise outside of school, or how much (and what) they read, however much we might wish it otherwise.

I’m not sure I can stretch this analogy much further. One key difference, of course, is that English is a core subject that carries extremely high stakes at GCSE for individual students, as well as their teachers and schools. Another is that English also relies, to a large but largely unexplored extent, on students’ emotional maturity. This is why the Ofsted research report’s definition of the ‘components of comprehension’ is far too narrow. According to Ofsted, comprehension depends on students’ knowledge of vocabulary, context, narrative structure and syntax. But – as we all know – it also depends on far much more than this: on imaginative engagement, empathy, a willingness to enter the worlds of characters whose lives might be very different from one’s own. Students don’t just draw on what they’ve been taught, on what has been presented to them in a carefully-structured and sequenced manner, in order to make sense of texts. They draw on their own lived experiences, on events that we as their teachers might be privy to or might not. They visualise settings and characters in particular ways and build interpretations that are shaped by their world-views, in a manner that has long been acknowledged by reader-response criticism. The Ofsted report mentions that ‘through reading itself, pupils can find out about the world beyond their own experience’. But there is no mention of what students bring to reading from their own experience. Or how they share these experiences with others: my teaching of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Pike’ to Year Eight, earlier this year, was made all the richer as a result of one boy’s account of pike fishing at night with his dad and his uncle, how unnerving it was and how every sound resonated through the darkness.

The failure of the ‘smooth ramp’ model of the curriculum is that it doesn’t take account of all these complexities. For one thing, they can’t be planned for: you can’t include a student with a penchant for fishing as an essential resource on your curriculum map. They also rely so much on the parts of students’ lives that take place outside of school, not only their reading and viewing and interacting with other people but also their thinking and daydreaming. This means that reading – understanding texts and making sense of them – isn’t a neat and tidy process at all. If there’s one thing I can say about my life as a reader, it’s that it’s been incredibly messy. It’s included periods of rapid progress, like when I discovered the Brontës the summer after my GCSEs, and times that were relatively fallow, when I devoured horse and pony books and teen fiction because I didn’t know what else to read. It has twists and turns, and huge variations in complexity, because I am a great advocate of comfort-reading as an antidote to stress. It’s also contained moments when I’ve encountered texts that were within my intellectual comprehension but very definitely beyond my emotional reach. I remember, at the age of eleven, reading a novel that featured the death of a main character, and how unsettling I found it. This wasn’t because of the way the death itself was described, but because the central character’s reflections on what this meant for her own life – her recognition of her own mortality, and that of the people she loved – made me think about my own world in a similar way. It was a reminder that everything – including me – would come to an end, and that, at eleven, was a big thing to get to grips with. I remember putting the book away in a cupboard where I wouldn’t have to see it. I didn’t return to it for several years, and only then with a sense of trepidation. No pre-teaching in the world, no comprehension activities or vocabulary exercises, would have helped me.

And in any case, those activities wouldn’t have happened, because this was a book I read on my own, at home. It was part of my own world and not something I talked to anyone else about. Because this is another thing about reading. In school, it is part of the curriculum, but outside, it’s often deeply personal and private. Sometimes, as teachers, we try to gain access to this private world. We want students to keep reading journals and write up their thoughts; we ask them what they’re reading and what they think of it. They might, occasionally, want to answer. But I can remember being thirteen or fourteen, and immersed in books that I wouldn’t have wanted to discuss with my English teacher in a million years. The thoughts and feelings I had about them were often so complicated and half-formed that I’d have hated feel compelled to share them. Leave me alone, I’d have thought. It’s none of your business what I’m reading.

So the idea of a ‘smooth ramp’ to an ‘adequate comprehension’ seems to me to be deeply unsatisfactory, an attempt to simplify and rationalise a complex process that replies, in part, on things that are beyond the teacher’s control. In a discussion on the work of Arthur N. Applebee on the English and Media Centre website, Barbara Bleiman refers to Applebee’s belief that ‘some of the seemingly neat and tidy models don’t necessarily succeed in offering the more complex learning that really constitutes knowledge in the subject’. As English teachers, we can structure and shape our students’ journeys through the texts they encounter in school. We can offer them signposts and instructions; sometimes we can metaphorically hold their hands. But we can’t control every aspect of the journey they make as readers, and nor should we try to.

The bookhood of books

Here’s one of the most important books I own:

On the face of it, it’s not particularly special. It’s a 1976 copy of the third edition of the Oxford School Atlas, a paperback edition with a cover that’s faded and softened with age. Its spine is peeling and it has a couple of suspicious stains. The edges of its pages have worn soft with years of handling. It contains countries that don’t exist any more, like Yugoslavia and the USSR, and doesn’t contain countries that do exist now, like Eritrea and North Macedonia and Namibia. (Macedonia’s marked out as a vague area spanning southern Serbia and northern Greece; Eritrea appears and disappears depending which page you’re on). Germany is divided; Czechia and Slovakia are united; Zimbabwe is still Rhodesia and St Petersburg is still Leningrad. But it’s a book that’s important to me for other, more personal reasons. It was issued to my sister when she was doing A level Geography back in the late 1970s. You can’t mistake it for anything other than a school book. Inside its front and back covers, and on several other pages, it bears the stamp of its original owner:

But for some reason, lost now in the mists of time, it never made its way back to St. Aelred’s High School, and has been in the family ever since. I’m not sure exactly when it became mine, but I have always loved maps and I must have spent hours poring over it, over the years, working out where different countries are and thinking about all the places I wanted to go to. There are pencilled annotations on some pages from when I did GCSE Geography between 1987 and 1989, and various asterisks showing where we spent family holidays. At some point, it travelled down with me to south Lincolnshire, and here it’s going to stay.

Less moisture, poor soils, short grass

I spend a lot of time thinking about books, not surprisingly, but this week I’ve been thinking a lot about the physicality of books, the bookness of books, thanks to Emma Smith’s fabulous book Portable Magic. Smith focuses on what she describes as ‘bookhood’, a ‘material combination of form and content’: our physical and sensory engagement with books, their smell and feel and heft. ‘If you think about the books that have been important to you’, writes Smith, ‘it may well be that their content is inseparable from the form in which you encountered them’. And so I’ve been looking at my shelves, tracing the spines of books I haven’t read for years but nevertheless consider an important part of my life. The Penguin copy of David Lodge’s Nice Work that kicked off my reading the summer after GCSEs. Old Faber poetry books with their distinctive coloured covers. The Armada Lions copy of Joan G. Robinson’s Charley that I borrowed from my sister’s bookshelf when I was about nine and loved it so much that I couldn’t bear to put it back. (I did buy her a replacement copy several years later, honest.)

Smith’s book is intriguing, exploring the physical form of books as diverse as the Gutenberg Bible, the various editions of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Choose Your Own Adventure novels of the 1980s, and the paperbacks defaced – or upcycled – by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. In her opening chapter, Smith describes one of her school set texts:

‘The edition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles we had at school was most remarkable for its transparent cover film that called irresistibly to be peeled back, leaving behind a washed-out still of Natassja Kinski wearing a straw hat from Roman Polanski’s 1979 film: later, weakened by these depredations, I think my copy had to be backed in wallpaper left over from our spare bedroom.’

I’m itching to peel that cover film off right now, although I’m less keen on the wallpaper: I remember backing my Maths textbook in Anaglypta, and never being able to close it properly afterwards.

The physicality of schoolbooks, set texts, is something that’s been on my mind for other reasons this week too, because it’s the week when we’ve been doing our budget requests and thinking about that eternal question of how to balance what we’d really like with what we strictly need. We’ve spent quite a lot on books over the past couple of years, updating worn-out stock and introducing new texts. For September, we need a whole new set of novels for Year Seven (we’ve decided on The Bone Sparrow) and also another complete set of A Christmas Carol (we use the English and Media Centre edition). And it’s going to cost. There are other sets of books that we’d like to replace, but we’re not sure if we’ll be able to. How many years can you make your texts last for? How long can a set of paperbacks survive?

I remember my own English set texts. For GCSE we had a hardback Players’ Shakespeare edition of Macbeth and I can remember the different layers of annotations it contained, several years’-worth of other people’s handwriting, mostly in pencil but some in illicit biro. ‘”Aroint thee, witch”, the rump-fed ronyon cried’ was glossed, with some relish, as ‘Get lost, you fat-bottomed slut’. This was the cash-strapped late 80s, and a lot of our school books were past their best, to say the least. We had to handle them gingerly, not just because they were fragile but also because they were, sometimes, grubby and musty. The narrator of U.A. Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Dear Mr Lee’ speaks of her beloved school copy of Cider with Rosie, ‘stained with Coke and Kitkat and when I had a cold’, and anyone who’s been near a set of school books will know how unhygienic some of them can look, especially once they’ve spent a few months sharing a schoolbag with the detritus of teenage life: discarded football socks, the remnants of several packets of crisps, sedimentary layers of packed lunch.

As a teacher, I’m obviously very conscious of the content of the books I expect my students to read, but I also think the physical form of these books is important, too. I’m definitely not advocating for a full sweep of new books every year, but I want my students to spend time reading their set books, poring over them and being absorbed in them and maybe even – gosh – enjoying them, and therefore I don’t think it’s fair to give a student a book that is fusty or tattered or unpleasant to touch, a book whose pages are swollen from the time when someone’s water bottle – or worse – leaked over it, or a book that’s falling apart. I think the condition of the books we hand out gives an important message to students not only about how much we value reading in general, but also about how much we value their particular experience of reading. There are many, many secondary school students up and down the country whose homes contain very few books. The books we give to them in school need to be attractive and cared-for, ones that we’d be happy to have on our own shelves. Books matter.

Making sure books get returned at the end of the year is another perennial headache, although given the provenance of my Oxford School Atlas, you could be forgiven for calling me a hypocrite. I don’t remember St. Aelred’s ever having a book amnesty during the time I was there, between 1984 and 1991, but even if they had, I’m not sure I’d have taken the atlas back. It was too much a part of the family by then, in the way some books are. St. Aelred’s doesn’t exist any more – it was amalgamated with another local school in 2011, and has now been demolished – and I don’t think St. Helens Education Committee would want it back now, outdated as it is. In any case, I’ve spent enough of my own money on school books and supplies over the years. I think I’ve made amends.

Classic fiction and adoption-related plots

I wasn’t sure what to write about this week. My brain isn’t in sonnet mode at the moment, and most of my attention has been focused on getting round the local 10k road race whilst trying not to swear too much (I managed it, got a PB, and am spending the rest of the weekend sitting down). But two threads on Twitter have been playing on my mind this weekend. One is about the classic fiction we’d recommend to younger readers, and how problematic these recommendations are. There’s a nostalgic rosy glow surrounding many of our childhood favourites, but when we go back to them, it’s not long before we start to see images and ideas that we really shouldn’t be passing on without any kind of health warning. The other was sparked by a tweet by a YA writer about her favourite adoption tropes. There were lots of OMGs from the writer about adopted children bringing joy to the hearts of adopters, lots of excitement about adopted people being rescued from error and misfortune – and lots of absolutely rightful pushback from adopted people pointing out that their lives shouldn’t be treated as a plot device. The writer of the original tweet subsequently posted that she hadn’t thought about it that way, and then deleted the whole thread, but really. How can anyone involved in the creative industries, in 2022, not recognise the problem of reducing a group of people to plot tropes, and tweet about it as if those people didn’t exist in the real world? Come on.

There’s a clear intersection between the two threads, because classic fiction is, of course, full of adoption-related plots. Lemn Sissay’s installation Superman was a Foundling lists some of the many, many fictional characters who are adopted, fostered, orphaned or abandoned, and is an eye-opening starting-point if you’d never realised just how widespread these particular themes are. Look more closely at some of these characters, and the tropes will hit you thick and fast. Bitter adopted child intent on destroying adoptive family: hello, Heathcliff. Adopted child helping to soften and humanise a misanthropic outcast: there’s Eppie from Silas Marner, and I guess we could even include William from Goodnight Mister Tom as well. There’s sour and surly Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden; there are the countless plucky orphans who populate Charles Dickens’ novels and the characters who – like Posy, Paulina and Petrova in Ballet Shoes – are collected like souvenirs and blaze through life like stars with never a thought for their families of origin. Adopted children who are resentful misfits; adopted children who are prodigiously talented; adopted children who make the sun shine and the birds sing because their main role in life is to make other people happy, like Pollyanna with her Glad Game. And that’s before we even get to that sodding boy wizard.

Extract from ‘Superman was a Foundling by Lemn Sissay, Foundling Museum, London. Photo taken by me in October 2017.

One novel that always comes up in recommendations for classic children’s fiction is L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, first published in 1908. Anne Shirley, adopted at the age of eleven by brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, is probably one of fiction’s most famous adopted characters. To generations of readers, Anne of Green Gables is most memorable for the series of scrapes that Anne gets herself into. She gets her ‘bosom friend’ Diana Barry drunk on currant wine, thinking it’s raspberry cordial, and flavours a cake with liniment, believing it to be vanilla essence. She walks along the ridgepole of a roof for a dare, falls off, and breaks her ankle. She hits Gilbert Blythe over the head with her slate when he taunts her about her hair. She almost drowns when she and her friends try to dramatise the Arthurian legend of the Lily Maid of Astolat, and her boat springs a leak. She tries to dye her hair black, and ends up turning it green. Anne is a little girl with a vivid imagination, turning an avenue of apple trees into the White Way of Delight and the Barrys’ pond into the Lake of Shining Waters. The only thing she professes herself unable to imagine away is her red hair.

On the surface, Anne of Green Gables is a charming story. It has featured in numerous charts of the most popular novels of all time: it has been adapted for stage, film, radio and television, and every year thousands of people flock to Prince Edward Island to visit its settings. But there is a much more complex story underneath, one that needs to be viewed through the lens of adoption. There’s a reason why Anne needs such a vivid imagination, and it’s because her life has been singularly awful: difficult, lonely, and abusive. Orphaned at three months old, she has been taken in first by a Mrs Thomas, who has a drunken husband, and subsequently by a Mrs Hammond, who has eight children of her own, including three sets of twins. Her place in the Thomas and Hammond households was to be a domestic help, rather than a loved member of the family. When Mr Thomas is killed falling under a train, his mother offers Mrs Thomas and her children a home, ‘but she didn’t want me’. When Mr Hammond dies, his wife divides her children up amongst her relatives, but ‘I had to go to the asylum at Hopeton, because nobody would take me. They didn’t want me at the asylum, either; they said they were over-crowded as it was’. She has had to imagine companions for herself, imagining that her reflection in a bookcase is a little girl called Katie Maurice, and that the echo of her voice is another little girl called Violetta. And she is in danger of not being wanted again, as the Cuthberts wanted a boy to help on the farm, not a girl.

Adoption, in the novel, is surrounded by stigma. Mrs Rachel Lynde warns Marilla about adopted children who set fire to their adoptive families’ houses and burn them to a crisp in their beds, or alternatively poison them by putting strychnine down the well. Anne eventually becomes a much-loved member of the local community, but she has to earn this position. Marilla intends to train Anne to be ‘a useful little thing’, and Anne herself vows to ‘try to do and be anything you want me, if you’ll only keep me’. And she works hard, although the most important work she does is not physical but emotional, bringing joy to shy Matthew and softening the heart of flinty old Marilla. She’s not alone. Time and time again we see adopted children and orphans in literature carrying out this kind of emotional labour in the lives of their new families.

And significantly, Anne is not allowed to forget that being adopted makes her an outsider. Her place in the community is not a given: she has to make herself acceptable and is reminded that she must bow to convention. When she turns down an offer of marriage from Billy Andrews, his sister Jane warns her that she might live to regret the chance of joining an established Avonlea family, as she is ‘merely an adopted orphan, without kith or kin’. Later, when one of her stories is published in a local newspaper, a disapproving acquaintance tells her that ‘she was very sorry to hear she had taken to writing novels; nobody born and bred in Avonlea would do it; that was what came of adopting orphans from goodness knew where, with goodness knew what kind of parents’.

It’s important for us to be aware of these tropes and stereotypes. It’s important, because they still exist. As I’ve mentioned before, the Dude was once told by another child that ‘all adopted people end up in prison’. (The Dude, bless him, retorted by pointing out that actually, most superheroes were adopted, but he shouldn’t have to feel that he has to be a superhero: he shouldn’t have to be anything, apart from himself.) And it’s important because adoption-related storylines often fly under the radar. Another thread I’ve read over the past few days concerns text choices at GCSE: I’ve already written about Blood Brothers and the appalling doomed-adoptee trope that it plays around with, but here’s a reminder not to use that godawful Blood Brothers resource that asks students to imagine they’ve just found out they’re adopted. Teachers of English need to be just as careful when teaching adoption-related texts as they would be with any other texts that address sensitive issues. Being separated from your family of origin, whatever the circumstances, is trauma. Waiting lists for post-adoption support and therapeutic life story work are hideously long. Support for adopted adults is pretty much non-existent, although organisations like Adoptee Futures are working hard to change this situation.

And yet, adoption-related plotlines continue to roll around, earning millions for the entertainment industry. Hey, wouldn’t it be excellent if some of that was ploughed back into counselling and therapy? What if ‘apologetic writer sees the error of their ways and seeks to make amends’ became a trope? I won’t hold my breath.

Accents and dialects, sonnets, and Tony Harrison

When I was little, I had a friend whose mum was forever correcting the way we spoke. There was nothing particularly unusual about our use of language – we had the pretty generic Northern accent of the town we lived in, neither Liverpool nor Manchester and neither Wigan nor Warrington, but something in between – but as far as my friend’s mum was concerned, that wasn’t good enough. She’d grown up in Liverpool, and had been trying to lose her accent ever since. She hadn’t really managed it, but it had given her a hypersensitivity to speech, a sense of being perpetually on the alert for anything that was too regionally marked. Any vowel that was a bit too flat or too long, any hint of a glottal stop or dialect word, and she’d pounce. She taught at the primary school I went to, and that seemed to give her licence to monitor my speech, as well as that of her daughter. She probably thought she was doing me a favour, but all it did was to make me wary: afraid of opening my mouth in case I was jumped on, newly self-conscious about part of me that had never been a problem before.

Gerrout o’t’road, there’s lambs onnit. (Source: Alan Cleaver on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0)

School language policies didn’t exist back then, but if they had been around, I’d probably have been on the wrong side of them. At university, the only state-educated Northerner in a tutorial group of RP-speakers, I was asked to demonstrate Northern vowel sounds by a linguistics tutor who generally treated me as if I’d just escaped from a zoo. So it’s not really surprising that as an A level English Language teacher, regional variation – and, in particular, the ways in which schools try to police their students’ use of language – is one of my favourite topics. Over the last few years, a stream of schools have attempted to eliminate regional speech, arguing that they are giving their students the best chance possible of succeeding in the wider world. From Colley Lane Primary School in Halesowen and Sacred Heart Primary School in Middlesbrough to Ark All Saints Academy in Camberwell, pupils have been told not to use slang, dialect forms and regional pronunciations such as ‘woz’ instead of ‘was’ and ‘gonna’ instead of ‘going to’. Ofsted is all het up about regional speech too, as if it’s the only thing we’ve got to worry about in schools at the moment. An absolute must-read on this topic is Ian Cushing and Julia Snell’s fantastic essay ‘The (white) ears of Ofsted: a raciolinguistic perspective on the listening practices of the schools inspectorate’, which examines how Ofsted upholds the language of the white bourgeoisie, its judgements about non-standard language translating into ‘systems of sonic surveillance in which the nonstandardised language practices of students and teachers are heard as impoverished, deficient, and unsuitable for school.’ It’s a vital text for anyone concerned with diversity and social justice in schools: if your school is developing any kind of language policy, then you need to wave this article in the faces of whoever is responsible for drawing up the policy, and make sure they are absolutely aware of the implications of certain kinds of beliefs about language.

All of this is a very roundabout way of introducing a poem I have loved for years, Tony Harrison’s ‘Them & [uz]’. ‘Them & [uz]’ takes the form of a pair of caudate sonnets, drawing on an incident from the poet’s adolescence. Harrison, a working-class boy who found himself at the distinctly middle-class Leeds Grammar School, was pulled up for his regional speech in the middle of a lesson on ‘Ode to a Nightingale’:

4 words only of mi ‘art aches and … ‘Mine’s broken,
you barbarian, T.W.!’ He was nicely spoken.
‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’

The first of the poems is dominated by the voice of the teacher, asserting his superiority in the plummy accent of the elite: ‘We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.’ There are images of awkwardness and inarticulacy, references to the ‘stutterer Demosthenes’ with his ‘gob full of pebbles’ and the narrator’s sense of his mouth being ‘all stuffed with glottals, great lumps to hawk up and spit out’. The use of Greek lettering and phonemic symbols adds to the feeling that there’s some kind of barrier you have to break through, a code that needs to be followed in order to make sense.

The second poem, however, is the perfect riposte to the power of RP. There’s a defiance that runs all the way through, from the opening lines – ‘So right, yer buggers, then! We’ll occupy / Your lousy leasehold Poetry’ – to the narrator’s determination to harness the power of his own regional speech. He tells us that he

dropped the initials I’d been harried as
and used my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz],
ended sentences with by, with, from,
and spoke the language that I spoke at home.

Gone are the Northern stereotypes, the whippets and flat caps. Instead, there’s a reminder that regional speech is about identity, about loyalty. It’s a connection to where you’re from and the people to whom you’re most closely related. ‘[uz] can be loving as well as funny.’

The most brilliant thing about ‘Them & [uz]’, of course, is its take on the sonnet form. Both of its component poems are similar enough to a sonnet to have that sonnet feel. They have a regular rhyming pattern. The first is in rhyming couplets, and the second begins that way as well, though its final four lines have an alternating rhyme, a little twist at the end. (There’s something clever, though: Harrison’s rhyming of ‘from’ and ‘home’ only works as a full rhyme in certain Northern accents, where ‘home’ sounds more like ‘wom’. My dad, descended from generations of Lancashire miners, would, in full dialect mode, have pronounced ‘at home’ as ‘a’wom’.) But they don’t follow any of the typical sonnet patterns: they’re not Shakespearean, or Petrarchan, or Spenserian, or anything else other than themselves. There’s a fair amount of iambic pentameter in there, but not enough to make it completely regular. And, of course, the poems have sixteen lines each, not fourteen. It’s as if Harrison is sticking two fingers up to literary convention: Look. I know all about sonnets, all those rules and the things you’re supposed to do. But I’m not going to do what you tell me to do. I’m doing things my way. It’s a gorgeous, bolshy retort to all the language police out there, and I bloody love it.

Unseen poetry, sonnets, and important knowledge

Oooh, sonnets. I do love a sonnet. Partly it’s their compression, the tightness imposed by fourteen lines and the need to make every word earn its right to be included. When students say – as they do – ‘but did the poet mean it to be like that?’, the sonnet is the perfect riposte. Nobody writes a fourteen-line poem, in iambic pentameter and with a regular rhyming pattern, by accident: you don’t sit down one day and watch it flowing spontaneously from the end of your pen. But the main thing I love about sonnets – ironically, perhaps, for a form with such a strict underlying structure – is their flexibility. For me, the most interesting sonnets aren’t the ones that stick to convention. They’re the ones that play around with it, that bend the rules and do their own thing, with just enough of a nod to tradition that you can see exactly what they’re doing. This latter point is vital. We’ve got to have that little acknowledgement, the gesture that says yes, I know what I’m supposed to be doing, but I’m doing to do it like this instead. That conscious flouting, that archness, that audacity. It’s lovely.

My students have a number of encounters with sonnets over the years. The first is the Prologue in Romeo and Juliet, in Year Nine, when I introduce the idea of the sonnet as a poetic form. I do this not by frontloading information, but by examining the Prologue, getting students to count lines and syllables and work out the rhyming pattern, and then telling them that there is a type of poem called a sonnet that – in its most conventional form – has fourteen lines, a regular rhyming pattern and regular metre, and is about love. Students then have a homework task to find out five further pieces of information about sonnets, and we start the next lesson by sharing what they’ve discovered.

In this discussion, I focus much more on the purpose of the sonnet than on the different forms the sonnet can take. Students are apt to get bogged down in the differences between Petrarchan and Shakespearean, Spenserian and Miltonic, and want to know if they need to learn all the different rhyming patterns. But this is where I think we need to think about what kind of knowledge is genuinely useful to students at this stage. To me, one of the most important things that students need to know about sonnets is that they’re a form of poetic showing-off. Yes, they’re about expressing your love and praising the object of your affection, but they’re also about the manner in which you do this. You use an intricate rhyming pattern, an elaborate extended metaphor, an artful twist at the volta. A sonnet is as much about the describer as the described. It’s a strut, a peacock flaunting its tail. Imagine David Attenborough doing a commentary on some kind of courtship ritual, and you’ve got it.

Shake your poetic tail feather. (Photo: Paul Brennan, publicdomainpictures.net)

All of this means that students are primed for their next encounter with a sonnet, the one formed by Romeo and Juliet’s lines when they first meet. They can make some thoughtful points about the hint that this is going to be a relationship of equals, not the wooer and the wooed. In Year Ten, when we study ‘Ozymandias’, they can interpret Shelley’s use of an unconventional rhyming pattern as evidence of his dislike of authority, and can also see his use of the sonnet form as an ironic comment on Ozymandias’ self-love (although it’s worth remembering the circumstances in which the poem was composed: Shelley and his friends were in the habit of challenging each other to write sonnets on particular topics, and ‘Ozymandias’ was written in response to one of these challenges). And so last week, when Year Eleven looked at Simon Armitage’s sonnet ‘I am very bothered’ as part of their work on unseen poetry, they were ready.

A little bit about methodology. Students are often spooked by unseen poetry, so I like to give them a clear routine to work through. We do AQA, and it’s worth remembering that in a normal year, the unseen poetry questions come right at the end of the longest exam that students will sit in any subject, the last 45 minutes of a two-and-a-quarter-hour marathon. They’ll be tired and they need a bit of breathing space. So I want them to use ten minutes to read the first poem. They do this in two stages. First, they read to try to get a sense of the poem as a whole. What’s it about? What happens? Who is speaking? Then they read it again. What do they notice about language? Are there any significant images? Is the poem divided into stanzas, and does it have a particular rhyming pattern? And, most importantly, what does all of this contribute to the meaning of the poem? We do a lot of work with What How Why, and therefore the students have developed a range of questions that they can ask as they are reading. Then, in class, the students share their ideas with a partner before we discuss the poem in more detail. What we definitely don’t do is work through a mnemonic like SMILE or AFOREST or any of their variations, because this kind of approach encourages feature-spotting, and it’s only a short step from there to banal comments like ‘the alliteration makes you want to read on’ or ‘the similes help the poem flow’. Students need to work with meaning, and for this they need to be able to respond flexibly rather than imposing a framework.

‘I am very bothered’ is a brilliant poem for getting students to read closely. The basic story is simple, if nasty: the speaker is looking back at his 13-year-old self, heating a pair of scissors in the flame of a Bunsen burner in a science lesson, and then handing them over to a girl who is consequently scarred for life. At first, it seems like an apology. My students picked up on the feeling of regret introduced by the opening words, the fact that the speaker is addressing the person he hurt. But then they noticed the sense of enjoyment. One of them commented on the way the speaker dwells on the process of ‘playing’ the handles in the ‘naked lilac flame’ of the Bunsen burner, drawing out the description as if luxuriating in it. They explored the exclamatory ‘O’ at the beginning of the second stanza, and the note of relish in ‘the unrivalled stench of branded skin’, heightened by the poem’s only use of end-rhyme. We talked about the connotations of ownership in ‘branded’, the implications of being ‘marked … for eternity’. There’s a lot of scope to link the poem to ‘My Last Duchess’, to themes of male violence and the way some men try to brand women with their ownership.

The ending of the poem needs careful untangling. What seems to be an apology actually isn’t. The final lines seem to be presenting this act as ‘just my butterfingered way / Of asking you if you would marry me’. Except they’re not. The speaker is very clear about this: ‘Don’t believe me, please, if I say …’ I’m glad he does, because otherwise the poem would seem like a trite request for forgiveness, just one more I was only trying to get your attention-type excuse. As it is, it’s a snapshot of twistedness.

I’d be careful about what kind of group I used this poem with, and would definitely be aware of individual experiences and reasons why some students might find the content difficult. I know that there are some students who would see the speaker of the poem as a lad, a total legend. But my current Year Elevens knew exactly how he should be viewed. They didn’t spot the use of the sonnet form until right at the end, but when they did, they commented that it made the speaker seem even more horrible. Knowing about the sonnet tradition – not only the idea of praise, but also that of showing off – added an extra dimension to their interpretation of the poem. Because this sonnet isn’t about the object of the speaker’s affections at all. It’s all about him, and his male ego.

We didn’t get round to writing about this poem before the end of term, but we have been using _codexterous’s model introductions in our work on unseen poetry, and this has given students a real sense of security. They’re using their opening sentences to establish a sense of the big picture before looking at how this is created, and their writing is really gaining confidence.

Sonnets are where this blog’s going to be at for a little while. Next up: Tony Harrison.

On diversity: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Meet Woody.

The most excellent horse in the world

Woody is not mine, sadly, but he’s the horse I ride most weeks, when the Dude and I go off to the local riding school on a Friday evening for our lesson. I’ve been riding Woody for about two and a half years now, and he is excellent. He’s a great big chunk of a horse – just under seventeen hands high – and is very good-natured, which is fortunate, given that he’s such a unit. He tries very hard and does as he’s told, and in our last lesson he managed a beautiful floaty trot, head down and concentrating. There is something lovely about going riding on a Friday after school, doing something challenging and absorbing that’s completely different to what I’ve been doing all week, and then leaving Woody munching hay in his stable, all tucked up for the night in his rug. I am lucky.

What’s the connection between Woody and Gerard Manley Hopkins? Woody is the colour that used to be known as skewbald, but is now more correctly referred to as tobiano, big bold patches of dark brown and white. If he’d been black and white, he’d have been a piebald, his coat mapped out in continents. And patches – and dapples, and freckles, and spots – form part of Hopkins’ poem ‘Pied Beauty’, a poem that I’ll be doing with Year Twelve in a few weeks’ time. It’s a brilliant poem for exploring the richness that can be offered by different critical approaches, and I approach it by examining successive layers of interpretation, starting with the words on the page, adding in relevant biographical detail and then introducing elements of queer theory. If you don’t know ‘Pied Beauty’, here it is:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

The poem is, in part, a hymn to the great variety of the natural world. I introduce it through showing a series of images, and getting students to describe what they can see: a dapple-grey horse, a speckled roan cow, a goldfinch, an aerial view of a landscape looking like a patchwork quilt, a mackerel sky at sunset. We look at how Hopkins conjures such vivid images in just a few words. ‘Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls’: isn’t that brilliant? Could there ever be a better description of conkers straight from the shell, all bright and glowing, before they lose their gorgeous sheen?

In the final line of the opening sestet, Hopkins turns to the human world. What does he seem to be saying here? It’s a statement, as clear as anything, that there is room for everyone, of all pursuits and professions. And this continues into the next line: ‘All things counter, original, spare, strange’. I remind the students that counter can mean in opposition to, as in ‘counter-argument’ and ‘counter-cultural’, coming from the same Anglo-Norman root as contrast and contrary. There’s a place for you, no matter who or what you are.

At this point, we think about the references to God. God, the poem clearly indicates, is eternal and unchanging, while on earth things are full of diversity, patched and variegated and multifaceted. But this world, and the multitudes that it contains, are all part of God’s creation. So far, so simple. Does the poem need to be more complicated than that?

Well, yes, it does. Because up until now, I haven’t told the students anything about Hopkins himself. And it’s now that I introduce them to Hopkins’ complex Jesuit faith, the sense of unworthiness that plagued him throughout his life, and the self-loathing he experienced as a result of his attraction to men. Hopkins loved the natural world, and saw it as a manifestation of the power of his God, writing in one diary entry that ‘I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it’. Yet he was also haunted by the thought that the sensory pleasure he took in the natural world clashed with the austerity and self-denial demanded by his religion. He undertook self-imposed penances, such as the ‘penance of the eyes’, which involved keeping his eyes fixed on the ground as a means of repressing his passion for nature. He fell intensely in love with a young man called Digby Dolben, who he met at Oxford, and his journals have been described as showing ‘how absorbed he was in imperfectly suppressed erotic thoughts’ of Dolben. Hopkins does not appear to have experienced any kind of physical intimacy with another person, male or female. But a number of his poems – notably ‘Felix Randal’ – focus on the muscular beauty of male bodies, and Hopkins was also drawn to physical representations of Christ on the cross. The repetitions and exclamations in his poetry have been read as a reflection of the pent-up emotion that he had to suppress elsewhere in his life. And even the form of ‘Pied Beauty’ can be seen as subversive. It’s a curtal sonnet, ten and a half lines instead of the conventional fourteen, but with enough of a nod – in its sestet and quatrain – to the rules that it should be following. Because we also study Tony Harrison, another writer of unconventional sonnets, we can look at what is signalled by playing around with this most respectable of forms. I don’t have to do what I’m supposed to, it says. I’m going to make up my own rules.

So we can see ‘Pied Beauty’ not just as a hymn of praise, but also as a celebration of diversity. And students who might not have felt much potential for connection with a man who was about to be ordained into a strict Roman Catholic sect suddenly see the possibility of shared ground. Counter, original, spare, strange … ‘Pied Beauty’ offers a space for all of us, for those who find themselves ridiculous and those who feel they’ll never fit in. I only wish Hopkins had been able to believe his own message.

King Lear: comfort, bleakness and realism

In the final chapter of her book Teaching Literature, Elaine Showalter reflects on what it is to teach literature in dark times. Showalter asks: ‘What should teachers do in the classroom in times of crisis, disaster, tragedy, sorrow, and panic? Does teaching literature, rather than economics or physics, demand that we rise to these occasions, and if so, how?’ It’s a question that’s been very much on my mind this week, a week in which terrible events have been unfolding on the other side of Europe and students have come into school jittery and afraid. Should literature be able to offer some kind of consolation? Should it even try?

Many people have argued, over the years, that this is what literature is for. It offers lessons and meanings; it teaches us how to live. Matthew Arnold famously declared, in ‘The Study of Poetry’ (1880), that we ‘will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us’. For Arnold, this was because religion was crumbling, philosophy was too abstruse, and scientific knowledge was ever-changing and therefore unstable. Poetry offered an eternal store of what he had referred to in Culture and Anarchy (1869) as ‘the best which has been thought and said’. For many reasons, though, Arnold’s premise is a shaky one. Poetry doesn’t exist as an abstract entity, free from all material ties. It’s written by real people, with real allegiances and prejudices, situated in real and very specific contexts. It interprets life in partial ways, informed by particular experiences and world-views. It shows us life through a particular set of lenses, but these lenses can be distorting, and we need to alert students to this rather than treating it as a store of eternal truths.

Bleak. Flooded Fens, by Gary Heayes, at openphoto.net

And comfort, in any case, can often be a bit rubbish. Years ago, I trained as a volunteer for a particular helpline, and one of the first things we were told was that we should never offer comfort, because it didn’t make life any better for the people who used our service. Other people would give them platitudes: what we had to do was to be prepared to go to the depths with them, to face the worst, rather than pretending that the worst didn’t exist.

Ironically, in view of what I’ve just said about Matthew Arnold, one of the most bracing things I’ve ever read is another of Arnold’s works: his poem ‘Dover Beach’. This poem is full of uncertainty. It sets the ebb and flow of the waves against the confusion of human life, and concludes that in a world beset by pain, all we can do is ‘be true to one another’. I remember teaching it to a Year Thirteen class in a previous iteration of the A level course. We spent quite a long time exploring the poem’s final stanza, and especially the lines where Arnold ultimately rejects the idea that the world is a benign, comforting place:

… the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

‘Well, that’s bloody depressing’, one student declared, and most of the rest of the class agreed. But one student didn’t. Her mother had terminal cancer, and didn’t have long to live. This particular student squared her shoulders and paused before she spoke. ‘I think it’s quite realistic, actually’, she said.

I have been thinking about all of this because Year Twelve and I have been looking at the ending of King Lear this week. We’ve been listening to Emma Smith’s fantastic podcast on the different ways in which the ending of the play has been interpreted, and I’ve been impressed by how quickly the students have grasped the various critical perspectives that Smith outlines. We started by examining the idea of catharsis, and thinking about what the ending of Macbeth provides: a sense that the balance of things has been restored, that a world rocked on its axis has been set right by the death of Macbeth and the accession of Malcolm to the throne. Then we turned to Lear. All the bad people die – Cornwall and Edmund, Goneril and Regan – but so do Gloucester and Cordelia and Lear. Cordelia doesn’t need to die: Edmund, wanting to do some good in the last moments of his life, sends Edgar to reverse the order he has issued for Cordelia to be hanged. But Edgar is too late. And there isn’t the neat ending that Macbeth offers, with the rightful ruler back in place. We don’t know who’s going to rule. Strictly speaking, it should be Albany, as the most senior character left alive. But he offers the throne to Edgar and Kent. Nobody seems to want the job. I’m not sure I can blame them.

Smith’s podcast surveys responses to the ending of King Lear from Nahum Tate in 1681 to Jonathan Dollimore in 1984, placing these responses into four broad stages. First, represented by Tate and Samuel Johnson, is the view that the ending of King Lear is too shocking to give pleasure: too cruel and appalling, the deaths of Lear and Cordelia too unnecessary. Second, represented by Schlegel and the Romantics, is the view that the suffering within the play takes place on such a huge scale that it can be seen as an example of the sublime: its very vastness inspires us with a sense of awe. Third is the Christian interpretation offered by A.C. Bradley and G. Wilson Knight: that the ending offers a vision of redemption in which Lear’s suffering will be rewarded in heaven. Finally, there is a much darker view, represented by existentialist philosophy and the Theatre of the Absurd: that the play’s ending is just as shocking and brutal as Tate and Johnson felt, but that this is simply the way life is. We are, indeed, as flies to wanton boys: there is no deeper meaning, no higher purpose, no certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. Dover, whether it’s Arnold’s version or in the absurdist interpretation of Shakespeare, is a pretty bleak place. All you can do is square your shoulders, take a deep breath, and keep going.

And we decided that actually, it was this interpretation of Lear that we liked best. It faces the brutality of the play head-on and does not try to offer some consolatory message that isn’t there. It’s raw and astringent. It was one of those lessons that goes way beyond A level, that is far more important than any discussion of assessment objectives or essay structure.

Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939’ has been mentioned several times this week, for obvious reasons. In Julian Barnes’ novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters there’s a discussion of Auden’s line ‘We must love one another or die’. Auden famously changed this line to ‘We must love one another and die’, commenting that the original was ‘a damned lie’ because ‘we must die anyway’. Barnes’ narrator is sceptical – he argues that there are more persuasive ways of reading Auden’s first version – but I’m on Auden’s side. Face the bleakness, face the inevitability, and make the most of things while you can.

Meanwhile, spring has finally come to this particular corner of the world, at a time when things are so horrific elsewhere. I am thinking of Carol Rumens’ poem ‘The Emigrée’, of white streets and blue sky and an impression of sunlight, and hoping that things will change.