Wiping down the bar as the last customers stagger out of the town centre pub, the landlord prints out the final receipt. He places the stools topped with red velour back beneath the tables and collects up the soggy beer mats that have soaked up the night’s drips. The quiz machine keeps flashing its questions and prizes until he pulls the plug. No more opportunities for the big win tonight.
Snaking down the street the taxi queue is full of revellers. High heeled sandals standing in puddles, legs in tights splashed as the cars pull up along the kerb. As each car slows and the doors are opened bodies fall inside, a tangle of limbs, a cacophony of voices. The drivers become the audience for mini dramas. The arguments that started over the pub table continue on the leatherette seats. Too much alcohol sparking insignificant quarrels or widening breaches in fractured relationships destined not to last.
Walking out ready for a break the weary nurses emerge through the hospital doors. The damp night air filling their lungs and rinsing their uniforms of the scent of detergent and death. Pulling up beside them a silver saloon contains an expectant couple. As the man helps the woman out of the car the nurses glance in their direction, their eyes smiling with reassurance over the cardboard coffee cups. The cycle of life, miraculous to most just part of the job for these modern day Nightingales.
Settling in doorways on cardboard mattresses those without homes prepare for another night on the streets. They pull up hoods and sink into coats trying to deny entry to the persistently falling drizzle. Soon the team of well meaning volunteers will arrive bearing mugs of soup and donated supermarket sandwiches. Out of date food for those with no choice.
Brushing the detritus of the day beneath the spinning brushes of the cart the street cleaners emerge to return the pathways to order. Cans, sweet wrappers and flyers offering discounts at the various takeaway restaurants are coaxed into pans by the team of workers. Their high vis uniforms ensure they are safe from traffic and visible to all. Strange that they feel so invisible.
Sliding the fried egg, with its frilled golden edges, onto the chipped china plate she gestures to the waitress that the order is ready. She wipes her hands on a cloth before selecting the next two eggs to hit the hot fat. The cafe is buzzing with night time activity. Post pub groups eating to sober up, night time workers taking a lunch break and shift workers for whom the difference between night and day is blurred and irrelevant. Tucked behind what used to be the fruit and veg market the All Night Cafe contains a slice of society, people linked for a moment by Formica tables and tomato shaped ketchup bottles.
Passing by the steamed up cafe window the solo dog walker pulls on the lead, coaxing his charge away from the tempting smells of bacon and sausage. He turns left past the cafe and walks towards the park, the horse chestnut trees waving in the darkness. The drizzle in the air is like a mist and walking through it is refreshing. It always amazes him how alive the park is at night; joggers, dog walkers, pram pushers and wildlife whose sounds are hidden by day time traffic.
Emerging from the hotel onto the strip of red carpet the young woman glances behind her at the uniformed doorman. She asks him the time and sweeps a stray lock of hair behind her ear. When he replies she frowns and picks up the bottom of her dress, preparing to make a hasty exit. As she disappears down the stairs a voice is heard, calling her back.
`The future perfect tense refers to a completed action in the future. When we use this tense we are projecting ourselves forward into the future and looking back at an action that will be completed some time later than now. It is most often used with a time expression.’
Definition from the EF Language School website.
Here I was, waiting as arranged. An action planned long ago in what was the future which was now the present. I texted Jari:
It says ‘ the next training’s arriving in 2 minutes…Are you on it?
A few months earlier…
For example ‘If I win £1 million I will buy a new house’ . The teacher said the phrase twice, we repeated it and then she held up pictures of cruise ships, fast cars and fancy clothes while as a class we repeated back the target language. ‘ If I win £1 million I will buy a cruise ship’ The chorus of voices, some more enthusiastic than others, gave the teacher what she needed to move on which would be the dreaded solo version. As she held up a picture of a Rolex watch I willed her not to gesture to me, not because I couldn’t say the phrase, I was more than capable of that, I just found saying it out loud in front of the group challenging. They were so young, enthusiastic and loud. Their motivation to learn English was fuelled by a desire to talk to each other in the coffee bar, socialise on the nights out organised by the school and extend their time abroad. Rich parents funding these expensive gap year trips across the globe seemed happy to keep paying as long as English proficiency kept improving.
I looked out of the painted sash window to the grey line on the horizon which marked the join between the grey southern English sky and the grey English Channel and I drifted back to what had brought me to this multi lingual classroom.
‘It will be a fantastic opportunity. You don’t need to pay anything yourself it will be funded by the Tourism Board’
I had been called to my boss’s office whilst in the middle of sorting invites to a cocktail party at the Harbour front to promote the latest development of the retail space there. As always I arrived slightly flustered even though I liked her and knew she was really supportive of my career. That was actually the problem, my boss had more ambition for me than I did and saw her role as mentor very much at the forefront of her responsibilities. So, I was not entirely surprised I had been nominated to takes advantage of a government run scheme to spend time in Europe learning English.
‘Go home, think about it, talk to your Mum. It is only six weeks but I need to know soon as the arrangements need to be made.’
My boss gave me the look as if to say, ‘Why wouldn’t you say yes? I wish someone had offered me such an opportunity when I was younger.’ But she was too sensible to articulate those thoughts, she had learned that her protege was extremely talented and strong willed but needed time to process big decisions. I would eventually step outside my comfort zone but only when the step was mine to make, not prompted by a push from behind. My boss really liked this quality. People were often deceived into thinking I was reluctant or shy or eager to please; quite the opposite.
So, here I was back in the attic classroom with the sloping floor sat opposite Jari from Finland trying to come up with different ideas of what I would spend £1 million pounds on.
Try and change the phrase,' said the teacher as she milled around, ‘as long as you keep the grammar if+I+ base form of the verb then I + will+ base form.’ Every so often she would pick on a pair to demonstrate their understanding of this useful new structure.
‘If I learn English I will have a new job’ said Jari. Like me he had been sent here by his company- a global electronics firm. I found this out in week one when we did various getting to know you activities.
‘If I pass the course my boss will be happy’ I countered in our game of language learning ping pong.
‘But will you be happy?’ responded Jari. This took me completely off guard. I wasn’t used to diverting from the script we had been given although natural conversation was surely the ultimate goal. It was also the personal nature of the response required that made me hesitate. I didn’t have the repertoire of emotional vocabulary to explain my mixed feelings about this whole experience but said ‘yes, of course’ as a neutral response.
Our stilted role play continued and I learned that Jari like the idea of a new job, wanted to travel the world and dreamed of having fifteen children but I think that last one was either a joke or a mispronunciation. I shared with him that I wanted to help my Mum leave her job one day and have a garden with flowers. At the end of the lesson we said goodbye. He was going to get the bus along the busy shopping street to a quieter part of the town, away from the rows of white terraced houses, eventually reaching the wider streets lined with family homes, estate cars parked outside and trampolines anchored in the garden. He had a room above the garage in one of these family homes. I had a short walk to the room above a florist that I had to myself. I was very grateful my company had arranged for me to rent a room. I would have found living and talking with a family exhausting despite it being better for me to practise my English.
‘How are you getting on?’ my Mum asked. We Skyped every few days when the time difference allowed.
‘I’m getting used to it now. I am not so anxious about joining in and there are some nice people in my class. They’re not all young like I thought at first.’
‘Are you eating well?’
I assured her that food was freely available and I was actually enjoying eating different things.
I could hear in her voice that she was trying hard not to sound worried or anxious and fill the call with bright positivity but she didn’t like me so far away. Since my Dad’s heart attack 5 years ago we had been drawn even closer together like garden flowers tied into a bouquet. Together we were secure and close but like those garden blooms I sometimes felt enveloped and enclosed. I suspected my mother sensed this and when required she would loosen that ribbon a little but I know it was difficult. Apart from the family she worked for, looking after their children and doing cooking and housework she didn’t see many other people, her life was small, safe but limited. I knew she was torn between keeping me close and allowing me to blossom.
For example, I used to work in Japan but then I got a job in England. Back in the classroom and today’s useful phrase was ‘used to’. Once again Jari and I paired up and via this latest grammatical key we opened up more to each other and I learned he used to study engineering in a big Scandinavian city and he used to date his high school class mate until a couple of years ago. I shared with him that I used to play the flute and used to be allergic to strawberries. I used to stay in every evening but now I enjoy going out. This was Jari’s next contribution to the role play. Living with the family had been good for him to start with but after a few weeks he had needed a change of scene and the family were keen to see him out in the evening too. I felt a lurch at this point and sensed what was going to happen next. Jari was going to ask me to join them all on a night out and I would feel trapped by my lack of language and my lack of self confidence to reply properly. And so it went,
‘I used to feel alone in the evenings but the pub is fun. You should come!’
I had no excuse- I could have said I would be Skyping my Mum but in the spirit of adventure I decided to agree.
So there we were in the King and Queen pub, a huge space in the middle of town very near the Language School. The coloured swirls on the carpet mirrored how my insides were feeling as I walked in- churning and spinning with a mixture of anticipation and fear. I glanced around the huge space filled with heavy dark wood furniture until I spotted a large unruly group of familiar faces and one cheerfully waving arm belonging to Jari.
Re-calling the evening to my Mum the next day reminded me of how much fun I had had. The other students had been genuinely pleased to see me as Jari had promised and I loved how our conversations, fractured in places as they were, still managed to do the job of binding us all a little bit closer together. Mum was glad to hear some of us had gone to an Italian restaurant later- with some Italian students- which guaranteed us the best pizza and service in the house! I didn’t mention how much I had enjoyed spending time with Jari outside the classroom and I certainly didn’t tell her I was meeting him for a coffee later that afternoon. I couldn’t articulate to myself what I thought about our unfurling friendship, I certainly couldn’t explain it to my mother all those thousands of miles away.
`So today, your last day if you are with us for the short course, is appropriately about the future tense.’ The teacher held up a calendar as a visual prompt with red circles around key dates a week, a month, several months from now.
I will visit my sister next week. I am going to go on holiday next month. I will move into my new house in November. She modelled the two structures as she passed round calendars for us all to use to help us build a conversation with our partners.
Jari took the red felt pen he was offered and very quickly he circled three dates swiftly and decisively, mapping in scarlet loops three dates he had obviously already planned out ..whilst I paused and pondered, circling the date of my flight home, in two days time and then not having the heart to think beyond that.
I am going home to Finland at the weekend. I will enjoy seeing my family and friends. I am going to book a flight to come and visit you after the summer.
The swirly carpet feeling was back again. Here I was in an attic room at the top of a thin white building, like all the other thin white buildings dealt like cards in a pack on this street on the south coast of England trying to work out, in a language not my own, how I would respond to this statement.
I am going to fly home on Sunday, I am going to miss you but I will be happy when you visit after the summer.
We smiled. The teacher thought we were pleased at how well we were communicating and we were. We were pleased we now had the words and the grammar to talk about the future. We were pleased we had found that person we wanted to talk about the future with.
I used to have to teach Penelope Lively’s coming of age tale because it has been in more than one AQA GCSE anthology, now I choose to teach it.
Short stories are so useful in the classroom but it often seems difficult to find examples pitched at the right level-Roald Dahl’s `Tales of the Unexpected’ can sometimes be unexpectedly mature or gruesome and stories about go-karts, football matches or moors don’t always chime with today’s young reader. The short story as a form is something students have had to write themselves ever since they could hold a pencil. They often like writing stories and miss doing it as they move through secondary school so studying short stories and then encouraging students to tackle that familiar task with new knowledge always seems a worthwhile thing to do. I think some students are often surprised that famous novelists, people they have heard of, wrote short stories; there is something unique about students experiencing a literary work in the classroom that they themselves have tried to write.
The notion of a text having structure is one of the things students struggle to understand. Many of them remain unconvinced when you tell them that writers plan and re-draft their work, often time and time again. Students somehow want to believe that works of literature arrive fully formed on the page and it is only English teachers who think the writer has thought about how to start, how to finish and how to craft description. The arrival of Question 3 on Paper 1 of the AQA English Language GCSE forced us to consider how to teach structure in a text in a meaningful way and many of us feel that the short story is the perfect vehicle to do that. Grappling with what happened at the beginning of a novel when days, weeks, months have gone by since you read it often prevents sophisticated discussion about structure but if you can rattle through a story in a lesson that offers up a whole new menu of opportunities.
Even more so now, as we teach remotely, perfectly formed narrative morsels like ‘The Darkness Out There' enable us to show students how the story works, its mechanisms, its wheels and cogs. The fact that this story is so familiar in lots of ways is a bonus. Sandra seems like lots of other girls students either know in real life or who have read about in stories. They understand the concept of volunteering to help an old person, the awkward feelings towards someone not in your friendship group and the idea of a place your parents would rather you avoid. The only confusion my students have is the fact the boy is called Kerry-if only it had been Ken. Anyway, once they have begun reading I have found it relatively straightforward to point them towards the foreshadowing which is subtle but clear in the place called Packers' End and the use of war imagery in the descriptions of landscape such as, ‘No-man’s land of willow herb’ and a couple of well chose images of favourite fairy tale characters always generates a lively discussion about links to Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel.
I love the way students can often draw my attention to something new in a text-and this most recent teaching of ‘The Darkness Out There' was no exception. A couple of students commented on the ‘pair of naked chubby children’ ornaments on the shelves in Mrs. Rutter’s room and we discussed them being like angels or cherubs, could they be Sandra and Kerry? What other Biblical allusions could we make to Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden and so on.
I wish we had been in the classroom so that I could have seen their faces as they process Mrs. Rutter’s backstory, Kerry’s instant, visceral reaction to it and Sandra’s epiphany that maybe she had mis-judged her teenage companion. Instead I got them to look up bildungsroman and write responses to Sandra’s realisation that `The darkness was out there and it was a part of you and you would never be without it, ever.’ They then planned, wrote and re-drafted stories of their own which included contrasting characters, places that should be avoided and hints to unknown darkness.
Now, more than ever, asking students to consider `a world grown unreliable’ seems a very good thing to do.
She seemed in too much of a hurry to ask. Auriel, walking in the opposite direction to the girl with the blonde hair, didn’t feel justified stopping someone so clearly keen on maintaining momentum. The directions Auriel had were a bit vague and she didn’t want to get lost. The agent had said it was easy to find but Auriel was an expert in proving people wrong who said that. If she had been driving there would now be a rising feeling of sickness mixed with panic as each wrong turn took her away from her destination but on foot there was less jeopardy. Any mistake was measured in footsteps not miles. As she began to regret not stopping the fragile faced girl the house she was looking for appeared; small front garden, blue front door, a duo of large re-cycling bins on wheels down a side passage and hopefully a clean, reasonably sized room still available to rent.
Auriel knocked on the glass of the blue front door and followed up the knock with a lengthy peer into the gloom. She hoped to hear evidence of someone being in- footsteps or a shout, but nothing. There was no sign of a letter box to call through so Auriel decided to phone the agent.
`Ok, as long as you don’t think they’ll mind’
The agent told Auriel that if the door was open to head on in. He would let the girls know she’d arrived. They had just popped out but were always happy for prospective new tenants to go in and make themselves at home-if he had checked them out. He was hoping she wasn’t put off by this unconventional approach. The last tenant must have only just moved out either last night or this morning, having given her notice several weeks ago. Maybe they’d popped out to give her some privacy to pack up and leave. She’d stayed six months but had seemed very eager to move on. The agent had already told the cousins that he had found someone to replace Jenny. He thought Auriel was a great match on paper and that she seemed ideal although they had all thought that about Jenny.
The girls had just wanted to grab a few bits-coffee, milk, biscuits, before she arrived so they could offer her a drink as they showed her around. The High St. was lively with pedestrians, Saturday shoppers with jute baskets from last year’s summer holiday, parents with kids snaking behind them reluctantly and one or two older people travelling at a slower pace. A child, about six or seven, was riding a blue bike with mirrored plastic discs, shards of sunlight trapped in a bicycle wheel. Thea pushed open the shop door and Winnie and Ursula followed, their giggles alerting those in the shop to their arrival. Distracted by a noisy discussion about Hobnobs versus ginger nuts they missed the agent’s call. They grabbed what they needed, scanned, swiped and then smiled as they left. On the way home they speculated about their potential new housemate.
Auriel felt a bit uncomfortable walking into the hallway and closing the door behind her but hopefully, if all went well, she would soon be living here. She negotiated her way past three bicycles leaning against each other and the wall like drunken guests leaving a party. One had heavy tyres with deep tread, another was sleek and shiny with drop down handle bars and the third had clearly seen better days but she could imagine it would have just about got you to the high street and back. As she squeezed past the saddle it slipped from its precarious position but she managed to prop it back in place. She reached the end of the hallway feeling a wave of anxiety -she told herself to relax and see this house for what it was, an opportunity for a new start.
The lounge was really welcoming, it had a bay window looking onto the street and a large striped rug over a waxed wooden floor. The kitchen was light and airy, the September sun shining through doors at the end leading out to a small courtyard garden complete with wonky rotary washing line. A wiry tree bearing peg fruit. She liked the solid looking table and its four chairs – it gave her a good feeling. She looked at the bags seated on three of the chairs and wondered what they might tell her about their owners: the sensible leather satchel, the well worn rucksack and the suede cross body. She leaned across and couldn’t stop herself stroking the tactile surface of the suede. Her damp, anxious fingertips left faint dark imprints she had to buff lightly to remove.
On the kitchen counter, next to the kettle, three mugs were waiting to be filled with tea or coffee. Auriel was intrigued by the skin thin porcelain of one of the mugs, the other two were chunkier-one of thick pottery etched with decorative scratches and the other decorated with a cartoon character she didn’t recognise. She picked up the first mug and held it up to the light revealing a delicate image of a lily of the valley flower in a woodland setting. The fragility of the china frightened her – she felt an overwhelming desire to crush it between her fingers. Deep breaths enabled her to regain control of her emotions and she placed the mug carefully back on the edge of the counter.
She heard the giggles and laughter flow into the hall before the trio streamed into the kitchen. As she turned towards the noise and urged a smile onto her face the flower mug slipped and fell. The three young women looked at the fragments of the mug, looked at Auriel’s anxious face and there was a tumble of words: apologies and introductions. The mug had belonged to Jenny who had just moved out.
`I’m really sorry…’
`Don’t worry. Grab another one from the cupboard.’
`Auriel? That’s unusual.’
`Yeah-my Mum found it in a book, it means golden.’
`Well, I’m Ursula, that’s Thea and Winnie. We’d love to show you round. We hope it feels just right for you. ‘
I have always thought that poetry should be the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of the English curriculum. When training to be an English teacher many years ago at Leeds University I remember writing an essay about how important it was and I also remember delivering a lesson on Chaucer, with my tutor observing, to a wonderfully chaotic year 9 class in a Bradford secondary school. In the days before projectors and powerpoints I had cut out a picture of Chaucer from a book and stuck it on the chalkboard to see if they could guess who it was. That was considered cutting edge pedagogy!
It struck me then that the tutor and the host teacher thought I was brave and perhaps stupid. Surely this was too difficult for these students to access. However, for lots of students in the class everything they did in English was difficult. Surely this was too inaccessible, too far back in time for these students to de-code. Actually, for lots of students in the class it was no more or less accessible than Shakespeare, Dickens or a modern novel for that matter. To their credit, the students tackled it with the same enthusiasm, or lack of in some cases, as all the other material I put before them.
Are we sometimes guilty of projecting judgements about the difficulty of texts based on our own experiences, prejudices and perceptions? The AQA Poetry Anthology has 15 poems in it and teachers and students alike have their favourites. The poem considered difficult by many is `Tissue’ by Imtiaz Dharker and each year teachers fear it as the named poem and breathe a sigh of relief that it is another. There is the myth (I assume it is a myth) that it is only there for clever kids to use for comparison purposes and will never be the named poem! As we refreshed our lessons and resources this year we all signed up to re-visit and create a lesson for one of the poems and I chose Tissue. It wasn’t some noble gesture-I actually really like the poem and relished the opportunity to look at it again.
This isn’t a blog about how to teach poetry or how to teach Tissue, there are lots of really excellent blogs and on-line resources for that, but knowing the lesson would be shared with my colleagues made me think much harder about how to approach it. I had listened to Imtiaz Dharker on Desert Island Discs a while ago and thought that might be an interesting way in. She uses the phrase `the poet sees the world from a different angle' to talk about her poetry and I asked the students to read the poem with `a different angle’.
The outcome was, some liked it, some didn’t, some felt they understood it , some didn’t but, as we worked our way through the other poems, `Tissue’ was never mentioned as more or less difficult. In fact, some of the poems I usually start with that are much more obviously about conflict and capture students’ imagination were viewed less favourably than usual.
As English teachers we have views about everything we read and I think it is our job to equip our students with the ability to read critically, to have a view. It is not our job to tell them what view to have. Honestly, I think `The Emigree’ is the most difficult poem, but I am not going to tell year 10 that!
Many teachers early in their career lobby for A Level thinking it confers prestige and status. It has been some of the most rewarding teaching in my career but also some of the most challenging. A Level was on my timetable as an NQT and I approached it with both excitement and fear. I would have found the following really useful:
They were Year 11 only a few months ago. The students in front of you are trusting you to help them make the transition from GCSE to A Level. They are not trying to trip you up!
Make a seating plan. You do this with other groups for very good reasons. The students will realise you are in charge and that you have thought about the classroom atmosphere and dynamic. Some A Level classes are as big as Year 11 and breaking up friendship groups will ensure a serious, working atmosphere.
Plan lessons as you would with other groups. You wouldn’t lecture other groups for an hour so don’t do it now. Plan activities that allow the students to work on new knowledge and give you the opportunity to circulate and monitor.
Get to know your students-use data thoughtfully. Some of the most mixed ability teaching I have done is at A Level.
Teach your A Level students how to study. They won’t come to you fully formed and organised. You will need to be more explicit than you imagine about folders, files, glossaries and further reading. Encourage them to keep logs of further reading. We use exercise books as a way of helping students, overwhelmed by hand outs and resources, organise their learning.
Be aware that you might be their 3rd choice subject. Your enthusiasm and energy may convert them (it does happen, some students have even changed degree choice as a result of a great experience at A level) but there will always be some who are reluctant. Don’t take it personally!
Time flies. Plan lots in the first half term. In reality you have 5 terms with them and that first term until Christmas is almost half the year’s worth of lessons.
Ask for help often, don’t re-invent the wheel. And enjoy it!
It was on holiday with the family last summer, during one of those `What does Mum join in with that we all love doing? ‘conversations that I agreed to join. The ferociously competitive family Fantasy Football League has been going several years now, includes three generations and encompasses siblings, in-laws and parents of various kinds. My inaugural season was a success in that I got to the end and didn’t finish in last place. The result was a shameless fluke-below me were two excellent managers (one a past champion) unable to focus on the league due to real life commitments-but as I said, it’s ferociously competitive. The experience left me with a few lessons I plan to take with me into this academic year.
Number 1:Know the Rules of the Game
It took me a while to figure out the basic ones, family members were helpful but I had to ration my requests for help-it is a competition after all. However, I did figure out the essential ones. Your favourite players, however skillful, athletic and hard working only get you points if they display particular skills. Effort does not always equal points. This year, in the classroom, I am going to focus more than ever on the things I do to help my students improve. I will find out what they need to improve and fill my lessons with opportunities for them to make those improvements.
Number 2: Be Prepared to Make Changes
I spent ages creating those early teams but they didn’t score me any points. I was loyal to players I had read about and chosen because of their interesting back story. As soon as I dropped the emotion and loyalty, used every transfer opportunity, used Wild Cards-started taking risks- positive changes began to happen. This year, in the classroom, I am going to make changes; to seating plans, to Schemes of Learning, to lessons…I will evaluate what deserves to stay and ditch what needs to go.
Number 3:Bench Boost
Substitutes count when you use this tactic. This year I am going to make use of every boost offered. Everyone offering support-the teacher without a year 11 class offering to help mark mock papers, the trainee teacher offering classroom support for extra experience-will be greeted with a smile and a thank you. Being a martyr, going it alone when help is offered, is no good for teachers and denies students someone else’s potentially valuable input.
Number 4: Choose Your Captain Wisely
Rewarding my best performing player with the coveted armband was something I did without enough thought last year and I lost points as a result. This year, in the classroom, I am going to be more thoughtful about rewards and issue them more often. Time spent calling home is always beneficial and yet too often I put it off and mark books instead.
Number 5: There Really is no Substitute for Doing your Homework
The most successful members of our league have vast amounts of knowledge. They follow blogs, listen to podcasts and create their own spreadsheets of tactics and top tips. This year I am going to find time to read more about teaching, more about mentoring, more about the subject I teach.
I said I would join, so, reluctantly, I did. I got more from it than I thought. This year, 3 Game Weeks in and I am 4th out of 12. It’s early days but I am hopeful for a successful year both on the virtual pitch and in the real classroom.