Gordon ‘Delme’ Thomas

At the weekend I heard the sad news that my favourite English teacher, ‘Delme’ Thomas died in August. I felt saddened because it is sad news in itself, and 72 has long since stopped seeming like a ‘ripe old age’, but also at my own failure in leaving it too late to get in touch with him again. I’d intended to several times over the years, but never quite got round to it. Not long before the summer holidays I googled him to see if I could find an email address, and found one, but waited until I had time to sit down properly and think what to write. Well, of course I didn’t carve out that time. It’s too late for him to see it now, but I have taken the time to think about the teacher of mine that I most owe my being an English teacher to, and the one I have most wanted to emulate. Sometimes (it doesn’t happen often), when a lesson has gone well and the students leave the room bubbling with enthusiasm, I think, “that’s how Delme would have done it”:

His spittle-flecked enthusiasm drew us in
To 1984 in ’84.
Round shoved-together tables, clustered lads,
Set free from deadening dictatorial rows,
We mapped the tension, characters and plot
With sugar paper, coloured pens galore.
The whirling-limbed and laughter filled approach
Of those thin lips, eye-beams, that signpost nose;
The floppy fringe flicked back Fred Trueman-like
As he threw back his head with a guffaw,
Then bent, nicotined-breathed, to chat with us
As though we mattered, since, to him, we did.
He led us then down the glass corridor
To watch Dench and McKellen in Macbeth
On huge en-cabinned screen, on video.
(He made the ‘d’ alone last half that word!)
In that melodious South Walian lilt
He spoke of cinema, scarce drawing breath,
Yet somehow no superfluous words were spilt.
We went to Harrogate theatre: Oscar Wilde’s
Coruscating wit seemed no more sharp
Than what we heard each day in Delme’s class,
Addressing politics, Pontypridd or Pope,
Cynddylan on a Tractor, Evelyn Waugh,
A Neath fly-half, or Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’.
That he was younger then than I am now
Seems quite absurd; he had such gravitas –
Yet leavened with a levity of touch.
I wish I’d written, got to see once more
My English teacher, whom I owe so much.

Donations in his memory can be made at: https://www.justgiving.com/GordonDelmeThomas/, and those who knew him can leave tributes at: http://gordondelmethomas.co.uk/

It is sweet and fitting

“There’s no right and wrong in English” I often hear people say. Well, right. And wrong.

Certainly, with regard to analysing literature, I think you can be wrong, while at the same time doing things that are in one sense right, and certainly would be likely to gain marks in an exam. What I mean should become clear by following this exchange I recently became involved in on an English language teachers’ email list that I’m a member of.

The first message was this:

A pupil of mine suggested that the regular rhyme scheme in Dulce et Decorum est made the poem sound more upbeat and that this contrasted with the actual content of the poem. Another student developed this, suggesting that in the same way the truth of war had been sugar-coated or disguised by the government or leaders of war, the horrors detailed in the poem were similarly sugar-coated by rhyme. I thought this was a highly interpretative and valid response. A colleague of mine disagrees.

What do others think?

To which someone responded:

Well justified and original. Far better than parroting what is in revision guides. Why doesn’t your colleague agree? I wish some of my students could come up this level of response.

Which was then countered by:

Not sure how the rhyming makes it feel ‘upbeat’?

At which point I weighed in with my first response:

Maybe you should ask 10,000 Maniacs about that:

10000 Maniacs (Natalie Merchant) singing The Latin One on The Word

(For the record, I love most of the work of 10,000 Maniacs and Natalie Merchant but think this was NOT their finest hour).

I think this is one of those tricky ones to deal with in the classroom context. On the one hand you’re wanting to encourage creativity and exploration in response; on the other hand some responses are more valid than others, and you have to look at the wider context of the poem, and indeed of poetry in general.

Does it really look as though Owen is trying to ‘sugar coat’ the horrors of war? Plainly not, surely? Yes, the rhyme scheme is regular, but does a regular rhyme scheme automatically suggest ‘upbeat’? Well, Gray’s Elegy doesn’t exactly get me dancing a jig, for example, and in Dulce, the positioning of the rhymes relative to the metre and syntactical structures resists a neat ‘sing-songy’ rendering (as Natalie’s reggae style mangling of the poem seems to attest!).

So I’d be saying something along the lines of “Fantastic kids, well done! Brilliant thinking – exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for. Now, let’s see if you can work out why that brilliant thinking has led you up a blind alley, and you need to turn back and retrace your steps.

Another colleague reinforced that view by adding:

The problem here is that our students, by and large, hear with 21st-century ears accustomed (apart from song lyrics) to rhyme only in light verse, often comic (think Spike Milligan, Roald Dahl or Pam Ayres); most of the ‘serious’ poetry they’ve had to study will have been free verse or (with Shakespeare) blank verse.

I remember having to teach Byron’s When we two parted from the old Edexcel GCSE anthology, and finding it impossible to take seriously: for us, that tripping dactylic metre is always light-hearted. But I doubt very much that Byron and his original readers felt that, or he couldn’t have written a poem which one assumes is meant to be deeply moving.

So your pupils are to be commended for actually thinking about the poem – but I don’t believe that Owen would have agreed with their interpretation, given those famous words of his: “My subject is war and the pity of war” – the horrors are indeed horrors. Students need to train their responses by reading much more poetry from past centuries.

Getting back to the poem, and the original students’ idea, George contributed:

I often teach that the perfect rhyme in Dulce (unlike many of Owen’s half rhymes in other poems) has this effect. His form shows what he’s mocking – the outer appearance of things being ‘dulce et decorum’ when actually they’re not. So – yes – I think that’s valid

Which was further supported by this contribution:

Surely though it’s an interpretation and they’d get marks at least for coming up with something original? I remember sitting at a poetry live event and a student giving their interpretation of one of Gillian Clarke’s poems – she turned around and said she’d never thought of her poetry in that way but what an excellent analysis of it.

Does it necessarily matter if the poet didn’t intend to use it in this way as long as the student is justifying their response which is what we ask them to do all of the time? Otherwise do we not just end up with the same repetitive comments being made?

The chorus of approval was joined by this:

The students’ interpretation was valid in my view, which is beginning to make me question my ability as a teacher! His tone, after all, is ironic, when he begins “my friend” and it is irony that the young students had been discussing prior to talking about rhyme. Furthermore, it was the notion that rhyme was being used in an ironic way, that was their suggestion.

And after a couple of further objections to the original idea of the rhyme scheme of he poem making it ‘upbeat’, George acknowledged:

Yes – ‘upbeat’ maybe isn’t quite the right word – cynical or satirical rather

A this point I felt an urge to counter the ‘anything goes’ idea that so long as students are engaging with the poem all is well, so I pitched in with quite a lengthy contribution (I was procrastinating; there was coursework marking to be done):

I think you’re right that students would get marks for such an interpretation.

However if I felt that all I was doing in teaching poetry was teaching students to get marks I would have to pack it in.

I also think that the thinking behind the interpretation that started this discussion is the sort of the thing that should be encouraged, and that while it can be said to be ‘valid’ it is also ‘wrong’. Valid, because it draws a logical conclusion from the evidence available, and the premise from which the students started (that rhyming poetry is more ‘upbeat’ than non-rhyming). It’s just that the premise, as I suggested, and Sue rightly developed, is wrong (or at best, only sometimes right).

I also agree (and teach very strongly) that the meaning of poetry is in the reader’s encounter with it, not purely in the poet’s intention. Of course, once a poem leaves a poet’s hand it is open to interpretations that the poet may not have intended (and even that the poet may have fiercely resisted as feminist, Marxist and psychoanalytic readings often show). However I still firmly believe that a reading should fit the whole evidence of the poem, not just the bit you happen to have noticed, and that it must at least take into account any obvious intentions of the plain meaning of the poem. Gillian Clarke is right that an excellent analysis of her poetry may be one she’s never thought of, but she’s also very instructive on the issue of paying most attention to the plain sense of a poem. See here: http://www.sheerpoetry.co.uk/gcse/gillian-clarke/notes-on-gillian-clarke-poems/baby-sitting.

George’s interpretation goes further than the original students did in ascribing a satirical purpose to what was being read as a ‘sweet and fitting’ effect of the rhyme scheme, and though it has made me think about it harder (and a little differently) than I ever have before, I think it needs qualifying. The ‘decorum’ bit, I can run with: there is a sort of decorum in the regular rhyme scheme and underlying metre, but the natural stress patterns of English are frequently straining against the iambic pentameter. Try reading ”Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,” with a neat iambic rhythm, for instance. And if the rhymes (several of them feminine rhymes, further breaking any sense of ‘neatness’) are all full-rhymes rather than the half-rhyme frequently used elsewhere, then perhaps that serves only to heighten the horror or misery of so many of the words that are thus rhymed: sludge/trudge, blind/behind, blood/cud, and – formally unfitting, but tonally and semantically apt – ‘drowning’ rhymed with itself, as if the poem is indeed beginning to drown in its own form that cannot be fully sustained against the bitterness from which it rises. Thus, as we draw towards the end of the poem, we reach a stage where perhaps it can be said that the metre and rhyme does satirically echo a more ‘upbeat’ song-like tone with ‘zest’ paired with the ‘Dulce et decorum est’ in the mouths of ‘innocent tongues’: that zealous sound driven by air from ‘lungs’ that we know later in time (because of what we have just read in the poem) will be ‘froth corrupted’ by the ‘Gas’ of a new and horrifying form of mass warfare. Finally the ‘fittingness’ of the metre breaks down completely in the bathos of ‘glory’ being rhymed with ‘mori’ (‘to die’) in the only metrically incomplete line in the poem: the poem literally cut short (like the lives of the soldiers themselves) by death, after the bitter sputtering plosives of ‘pro patria’, severed by the line break from the ‘dulce et decorum est’ sweetness that Owen recognises -and insists we now recognise – as a lie.

A few people made some quite encouraging comments about what I’d written, and then this:

An excellent analysis of a vexed area Ant. I agree so much with your second paragraph!

I am continually at the moment so often being horrified by the attitude that students must accept the ‘right’ interpretation, that a discussion like this restores my faith in English teachers.

So many of our local schools came down last summer in their English results yet to my shock so few of them appear to have modified their approach to encourage independent thought in their students. Although I do not totally concur with the students’ views, they are so firmly rooted in the text that they deserve the credit for independent thought they are giving and not, as I saw last week, the comment of ‘This is NOT what I taught you’ when a student dared to offer a view which varied from the rigid formula being taught. A view which, incidentally, I had not taught but which I too found interesting and which led to an interesting and rewarding debate with the student.

So there you have it. Don’t just follow some party line from teachers or revision guides, but nor should you think you can just say what you like. (An interpretation properly informed by wide reading, attention to the whole text, and influenced by more experienced readers will certainly be better than one you just concoct off the top of your head.

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees

In the very small hours of Christmas Day I sent an email to my students. Copying it below gives me a chance to share a T S Eliot poem that had somehow slipped my mind, if it ever lodged there in the first place. I am familiar enough with the other Ariel poems, but this ‘addendum’ to the series, sent out, I understand, as a Christmas greeting from Faber’s, the publisher where Eliot worked at the time, seemed strikingly apposite.

I have assembled my daughter’s new bike and brought it inside; the presents have been put under and around the tree; I have bitten off the stalk end of a carrot; eaten a mince pie, taking care to leave plenty of crumbs; and written a letter from Father Christmas in a painstakingly shaky hand, sealed with red sealing wax.

I can now go to bed, not with the same excitement as my daughter did several hours ago, but with perhaps a stronger sense of waiting, because I know my waiting is for something far greater, far further off, and far less certain than the wait to open a few presents in the morning.

Many of you too will be thinking towards your future, and back to simpler childhood times, amidst one of the last festive seasons before you face a fully adult Christmas. My favourite poet, T S Eliot, knew about this, so you I offer you his poem on the subject as my Christmas greeting to you.

Merry Christmas, and all best wishes for a happy and successful 2013, and beyond.

Mr Heald

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees by TS Eliot.

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

Eyes the color/colour of warm whiskey/whisky

On the English Language teachers’ email list last week someone asked:

Subject: Quick question on rhetoric

“Eyes the colour of warm whiskey”

What figurative language is being used here, if any?

and within a few minutes they got the response:

None as it’s a literal description. The intended connotations, however, given a particular literary context, might suggest some use of metonymy.

Hmm – quick question yes, with a quick answer, but I couldn’t accept it was that simple, and responded to that effect.

I think this is the kind of issue where the desire to pin a specific label (and I love labels and classifying and categorising more than most) can get in the way.

I imagine that what triggered the question is the fact that the expression somehow feels figurative, but “eyes the colour of warm whiskey” seems not be a simile (as it doesn’t us ‘like’ or ‘as’), and it doesn’t quite seem to be a metaphor, because the eyes aren’t being described as if they in some sense ‘are’ warm whiskey. Those are the two simple tests that I think most of us probably teach our students to use to recognise the difference.

However, I can’t accept that there is no figurative language here. It seems to me much more figurative, than, say, a straightforward simile such as “the moon is like a big ball” or even a metaphor like “the moon’s a balloon”. I would certainly want to say that “eyes the colour of warm whiskey” is metaphorical (even if we might not want to say that it is a metaphor.)

I think I can see what is meant by suggesting that there might be a hint of metonymy, in that the eyes could be seen as a signifier of the whole person, but I think that could be true more-or-less regardless of what is actually said about the eyes (it is an established convention that we think that we can tell important things about a person from their eyes; that the eyes can be used as a kind of metonym of the person).

Here, I think that the description of the eyes is much more figurative than literal, and I think it’s important to see literal and figurative not as simple alternatives, but as ends of a spectrum, or perhaps (better) as overlaid fields of varying prominence or transparency. At the literal level, so long as we have an idea of the colour of whiskey, then it can ‘simply’ tell us the colour of the eyes. However, if the writer wanted to describe the colour of the eyes literally, then the approach to take to ensure that it was taken merely literally would be to use colour terminology (‘light brown’, perhaps, or if greater precision were required, a term that is conventionally used for colour – especially colour of the eyes – such as ‘hazel’ or ‘amber’ – though even these have at least the potential to convey connotations that go beyond the literal, particularly if they are being used in a literary context rather than the wikipedia entry on eye colour.

However, “eyes the colour of warm whiskey” goes beyond that. Whiskey is not conventionally used as an identifier of eye colour (although it is more common in US English). See this ngram for an interesting comparison of hazel, amber and whisky/whiskey in a position of syntactical dependency to ‘eyes’. Use the drop down menu to switch between overall English, British English, American English, and English fiction for some interesting comparisons.

So describing eyes as being the “colour of whiskey” positively invites a figurative interpretation that we are likely to apply to the owner of the eyes. It might suggest drunkenness, a sense of fun, a hard-bitten cynicism, a sultry sexiness, or a number of other qualities depending on context, and the audience’s experience of and attitude toward the drink.

But it goes further even than that. The eyes are described as “the colour of warm whiskey”. Now, as it is my day off today, I have been able to experiment with a bottle of pleasantly peated Ardmore single malt, and I can confirm that it is exactly the same colour (at least to the naked eye) at a range of temperatures between 6C – which is definitely cold and 45C – which is definitely warm — well, quite hot, actually.

So this cannot be simply a literal description. The adjective ‘warm’ modifies not the eye colour, nor even just the whiskey (even though that is the word it modifies syntactically) but the whole figurative (metaphorical? symbolic? semiotic? I think any and all of these apply) qualities of the eye colour. As a colour is being described, in part, in terms of something that it is not (ie. heat) then the expression is clearly, at least in part, metaphorical. The fact that it is ‘warm whiskey’ knocks out, for me, the possibility that it is meant to convey negative connotations of alcoholism, or cynicism. No: warm whiskey is comforting; warmed in the glass with the hand it is sociable, even sensuous. Warmed to a higher temperature yet, it is restorative, reviving, even curative (the hot-toddy).

The possessor of these eyes the colour of warm whiskey is someone I want to get to know, and who is open enough (after all, the eye contact is clear enough for me to see the colour so clearly) to want to get to know me, as the dusky aroma of the whiskey, swirled in the glass, envelops us. Not only that, but because the spelling is ‘colour’ rather than ‘color’, the encounter is taking place on this side of the Atlantic (in a convivial and rather old-fashioned pub, with pitted dark oak tables and an open fire), but as the spelling is ‘whiskey’ rather than ‘whisky’ then she must surely be Irish. I say ‘she’ of course, because I am a heterosexual male, so with no other contextual information to go on, it makes sense for her to be female. And Irish. And a whiskey drinker.

(Perhaps my ‘experiments’ are getting the better of me, but, whatever it is, “Eyes the colour of warm whiskey” is not mere literal description.

On attempting to write a sonnet in class

We were down to a handful the other week in our little Lang/Lit A-level group that I won’t be teaching any more next year (sob), and we spent a lesson having a stab at a sonnet. Here’s my effort:

Wracking each neuron that we can invoke
to fire from our internal dictionary
words that can dissipate semantic smoke
that clouds the clarity we hope to free,
we bend together in solitary thought.
This is the school’s perennial paradox:
to own ourselves what someone else has taught;
to find the gift by graft within the box
of these drab unforgiving concrete walls.
For some those words won’t come: the lesson’s a squib;
one of a long succession of such falls.
But marking this a failure is too glib.
To fall, to learn to hit the ground, are like:
A spark examined is a lightning strike.

Schools Digital Curation Project

For the past month or so I’ve been participating in this small scale action research project using the scoop.it! curation tool. I’ve been writing some reflections on the process on the project wiki and thought I’d add them here too.

Reflection – 19th February 2012

When I first signed up for scoop.it (before this project) I had a cursory glance at it and didn’t see much advantage over other bookmarking sites. Having begun to make a bit of an effort at curating some topics of interest, I’m beginning to see how it works and to get some idea of the potential it could offer. The visual attractiveness of the pages compared with a list of links probably shouldn’t be underestimated, but perhaps could also be a problem in that it may lead to links that happen to have an attractive image gaining undue prominence.

So far, my ‘curation’ has been on a pretty ad-hoc basis, with the topics chosen purely on the basis of a combination of what happens to be at the forefront of my mind at the moment, and ideas that have cropped up incidentally: a couple of the topics have been created specifically as a result of spotting something I wanted to keep (typically from a link on twitter).

Adding the scoop.it bookmarklet to my iphone has been very useful as I do a lot of my checking of Google-reader 7 Twitter etc in snatched moments on the fly.

A small niggle has been that the bookmarklet (whether mobile or on PC) does not allow you to directly add pdf pages. Either you need to add the page that the pdf you want is linked from, or add the URL of the PDF manually.

Issues I need to address further:

  1. Tagging: I’m not sure my topic tags have been much good: certainly nearly all the suggested items have not been particularly relevant to the topics I had in mind. It seems to be that sources are suggested based on any tag term rather than being strongly weighted towards containing several of the terms. So, for example, my ‘Internet Access’ topic includes the tag ‘blocking’ and I found sources suggested from sports sites about blocking in American football. I could do with knowing more about how the tagging system works, and how sources are suggested from that.
  2. I need to give some thought to the collaborative potential. I haven’t yet invited anyone to co-curate a topic, and I’d also like to get students involved in curating topics.
  3. Titles and descriptions of topics could also probably do with a little more thought than I’ve given them. I’ve also noticed that you can set the URL of the topic. I guess it’s fairly important to get this stuff as right as possible at an early stage, otherwise there is the danger that links to and searches on the topic could be ‘broken’ if too much tinkering is done with the parameters of a topic once it’s set up.

Reflection – 26th February 2012

Most of my topics have grown steadily over the past week or so as I’ve added material I’ve come across. The issues I mentioned previously will doubtless be ongoing ones, so I’ll refer to them again:

  1. I’ve read a little more about tagging, but still haven’t done much about it. I read a help forum topic that suggested using tags to organise sub-categories of material within a topic. I’ve also refined to some extent the parameters for suggested sources, mainly by removing suggestions for a single tag term. However, I’m still finding that the overwhelming majority of suggested links are not appropriate. Most of the links I add have come from google searchesl or twitter/blogs.
  2. I’ve invited a couple of co-curators who’ve shown an interest in my topics, but they haven’t added anything yet. I think a more pro-active approach will be needed to get others involved, and it will only happen if there is a genuine shared use for the information. In the next week or two I’m going to set up a specific co-curation exercise with one or more of my sixth-form classes to explore the potential of the scoop.it education account more explicitly.
  3. I think the titles of the topics I’ve got so far are not bad. However, looking ahead at the possibility of scoop.it becoming a key teaching and learning resource I would perhaps want to connect some of them more explicitly to particular courses, as I have done with the FM2 Film Studies topics I’ve created. This does however bring me to some of the concerns I have about scoop.it, which I will mention next.

Possible concerns:

  1. Capacity. The increase for education accounts in the number of topics that can be created to 20 is obviously welcome, and at the moment I only have 7 topics. However, if I wanted to use this as a systematic resource curation tool to be used on an ongoing basis I could easily exceed that number very quickly. On an English Literature course I might want at least a separate topic for each book studied (and perhaps multiple topics, eg. one on the author, one on critical responses, one on social & historical context etc). For English Language, I might want topics on different theories of language acquisition, Some kind of ‘nesting’ of topics and sub-topics, and the ability to easily share resources across multiple topics simultaneously would be useful here. As noted above, tagging could be part of that solution, but only part, I think.
  2. Cost. The offer of an extended free trial for this project is also welcome, and $6.99 may not seem a huge amount to continue the subscription. However, I would almost certainly have to pay that out of my own pocket: my school is not set up to allow credit card payments. The cost of online services and apps etc is an interesting area. I think people (and I include myself) tend to balk at the idea of paying relatively trivial sums that we wouldn’t think twice about paying for physical goods such as text books, or services directly from people. Nevertheless, something is a lot more nothing and the added value of a service like scoop.it needs to be clear and significant compared with free alternatives.
  3. Longevity. Having got an email last week about the closure of amplify.com, and having seen other tools come and go, the question of whether scoop.it will survive long term is an inevitable one, and if not, what happens to the time and effort that has gone into curating the topics hosted there?
  4. Portability. Even assuming that it is viable long-term, I wouldn’t want the resources I’d curated to be available only in a single place (whether that be scoop.it or anywhere else). I had thought I’d found a solution in using the RSS feed for each topic, which can then be imported into a Google spreadsheet, thus. However, the URL given is to the scoop.it post, not the original source.


  1. The ‘social’ aspect of scoop.it are already proving their worth as I beginning to discover other worthwhile topics to follow from other users and to re-scoop their sources. I’ve also found that a number of my sources have been re-scooped, and shared when I have autoposted on Twitter. I noticed that Dr Jane Setter, Senior Lecturer in Phonetics at Reading University had retweeted a couple of my sources so I invited her to be a co-curator of my ‘Researching Language’ topic. She has signed up to be my first (and so far only!) co-curator, though she has yet to scoop any sources. A few days ago a teacher in South West England tweeted: “@**AntHeald** I have just got my media students to bookmark your scoop it page!”, and it is obviously satisfying to find that something I’m spending a little time is having value beyond my own immediate context.
  2. The process of using scoop.it as part of this action research project is prompting careful reflection that I might not otherwise make time for, and also causing me to consider other practices. But for this I wouldn’t have learned how to use the ‘importfeed’ function in Google spreadsheets, and it’s also caused me to return to Diigo to look again at the annotation and collaboration tools available there which I knew something about but have never got round to exploring thoroughly.
  3. I have been able to use the topics on e-safety & internet in schools in the course of a meeting with our school systems manager as we discussed ways of moving forward with more extensive and innovative uses of learning technology. I found the ‘magazine’ style layout particularly useful when giving an overview of my thinking on the subject and , and it was then easy to share the resources with him after the meeting in the form of a couple of single links.


The blogging crusader that is David Mitchell @DeputyMitchell came up with a wonderful idea for the day that we are still only just about in in the UK, but being a global project there is time for plenty more posts yet. Here is my contribution:


Happy Quadrennium
I can’t remember what I was doing on February 29th four years ago, but thanks to this wonderful blogging project I’ll always be able to remember this one.

I teach English four days a week at a secondary school, and yesterday I remember walking into the staff room and thinking how lucky I am to be doing a rewarding job that I (mostly) enjoy, and to be living in probably the safest and most civilised period in human history in one of the most prosperous places on earth.

Really, I can’t believe my good fortune at times.

Then today, the special day of 29th February fell on my day off, so after a leisurely breakfast and a couple of espressos spent reading some of the earlier posts on this blog, I got changed into my cycling gear and set off on this ride: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/71847190

Turning those pedals through the near-deserted South Yorkshire countryside it felt so good to be alive.

I know that many people don’t have the blessings in life that I’ve got, and that makes me all the more determined to enjoy mine, and to try and share them in whatever small ways I can.

And I thought THAT was the heart of darkness

While spring cleaning some old blogs today as part of an attempt to make my digital footprints less muddy, I came across some posts relating to a GCSE English group I had four years ago, and it heightened yet further my sense of being dispirited at the way my teaching is going under the Controlled Assessment regime (see here for some excellent discussion of this from David Didau (@LearningSpy) together with my depressed comment).

Here are some examples of blog posts with student discussion on Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ that we were doing for coursework.

Into the Heart of Darkness

Through the Heart of Darkness

More Heart of Darkness

What’s in a Title?

I recall much more discussion and debate with the whole class than the online taster you can see there.  I know a top set, like the one I had back then, is a very different proposition from the set four classes I have now. Nevertheless I find it difficult to see a way that, even with the best students,  I could engender the depth of reflective thinking about and exploration of a text that most of these students were able to produce, now that our curriculum that currently requires us to romp through six CA’s in Year 10.

Is it even allowable to negotiate individual titles with students (within the broad parameters of the prescribed task banks) for CA, as I did with those students for their coursework?

(I’ll have to find out.

Using an iPhone scanner app to get marked work to students

The colleague that I share an AS Level English Language group with is off school at the moment, just as our deadline for submitting their coursework is coming up.

As I was leaving school yesterday for the weekend, I noticed that she had sent in some drafts that she had commented on. I’d asked the students to complete the coursework by this coming Monday.

What a pity that many of them would be handing in that coursework, or working on it further over the weekend without the benefit of those comments.

So, I’ve just spent a few minutes snapping the pages on my iPhone using the JotNot Scanner Pro app, and emailing them as PDF’s to the students directly from within the app.

(I just hope they heeded my injunction yesterday that they should be checking their school email on a daily basis, or – as I do, having it auto-forwarded to an email address they do check regularly.

A picture’s worth a thousand – erm – hours, probably, the way I’ve gone at it

I’ve made a monumental meal of this task, and I’ve still only done the first part of it, as the deadline swings round with assignment 2 already up and running.

My first thought was to bang it out quickly in a few moments before going to sleep by seeing what I could find in the way of vector graphic apps for the iphone. After I’d trawled through the options (I didn’t really want to pay what with not knowing what I was looking for, and being a bit of a cheapskate and all) I downloaded the ‘lite’ (ie. free, and – it turns out – pretty useless) version of miniDraw.

I sort of know what layers are, though not how to utilise them, but Bezier curves mean nothing to me. I thought that even though the iPhone screen is only small, that it wouldn’t be a problem for the simple shape-based graphic that was suggested as the outcome for this assignment, but it turns out I was horribly wrong. Maybe if you know what you’re doing with this kind of software and have an eye for design it might be OK, but I just found myself fiddling aimlessy with it for ages. I’d also had a quick look at  some of the keenies who’d already posted their assignment results, complete with sketchbooks and mind-maps and what-have-you outlining the ‘creative process’. I’m not mocking that, honest: I’d love to be able to plan something coherently and then get the damn thing done, but I’ve always struggled to work in anything like a systematic way.

So what actually happened was that I was playing about and kind of accidentally drew a line that curved in a way that reminded me a bit of  the sweep of a page of an open book, and I thought, well – I’m an English teacher: that’ll do.

I figured out how to copy the line, and then mirror it to produce a number of  ‘pages’ and then it all got incredibly frustrating. Once I’ve started something like this, though, I can’t let it go, even when it’s not really working. What I should have done is learned from the experience that the iphone wasn’t really working as a tool for this job, and transferred straight to one of the tools recommended in the assignment. I did actually try that at one point, but couldn’t quite replicate the curve of the line that I’d by now become rather attached to.

There followed several comedy hours where things happened that were a complete mystery to me. I couldn’t work out how to select multiple ‘objects’ so every line was completely separate when it came to wanting to recolour the image (though I could resize and rotate the whole thing). And somehow I’d created multiple objects on top of each other so I had to keep moving and deleting them until there was only one left so I could apply colour.  I guess it probably gave me a little taste of what many of my students must feel when I’m asking them to do something that to me seems obvious, but they just don’t get it (sorry, year 11 set 4, about all that ‘varying sentence structure’ stuff).

Also, being an English teacher, I couldn’t quite stick to the injunction ‘no words’, so by Saturday morning I had this:

after faffing about for ages on my iphone, this is as far as I'd got

I ended up having to pay £2.49 for the full version of the app just to export it in a format that the free Inkscape software could read, as it became clear that I was going to drive myself insane carrying on as I was. I did begrudge that £2.49, particularly as I’m unlikely to use that app again in anger (with anger, perhaps!), but then I reflected that I was paying about the price of a coffee for a piece of software that not so long ago would have cost tens of times more for similar functionality, so I stumped up, and then spent ages more trying to work out how the gradient editor works in Inkscape, and fiddling about with all those little lines.

Here’s what I wound up with in the end:

That's all folks!

I ‘evaluated’ it by showing it to my Y12 English Language & Literature class on Monday morning. It seems I’m the only person who sees that squiggle as the page of a book. After an embarrassed silence, one of them ventured: “Is it, like, train tracks or something, sir?”

Oh well.

After a little explanation of my thinking behind it (much of it post-rationalised, I have to say), one of my charges was kind enough to say, “Wow, that’s really intelligent, sir.” I don’t think she was being sarcastic, but I do think she’s easily impressed.

Having seen Nicola McNee’s contribution to this assignment, we appear to have experienced very similar frustrations, and to have been thinking along very similar lines, although I do think her sign is much more elegant than mine.


(I wonder if our idea behind the colour scheme was the same?