Does Teacher Training Know Too Much?

Question: What happens when you call a cup, a cup?

Answer: It stops being any number of things that it could have been:  a hat, a dragon’s nose, a weapon, a drum, a shoe, etc, etc.

This morning, I had a blazing argument slash friendly chat with colleagues in the staffroom over this very point. We weren’t originally talking about cups though; we were talking about teacher training. In light of the fact that so many schools are failing to hire the required staff, it quickly became apparent that many teachers believe in competencies; the idea that there is a pre-defined list of things that a good teacher should or could be able to do.

I disagree with this position, for the same reason that I think you shouldn’t go round calling a cup a cup. As soon as you begin to codify ‘good’ teaching, you effectively limit the possibilities of what good teaching could be. Every step towards definition closes a door of possibility. The dangers of this are twofold. First, it works against a culture of innovation and second, it establishes a culture of deficit and insecurity. Think about it for a minute: if there is a definite list slash criteria that a ‘good’ teacher should adhere to, anyone entering the profession is immediately faced with a list of things they cannot do or may not be able to do.

This, surely is crippling. It’s no wonder that schools are struggling to attract teachers, when the expectations are so restrictive. It’s not a question of standards – obviously, teachers should be aiming for excellence and competence – it’s a question of approach. Do we know what we are asking new teachers to step into? And are we choking their potential before it’s had a chance to flourish?

Exploring the unknown unknown

Too much of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) seems to be hung up on what we can call ‘the known knowns’, the things we know to work or not work, as proven by experience or research. Whatever. The known unknowns are slightly more interesting; ie: the things we know we don’t know, such as whether a skills-based curriculum is better than a knowledge-based curriculum, or whether PBL is better than a linear scheme of work for fostering student engagement.

My argument here is that our energy is best spent contemplating the unknown unknowns; the things we never even realised we didn’t know that we might one day discover. The things that might revolutionise our ideas and lead to unpredictable successes in the future. If we accept the unknown, it changes the realms of possibility. Once upon a time, humans believed ourselves to be the centre of the universe, placing ourselves atop a ludicrous and lofty metaphysical throne. Then Galileo came along with his home-made telescope and discovered that we are floating in one of trillions of galaxies. This simultaneously dethroned us while opening up new realms of possibility regarding space and the universe. Rather than naval-gazing and wondering how we came to be so amazing, humans could finally start contemplating the awesome mysteries of the great unknowns. With trillions of galaxies out there, it becomes frankly stupid to position yourself as anything but an explorer.

So too with teaching? I think so. I often tell people that, in my eyes, I am not a teacher seeking some preset goal of pedagogic perfection but am in fact undergoing ongoing action research. And the more I know, the more I don’t know. Questions foster questions and the the grappling with new ideas is what fuels my development. Like Galileo, surely our innovation should be fuelled by curiousity and innovation?

Case in point: skateboarding. Bear with me. See, the skateboarding community is an excellent example of a learning community that feeds itself with its own curiousity over the unknown. There was a time when no-one ever made a skateboard jump with their feet, while moving. Then, one day, someone, in a moment of inspired, imaginative innovation did it. The ‘ollie’ was born. This was then fed back into the community, and new skaters took it and tweaked it, spinning the board (a ‘shove-it’) or flipping the board (a ‘kick flip’) or making it jump front first (a ‘nollie’). All of these moves were, before the ollie was born, part of an unknown unknown – beyond the realms of possibility.

Now, you have a catalogue of moves that a new skater in 2015 is aware of and can learn, but the possibilities are still infinite. The tricks keep coming because skaters aren’t happy with an inventory of moves passed on from some predefined canon of manoeuvres.

Can you imagine if this is what teaching was like? If new teachers were stepping into a community of innovation fuelled by curiousity, informed by but not limited by the past? It would change everything. I’ve said in previous posts that the human brain is designed to innovate – why not embrace this and start all training right there? Explore the knowns as a means of exposing the unknowns. Mystical.

So, does experience matter?

At this point, you may be wondering if experience holds any relevance if the job of a new addition to a community is to explore and invent, rather than to simply gain mastery of existing skills. Good question. I have an anecdote that might be useful.

In a recent interview lesson a prospective art teacher presented the kids with the task of designing a set for a theatrical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘The BFG’. Where do you start, he asked them. And of course, he was met with blank stares. He then proceeded to blindfold the kids and started reading ‘The BFG’ alongside music, asking them to draw instinctively as he read. Then, he removed the blindfold and talked through what they had drawn, cutting out the shapes and fixing them together in a 3D diorama. This was the first draft of the theatre set.

Brilliant, isn’t it? In 15 minutes, this guy had opened doors to unknown creative possibilities, using his expertise to make sense of innovative experiments. His mastery was guiding innovation, not stifling it. (Coincidentally, he wasn’t a teacher.)

Ultimately, we need to remove the barbed wire of expectation from ITT. Perhaps then teachers, new and not-so-new, might feel free to explore their profession and make innovations for the benefit of the teaching community at large. Something to think about.

-Unseen Flirtations

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Beyond Blame: Understanding ‘bad’ behaviour

Activity 1: Think of the last time you got upset at a student. I mean really upset. What happened? What did they do? What did you do? Did you issue some kind of punishment? A detention? A lecture? Did you try to mend their ways? How? Did it work? And most importantly of all, why did you take that particular course of action? What was really going on?

Well, two things were really going on. First, you were assigning blame. You believed that the student in question chose (on some level) to behave how they did and therefore could have chosen to behave otherwise. This frustrated you no end, especially seeing that by now, they should be able to make the right behavioural choices to meet the super-objective of getting through school.

Second, you were attempting to modify their behaviour. In that terse and eloquent speech you delivered, eyes locked in fury, you were doing all you could to make that kid realise the error of their ways. You knew that they could make the right behavioural choices, so you were encouraging them to remember their wrong-doing and fix it next time. My first question to you is this: how useful is a belief in blame if you’re trying to modify undesirable behaviour? Tricky stuff.

Activity 2: Imagine the future.

Imagine checking your pigeon hole for next year’s timetable.

Imagine checking your pigeon hole for next year’s timetable and finding detailed class profiles.

Imagine if these profiles offered information on not simply academic progress, but behavioural limitations.

Imagine if these limitations were based on infallible scientific evidence.

Imagine if the nuances of human behaviour have been neuroscientifically deciphered. Imagine if we had a detailed understanding of which parts of the brain were responsible for which behaviours. Imagine if every single one of us came with a detailed neurological map of chemical balances, environmental influences and genetic codings that fully explained our behaviours in a way that was as easy to read as the colour of our eyes. Imagine if we regarded behaviour and impulse in the same way we currently regard allergies and medical conditions. Imagine if we didn’t blame a student for being distracted, or belligerent, or disruptive. Imagine if we didn’t praise a student for being hard working, or polite, or calm, or responsive to feedback. Carol Dweck has already taught us that we shouldn’t praise students for ‘being good’ or ‘being clever’. Imagine if we didn’t praise them for having a growth mindset?

Imagine if that future was now. Because it sort of is.

Activity 3: Google ‘neuroscience human behaviour’. Even a cursory glance at page one of the results will reveal compelling evidence that behaviour is a complex balance of genetic disposition, chemical balances, developmental trackings and environmental influences. We’ve come a long way from attempting to exorcise demons out of people prone to fits of physical spasms; we now treat them for epilepsy. And controversial or not, we know that the administration of certain drugs can suppress some disruptive behaviours in children. We even have a column on our aforementioned class lists for behavioural and social development issues, right alongside the column for Special Educational Needs. We understand that factors beyond conscious control may be responsible for different behaviours, desirable or not.

But do we care? Think back to the last time you got upset at a student, now add to it all of the frustrating conversations you’ve had over the past year. All the end-of-movie-courtroom speeches you’ve delivered about kids throwing away their futures. All the treacly see-saws over homework submission, or lack of. All the raised volume verbal beat downs you’ve administered in the attempt to get some kid to realise the damage their behaviour has caused. Why have you done this?

In the final chapters of his excellent book on the hidden machinations of the human brain, ‘Incognito’, David Eagleman highlights the concept of  ‘blameworthiness’ in society’s efforts to respond to criminal activity. Blameworthiness, he argues, is what the legal system tends to lean towards in its delivery of justice. To what extent can an individual can be ‘blamed’ for their actions? He then argues that a neuroscientific approach to behaviour makes this a redundant debate. Would you ‘blame’ someone with no legs for being unable to kick a ball?

Rather than ‘blameworthiness’, he suggests that a better focus might be the ‘modifiability’ of criminal types. Can they be altered just enough to make them socially safe, without the need for complete removal from society at large? This, in short, is the impulse behind rehabilitation and corrective incarceration, rather than simple imprisonment or, in the most extreme scenarios, execution.

The good news is that as educators, we seem to believe in modifiability. Think back again to that list of frustrating interactions you have had this year. If you really, truly believed in blame as the primary factor, you wouldn’t have even wasted your breath. Like the legal systems of old (and recent, actually), you would have simply assessed the extent of the crime and issued a fitting punishment. And if the crime was particularly abhorrent (let’s say, forgetting to put the lid back on a tube of Pritt-Stick) then you simply would have removed that child from your class forever, for the benefit of society as a whole.

See, the truth of the matter is that teachers believe that children can change. We have to, otherwise our jobs would be futile. We already believe what biology has proven, that the physiological development of a human is ongoing. Young people are in flux until they become older people and the circuity becomes hard-wired. You can see this reflected in legal systems across the globe: most societies operate with an age of criminal responsibility.

Ken Robinson, in his much viewed TED talk, ‘Changing Education Paradigms’, suggests that society readily over-diagnoses ADD and ADHD in its attempt to make every child fit a desirable behavioural template. Rightly so, he lambasts this approach as clumsy and dangerous, in that it fails to accept the nuances of human behaviour. Like the frontal lobe lobotomies of the 1950s, (in which criminals had their frontal lobes severed, leaving them unable to commit crimes but equally unable to be a fully functioning human being) searching for medical ‘solutions’ to behaviour is a kind of brutal modification that is clearly rooted in blame theory. You can’t sit still Jimmy, so we’ll fix you. And you deserve our treatment plus its nasty side effects because you CAN’T SIT STILL JIMMY.

Where I think Ken Robinson’s ideas need further interrogation is in the impulse behind the diagnosis of behavioural conditions such as ADD and ADHD. Is it an evil plan from the shady powers-that-be to create societal automatons, or something less malevolent? Is it in fact a desperation to ensure that children become ‘socialised’ before it is too late?

And so to the point of this essay. Schools, I believe are institutions of socialisation. I’ve spent four years helping to develop a school with a profound interest in well-being, which underpins everything from behaviour to academic progress. In our version of Parents’ Evening, each student talks about their progress and development as a person, with reference to various manifestations of this progress via school work and school experiences. Students reflect on their past and contemplate their futures, making sense of their impulses, choices and potential futures; their behaviour, in the broadest possible sense of the word.

And we wrestle with the frustrations of unmodified behaviour on a daily basis. That kid who defies authority today will have to deal with authority as an adult tomorrow, so we go through endless tweaks of her actions in the (desperate?) hope that she will be able to undergo a useful modification, before the frontal lobe becomes set. That kid who takes no responsibility for his actions now will be thrown to the wolves of a legal system that offers no second chances tomorrow, so we sit him in detention and ask him to reflect on his actions, hoping (desperately?) that the sting of punishment will complement the pillows of counselling. In this, it has become abundantly clear to me that much teacher energy is spent on socialising students; getting them ready for a world in which their behaviour will determine their fate.

If this is ultimately what 21st century schooling is, then the real job of the teacher must be acknowledged as thus. We are not simple subject specialists who deliver content. We are not only curriculum designers who foster cognitive engagement with interesting ideas. We are, perhaps, modifiers of behaviour, steering that final environmental course on the last stop towards socialisation.

In all of this, perhaps we need to be understanders of behaviour above all else, something that successive Education Secretaries seem to get wrong with astonishing alacrity. Case in point: the government’s recent appointment of a so-dubbed ‘behaviour tsar’. At a time when teachers are writing fifteen hundred word blog posts on the subtle shades of student behaviour, it seems a retrograde step to draft in ‘experts’ who believe behaviour management is simply a case of ‘sensible strategies that maximise learning’. Yes it sounds reasonable enough, but it falls short of the true debate at hand; do we even understand what ‘bad behaviour’ is? As Eagleman writes of the legal system:

“Effective law requires effective behavioural models: understanding not just how we would like people to behave, but how they actually behave.”

Something to think about.

-Unseen Flirtations

Teaching: When should we stop inventing the wheel?

This year, I have developed or collaborated on no less than five different systems for mid-term curriculum planning. I have spent the year seeking out examples of ‘best practice’ among my department which I have diligently recorded in an ever-growing spreadsheet, seemingly sprawling into some infinite future. I have created new resources for every single unit I have taught, including those units that I have taught one, twice, three or four times before. And my lessons have been a string of experiments in new ideas and pedagogies, born of ongoing debate with my colleagues.

To use CV speak, I am currently in my eighth year of teaching and entering my fourth year at my present school. So why does my job still resemble a training ground of experimental practice and revisioning what has already been revisioned?

The obvious (and hopelessly erroneous) answer is that I am a perfectionist. You hear this a lot in professional circles; individuals who either claim to be perfectionists and say so in order to validate insecurities over their performance (which more or less everyone has) and those people who point the finger at ‘perfectionists’ as somehow inefficient and unable to prioritise properly (bad managers). This is not the case, though I once thought it was. I once thought, maybe not explicitly but somewhere in my psyche, that there was such thing as ‘best practice’, a kind of pedagogical holy grail that could be sought, achieved and held on to into long the grey UPS years. At the end of year one at my current school, I spent a very frustrating summer term trying  to document and package all the best practice that we had evolved/ stumbled upon/ conjoured/ delete as appropriate since September.

But the fact is that best practice is a myth. Last year, a much celebrated Head teacher/ super-Head/ guru/ Executive Head/ delete as appropriate took me to one side and, Obi Wan like, explained the significance of next practice over best practice; the idea that teachers should be continually looking towards the next best thing rather than searching round and round for THE best thing. A subtle and useful distinction, yes, but that still doesn’t quite address my year of wheel invention.

‘Why reinvent the wheel?’ is a question that many managerial types might throw at their subordinates in the search for greater efficiency. Why not take what works and roll that out? Or, (for the funkier managers out there) why not take what works and roll that out, with a few tweaks? You can see the logic, but what this practical and logistical approach to teaching fails to recognise is twofold: 1) that inventing the wheel is an engaging challenge and 2) that a wheel can be invented over and over again.

In his book on the hidden machinations of the human brain, ‘Incognito’, neuroscientist David Eagleman posits the idea that much of our brain’s powers of invention lie not in its ability to find THE solution, but in its tendency to keep on looking for solutions even when a perfectly good solution has been found. To put it simply, the brain is hard wired to work out different ways of achieving set goals. It’s the difference (to steal an analogy) between the handyman with one tool  vs the handyman with 100 toolkits. Even if the hammer is missing, handyman B can use a wrench, or spanner, or whatever. Handyman A, with the lonely screwdriver, might be at a loss.

In neurological terms this is best evidenced in Alzheimer’s sufferers. In layperson’s terms, the disease works by corroding parts of the brain that deal with certain functions, therefore leaving the sufferer unable to carry out said functions. However, many people (those who routinely kept mentally active by doing puzzles, creating art, reading interesting blog posts, etc) who think they are Alzheimer’s-free actually may have the disease, but never ever notice. Why? Because their active minds have worked out new and various ways of completing tasks that their corroded brain should be incapable of. To quote Eagleman:

“Evolve solutions; when you find a good one, don’t stop.”

As we should strive for in teaching? I think so. The only way to stay sharp in this game is to keep your tools flinty and assume there is always another way. This, I believe, is the motivation behind the continual wheel invention that typifies many teachers’ day-to-day experiences. We keep on looking for solutions, even when, or especially when, perfectly adequate solutions have been found. In practice, this looks like many of the behaviours described earlier:

  • Going off-piste on existing schemes of work
  • Re-inventing established units of work
  • Developing new ways to plan
  • Spending meaningful energy on reflection and self-critique
  • Using debate to generate pedagogic theory
  • Approaching each and every lesson as a blank page
  • Interrogating existing ‘norms’ and accepted truths about teaching
  • Etc

In all of this, the role and purpose of experience becomes interesting. Does it help the perpetual evolution of solutions by giving a broad context of what has and has not worked? Or does it hinder progress by offering too many ‘successful’ wheels to fall back on? Something to think about.

For a far more detailed insight into these neurological ideas, I highly recommend reading ‘Incognito’ by David Eagleman. For a far richer debate on how this might impact upon your teaching, I highly recommend talking about this blog post with your colleagues.

‘Taut’

Nari looked down at the splashback on his beige chinos and wondered how long it would take for the droplets to dry off. He shook his hands limply and another few drops materialised on his thighs. He sighed. No paper towels again. His phone buzzed in his pocket. A fly buzzed too close past his ear. He swatted uselessly. The bell bleeped urgently from the corridor beyond.  First break over. Period three.

With a final glance at his somewhat stern reflection in the mirror, Nari scooped up his pile of A4 photocopies and gripped a wet hand on the now slippery grey handle. He only had twelve copies and he needed about twenty-six for 10F. The machine had jammed mid-run and he’d needed the toilet. There might be time now before the second bell, he thought to himself absently, optimistically.

Nari stepped into the corridor and joined a sea of movement, drifting in seemingly every direction, all heights and angles and acrylic, black blazers. A hundred faces he could recall by name, a thousand voices adding to the static of his day. He looked left in the general direction of his classroom and pinched his temples lightly. He could feel the makings of a migraine closing in, that dull throb ready to explode in eye-closing pressure pain.

“Sorry sir.”

Matthew Fearnley had walked right into him, lost in some conversation of other with Arshaq and Javon.

“You’re alright. Listen, Matt, could you do me a favour and –”

The boys were gone.

Nari clicked his teeth together in a firm bite of the molars and commenced strafing around an out-sized Year 7 rucksack, raising an elbow in an attempt to avoid making unnecessary contact with an outsized Year 7 head. His phone buzzed in his pocket again. His hands were dry now. The second bell went. The corridors thinned.

Nari broke into a useless trot that was essentially the same speed as his usual walk and rounded a corner towards the repographics room. A queue of two and an abandoned machine, doors open like a hatchback on the hard shoulder.

“I’ll leave it,” he said, more to himself than anyone else, and U-turned into the corridor on route to 10F. The lesson had started.

 

Taut

a lesson, by Unseen Flirtations

 

“Sir, you’re late.”

Nari turned to see a mousey-haired, bright faced girl tapping at her wrist where a watch would have been, had she been wearing one.

“So are you,” he replied, keeping stride.

“I was helping Miss,” she declared, grinning. He returned the smile and strode on ahead.

“Why do teachers always walk so fast?”

“Because we’re always busy and –”

His phone buzzed in his pocket. Again. Three texts in five minutes. It must be Lea.

“–and time’s running out. Could you do me a favour and go hand out the books? I’ll get this lot in.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thanks, Emma.”

Nari reached the open door and classroom and glanced inside at the compiled chaos of periods one and two. How did it always get like this? Books on tables, inexplicable pen lids strewn over dragged tufts of carpet, peeling bordette edging curling upwards away from long-obsolete displays, the kids that drew those posters will be paying a student loan soon, chairs untucked from desks askew, a lonely pile of Opal Fruit wrappers, they always manage to eat unseen, a handful of unglued worksheets, spread listlessly over matte grey table tops.

He mused briefly on when and if he might ever get his room in order before turning his attention to the twenty-seven 14 and 15 year-old people stood chatting in front of him, politely awaiting minute by minute instruction on the next 50 minutes of their adolescent lives. A sharp twist in the sinus. He thought back to the breakfast he should have had earlier and squinted one eye closed.

“Right guys, listen up… Guys… Hey, Will, I’m not going to stand here waiting for you to stop talking about– Guys…

 

Oi!”

They quietened.

Thank you. Listen, when we get in, new page, title, date, and have a look on the board. There’s a — boys — there’s a little question to think about. Straight away, yeah? Andrew, lead in.”

The chatter had drifted back.

“Mr Pau-aul…”

Two syllables in sing-song petulance.

“Are we still doing Educating Riii-ta?”

She put the emphasis on the “Ri” in a subtle but effective confirmation of the play’s utter banality in her universe.

“It’s bor-ring…” she continued, drawing out the “ing” in a slow whine of despair. Chancie was a poet.

You’re boring. In.”

A few muffled “oohs”, a “you can’t say that, Sir,” and the rest of 10F shuffled into step, automatons set in motion towards the usual destinations, the usual seats. 11.03am.

 

Nari bundled towards his desk and dumped his twelve crumpled sheets of A4 on the seat of his swivel chair. He swiftly retrieved his phone from his pocket and slid its smudged, dark, screen into life. Two texts, one dropped call. All from Lea. He noticed his heart beat in his chest, just the once, and tried to ignore the pinpricks of light puncturing his peripheral vision. He swallowed, staring intently at the box that had appeared beneath his index finger.

 

I’ve been to the c–

 

“Sir me and Flora need to quickly go to the toilet she needs to go and I need to go with her it’s important can we go.”

Nari bungeed back into B16. He looked up sharply at Izzy, huddled conspiratorially with Flora by the door of the classroom, a lion tamer’s distance from his desk. For a brief moment, he didn’t really see either of them. And it was in this moment that he chose to make his answer.

“Sit down.”

A pause. A stare. A glare. One slow blink.

“Fine then…”

The girls began to drift reluctantly to their seats, Izzy fixing one final glare at Nari that he completely failed to notice. He slid his phone back into his pocket. He’d look at it later. He’d think about it later. During lunch, after canteen duty. Maybe. No frees today so it was that or after department meeting after school.

He parked a seat on the emptiest available corner of his desk and, folding his arms, surveyed the room. A familiar scene: Five kids still standing, rummaging through rucksacks, Will, holding court with Ben and Jake, heads back, laughing, books closed, naturally, Chancie turned 180 degrees in full flow conversation with Christy, both books closed, naturally, Matthew in deep conference with Javon and Arshaq, maybe discussing the picture on the whiteboard? Probably not. Yusuf and Dimi, books open minus title and date, reclining, hands in pockets somehow, impossibly casual.  Zila sat staring, Andrew sat staring, another two universes, Asjad and Heba underling in the title and date, A stars in the making, Emma distributing the last book… Izzy at the wrong table again, whispering to Flora, as per, Flora – head down, silent. Both books closed, of course. Et cetera.

Unfolding his arms and resting both palms on either side of his desk, Nari shifted his weight and considered asking Izzy to go to her seat. Probably wasn’t worth the conflict. Almost two years he had been teaching that girl and they still hadn’t really thawed. Which was a shame, because they still had over a year to go. It wasn’t her fault – She was just a bit of an attention-seeking egomaniac with debilitating authority issues most days, that’s all. He should probably do the register, before he forgot, he thought to himself, idly, before allowing himself to realise that all in all, only four students seemed to have made what might be called a decent start to the lesson. He squinted, and rose to his feet.

“So, no-one’s got anything interesting to say about the Simpsons picture then?”

Pause.

“Si-ir, it’s the Simp-sons…”

“Bart’s in a nappy…”

“I’ve seen this one. He gets expelled.”

“He always gets expelled.”

“Don’t you think Emma’s blatantly like Lisa?”

“Simpsons is dead. Family Guy!”

“Innit.”

“What has this got to do with Educating Ri-ta?”

“Whoa… Hang on, guys, hang on… Not all at once!”

Nari was centre stage, gesturing to the frozen whiteboard. A TDA advert.

“Alright, look, I’ll give you ninety seconds. Come up with something interesting you notice. Anything at all. Write it down – and you can talk you your neighbour. Quietly.”

He glanced at Izzy and did a magpie’s flick towards her empty seat next to Heba.

“Go.”

“I’m GOing, GOD!”

Izzy had replied, swept up her belongings, pushed back her seat and made four strides towards the table in question almost before Nari had finished speaking. He inhaled with no intention of exhaling any time soon and looked down at his watch. In teacher-speak, Ninety Seconds could mean anything from ten actual seconds to five and a half minutes. He looked up, scanning the room and wondered if now might be the time to go get those photocopies, before realising, again, with mild irritation, that he still had yet to complete the register. Another wave of dull pain surfed over his right eye. Nurofen would be nice.

“Sir.”

The deep, monotone voice belonged to the sloping, athletic teen now standing, bagless, in the doorway. Face impassive, expression nil. Late, again, without bag, again, and of course, wearing a loosely-laced pair of Nike instead of the regulation black leather lace-ups.

“Marcus.” A statement of fact rather than a greeting. Nari hadn’t realised he hadn’t been there.

“Marcus, where are your shoes?”

He thought back to last Thursday’s whole-staff briefing. Ofsted had highlighted scruffiness and uniform as a whole-school ‘cause for concern’. Therefore all staff (including admin) were to be responsible for making sure these kids were dressed properly. If SLT came through on a learning walk and spotted a tie undone or rogue trainer under a desk, they’d be asking him what went wrong. Another unnecessary headache.

“Note?”

“I haven’t got one Sir.”

Both their tones were bordering apologetic.

“Okay, you know the drill – go and find your form tutor and get one. Then bring it to me. TEN seconds left!” he added, arching back to the now seated class.

“Alright.”

“Be quick.”

Marcus was gone.

Nari stood and felt the weight of his phone shift in its pocket. He’d think about it later. 11.06.

“Right then.”

Pulling himself into the moment, he grabbed a dry wipe marker from his desk and yanked the lid off, before throwing it carelessly back into the  scattered confusion of papers and stationery.

“Who’s got something?”

Nothing.

“Ok, let’s do a train.”

Someone sniggered. Nari continued.

“Let’s get… five -no, six responses. Starting with… Heba.” He caught her blank expression and felt a swinging gate of regret closing in on his thin enthusiasm. “Heba – you choose who’s next. I’ll scribe. Pens in hands, people. BOYS, we’ve started, wake up. Heba? Go.”

Nothing.

“Come on Heba, there’s no right answer here – what did you notice? Izzy do you mind?”

“Sir, I’m talking about the work.”

Nari exhaled, slowly.

“Fine. What did you notice.”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

Pause. An audible yawn from a table near the back. Then a volley of syllables.

“It’s just the Simpsons there’s Bart and he’s got a hat on, whatever, it’s stupid. Sir.”

The condescending addition of pitch-perfect sarcasm. Everyone heard it. Nari felt the atmosphere shift ever so slightly in the direction of a spectator sport. Not today. Why was she being like this? He chewed his lower lip and stared, trying, unsuccessfully, to figure it all out. Looking over the room, his eye caught Ana A’s uncomprehending, quizzically blank expression. With a pang of guilt, he remembered he hadn’t differentiated  any of this for her. His eye darted over to Andrew Baines, social algae, destined weirdo. Equally blank, even less comprehending. Deep breath.

“Ok, so he looks stupid. Pick the next person Heba.”

Heba stirred and looked around slowly, as if seeing most of her classmates for the first time.

“Um… Um… …. Um…”

11.07. Nari grimaced. Often, he found it hard to explain to people what made his job so difficult. Friends of friends would shake their heads in pantomime disbelief and tell him how they “could never work with teenagers,” before asking, in a slow hush, how he kept them under control. But it wasn’t that.  It wasn’t even the emotional abuse the kids sometimes put him through. No, what made his job so unforgiving were moments like this. Moments of sheer, uncompromising reticence in the face of a ticking clock. Reluctance met with incompetence. Dragging an experience out of those unable and forward-slash or unwilling to live it out for themselves. It was painful.

He scanned the room and thought about getting Asjad or Christy or Emma or Jalani to get the discussion moving. The usual suspects. The reliable few. No, that would be cheating. He threw the whiteboard pen, lidless, back into the viney tangles of his desk. Time to earn that Nurofen.

“Ok, scrap that. Hands up who’s ever seen an episode of the Simpsons.”

A zombie raise of arms.

“Ok ok, now keep your hands up if you’ve seen, or read, or actually, if you’ve even  heard of ‘A Clockwork Orange’…

A sea of hands fall leaving only two. Yusuf and Dimi of course. Boys born out of their era, who have seen everything, heard of everything. All the cult classics, all the memes, all the websites. Nari let it play and gestured towards them with a “please, continue” roll of the wrist.

Basically, it’s this crap film? from like, the nineteen sixties or something? that got banned because there’s like a rape scene? or something? It was on youtube.”

Dimi always spoke in a trustafarian drawl.

“No clothes on anybody. Sickening,” added Yusuf. The pair started chuckling, duveted up, as always, in some bemusing private joke. Nari chose to ignore them and started pacing the room.

“Exactly right, Dimi. Give yourself a put on the back.”

He dutifully obeyed and Nari continued, moving the powerpoint presentation on one slide.

“‘A Clockwork Orange’ is originally a book by this guy called Anthony Burgess. British guy. He wrote it in the 60s I think, after his wife was attacked in a burglary. It was horrible – she was, she was beaten and raped. And killed. He was beaten too. He saw it all happen.”

Undivided attention.

“Now, Burgess,” Nari plucked a copy of the novel out from a shelf at the back of room and brandished it like holy water to thirsty vampires. “Burgess was so traumatised by what happened that he had to write about it.”

“Why?”

Nari shrugged.

“Sometimes, when an experience is that traumatic, I guess you have to turn it into art… to… to make sense out of it.”

Jalani nodded, slowly, and wrote something down under her un-underliend date and title.

“So,” Nari resumed pacing, making sure to look every student directly in the eye as he spoke. “Anthony Burgess turned his tragedy into this novel. And it shocked everyone.”  The floor was his.

“What’s it about?”

“It’s about kids like you, Ben. Teenagers. Boys. Who go out, get high on milk laced with these mad drugs and look for people to rape and beat up and stab and stuff. It’s a dystopia. It’s pretty sick.”

There was a slight buzz of chatter as 10F worked to comprehend what Mr Paul was telling them. Nari struggled to suppress a smile. Those that can, he thought to himself.

“Actually, the main character has the same name as one of you lot…”

“Archie!” someone called out, met with a respectful smattering of laughter. Arshaq lolled left to right in his chair, welcoming the notoriety and exchanging an inaudible few words with Javon. Nari carried on, missing their slanted glances towards Flora.

“Nope. Alex!” Nari pointed the thin paperback at Alex, sat whispering next to the ever-silent Jeremy at the back of the class. “And he looks like this.”

The powerpoint skipped forward.

“Yeah, looks like something Alex would wear,” offered Will, to a smattering of laughter. Alex didn’t respond.

Nari made his way back to the front, stopping briefly to retrieve a pen that had rolled off Mandy’s desk. She smiled as he placed it by her exercise book and breathed a silent ‘thank you.’

“So,” he continued, “looks like we’ve started, people. That ‘stupid’ outfit Bart is wearing is an allusion to ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

He threw the paperback down in front of Chancie, for effect, causing her to turn towards Christy and pull the lower half of face back, in mock shock.

“It’s an example of intertextuality.”

Mixed reception. Time to let them go.

“Right guys, three minutes – I want a definition of allusion and a definition of intertextuality. Arshaq, you might need a pen for this one, yeah?”

“It’s Archie, man…”

Nari thought back to his own school days, the years spent avoiding ‘Narinder’ and smiled to himself.

“Let’s go. Three minutes then we work out what we use it for.”

He found his chair, lifted the papers off it and slumped into the plastic-backed green felt. He needed a nap. But he also needed to get those photocopies. 11.09.

Decision made, Nari, clicked the powerpoint on one slide and started speaking, to no-one in particular, at a volume that everybody could hear.

“When you’re done with your definitions, check in a dictionary and start thinking about why intertextuality is important. It’s on the board, yeah? Christy – you’re in charge.”

She cocked an elbow and raised one finger in response, not bothering to look up from her page. A swell of laughter bubbled from the boys’ table in the middle of the room, presumably about something unconnected to the lesson

“I’ll be checking on what you’ve done, boys – five minutes.”

A few reluctantly picked up pens.

In a single well-practiced motion, Nari rose to his feet, slid his phone out of his pocket and made for the door, making sure to pluck a single sheet from the crumpled dozen on his desk. He felt a quiet throb of the sinus as he did so and wondered if it was worth swinging past the new staffroom to go nick some paracetemol from someone. Probably not. Knowing his luck, SLT would come by on a learning walk as soon as he left. Better not to be out longer than necessary.

The corridors were quiet. Nari strode briskly past classrooms, hearing the acute pitch of teachers wrestling with despondency, or the low buzz of 30 adolescent voices, hard at chat. Register, he remembered with irritation. That’ll be yet another passive aggressive email at the end of the day then, all caps shout in the subject line, Re: REGISTER. He looked at his watch. Probably not enough time to watch the Simpsons and Terminator 2 clips he’d ripped from youtube last night. Hours it had taken him; searching for the right clips, downloading a downloader, downloading the right codec so he could save the files, emailing them to himself ahead of today… and all the while Lea asking if he was coming to bed. He hadn’t in the end, and she had been breathing softly, a furrowed brow even in slumber, back turned from his side of the double, when he eventually crept into the room.

He considered giving her a call, then reached the repographics room. No queue this time – just one machine whirring away, spewing out what looked like maths worksheets while the abandoned hatchback remained abandoned. He hit the cancel button and punched in his copy code, automatically. How many copies? Let’s just call it twenty. Single sided, black and white. No time to cut them in half – Emma would do it. Print.

The machine kicked into life and Nari considered allowing himself to reminisce about that other existence. The coffees in the morning, the lunches, the adhoc, brunchy meetings and idle minutes on Facebook, flexible hours and off-peak holidays, meeting Lea for long lunches and cinema visits… But this was better, surely. Realler people. Making a difference. Better challenges. Daily. Four years and counting. Why not.

The machine spat out its final sheet and Nari took the warm pile, before logging out. Macbeth and Frankenstein. Frank and Rita. They’ll get this, he thought. A few more marks on the coursework, at least.

10F were as he left them when he returned.

“Any trouble, Christy?”

She raised an eyebrow and pursed her lips in a perfect dumbshow of “don’t even go there, sir.” Nari echoed her face, subconsciously, which made her smile. 11.14.

“Alright everyone, listen up.  Guys… thank you- guys… In two minutes – yeah – in two minutes we’ll be feeding back on why intertextuality is important. Have a look on the board if you don’t know what to do.” Loud voice. Then, more quietly, to Emma.

“Emma, could you do me a favour and cut these in half, please.”

It was like having an intern.

“Don’t hand them out yet though – just leave them on my desk.”

Or a PA.

“Er, your desk is a mess, Sir?  I’ll leave them at the back. Where you can find them.”

Or a mum.

“Thanks Emma.”

Time to circulate.

Nari started to drift around the room in a slow infinity loop, peering over shoulders, gesturing towards unruled dates and titles, prompting notes, replacing pens, checking paragraphs, et cetera. A mixed bag so far, but everyone had written something, even if it was only the words Allusion and Intertextuality.

“Javon, have you and Matthew checked those definitions yet. Arshaq – you?”

“It’s Archie. Get it right, man.”

They were clever those boys. Nari knew they’d get the work done. He turned his attention elsewhere. Alex in a low whisper with Jeremy, busy scribbling on a tattered page. Mandy in a huddle with Ana, leaning across and pointing at something in Andrew’s book, talking them through what must have seemed like a foreign language. Of course, to Ana, it was, and to Andrew… Algae. Who knew. Meanwhile, Zila sat, half turned away from her desk partner, Christy, a few faint lines traced over her page. Recognisably words, but only just. Will, Ben, Jake, dictionaries open, laughing. Always laughing. But they got the work done. Jal scowling disapprovingly at Yusuf and Dimi, most probably being idiots again. Flora, working, Asjad, working, Chancie, frowning, Heba, working.

Then, Izzy.

“Izzy, you haven’t written anything.”

She  blinked once and turned to face him with a steady glare.

“What?”

He chose to ignore.

“You haven’t written anything. Your page – it’s blank.”

He could feel the headache creeping back into play. Silence from Izzy.

“This too hard for you?”

Baiting her. He couldn’t help it. Deep down, Nari knew there must be something wrong, definitely, but he didn’t have the knowledge, wherewithal or requisite inclination to investigate any further.  Izzy had been quieter than usual today, certainly, but this complete refusal to comply was a sharper stab  of non-compliance than calling out or talking out of turn.  He dropped to a crouch, putting them at eye-level and she instinctively turned away.

“Izzy, if you won’t do this, you can’t stay in here today. You know this.”

She looked over the class, through his lecture. Through him.

“Let’s not do this,” he continued, inadvertently borrowing firefight phrases from recent conversations with Lea. “I’m coming back to check in five and I want to see your notes. Okay? Okay?”

Izzy swept her gaze away from the room and down on to her empty page. She mumbled something in response and started writing the title in ballooning red pen.

“Not in red, Izzy,” he stated, unfolding himself to a stand.

She muttered something else in response. Nari was half certain it was a ‘fuck’s sake’, but thought against wading in. He swallowed it and breathed sharply in out, through the nose. Back to the front.

“So,” a clap of the hands. “What have we — Jake, tell us what you wrote down there. Intertextuality is important because–”

Nari’s decidedly sure tone and quiver-straight delivery meant that Jake didn’t, on this occasion, have the chance to make decision on his participation. Sometimes, most times, perhaps every lesson, it was force of personality that got you through. Nari widened his eyes in benevolent invitation.

“Well, it can help you sort of, know a character.”

Nari had retried the lidless marker from his desk and was busy writing INSIGHT on the board.

“Go on.”

“Um, well, like, if Bart’s dressed like this crazy rapist for fancy dress, we know he must be pretty, like, messed up.”

“Exactly.”  INSIGHT INTO CHARACTER. Arrow. SYMBOLIC. “Get this stuff written down guys, I’m not writing this for my own benefit. Good work Jake, pick the next person.”

A few hands started waving, accompanied by the obligatory, urgently whispered ‘Pick Me’s’.

“Ben.”

“Go.”

Ben freestyled.

“It… it kind of makes the Simpson’s… deeper, in a way.”

“What do you mean?” D-E-P

“Well, I mean that, you might not know anything about that book or that film with the gangs in it, but when you do, it’s like, like some kind of secret knowledge.”

“So you’re saying that intertextuality can add depth to a text?” DEPTH. Arrow DEEPER INSIGHT.

“Yeah, it’s deeper.”

“Alright. Next person.”

“Jal,” Ben said with a playful finality. Jalani responded with a sticking out of the tongue and coy squint. They were having fun.

“Jal, you’re on. What else? Feel free to elaborate if you haven’t got anything new.”

Basically, we thought it’s kind of… funny? I mean like, Bart’s just a kid, but he’s dressed up like some violent rapist guy.”

“How’s that funny?” Chancie interrupted.

“Good question,” added Nari, throwing and catching the pen in lazy flick. He glanced towards the door. They never came in when the lesson was in full flow.

“I just mean that its- it’s kind of,” she struggled for the right word. “-extreme. Which is funny.”

“Yeah, I see what you mean…” EXTREME. Arrow. “It can amplify our understanding of a character or situation.” AMPLIFIES CHARACTER. “We know more about Bart if we understand the allusion.” Arrow. ALLUSION. “Hold on.”

Nari slalomed through assorted desks, chairs and bodies towards the back of the class, a dozen pairs of eyes watching him, some in anticipation, some out of habit, a few out of genuine interest. He came to a rest beside Jeremy and looked down at the crumpled sheet of A4 he was writing on. It wasn’t work. Nari scooped it up and pocketed it, gesturing at the whiteboard while sliding Jeremy’s exercise book an inch closer to its mute owner. The entire action was complete in approximately three seconds. Nari knew from experience that, in a classroom,  pregnant pauses soon became drifting chatter, so he had already begun talking even before Jeremy realised his piece of paper had been taken. Those that can.

“Not bad,” he said, nodding with protruding lower lip.

11.18. 10F were listening. For all the bravado and nonchalance and adolescent recalcitrance, they were still just kids, eager to please, desperate to get it right. Looking for approval. They had settled into quiet for now, in that good way. Not the confrontational silence of the class who had collectively opted out (9L, last Wednesday), or the nervous quiet of the new class on the first day of term (7S, September 9th). It wasn’t even that polite, waiting-for-sir-to-shut-up-so-that-we-can-get-back-to-our-lives kind of quiet (10F, most days). It was the curious quiet of a group of people waiting to see what comes next, because they’re interested. Connected. Like a TED talk audience. Nari felt it and enjoyed a modest rush of endorphin in what he read to be appreciation. He was a good teacher.

“Not bad,” he repeated. “See, ‘Educating Rita’ is full of intertextuality…” He started another walking tour of the well-worn room, fixing eye-contact with each and every student along the way.

“Willy Russell,” pause for sniggers, “has deliberately packed his play with references, allusions to other texts.” Zila. Christy. Mandy. “References to all kinds of literature.” Alex. Heba. Javon. “If you don’t know it, you miss it,” Jalani. Dimi. Asjad. “But if you do, the whole play just opens up with deeper insights. “Matthew. Emma. Izzy. Arshaq?

“Izzy! Arshaq!”

Full-blown teacher voice. Three or four kids started in their seats. Nari held his gaze. Lea always berated him for talking to her like she was one of his kids but he couldn’t help it. He didn’t even notice anymore; it was almost entirely reflex.

Arshaq cut his eyes away from Izzy and looked slowly over to Nari with a cool, deliberate disinterest. He hadn’t flinched. Izzy snapped her attention to Nari and half opened her mouth to say something, before looking diagonally downwards into a forgotten corner of carpet. There were pen scrawls halfway up her left forearm. The pause held. Nari squinted and accepted his victory with an imperceptible raise of the chin.

“What we’re gonna do,” Heba. Yusuf. Will.  “…is focus on two of the biggest allusions in ‘Educating Rita’ – ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Frankenstein’.” He moved the slides forward. “Some of you might remember doing Frankenstein in Year 8 and we did Macbeth at the start of this year. Now, in pairs, you’ll be–”

“Mr Paul?”

Three quiet syllables in lieu of a knock.

“A word?”

Nari turned his attention towards the voice’s owner, Brandon Davenport. Assistant Headteacher, one of three, complete with clipboard, forgettable suit and walkie talkie. In a hurry, career-wise. Nari could remember when he was a deputy Head of Year. Now he’s interrupting lessons, uninvited. Future leader. Absentee pub-goer. Standing officiously, disapproving look on his face, Marcus Walcott in tow.

“A word?”

Nari had heard him the first time.

“Uh, yeah, sure…” He turned to the class. “Um,” quick scan for a reliable stand-in. “Will. Could you quickly explain what the next task is and move the next slide on? Emma, you can hand out the slips. Two minutes.”

He stepped out into the corridor and briefly caught Marcus’ eye, before the lanky teen looked away. Marcus somehow looked even taller than the last time Nari had seen him, 20 minutes ago.

“Did you tell Marcus he could go to the toilet in the middle of your lesson?” The question came off as accusatory. Not for the first time, Nari marvelled at how ready SLT could be to believe in fictional hierarchies.

“I told him to go and get a note, for his trainers, from his form tutor.” Nari spoke slowly and evenly, directing his response at Marcus, who drew his lips in before clenching his jaw.

“I see. Mister Walcott…” began Davenport. It was a crap affectation, calling the students Mister and Miss like that. “It looks like you’ve lied-” he looked down at the tangle of mobile phone and headphone cables clutched in the same had as the clipboard. “Again.”

“I didn’t lie.”

“No-one said ‘speak’.” Nari detected an unmistakable hint of disdain in Davenport’s swift retort. “We’ll continue this later. For now, English.”

He pointed the antenna of his walkie talkie at the door.

“Keep him in the lesson until the end, Mister Paul. Until the bell.”

Until the bell? Nari wondered if he was in as much trouble as Marcus. He resisted the urge to submit to a sarcastic response.

“In you go mate. Take a seat over there – Asjad can catch you up.”

With a jab of satisfaction, Nari saw Davenport bristle at the word ‘mate’. No doubt it would have been taken as an instance of insubordination. 11.21.

Nari followed Marcus back into B16 and was met with a generous, and confusing,  volley of applause, Will returning to his seat, grinning.

“… Guys?”

Laughter, even more applause, and this time a few whoops. Nari shook his head and shrugged at the class. There really was no telling what went on in the adolescent mind.

“Alright, guys, settle down, settle down… Lemme put you in your pairs.”

A selection of arms shot into the air.

“No, you can’t choose your partners.”

He ignored the collective groans and leaned over his desk to scrutinise a hand-written scrunch of paper blu-tacked to the wall. Ability cohorts for each of his classes, based on their last assessment and a large glass of red wine, if he remembered correctly. Better than random.

“Marcus, you’re with Asjad… Heba – Arshaq, Emma, you’re with Jake, Christy… you’re with Matthew, Zila, go with Will, Jal, you’re with Dimitri, Jeremy – Javon… Um… Chancie, go with Flora… Izzy… you’re with Ben… Mandy, could you go with Jake, Jalani – with Alex… and Ana – you’re a three… Andrew, you’re with me.”

“Si-ir, I haven’t got a part-ner….” Yusuf in a drone bore life’s a drag monotone.

“Oh. Okay. Go with Ana.”

The class started shuffling into new configurations, reintroducing themselves to one another with a weary cooperation. Nari fell into his chair. The morning was starting to hit. He closed his eyes and gifted himself two seconds of darkness.

“Sir.”

Chancie, standing defiantly by his desk, a guillotined slip in one hand, the battered copy of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ in the other.

“I don’t get it.”

She chewed on a piece of gum so naturally that it didn’t even occur to Nari to ask her to get rid of it. He leaned forward.

“What don’t you get?”

“Any of it. I don’t get the word, inter-textingality or whatever.”

He tried to work out if she was appealing for help or just stating her incompetence.

“Alright. Forget this,” he plucked the paperback from her hand and chucked it on his desk. “Tell me three things you remember about Rita. Anything at all. And give me a chewing gum or I’ll put you in detention.”

She smiled and pulled a packet out of a pocket. He took one and popped it in his mouth.

“Go. Three things.”

“Ok. She’s…” chew “at school, college… she’s old, well, like, older than us… she…” chew chew chew “-she doesn’t want a baby… and she changed her name innit? Rita’s a fake name.”

“That’s about five things…”

She smiled. He smiled back.

“Who teaches her?”

Pause. Chew. Pause. Chew chew.

“What’s he called again? That guy, the one from Batman… Frank.”

Nari shook his head playfully. He knew he shouldn’t have shown them the movie so soon.

“Yes. Frank. And how does Rita feel about him?”

“She… likes him?”

“Don’t guess. What does she think of him? Remember the last bit we read? When he was drunk?”

“Oh YEAH….” the flash of recognition lit up her entire face. “She was all, ‘I don’t need you’ and that…”

“Right.” Chew chew. “And how does Frank feel about that?”

Chew chew stop. Too much.

“Alright,” he back-tracked. “Is Frank happy about the new Rita?” chew chew chew “Remember, after she comes back from summer school and she’s got all these new friends?” chew chew “What does he think?” chew.

Chancie swung a nearby chair towards her and dumped herself into it, chewing furiously.

“He’s not happy,” she answered, finally. “Cos, like, Rita’s different from how, from how he first knew her. When she was all new and nervous and that.”

“Is that fair? Who changed her?”

“What d’you mean?”

“I mean,” Nari took a biro and tapped his temple with it, “Who taught her to use this?”

He offered the pen to Chancie. She took it, hesitantly, chewing slower now.

“Frank, at first, but… she doesn’t need him now. She’s gone, like, past him, innit.”

“Exactly. And the exact same thing happens in ‘Frankenstein’.” Nari reclined in his chair. “Think back to year 8. Remember, the mad scientist who tries to make a perfect human being…”

Chancie stared at him.

“…but ends up making a monster. Remember? What happened to them? Come on… it wasn’t that long ago…”

Chancie rubbed one eye and squinted the other.

“Didn’t Frankenstein go mad and kill that kid or something?”

“The monster,” he corrected. “Yeah, pretty much.” Nari wondered if there was a penny to drop. “The monster gets stronger than its creator, Dr Frankenstein. Dr Frankenstein can’t control it. Just like…” he raised and lowered both eyebrows and rolled both hands in a frantic invitation for her to complete the thought. Come on Chancie, you can do this… Maybe… Chew chew chew chew.

Just like…

“Just like…”

She stopped chewing.

“…Rita…”

Nari reclined. For years to come, he would sporadically recall the toddleresque look of comprehension that blossomed on Chancie’s open, serene face. She held the pen absently for a moment before suddenly jolting into volume.

“Oh my days!”

Nari jumped.

“Frank! He’s got the same name as Frankenstein innit? Like, he’s like the, the um, the man, innit? The scientist. And Rita’s the Frankenstein – the, the monster. That’s sick, Sir.”

Nari half shrugged and removed his chewing gum from his mouth, dropping it into the waste paper basket by his feet. He then picked it up and held it towards Chancie, who obligingly removed her gum, and followed suit.

“Thanks Mr Paul.”

Appreciation shone through the layers of clumsily applied make-up. He smiled.

“See? You do get it. Now go explain that all to Flora.”

She trotted back to her desk and Nari raised both arms in a stretch, closing both eyes and indulging in a slow yawn. He remembered he’d forgotten about the register again, which prompted him to think about texting Lea. Just to say he’d call later. He reached a hand into his trouser pocket, allowing himself the decadence of another slow yawn. 11.27.

“You fucking prick.”

Nari eyes snapped open. The words were acid on raw meat, hissing the class into an automatic hush. He didn’t have to say anything for Izzy Metcalfe to know what to do. He shot her a look and she threw closed her exercise book, swept up her belongings in a gracefully off-kilter whirl and sailed out of the room with a complete avoidance of all eye-contact with all people. Incident over, attentions turned back to slips in hands and pens on pages. Nari rose to his feet, pausing to weigh up his options. He clicked the next slide forward.

“Back to your seats,” he sighed.

Compliance.

“I want half a half page paragraph on this question.” He motioned to the whiteboard. “Anyone who doesn’t get it done will be coming back.”

He levelled a glare at Arshaq.

“I’ll be checking,” he added, before exiting the classroom and entering the unlined arena of the corridor. Softly, he closed the door behind him.

11.37. Not for the first time, Nari found himself scrabbling for purchase on the confrontation ahead, blindly groping for a foothold, somewhere to begin the rocky climb ahead. The girl before him was an enigma, as delicate and dangerous, in her own way, as a cornered wasp. He mentally circled her. Something was wrong, that much was obvious, but she wasn’t yet ready to let the guiding hand steer her to an open window. She’d sting first.

What.

Izzy turned away from her aimless staring to throw the word at Nari, off guard.

“What?” he echoed helplessly. Small tumble of rocks slipping under foot. Bad start. Another pause, then, for the briefest of moments, he saw her eyes flicker as though she might be ready to pour it all out; tell him what and why and who. But as quickly as she had stirred, she had frozen over again and turned back to staring ahead, granite faced.

Nari attempted to gather his thoughts. He ran a hand through his hair. Concern started to mix with guilt started to mix with weariness. How many more of these confrontations would he have to face until they let him retire? He pictured himself as a generically grey 68 year-old man, granddad whiskers and stoop, attempting to coerce the latest crop of 21st century teens into something resembling cooperation. Scary thought. He’d read somewhere that stress levels in teaching were second only to those endured by air traffic controllers, due principally to the constant, wearing, human interactions. Always coaching and coaxing and questioning and second-guessing…

Izzy’s face remained fixed on some faraway spot of corridor. Wasn’t she tired of it too? The thought of interrogating her on her motives made him feel physically weak. He swallowed sharply and tried his best to ignore the slow returning throb in his temples. He rifled through his deck of options and drew the sympathy card.

“What did he say, Izzy?”

She stared on. He waited.

Elsewhere, the shrill, ironically loud voice of a teacher asking for quiet bled into the air. Izzy’s eyelids fluttered accompanied by a barely perceptible shake of the head.

“Nothing sir.”

The words were strangled and almost lost in a build up at the back of her throat, which she cleared, before repeating.

“Nothing.”

Conversation over.

 

***

 

11.41. Nari re-entered the classroom and started another walking tour. Izzy had been sent to the focus room, accompanied by the duty officer. Nari tried to decide if he had played it well or not. Impossible to say. They hadn’t shouted, at least.  As he walked, turning the odd page, it became apparent that a few kids were calling him out on his ‘back at lunchtime’ threat. They were right to as well: he hated detentions as much as they did.

“Sir, how d’you spell ‘relevant’?” Ben. Wearing his laziness like a tiara again.

“What does it start with?”

“Ah, come on sir, don’t do this again… Can’t you just tell me?” He threw his arms up in a genuinely funny mock tantrum.

“Ben, do I look like a walking dictionary?”

“Yes.”

Nari shook his head and walked on. “R-E-L…” he called back. At Arshaq’s table he was surprised to see that Arshaq and Javon both had completed a decent-ish amount. Good news. For Javon in particular, it reset the mistrust counter back to zero zero zero. He had the kind of face that was way too easy to distrust. The kind of face you had to meet his mum to see a soft resemblance before you accepted he could be anything other than delinquent. Positive thoughts in mind, Nari issued them both a quick thumbs up they barely responded to before stalking onwards towards another area of classroom.

“Don’t forget.. to use connective phrases… to develop… your ideas” he said absently, peering at the two and a half lines of argument sketched in fairy-thin scrapings in Zila’s book. He looked at her, curiously. She was clever – he’d known that from Year 7 – but she was vacant as hell. Probably found half of this too eas-

With a pang of guilt, Nari remembered that Zila was supposed to be doing the gifted and talented extension worksheet, along with Emma, Matthew, Jake, Christy and Dimi. Another jolt of guilt – he had forgotten to photocopy the extension sheets. He only had the one that he’d printed with the lesson plan. Mini boulders slipping underfoot again, this time threatening a full-scale landslide.

“Emma, Matt, Jake, Christy, Dimi? Over here please.”

He rushed to his desk to find the worksheet. It was there. He rushed back.

“Alright guys,” he began, “you’re now working on this.”

He waved the page.

“I only have the one copy so you’re gonna have to share. Head out to the breakout area and start by reading and discussing. I want links and allusions ready to explain for next lesson, yeah?”

“Wait, sir, I don’t get–”

“Emma will explain.”

“Will I?”

“Go.”

He ushered them all out of the room and sat once more at his desk, exhaling. As was the case in moments like this, the usual thoughts began to dance around the edge of his mind as he clicked idly on the mouse. How he’d found himself teaching as the sensiblest way of securing a steady wage, his seemingly defunct English Language with Sociology degree edging him neatly onto the course. How he’d marvelled, arrogantly, at the earnestness with which all those girls on the course (always girls) seemed to approach what his then workmates had called extreme babysitting. This job that felt part pathos part penance, thirty people in a room and I’m the oldest one here. How Lea came into his life just at that time when her wants and needs dovetailed with his expected responsibilities. Two years older, four shades paler, how his mother had taken all that time to thaw towards her and there were still a few sharp crystals of ice to do damage. Hybrid wedding and 9 to 5. 8 to 3. 7.45 to 6. Now, a flat and a stagnant wage. He was no Davenport. He was no Arshaq, all assured badboy, destined for fast money and cat landings. He had mates like Arshaq, traders now, estate agents, doing alright. Always a reader, mystified by the world of money, no way of knowing what he didn’t know he needed to know, so this was it – 7 to 7, but no mat leave career break on the cards. Hanif Kureshi changed my life. He couldn’t do it without the holidays. Lea wanted a baby. He already had kids. Hundreds of them. Was it brave nobility or blind stupidity to devote your life to… Peeling bordette edging curling upwards away from long-obsolete displays. The kids that drew those posters will be paying a student loan soon.  He clicked open his email. Re: PLEASE COMPLETE YOUR REGISTER. He needed food. Martyrdom wasn’t easy. Click – present, click – present, click – present, click – present, click – present, click – present, click…

“Sir?”

He looked up.

“I’m finished. What do I do now?”

Nari scanned the room. A few finished, visibly. More drifting.

“Good question,” he answered. 11.45.

End

Going ‘Into the Woods’ with Creative Writing lessons

Hello,

Before the summer, a colleague surprised me with a gift copy of ‘In the Woods’ by John Yorke, an academic exploitation of stories, narrative, and the intrinsic human motivation behind narrative structure. A cursory glance soon turned into a full-blown highlight fest, and many an excited conversation as I regaled friends and family with my esoteric new knowledge.

 

Having always been fascinated by the shape of stories, it’s no surprise that Yorke’s book resonated so with my academic sensibilities. Cut to a new term at school, and some creative writing sessions to kick off the academic term.

The year 7s and 8s are studying the themes of ‘conflict’ and ‘survival’ respectively. I decided to start both off with personal stories of conflict and survival that they would draft into bigger works to dissect later.

It didn’t take long for the Woods to grip me. As we wrote, I found myself finding the need to explore the finer details of protagonist and antagonist with the students, complete with choice quotes from the book.

 

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The results were illuminating. Kids started to realise the shape of their stories and a new awareness of narrative control blossomed. They started to interrogate their protagonists with subtlety and insight, realising that motivation is a building block of narrative action.

There was even a note of well-being as some students started to interrogate their own psyches, seeing that in many cases, the protagonists were indeed themselves.

 

What does your protagonist need to learn?

What do they want?

What is their basic motivation?

What is their flaw?

What is getting in their way?

 

Profound questions to consider.

Thereafter, a quick audit revealed an exciting ranges of antagonists, including a broken pen, a room, rival schools, great itself, an oyster card, the notion of irresponsibility, and, of course, a pigeon. In the words of John Yorke himself, the antagonist is ‘the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish in order to achieve their goal’. Understanding and exploring this gave my students a subtle and sophisticated appreciation of their own narratives.

Soon enough, we wrote first draft of our stories. And I couldn’t help but go further with our advanced study. Enter Inciting Incidents and Crisis Points.

inciting

crisis

It was a simple task; go through your story and identify the Inciting Incident (near the start) and the Crisis Point (near the middle). The kids could do this fairly easily and what was remarkable was the realisation that all the stories had a recognisable shape. I saw eyes light up when I guessed, simply by the powers of symmetry, where the most exciting point of the story would be, and was right. For the first time in my teaching career, I could see the innate power of structure and the ease with which it invites engagement with literary craft.

Next, it was a simple case of taking the Inciting Incident and amplifying it into a more dramatic piece of writing, ramping up the tension using whatever figurative techniques they could muster.

 

And so begins a whole new outlook on creative writing in my classroom. It feels good to be discussing the finer details of narrative structure with kids who have a handle on their creativity, but don’t really appreciate the whys behind the hows. More on how this progresses, in due course.

Yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations

Using Twitter in the Class: Project-based tweeting Via @TopFilmTip

Twitter can be a serious distraction.

I use it almost daily, largely to procrastinate but sometimes to explore new ideas and make useful connections (like #hiphoped, for example).

Recently, I found myself retweeting a few tweets from an account I follow called @TopFilmTip. Essentially, @TopFilmTip provides excellent, pithy, entertaining micro-reviews of a range of films coming on terrestrial television.

With the end of term nigh, I had a few lessons spare so I thought it’d be an idea to craft a few lessons in which my students would produce tweets of this ilk, of their own. I’ve got this thing about discernment in language and figured that it would be a good way of encouraging (read *forcing*) kids to choose their words wisely to convey maximum impact

Step one was easy – select a selection of Top Film Tip tweets and compile for the kids to analyse.


tft

After this, some simple analysis to work out how the author was crafting this mini-masterpieces.





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Next up, we watched the trailer to ‘The Woman in Black’.

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Then, we looked in detail at a Top Film Tip tip on this film…

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…and carried out some whole-class analysis/ annotation…

 

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…before the kids discussed and decided on a criteria for the perfect Top Film Tip.

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Using this criteria, I then got them to write a few tweets for films of their choice, with the extra challenge of writing one serious and one funny. Then, in groups, they critiqued each others’ efforts before redrafting.

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It was amazing to see how much care was taken into getting these tweets right, with careful verb, adverb and adjective choice. Some were able to start experimenting with tone and voice, yielding some intriguing results.

Soon, we were ready to put some tweets into Twitter, which I promptly did, anonymously. The feedback was great. Lots of favourites, lots of retweets, lots of validation for the kids, from real, actual, tweeting people no less.

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See? On reflection, it was excellent how successful a project this turned out to be, including:

  • Real audience
  • Multiple drafts
  • Critiquing
  • A heist approach
  • A clear outcome
  • Facilitation
  • Tangible use of skills

Huge thanks to @TopFilmTip for the support and feedback during this process. I strongly suggest you follow the feed and have a go at getting your students to tweet film reviews in September.

Yours, in teaching,

-UF

Don’t Look Back in Anger: Student Reflection and Review

If in doubt, always ask the kids.

We’re approaching the end of the summer term, which means schemes of work drifting to an end and whole-school events interrupting a few more lessons than usual.

With new challenges ahead, I’ve decided to focus largely on reflection and review – working out what happened this year and thus what should happen next year. Weirdly enough though, it only occurred to me this week that I should encourage the kids to do the same.

Cue my patented self-reflection lesson, tried and tested twice this week.

Note: This all followed a whole-school assembly in which the kids made notes on their whole school year.

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Step one: Get all the books out

I dug out every exercise book from the year, and got the kids to go through each one, page by page, after reminding them of the topics/ units we have covered this year.

 

Step 2: Food for thought

Five questions to consider along the way:

What did you find most interesting?

What did you find most challenging?

What did you find most surprising?

What did you find most enjoyable?

What are you most proud of?

 

The kids then wrote a paragraph for each of these prompts. See?

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Step 3: Pair share

Once finished, students swapped books with their partners (who they’ve worked with all year, decided using my Lego Brick Profiles). They had to read through the responses above, then quickly scribe one big conclusion and one big question  raised.

 

Step 4: Coaching

After this, I modelled a coaching conversation with one student, whereby I explained my own conclusions and asked probing questions based on what they had written. The kids then did the same, with a focus on drawing out detailed responses.

 

The kids really went for it. Lots of thoughtful questioning and interrogation, which led to some useful conclusions overall as to the shape of the year.

 

Step 5: Whole-class review

Finally, I gathered the class together to discuss their aims, hopes and dreams for next year. The conversation was a lot more meaningful and detailed than I think would have been achieved, had the kids not gone through a process of reflection and self-critique.

 

That’s it really. If you have any lessons left, I suggest having a go.

As ever, yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations

 

Group Talk: As easy as A – B – C

As you know encouraging and facilitating effective group talk is central to establishing a healthy classroom.

The problem is that efforts to do so can often become clunky, ornate and therefore ineffective.

Working at a school with a discrete Oracy curriculum has led me down many an avenue of structured student talk. Something simple that I’ve stuck with along the way is the A – B – C:

A = Agree

B = Build

C = Challenge

 

In a discussion, students should decide which of these they are doing before the next contribution. This keeps conversations purposeful, but avoids overly baroque frameworks and sentence stems. I use this routinely in group discussion, or as a protocol to develop more thoughtful contributions in student-led debate.

Simple design.

Do you agree? Or build? Or challenge?

Yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations

Controlled Chaos: Freestyle Theory in the Classroom

Teachers often over-plan, teachers often under-plan. Either way, planning can often be a major source of anxiety.

Negotiating this can be difficult, but it’s clear that the ethos behind freestyling can help find a path.

In hiphop, the freestyle is an off-the-cuff, in-the-moment stream of lyricism, unprepared and delivered in real time. Because they are completely live, freestyles are an ultimate test in ingenuity and  mental dexterity, requiring a rapper to produce coherent rhymes, edit them in real time and display lyrical skill with the constant threat of slipping up.

As so with lessons.

For me, even ‘well-planned’ lessons require an element of freestyling, as you need to live in the moment and react to fluctuations in the ‘beat’ of the classroom. The completely improvised lesson (which, by the way, I would NOT recommend) is a far riskier variation of this, in which you are improvising the content as well as the structure.

Recently, I found myself living in freestyle mode in a classroom context, riding that delicate wave between control and chaos. Let me explain…

Case in point

The idea was that I would give the kids the chance to complete an active reading mini project, independently, selecting from a range of tasks as outlined below:

activetasks

The basic premise was simple. We read through the tasks and everyone chose three that they might work on. Then, I asked them to produce a first draft.

This is where it got messy.

My teacher instincts were to give some kind of structure and scaffold each activity, but with such a range of tasks on the boil I couldn’t feasibly do this. With the panic rising and the realisation that these kids might end up doodling around doing nothing much for two lessons, I decided to embrace the chaos.

 

 

First, I got one of the kids to audit the class and find out what they were working on. Then we had a quick standing meeting talking through our initial plans and finding any groups that could work together. Freestyle analogy: Finding the rhythm.

After this, took the largest group (and sat them down to come up with a plan for developing a script). A quick search through some existing content from another unit, backed up by a google search for Top Tips, led to this:

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With this group up and running, I could focus my attention on three students who had all decided to interview a character from ‘Inside My Head’ (No, I haven’t read it either. After a quick chat, it was apparent that they hadn’t yet thought about the character’s personality, or which questions to ask, or how to structure their writing, or anything at all really.  Which was fine, but they needed some help.

So, back to my resources and I drummed up some character creation prompts from a year 8 unit on Macbeth to give them a headstart:

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Meanwhile, one student (one of most able in the class) had undertaken the task of writing a song about Romeo and Juliet. She was quietly engrossed in her lyrics, drawing on prior knowledge of the play. I steered her in the direction of a novelisation of the play in the school library, which she promptly went to get. While away, I printed off a section of my own analysis of Act 1 Scene 4 from this very blog, ready to discuss with her on return.

 

Meanwhile, I’d forgotten about a pair of students working together on dramatising a scene from a book they had both read. They were hunched over, conspiratorially, whispering over esoteric scribbles. Upon investigation, it turned out that they were developing a fairly intense screenplay of their chosen scene, but they hadn’t yet interrogated the motivation of the characters. So, I told them to and went off to check another group.

About 10 minutes later, the whispering pair of screenplay writers approached me with this:

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A colour coded diagram plotting emotions and screen time. Genius.

Of course, I stopped all the other screenplay writers and got the pair to explain this to them all, which they did, effectively taking on the role of teacher.

And so on.

 

Now, the point of all of this is that I found myself, in this lesson, completely in flow. By responding and reacting to the students and their shifting needs, I was required to use my expertise in as pragmatic a way as possible. And there’s no plan for this. It was all live, energetic, purposeful and thus rewarding.

So, ever had a freestyle moment in a lesson? Let me know,

Yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations

Seven Ways That Stuttering Has Made Me a Better Teacher

A former student of mine recently shared with me a song he made about having a stutter.

It’s been a long time since I taught him, but I will never forget a conversation we once had about having a stutter; how difficult it was to cope with day to day interactions and how it was impacting on his whole life.

During this conversation, I divulged a highly sensitive piece of information: that I too have a stutter. Always have. Always will.

Now, in my chosen profession of teaching English, it’s pretty par for the course to have to speak, openly, to a range of audiences in a range of contexts – something which aged 11, would have put me into convulsions of fear.

But somehow, here I am. A fully functioning teacher and speaker and performance poet and rapper and husband and blogger, despite having grown up with an accursed speech impediment. How did this happen? And what have I gained from stuttering. On reflection, quite a lot…

 

1. Anxiety into empathy

Growing up with a  stammer meant that I really hated being in the centre of small social interactions.  A conversation was, for me, a highly pressurised spotlight of my oratic shortcomings. I couldn’t hack it. My response was to focus intently on other people. I became hyper-sensitive to the potential thoughts and feelings of other people; how they may be reacting to my words, how that might react to my stuttering, what they might say in response, etc.

As a teacher, I frequently find myself thinking keenly about the experiences of my students (and colleagues) over my own experiences, or thinking acutely about how my actions might be taken by others. It’s an anxious way to live, but it’s important to put yourself in perspective.

 

2. Humility

Stuttering is humiliating. You can spend every waking minute with a sense of dread, waiting for the moment that it all goes wrong and you get stuck on, say, pronouncing your own name.

This kind of humility is very grounding, and essential for all professionals. Despite all the bragging you may have heard on my various mixtapes, I try to remain a humble, level-headed person at all times. I live to learn, and know only that I don’t know very much at all.

 

3. Resilience

I distinctly remember, in my youth, wondering how on earth I would get through the obstacles of adult life with such a debilitating social disease as a noticeable stammer. Years later, here I am.

Having a stammer forces you to be resilient and tough. You have to face those unfaceable social interactions, you have to use the telephone, you have to go back to that person you stammered in front of and continue speaking to them. Teaching is a similar game of nerves. It doesn’t get easier, and you have to jump back into the maelstrom, every time. (And, because nothing is worse than fearing your own stammer, I’m actually quite relieved that the extent of my problems are often classroom based.)

 

4. Performance

A huge realisation for me was that I didn’t actually stammer when in the middle of performance. I must have been 10 or so and there was a school production ion which I had to recite something in tandem with another student. And I was fine. I could always recite in unison with others, but from then on, I discovered I could recite clearly when in any kind of performance-based context.

I took this with me into adolescence  and beyond, putting on a persona of performance  whenever I had to speak. Even know, a telephone conversation with the bank is, for me, the exact same thing as leading an assembly in front of 600 people or reading from the bible in front of a congregation of near 1,000 (both of which I have done).

Ironically, the skills I have developed to survive stammering in small-scale interactions have helped me flourish in much ‘scarier’ contexts. Public speaking is not an issue for me – a confidence that allows me to breathe in classrooms.

 

5. Creativity

When you stutter, you have certain sounds and syllables that trip you up, and knowledge of this makes you more likely to slip up. From an early age, I developed crazy strategies to avoid certain words, or trick myself into relaxing enough to get through conversations that would otherwise leave me in tears.

In a hiphop sense, I’ve been riding the fine line between freestyling and writing rhymes in advance. My mind is flexible, because I was never in the moment with my words: I had to exist just outside the moment and work out the best way to inhabit it without falling victim to my own shortcomings.

 

6. Respect for talk/ respect for words

I used to (and still do) marvel at fluency. I was eternally envious of kids who could read from a book aloud, when asked, with no prep, no fears. Because I couldn’t. I’ve always loved words and their power to connect, but having a stammer has heightened my respect for talk into something critical.

Talk, for me, is not cheap. In class, I treat it very carefully and understand the subtexts and pressures that come with even the most casual of conversations. It’s no accident that I have helped develop an Oracy curriculum over the past two years – I appreciate the importance and power (and fragility) of words.

 

7. Listening

When you don’t talk, you listen. When you listen, you learn. Simple.

 

As ever, yours, in teaching,

-Unseen Flirtations

ps: For real life recorded evidence of my now celebrated eloquence, click here for footage of a spoken word set at Jawdance, a short while back. Enjoy!