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.

St George’s Day

Our school has had more – much more – than its share of tragedy within the last two years, including the deaths of five current students and two members of staff. This was uppermost in my mind when I was asked to take my turn at providing the prayer / reflection for staff briefing this morning:

St George, your England looks a different place to us
At least our little portion of it. Birth and death
They are the normal way of things of course, but does
It have to be that we meet so much of the latter?
What matter, that dragons seem more plentiful than swords?
O patron of our English land, can we demand
That our share of blows be somehow deemed unfair
When blessings for the most part shower themselves on us
Compared with most who have lived, and still do, elsewhere?
But balance, or bounty, mean nothing to the bereft;
What weft can hold the warp of lives now rent askew?
Perhaps only the gossamer threads of a faith
As fragile, St George, as the legends of you.


The ancients saw their moon disappearing in a bath of blood,
Taken from them in a heavenly sacrifice.
For me, the celestial drama was gentler.
If bloody at all, there was the congealed clot of healing:
The solstice moon scabbed over,
To rise, renewed;
It was a russet moon, retaining
a final fling of autumn, as a flink
of light clung on to the limb
of the lunar rim like a jewelled ring.
Deep frozen, it set through haze
With it's blankened face
Masked in a shadow;
Its night given way to the morrow.
In stillness, chilled to the marrow,
I watched the space where it was
brighten and fill with blue light

as the sun rose behind me.
And though I know how it happened,
I still wonder, quite,

Advent surprised us

Advent surprised us this year,
Sneaking out to jump on the tail of autumn,
Making all things new with its smothering of snow.
"Prepare ye the way of the Lord" it announced
In its profound silence
As it blank-eted our unprepared ways,
Forcing us to stop,
Take stock,
Wind down the clock a while,
Admit that our busyness can always wait,
That, ahead of us, the dayspring from on high
Will come to give us light,
To guide our restless feet
In the hidden ways of peace.

A different kind of failure

This blog has, yet again, like almost all of my projects, fallen prey to the yawning gap between my vision of what is possible – of what I would like it to be – and what I feel I can actually produce. I have watched with a combination of increasing admiration and personal inadequacy as people like David Mitchell and James Mitchie, who’ve been hanging around the edublogosphere a shorter time than I have, develop an amazing online presence for themselves and their students, which is also clearly having a transformational impact on their classrooms and schools. And there’s my problem: I have watched, and admired, but barely acted. With regard to this blog, the longer I leave it between posts, the more it seems that my next one should be a work of genius, and that I should fill in the gaps before I post it. Hence the months of blogging silence and the fragments of started blog posts in my Google docs and buzzing round my head.

Having started to read a little more about ‘productivity’ I increasingly recognise that this is a common (and deadening) phenomenon rather than something unique to me. Even this post itself was nearly derailed by the 10 minutes, otherwise invisible to you, that I just spent searching for the perfect quotation to illustrate that point (there are loads, it turns out: just google perfection+procrastination).

Recently, I shared with some of my students one of my favourite poems, Eliot’s Four Quartets. The penultimate stanza of East Coker feels as though it could have been written for me, and it rings even truer for me now more than twenty years (Twenty years largely wasted) since I first discovered it:

every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate

So I find myself at the beginning of the school holidays, at a time when I would normally still be in bed even on a school day, trying to make another start. Another thing I’m coming to realise is that starts are relatively easy. I’ve done loads of starts at all sorts of things. The tricky bit is sharing my starts with others, so I have the motivation to continue, even if I don’t know how to finish.

(So I’ll share this now, unfinished though it be

Why not be done by as you should do

An art critic doesn’t necessarily need to be a great artist, and as we’ve seen all too often during the world cup campaign, the best players do not necessarily make either the best coaches or pundits. Thus went my reasoning as I tried to justify the tedious after school staff meeting we were subjected to by an Ofsted ‘lead inspector’ last week. However, an art critic is not trying to create a work of art; a football pundit is not playing the game. Our Ofsted inspector was, however, trying to teach us something. Perhaps he is excellent at his inspection role, so does it matter that, as a teacher/presenter, he either failed to come close to the standards he was exhorting us to achieve, or perhaps hadn’t even bothered to try?

“The main focus for the meeting”, we were told beforehand, “will be ‘Securing Outstanding’. The lead inspector’s brief was: “ helping us to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ learning and teaching by : (i) raising awareness about the criteria; (ii) deepening our understanding of ‘outstanding delivery’.”

He began by telling us about how, when inspecting, the emphasis is now more on looking at the learning than the teaching, and that therefore rather than the traditional mode of sitting at the back with a clipboard, he now often adopts the position of the teacher and looks at the actions and reactions of the students. I wondered what he would think of his own performance if he were able to look out at the sea of bored and disengaged faces in front of him. He committed the cardinal presentation errors: a series of PowerPoint slides which were too text heavy, with much of his delivery consisting of reading content either directly from the slides, or from the handouts we had been given. Vocal delivery was flat and pretty monotonous. We had been told that he had asked “if colleagues can come prepared with questions as he wants the session to be as interactive as possible.” If your idea of being as interactive as possible is hoping that people will ask questions, you’re going to struggle do much more than lecture. So he didn’t do much more than lecture. There was a desultory exercise part way through, involving looking at a couple of Ofsted ‘quality of teaching’ reports and guessing what grade they had been given.

But enough of the dismal delivery. Did I learn anything?

I can’t remember. So I guess the answer’s ‘no’

But I was deeply dejected by the mechanistic approach to judging teaching that seems to mean that if you’ve got engaged kids you can be ‘outstanding’ even if the teaching actually isn’t, but even the most brilliant teaching can’t be judged ‘outstanding’ if the students aren’t up to scratch.

(So the system is skewed in favour of schools like ours, which is clearly unfair.

NUT shoots itself in foot: teachers take the ricochet

My union, the National Union of Teachers, has this weekend called for a 10% pay rise. Of course the union’s spokesman interviewed on the BBC yesterday had to admit immediately that there was no chance of such a demand being successful.  If the idea is that by starting with an unrealistically high starting position we are likely to get an increase to offset the real-terms pay cut of recent years, then I think it is a badly misjudged strategy.

Unsurprisingly, the press backlash is already underway, with the Mirror proclaiming ‘Outrage as teachers union votes for huge pay increase’, and there’ll be plenty more where that came from.

The last time the union called a strike on pay (asking for a much lower increase, before the credit crunch hit), it divided members. We lost our school union representative as a result, and now are left without an in-school rep. I supported the strike, somewhat reluctantly, feeling that there are more pressing issues, such as the anti-Sats campaign, on which public sympathy might be gained. I feel that if you are in a union, then as the name suggests, it is vital that you support the collective decisions of that union, or leave.

I think the time is coming, after 18 years as an NUT member, when I may have to leave.

Things to make and do

What’s the relationship between learning and doing?

My Twitter bio said, until this morning, “Soaking up learning and oozing it back.” I was thinking of a sponge that, once it’s soaked up a certain amount of water will start to leak it back out. If you hold a sponge under a tap, pretty quickly it becomes saturated and makes no difference to the rate, and little difference to the direction, of flow.

I feel a bit like that sponge. Sitting in a flow of information and knowledge, big and bloated, scarcely able to move under the weight of all this stuff, desperately trying to catch some of the things that are floating past but I’m just too full. Learning loads, but doing relatively little. Indeed, maybe doing less than I should precisely because I’m overloaded with new information and ideas. It feels like I’ve got some kind 0f e-ADHD.

I’m no marine biologist, but I suspect a living sponge is rather more active in regulating its intake, and then making use of what it takes in. Not just oozing it out, but processing it, making new things from it, using it to grow and reproduce.

Blogging (and micro-blogging) can be one way of processing stuff, both for self and others, and my early posts on this latest attempt at keeping a blog have been useful in helping me to order my thoughts and think more about sharing ideas rather than just taking them in.  I’ve been motivated to see the reality of that by some retweets of information I’ve shared that I thought was pretty mundane common knowledge. As someone once said, it is in giving that we receive.

Even though I’ve not got round to blogging on some of the things I’ve been thinking about over the past week or so, I’m determined to put that right with the breathing space of the Easter break, and hopefully get into good habits that I can continue.

(Other people in similar circumstances manage it, so why shouldn’t I?…