Teacher Feature: Mr Smart

There’s been a lot of discussion on EduTwitter this last fortnight about performative attention. Should students receive a sanction if they look out of the window, fail to smile or sit up straight, or reply to a teacher in a manner that is less than upbeat? I was an extremely diligent student, but there were probably many lessons that I spent daydreaming or doodling in my planner. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t thinking. Beyond the obvious signs of engagement – putting your hand up to answer questions, completing everything that’s asked of you, making progress according to whatever system is being used to assess your work – there’s a whole lot we don’t know about what students are thinking about the things they do in class. Someone who seems to be completely switched off might suddenly reveal themselves to have been thinking very deeply about particular topics. There’s a whole hinterland in our students’ minds that we don’t necessarily have access to.

Admit it: we’ve all been there. (Source: Creative Commons)

Mr Smart, in U. A. Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Dear Mr Lee’, is one teacher who doesn’t recognise this. His student – the anonymous narrator of the poem – has been studying Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie and it has fired off things in her brain that Mr Smart has absolutely no idea about. She doesn’t want to write character studies or explore issues about ‘social welfare in the rural community’; she just wants to lose herself in Lee’s wonderfully rich stories of his childhood. She pours all of this out to Lee in her poem, wanting to address him by his first name, even though Mr Smart says this is rude. She wishes she could ‘see everything bright and strange, the way you do’. She’s taken As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning out of the library, but Mr Smart is scornful about it, and says Spain isn’t like that any more. At the end of the poem, we learn that the narrator has failed her exam, but doesn’t blame Laurie Lee for it. His book isn’t a mere set text, but a book that has lived with her, ‘stained with Coke and Kitkat and when I had a cold.’

I used ‘Dear Mr Lee’ in a conference presentation I gave some years ago, to illustrate some of the tensions that exist in English teaching. What is the study of English Literature all about? Should we prioritise student enjoyment, or disciplinary knowledge? This is what my PhD focused on, and one thing I looked at was the fact that debates that were circulating at the time English literature became an academic discipline in the universities, back in the late nineteenth century, were still apparent in discussions about Curriculum 2000. They’re still going on today. There’s been a lot of discussion on Twitter this weekend about whether English should aim to promote a love of reading, and if so, how it should do this. I admit that I’m on the fence about this. Over the years I’ve heard advocates of the full gamut of approaches, from letting students read whatever they want, even if it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Year Nine, to listening to canonical texts being read out loud in tutor time. I am deeply sceptical about both of these particular approaches, but I’m not convinced I’ve found the answer, either.

Geek that I am, I’d like my students to be able to enjoy their engagement with the discipline of English, to recognise that there is something deeply pleasurable about analysing texts and writing about them. I’d also love it if my students read outside the curriculum, and as an English teacher it’s part of my job to recommend books and give students the space to share their enthusiasm for reading. There’s a problem, though, when we make English teachers responsible for something that spills over into students’ lives outside school and doesn’t necessarily correlate with their success in curricular English. Some students will love reading, but some won’t. Some will achieve stellar grades regardless of whether they read outside of lessons. Some will be avid readers but struggle to get a Grade 4. We can encourage independent reading and even give space for it in the curriculum, but reading occupies a complex area, a bit of the Venn diagram where ‘something you’re made to do in school’ overlaps with ‘something you do at home if you really want to’.

And while we should strive to create a culture where reading will flourish, we also need to recognise that some of our students might not want to share their feelings about books with us. I remember what it was like to be fourteen or fifteen 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 to write them up as a book review or record them in a reading journal. Leave me alone, I’d have thought. It’s none of your business what I’m reading. Let’s give students the right to think their own thoughts. And let’s recognise that the daydreamers and doodlers might have a deeper relationship with the texts they read than we will ever know.

Teacher Feature: Miss Stretchberry

There are all kinds of metaphors for teaching. ‘You’re not filling a bucket, you’re lighting a fire’, one earnest trainee once assured me (although students do need to Know Stuff, and fires can’t be created from nothing). You’re spinning plates and playing Whack-a-Mole. You’re conducting – possibly an orchestra, possibly a bolt of lightning – and planting acorns that you hope will one day grow into great oak trees. And sometimes, you’re opening locks.

Miss Stretchberry, the teacher in Sharon Creech’s wonderful book Love that Dog, is one of life’s unlockers. The lock that she needs to open is in the heart of Jack, a little boy in her class. Jack is reluctant, and resistant. His class is doing poetry with Miss Stretchberry, and he doesn’t want to engage. Boys don’t write poetry, he reasons. He can’t do it. His brain’s empty. He doesn’t understand the poems that Miss Stretchberry reads in class. Slowly, gradually, Jack starts to come round. He writes a poem about a blue car splattered with mud, speeding down the road, and lets Miss Stretchberry read it, as long as she doesn’t let anyone else see. A few weeks later, he allows her to put two of his poems on the board, as long as she doesn’t put his name on them. And he starts to ask questions about the poems that his class reads. Why does so much depend on the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens? What’s that business about the snowy woods and having miles to go before you sleep?

The genius thing about Love That Dog – a book about a young boy’s feelings about poetry – is that it’s told as a series of poems from Jack to Miss Stretchberry, written throughout the school year. So we see this process of unlocking through Jack’s own words. Here’s what he says about William Blake, on October 24:

I am sorry to say
I did not really understand
the tiger tiger burning bright poem
but at least it sounded good
in my ears.

And here’s what he says on November 6, once he’s allowed Miss Stretchberry to put his poems on the wall:

They look nice
typed up like that
on blue paper
on a yellow board.

(But still don’t tell anyone
who wrote them, okay?)

(And what does anonymous mean?
Is it good?)

But then the barriers come up again. Jack is asked to write about a pet, but he doesn’t have one. He used to have one, but he doesn’t want to write about it. He asks if he can write about a different pet, but to no avail. Eventually, we find out that Jack used to have a dog, a yellow dog called Sky. (If you can read the poem where Jack and his family go to choose a dog from the rescue centre without feeling a bit teary, you’re a monster.) Sky was a friendly, happy, slobbery dog, a waggy-tailed dog who joined in games of football and loved everyone. Jack starts to write abut Sky, inspired by Walter Dean Myers’ poem ‘Love That Boy’, and is so inspired by Walter Dean Myers’ poems that he writes to invite him to visit the school. A couple of weeks before the visit, Jack finally manages to write about what happened to Sky. He was killed, by a blue car splattered with mud, speeding along the road.

It takes Jack a long time to write about Sky. You sense that when he does, it’s as if a weight has been lifted. There’s the huge excitement of Walter Dean Myers’ visit, and the lovely descriptions of his voice:

low and deep and friendly and warm
like it was reaching out and
wrapping us all up
in a big squeeze

And there’s the sense that Miss Stretchberry has unlocked something for Jack: not only a way of expressing his grief and processing his feelings, but a love of poetry, of playing with language and making it his own.

We don’t find out much about Miss Stretchberry, apart from the fact that she’s good at making brownies. But we also find out a lot about her, through the poems that Jack writes to her. She’s patient enough to persist with this unhappy young boy, rather than writing him off. She’s tactful: she doesn’t nag him or hassle him, but he knows that she’s there. She respects his desire for his poems to remain anonymous. She builds his confidence, by getting him to write to Walter Dean Myers rather than doing it herself. She recognises that quiet praise goes much further than a big fanfare.

Love That Dog is dedicated to ‘all the poets and Mr.-and-Ms. Stretchberrys who inspire students every day.’ It’s a gorgeous book. If I were being political, I’d say that every Secretary of State for Education should read it, as a reminder of why poetry is important, and why education is about so much more than preparation for work. I’m sure there’s a lot more that we could put on their reading list, but it’s a start.

On nettles, war photographers, and getting things wrong

There’s an opposition that students frequently draw between English and Maths. In Maths, you’re either right or wrong. In English, it’s less clear-cut. Maths is straightforward, unambiguous. English is all airy-fairy. For many students, this means two things. The first is that if you get a disappointing mark in English, it’s because your teacher either doesn’t agree with you or doesn’t like you. This seems to persist no matter how much work you do with mark schemes and peer assessment, no matter how many worked examples you show them or how much time you put in scaffolding their responses and helping them to improve. If they don’t do as well as they thought they should, it’s not because they didn’t refer to the text or forgot to comment on the effects of the writer’s use of language, it’s because you once told them off for talking too much during a cover lesson in Year Seven and three years on, you still hold a grudge.

The second thing that students take from this opposition is that in English, there’s no such thing as a wrong answer. Of course you can get spellings wrong, and make factual errors like mixing up Duncan and Donalbain and claiming that Jane Austen was a great example of a Victorian novelist, but apart from that you can say anything you like in English. Poems can mean whatever you want them to mean, as long as you can argue your case. Simple, yes?

Well, no. The truth is, you can make mistakes. I’d be the last person to say that a poem has only one single meaning: ambiguity is one of the things that makes studying literature so intriguing, and reducing poetry to a simple act of decoding – trying to prise out a single, ‘correct’ meaning from between the lines, as if you’re trying to second-guess what the poet wanted to say – is one way of killing it stone dead. But there are ways of getting it wrong, or at least, of getting it not quite right.

There are hundreds of examples I could give of readings that are in some way flawed or mistaken. I recently came across an interpretation of Vernon Scannell’s poem ‘Nettles’ that saw the relationship between the narrator and his son as distant and hostile, claiming that the military language in the poem hinted that the two were constantly at war with each other. Absolutely not: Scannell applies this language to the nettles (a ‘fierce parade’, ‘tall recruits’) that have hurt the narrator’s son, not to the relationship between them. But the example I’m going to look at in detail is a bit more complex. It concerns Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘War Photographer’, originally published in 1985, and one of the big hitters in the AQA Power and Conflict anthology. It’s a fantastic poem, addressing themes of trauma and the importance of bearing witness, and many of my students say it’s one of their favourites. In the first stanza, the war photographer is at home, developing his photographs:

In his dark room he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.

Because students nowadays are so accustomed to digital photography, I introduce the poem by showing images of a darkroom, including an enlarger, trays of developer and fixer, a series of prints hanging up to dry, and reels of film. We talk about the dark, and the sense of relief in being ‘finally alone’. The students want to know about the list of place names, and the conflicts that happened there. We find the cities on a map. We note that the names might be different if the poem had been written more recently, but that the point Duffy is making would remain the same: that conflicts happen everywhere. I show a picture of a Catholic priest consecrating the Host during Mass, and we think about the idea of transubstantiation, of capturing light and turning it into an image. Sometimes, somebody will make an observation – a bit hesitantly, just trying it out – about the photographer’s duty being just as sacred and important as the priest’s. They might even add something about the idea of ritual, drawing out the analogy by referring to a set of steps carried out in a precise order. If they do, I will nod enthusiastically, because it’ll be one of those moments that warms my English-teacher heart and makes me remember that I do actually love my job. We need those moments, every now and then.

From the 2001 Swiss documentary ‘War Photographer’, by Christian Frei and James Nachtwey. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So far, so good. But there’s a problem, and it’s there in the second line. It’s those pesky spools. In class, we talk about the fact that it is comforting, after experiencing something difficult, to organise and tidy, and that the ‘spools of suffering set out in ordered rows’ reflect the photographer’s need to process his experiences and impose an order on them, just as he’s processing his rolls of film. But then the students go home, and because they are mostly diligent students, they go on the Internet and see what else they can find out about the poem. And what they find, almost invariably, is one of several websites assuring them that the ‘spools of suffering set out in ordered rows’ are not reels of film in the darkroom waiting to be processed, but a reference to the white rows of war graves in military cemeteries.

Well. Rows of graves are certainly ordered, and they definitely represent suffering. But they’re not ‘spools’, and they’re not there in the darkroom with the photographer. And actually, there’s no reference in the poem to the idea of the war photographer visiting any military cemeteries. Instead, it’s quite the opposite: the people he has photographed are civilians caught up in conflict, ‘running children in a nightmare heat’ – a reference, perhaps, to Nick Ut’s famous image of nine-year old Kim Phuc – and a dying man and his wife.

These troublesome war graves represent, for me, something that students often do when faced with poetry. They think that poems must be difficult, and that meanings must be hidden. Everything a poet says must refer to something outside the poem entirely. So the ‘spools of suffering’ can’t possibly be rolls of film, because that’s too obvious, too logical and un-poetic. They have to be something else – and because the poem is about war, they must be gravestones.

Why can’t they be gravestones? This is where it gets tricky, because this is where students have to learn how to cope with tentativeness and hesitancy, qualities that aren’t necessarily prized elsewhere in the curriculum. If a student wants the spools of suffering to be gravestones, because someone on the internet has said that they are, I’ll get them to read the first few lines again, and remind themselves of what’s actually going on: the photographer is in his darkroom, preparing to develop the photographs he’s taken at scenes of conflict. I’ll then ask them why his spools of film need to be set out in ordered rows, and how that might help him. We’ll look at the neat and tidy structure of the poem, with its six-line stanzas and regular rhyming pattern. And yes, the line might well carry echoes of war graves, but they are just echoes rather than a direct reference, and the more important and subtle point to make is the one about organisation and order. I might go on to model some sentence starters for them, so they can see how it’s possible to show that you’re playing around with potential interpretations, making your thought processes explicit.

All of this requires a lot of care. Students need to read closely, and understanding this particular line takes a certain amount of empathy and imaginative projection. They need to be able to evaluate these two potential interpretations and decide which one is more convincing. With some poems, they might also need to know something about context: with others, this might not actually help. They can’t apply a formula or work through an algorithm; they need to develop a feel for poetry and how it works. What they also need to realise is that just because something is on a revision website, it’s not necessarily right. There are so many resources available these days, so many knowledge organisers and YouTube videos, that set texts can easily become reduced to a package of easily-digested ‘facts’, learned and parroted without needing to think about them.

The critic Valentine Cunningham has written about the quality of tact in reading. Cunningham has his detractors (John Kerrigan described him in the London Review of Books as ‘one of the least tactful persons on the planet’) but I think this is a really helpful concept. It conveys the need for sensitivity, for the application of judgement. Significantly, tact is also a quality that takes time to develop. Because of this, it can be allied with what Maryanne Wolf describes in her 2018 book Reader, Come Home as ‘cognitive patience’, something that is eminently neither rapid nor whizzy, but that is nevertheless hugely important. We perhaps don’t build enough time into the curriculum for this kind of skill, and this is something we need to put right.

Several years ago, one of my GCSE students stayed behind to talk to me at the end of our final lesson. He was a bright lad, and could have done English at A level if he’d wanted to, but his heart had always been set on a career in science. He still wanted to thank me, though. ‘I’ve really enjoyed doing English,’ he told me. ‘I know I won’t be doing it next year, but it’s taught me how to look at things really carefully.’ It’s one of the best things any of my students has ever said about studying English. If we can teach young people to look at things carefully, to be tactful and patient and to read with a critical eye, that’s an enormous contribution to society.

Rites of passage

About ten years ago, I had the idea that a good way to mark the end of Sixth Form would be to get my A level students to spend their final lesson decorating gingerbread people. It turned out to be a lovely thing to do. I took in lots of squeezy icing, cake decorations, jelly strands and the gingerbread people themselves, and we had a great old time. Most years, I put everyone’s name into a hat: everyone drew out a name and had to make a gingerbread portrait of that particular person. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen yourself represented in gingerbread, believe me.) One year, I got my English Literature group to make a character from one of the texts we’d studied. We had several Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a forlorn Willy Loman and a particularly memorable Duke of Gloucester from King Lear, who took up an awful lot of red icing.

The Class of 2017

Rites of passage are an important thing. Final assemblies, awards ceremonies, speeches from departing staff: they mark an end and help you to move on to the next phase of your life. At my previous school, there were no end-of-year celebrations and no chances to say a proper, formal goodbye. My current school is much better. There are speeches and thank-yous and a sense of tying up loose ends. It’s a ritual that matters, one that shows a proper valuing of the time you’ve spent in a particular place, the work you’ve done there and the things you’ve learned, whether it’s as a student or a member of staff.

Last year, with a global pandemic and one day’s notice that we’d be closing, we had very little time to organise anything, but we still managed to sign shirts and hold an impromptu disco. This year, conscious of the ongoing risk, we didn’t do gingerbread people, but we still pulled names out of a hat, and this time we drew each other, instead.

Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ is a fabulous, atmospheric poem about the end of primary school: I love the sense of impending change in the final stanza and the sky splitting open into a thunderstorm in the last line. And C. Day Lewis’s ‘Walking Away’ looks at departure from a different angle, that of the parent taking his child to school. I always think of the penultimate line whenever students leave school: the idea that selfhood begins with a walking away, moving on to an unknown future with all the chances and uncertainties life brings.