Reflecting upon my first ResearchEd experience

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I covered those 50 miles from my address in Oxfordshire in good time, relaxed and bubbling with anticipation for new knowledge, new experience and to finally meet some of the Team English luminaries. The fact that this was happening on a Saturday, during term time and that I was one of perhaps 300 others who thought it worthwhile giving up their free time, is testament to the high regard in which these events are held by teachers around the UK and other parts of the globe.

Organised by Sam Strickland, the principal of The Duston School, and his band of – as he sweetly referred to them – CIA agents, this acted as a coming together of expert front line teachers and educators with the distinctive aim of showing what evidence-based research and experience looks like in the classroom. It was, indeed, a day to be in awe of other people’s minds and the free exchange of ideas : concrete, brightly-coloured, sensible and workable ideas.

On a personal level, the £30 I forked out to attend is possibly the most efficient use of my funds since I last had a hip hop CD splurge on Amazon. I also felt so incredibly fortunate and blessed to be amongst other humans who care so deeply about education and its immediate future. When I was a lawyer, before my almost Damascene conversion to teaching, I had to rack up 18 hours a calendar year in order to justify my practising certificate. Most of the courses, except for the last few years, involved sitting at a desk absorbing huge amounts of information about new cases and statutes and depressing statistics about lack of funding in the legal aid system. After those courses, which cost the firms I worked for about £250 a pop for 6 hours CPD, I would line the notes up neatly on a shelf and, generally, not look at them again.

Now, events like this are an opportunity, a breath of very fresh air, a place for my mind to expand and be surrounded by fellow enthusiasts eager to update and stretch our wings a little further still. All the sessions gave me a boost, some felt like rocket fuel, all made me question myself yet also realise that I am doing something right, day by day, lesson by lesson, starter by starter, greeting by the door every lesson. Most of all, though, I found myself smiling a lot, and broadly ; and, in one session, I wanted to pinch myself and found my eyes welling up with a feeling of release and pure, unalloyed HAPPINESS. Yes, happiness at the possibilities that abound for my teaching and the teaching of others by being willing to take a risk, delve deeper, rearrange methods a little and look at things from a fresh perspective.

Today reinforced my belief that teachers can change the world and make a difference because they actually bloody care about the students they teach and it’s not just about a pay cheque – although the holidays are very welcome, genuinely – it’s about stretching and trying to improve and being passionate about your subject and the reasons you are doing this fantastic, exhilarating and crazy job that is WAY more than just a job.

So, here’s a swift recap on my experience in each session:

  1. Matt Burnage presented effusively on Knowledge in the curriculum, citing Hirsch and proposed the three futures of education, the third of which appealed most to my fevered brow – knowledge as REAL, not static and set by academic discipline and a distinct quest for the truth, as exemplified by Michael Young. He expounded upon Subject communities and taking the opportunity to argue, discuss and debate what YOU want to teach your students.
  2. Kat Howard occupied the 6th Form Hub with serious aplomb, offering practical advice on how to improve her modelling of examples, yet being humble and honest enough to realise the mistakes she had made, which we ALL do, as we think we are imparting the all important knowledge to our students in the best way possible. It was beyond refreshing to hear someone speak with such candour about how she was grappling with the issues and making the whole process more accessible for students at all levels.
  3. Doug Wise spoke about his failures as a teacher from his NQT year to becoming Assistant Principal at The Duston School, where he currently teaches. His honesty, like Kat’s, had me nodding furiously in agreement. Mixing humour and humility, he provided clear evidence linking to his methods and how he has strived to improve year on year, whilst joking about his ‘mediocrity’ as a teacher : a cursory glance at his website or any of the resources he so selflessly shares via Dropbox and Litdrive will remind you that the thundering opposite is the case. Key quote – ‘Anxiety and discomfort are all vital for growth’ : he doth speak TRUTH!!
  4. Mark Quinn provided a fascinating insight into Improving outcomes for disadvantaged students through TAR [Teacher Action Research] where he worked with 8 teachers to discover the impact of research-based strategies on outcomes. It comes down to finding the ‘sweet spot’ through examining the sufficiency, validity and reliability of the findings. His research provided a clear exposition upon the power of research and made me contemplate how this methodology could be used more often in schools.
  5. Caroline Spalding is a whirlwind of focused and shining energy. Explaining the impact of motivation, cognition and metacognition on breaking down barriers to learning and creating EFFECTIVE learners, she introduced the ‘habit loop’ and seduced all those in rapt attendance with statistics about her Period 6 revision sessions attended by close to 90% of year 11s before the end of September – BOOM x10! She assaulted us with pithy bits of essential research and sparkling ideas that made so much bloody sense. She swore a bit as well and we loved it. We love the fact that we were being spoken to and amongst other teachers. It felt like a movement towards greatness. I could go on but it is getting late…either way, Mrs Spalding is a miracle of enthusiasm for actual, credible change that can truly IMPACT upon the lives of students and make them BELIEVE that they can ACHIEVE. Yes, that. And more.
  6. I have no notes on the last session because I was standing up and walking around the room for the vast majority of the time. Why? Leigh Wolmarans – who won’t read this, as he doesn’t do Twitter – is a force of nature, a drama teacher who clearly explained that everything we do and say is DRAMA. He was chatting with me about The Hulk and Star Wars outside before the session even started and he carried that ridiculous enthusiasm into his session. By the end, we were reading Shakspeare in different ways – loud, whispering, changing multiple directions due to punctuation and then going deeper and deeper into the essence of the WORDS without actually feeling like it was teaching. ‘All you need is a space’. I felt so inspired, so bloody lucky to be in that room, that the tears almost started to flow – tears of JOY and disbelief that I could be doing this now, here, considering how hard and almost insurmountable I found the whole PGCE and NQT process. I left with so much new found confidence.

To cap the day off, Christine Counsell delivered an astonishing, fairly jaw-dropping keynote address on the BREADTH of curriculum and why it matters SO MUCH. Her examples were focused and salient, her delivery breathtaking, entirely without notes, like an actual worthwhile politician in full flow. Focusing on schema, reading as an essential for life improvement and not allowing ANY student to be deprived of ANY opportunity. By the closing syllables, I sat in my seat, in quiet contemplation, abuzz with newness and hope.

Yes, I know I become a bit hyperbolic when recounting events but this stuff is crucial to everyone, every student, every molecule of thought. If we take this and run with it, give it a really good go and maybe fail some along the way, that is fine. At least we know we are trying ; and that is more than half the battle. Onwards to victory!

A stone for a pillow

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The end arrived and left as suddenly as a swift rain shower with a shockwave that reverberated in our hearts for the whole weekend ; still, it rumbles.

Our little family have been lucky enough to become sometime Lords in the land of moggies. Two fine feline friends blessed us with their presence for a goodly amount of time. Custard, our ‘first born’ left his shadow behind last September, after battling severe diabetes for over two years.

We moved from Devon to Oxfordshire and had to leave him behind with our wonderful cattery people, since we were renting and his bladder could simply not be trusted, especially without a cat flap on hand. He was put to sleep whilst we were only available on the end of a phone line. It was daunting and we were inconsolable for a while but the sadness turned to happiness as we returned to grateful memories of his sincerely loving personality : he may have suffered from dodgy fish breath but craved hugs and licks all the live long day. To this end, we often referred to him as a ‘cog’ or ‘dat’, so cunningly canine was he with his affections.

Cookie, our white cat – Custard was almost pure black with a little grey splodge tucked under his chin – travelled with us and settled in well to life in leafy Oxfordshire. Unfortunately, due to old age (she was 16 and a 1/2 when we moved) she started to do her duties in the wrong places so, somewhat disconcertingly, we had to purchase ‘puppy pads’ – such are the vicissitudes of life, even for animals.

Meanwhile, she really found her voice and we would often be greeted with chirrups and lots of chat, no doubt vying for our attention. When she roamed the garden in rural Devon, she would bring us warm-blooded gifts on an almost daily basis, sometimes several times a day : small mice, voles, even moles and whole rabbits – one was as large as her, in fact slightly bigger and she was engaged the whole morning consuming it, entirely devoid of seasoning but loving every last piece. That was pretty much what she left – a bit of an ear or paw was all that remained to remind the casual onlooker of her prey’s former existence.

By the time we had arrived in our present domain, Cookie was already taking regular medication for hyperthyroidism. Her liver and kidney levels were up and down like a slow motion yo-yo for several months but she seemed to be coping pretty well. Then the fits started.

The first happened late one evening whilst she was consuming some of her dry food, medicated to prevent renal failure. My wife started exclaiming ‘I don’t know what to do!’ and I rushed into the kitchen. Our white princess was choking and writhing on the floor for what seemed like minutes but was probably only 20 or 30 seconds. It ended and she emitted two, deep-throated screeches of pure bewilderment and confusion. Thereafter, she wandered about in circles for a quarter of an hour before settling in for the night.

I was convinced we would find her sprawled out, comatose or even dead on the floor later in the morning. But no… she wandered up to our room at the allotted time – around 6am – and greeted us with a vigorous ‘bree – up’ sound, like a sped-up wood pigeon. We carried on as before.

My wife encountered the second fit and we still carried on. Then, about a week ago, she experienced the third incident in about six weeks. This was perhaps the worst of all. Again, she was thrashing about like the hare in that Ted Hughes poem, and we were helpless to stop it, apart from gentle strokes to her delicate scalp. Eventually, she stopped shaking and the plaintive, gut-wrenching cry reared its ugly claws that said ‘What is going on? What is wrong? This isn’t fair. Make it stop!!’

On GCSE results day, I popped to the vets and they booked her in for a blood test. I travelled back with my wife last Friday. We arrived at 5.30pm. By 7.00pm, our cat was asleep, destined to never wake again. Cookie was severely dehydrated and would need to have fluids for up to 48 hours, then an ultrasound , followed by a possible operation if the vets discovered a growth on her liver. Her results were shocking – the reading for the thyroid was close to double again compared to July. All her other results were raised to dangerous levels.

Even as we are talking about her, she lay very low in her cat basket, unwilling to move; it was almost as though she knew what was about to befall her. The vet explained carefully and sympathetically that Cookie’s seizures were most likely linked to all the bad stuff going on inside her tiny, reduced frame – she weighed only 2.7kg.

We had always said that we wouldn’t put a 17 year old animal through a series of tests and procedures with no real positive outcome likely for her. So, we made the decision to have her gently put to sleep. In any circumstance, that was a hard, if necessary decision. You have to be pragmatic when your soul is searching frantically for an alternative : there was none, not really.

So my wife softly stroked her fur and her paw, whilst I stood around feeling helpless and both of us inconsolable. This was it – it was really happening, in front of us. Five minutes later and it was all over.

That evening, the next morning and over the Bank Holiday weekend, we have been out and about to Blenheim, some Roman Ruins and Hidcote House. Those trips have made things easier to bear. I know I haven’t yet suffered the loss of a parent, as so eloquently and heart-rendingly depicted by the wonderful Claire Stoneman in her recent blog posts. You can’t compare a family pet to a human. Yet, we had loved and cared for Cookie for the best part of 18 years and it was ending so abruptly.

Later, my wife described this loss we had experienced as akin to a small but significant change in our family dynamic. A presence that once inhabited our lives had departed and the silence left behind felt like an ache larger than than the world itself, at that moment. It is hard to describe but now there are fragrant memories to pocket away and bring out to generate sunshine in future days.

Having an animal in one’s life perhaps makes us more empathetic, more human, I don’t know for sure. All I know, as I write this, is that our lives are a little emptier than they were last week.

[PS -The title – in case you were wondering – refers to Cookie’s innate ability to fall asleep with unusual accessories to hand that could double up as a head rest…]

Edu Lit is on fire – ‘Boys can try harder!’

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Let’s get this straight from the start…

The first smile came with the subtle pun in the title ; I was instantly teleported back to my early teenage years, buying records in WHSmiths on Whiteladies Road, on the edge of the city, a supernatural semi-suburb within spitting distance of somewhere really special. Such was the romanticised lot of a young man struggling to find himself in an all-boys boarding school on the edge of Bristol. I think I later purchased the Cure’s smart punk debut when abroad, but its own title is more than merely prophetic…

Reading Matt and Mark’s keen memories about their own treatment at the merciless  hand of others of the same sex made me reminisce and realise that these types of memories linger beneath the surface and they help to make us what we are and become. Ridicule is how I remember it.

I’d left home, some 60 miles away, packed up to a middling male-dominated boarding school, plonked there at the tender age of 13. I was going through the system – pre-prep, prep, Common Entrance exams. I just went with the flow, stayed close to the middle of the road, always tempted to explore the verges, yet always holding myself back a little. Then the bullying started.

At first, it was name-calling, comments about my weight, my high-pitched voice, the usual stuff ; I can’t remember the exact detail. It hurt me, emotionally, then physically when the older boys- the ones who were meant to protect me, the ones I looked up to- started punishing me with pull ups on the iron stairways. Next came the wet towel flicking, the disparaging comments about your ‘nethers’, the punches, the harsh treatment. It became so unbearable that I considered leaving the school – self-expulsion from the gaping maw of nasty, painful macho behaviour. My soul was maybe too sensitive; I was a bit of a sissy, couldn’t handle the pressure. I found solace in prayer – it did really help at the time, took me out of myself.

One day, I spoke to a 6th former. He said to me, quite simply : ‘Don’t try be anyone else, be yourself’ [Frank Ocean’s mum says the same to him on one of the many interludes from his second album ‘Blonde. She repeats it, several times]. I stuck with that snatch of teenage philosophy and it really, really helped me. My fortunes changed and I progressed, gaining respect rather than derision, vowing never to treat others the way I was treated. Fast forward 5 or 6 years…

Chapter 8 hit me, hard. Entitled ‘Violence’, Matt’s kebab shop encounter brought a similar feeling of helplessness mixed with seething anger back to febrile life. I was 21, in Chester, crawling my way through Law school, on a night out with a male friend.  We were dancing, probably to some Andrew Weatherall remix of James or Happy Mondays. We were having fun. Arrayed round the dance floor, some sullen, slightly older males draped themselves over railings, pints in hand, looking vaguely menacing : not so vague as it turned out. Two of them casually approached us. One stood directly opposite me, eyeing me up, now with true menace, a pint glass by his side and the other hand going somewhere I wasn’t sure.

He stared at me. I asked him what had I done wrong. He moved towards me, he might have said something, I couldn’t really hear as the music was too loud. My friend escorted me out. Before you think that I was contemplating violence, rest assured that at that precise moment, I was in jelly legs mode, mixed with sharp pumps of adrenaline to every part of my frame. Matt’s story, his feelings of being ‘too scared to do anything’, feeling a ‘failure’, that is exactly how I felt.

After we left, I was close to boiling over with impotent rage: how dare some stranger ruin my evening, cause me to stop dancing? I wanted to go back into the club and have it out with him and his mates, even though I knew, again, that I would come away with more than just wounded pride. That memory is as real and hurtful to me now, some 29 years later, as it was on that foggy February night. Yes, I wanted ‘violent revenge’, just like Matt wanted ; yet, I lived with the shame and made myself feel better, over time, knowing that I was the one who did not lose control. It is one of those instances where you suddenly want to become imbued with super powers and be able to throw miscreants against the wall – it’s fantasy, of course, but haven’t we all, at some point, felt that?

Start making sense

Why have I told you this personal stuff about my past? I guess it is because ‘Boys Don’t Try?’ [BDT] is no ordinary book which gives rise to no ordinary response. It reads like a novel. That is rare in Edu land. I’ve bought loads of ‘education’ books over the last few years, most of which have ended up on the shelf looking very pretty but not being read. This, however, is something different, entirely. I’ve been tweeting after finishing every chapter and I can’t wait to start the next one. I feel like the veritable child in a sweet shop with the very best sweets on offer.

So what makes this volume so extraordinary? First off, it is incredibly well-researched, infused with anecdotes, covers so much subject matter and opens your eyes to the shocking behaviour of not just male students but staff towards other female members of staff. It engages with debates about single and mixed classes and reaches clear conclusions based on reasoned argument.

Did I also say it was hard to put down? I mean, nigh on impossible. It is informing my practice whilst reassuring me that I am doing the right things, most of the time. If I’m not, it is granting me wisdom and resources to help me to develop my existing thoughts and ideas.

Most of all, I genuinely love this book because it pulls no punches, is irrepressible, hugely approachable and could well end up being the equivalent of your best mate. Really. Again, why might this be, pray tell? BDT is raw, honest, reveals and revels in the author’s own insecurities and foibles whilst projecting palpable authority in everything that it espouses to the willing reader. You will be carried along, be dunked under the waves of revulsion that you encounter as you read, despairingly, about the despicable behaviour of some young people towards both sexes, peer and adult until you come close to retching! Yet, you will still emerge and feel buoyant and optimistic about the future of young men upon whom YOU can exert a positive and lasting influence.

Matt and Mark share alternate chapters and cross-refer to each other’s writing which lends it shape and singular purpose and keeps the reader alert as well. The 10 chapters cover relevant and prevalent issues such as Peer Pressure, Expectations – keep them MOUNTAIN HIGH ALL THE TIME – Violence [see above] and, perhaps most importantly, Mental Health. One statistic that floored me is that ‘in the UK, 75% of suicides are male’. The authors deliberately engage the reader with this harsh reality, since a lot of the thought processes that lead to young men contemplating taking their own lives are linked to extreme peer pressure along with pressure to conform to society’s ideals about what a male should do and be to become or feel accepted in the modern world.

This essential volume seeks to dispel those myths and offer alternatives, to consider the concept of ‘tender masculinity’ : that boys don’t have to be obsessed by sport and snogging and getting drunk but that we can, as teachers, be role models for male and female  students through modelling positive approaches to emotions and feelings and not become stuck in a joyless rut of just trying to fit in. This book proposes a revolution in thought and our projections about masculinity from the top down in those microcosms of society that we call SCHOOLS whilst firmly resetting our latent, gender biases.

Matt and Mark address teachers like me and many others when they say that ‘Education is a subversive act’ and that we can all CHOOSE to plan our lessons to ensure that EVERYONE is having a fair deal but, most of all, cause us to reflect upon how we can ensure that masculinity can convert to an overwhelmingly positive word both in the workplace and the real world outside the four walls of our classrooms.

This is a benchmark, a book I will return to again and again and which I unreservedly recommend to TA’s, NQTs, PGCE students, teachers, leaders and really anyone who is prepared to rethink how they view boys of all ages and help them to become the better men of our future society by embracing vulnerability and not settling for low expectations about what it means to be male in 2019.

Hugh Ogilvie

What happens when we jump?

Another excellent, searingly honest post from Kat. She is always on point and connected to the realities of pedagogy, teaching and learning for adults and young people.

Kat Howard

In much of what we do in education, there can at times be an increasing chasm between what we know to be true and how that transfers to how we operate in the day to day execution of our roles. Irrespective of how much we continue to read, learn, absorb from sharing with others, we do not always use what we know and apply it to our approach as a natural consequence.

And why would that be? Of course, there is an argument to be made with some certification that too much, too fast and with too little forethought will never be impactful, in any context: one-off CPD at a million miles an hour, followed by rapid implementation and sparse planning will seldom result in thoughtful and sustainable outcomes. Yet, when we are presented with research- informed strategies which seem to make a pressing case for a beat bets approach…

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November, the woods

This is the second draft of a poem that I initially composed a couple of weekends ago. I had visited a huge tythe barn over the summer and taken a walk up to some woodland, owned by the National Trust. I visited again, with my wife, and felt inspired to put some thoughts down on paper ; I don’t give or make enough time for this type of thing, yet writing is where I feel at my most excited, most calm and happiest. So, here it is – I don’t go for rhyming so much, more a controlled outpouring. My love for poetry of all shapes and sizes has been reinvigorated through teaching it. Having time to reflect, a little, like this, is precious indeed.

Days start shortening, gathering in their mud-speckled garments,

casting coy glances back over life’s ledger, surrounding the diminishing

hours with rough armaments against the silent, insistent creep of

December, its presence hastening the onset of Winter’s chill.

Yet, for now, focusing on breath, we experience the

fall, a soft descent of leaves, tinged deep, resonant brown,

softly shocking orange, let loose like tendrils from some

half-viewed, almost forgotten sun setting : all intermingled

casually with dark, madly misplaced, eager child footprints,

the indents of broken-off branches, spindly arms and fingers.

And yet, more leaves, yielding pancakes, still, falling

almost ineffable, intermittent, like innumerable snowflakes

brought too early into being – some muted celebration, a smile,

a wink.

All are ready for renewal, a relinquishing

of Summer’s languorous licentiousness, chances to grasp at the

essence of growth pausing, then flowing into delicious decay;

decay, a joyous decay, browner, full of hidden depths, interrupted by

spurts of multilingual funghi – the undulating, unerring collectors of

submissive tree trunks, vessels for endless, filamented reproduction:

sustenance, before allowing fulfilment and a return to earth.

Some are spongy, some tilting, some slightly

lop-sided, curling, unfurling and cuddling at the periphery,

eager to and never in fear of becoming…unconquerable. They remain

in charge; now is the moment, dominating with subtle inflections, almost

drunk with their own, sheer profundity, that funk of forty thousand years –

incessant and encroaching.

Up above, starlit, the remaining branches bare their secrets, sticking out

whilst determinedly reaching, imploring, adorned by sun-rusted arms, bemoaning the blank,

blue sky, ashamed of their fresh nakedness. Not over yet, still needed, wanted and adored, yet

lacerated by time’s cruel knives. We must remember that we exist and breathe anew because

of them.

In the distance, the blue transforms to slate grey, briefly lit by rippling waves of

scorched suns setting : o, this headiness, the calm seduction of woodsmoke

assailing the tortured nostril, distracted by a scuttling squirrel, barreling from tree to tree

in its everlasting quest for nut sustenance, find a little nook in which to bury shadowy

secrets, a glittery cornucopia.

Life is framed, losing its eternal battle to stay green – leave that to the bunched together

‘evers’ : they bloom, propagate stubbornly. We, we swoon in supplication at their resilience.

Look, there – seashores of swollen, fallen pine cones ; discarded, rudely shiny conkers, a ruddy,

jolly affront to the darkness oncoming.

Bang those, crash these, let dogs sniff, cows linger, ruminating and gazing at the

receding sun : another day is done.

The undiluted pleasure of just reading

Since becoming a teacher, my reading habits and frequency have, to an extent, unalterably changed ; yet, in other ways, those habits have accelerated and mutated.

I became a teacher for several reasons : I needed a change from a stultifying career that left me unsatisfied; I wanted to repay the inspiration I gained from my teachers at secondary school ; most of all, I desperately – perhaps too much, initially – wanted to communicate my passion for reading, in all its forms.

I remember the University of Nottingham bookshop, where I spent many an hour poring over new titles and acquiring increasing numbers of novels and poetry books. These would be lovingly added to cheap shelving units, their variegated covers and spines glowing autumnally and providing me with a wondering / wandering sense of well-being and tangible happiness. I read, voraciously, both from the Law books for my degree yet, primarily, from those groaning shelves, softly surrounding me like some syllabic fortress, a defence against the harshness of the big, bad world. I could experience that world through the opening chapters, paragraphs, verses, line breaks and articles that filled my headspace.

I left University and moved to London. In those early years, during my mid-20’s, I devoured books greedily : to the extent that I would read walking down the road (occasionally bumping into lamp posts on the way), at bus stops, on the bus in a stop start, plunging in and out of potholes fever dream, in lunch breaks. I delved deeply into American literature. I remember being sickened and appalled by ‘American Psycho’, having my bones and grammar fiercely exercised by the staccato phrasing of James Ellroy, my bones warmed and melted gently through the evocative mind maps of Douglas Coupland, then being mercilessly, relentlessly unsettled by the maverick, mathematical genius of Paul Auster’s ‘New York Trilogy’.

Fast forward a number of years and I am entering my English PGCE year, overflowing with hope, anticipation and aspirational dreams of a better future for all the students I might end up teaching. As documented elsewhere, those initial years were hard, wearing and I almost gave up : inner resilience, hardened and shaped over decades, kept my head up, my back facing forward and the books, the books, of course…

My personal reading took a tailspin into non-existence, so focused was I on becoming a ‘better’ teacher, that I had lost that golden thread along the way – it had come undone, frayed at the edges. As I gained confidence, time lent itself back to me a little more ; or, perhaps, I became a bit more organised, made more time for myself. I started buying even more books – silly numbers. That feeling of going into a bookstore and bringing out a couple of crisp, newly-acquired volumes cannot be equalled, pretty much never. Others would plop gratefully onto the Welcome mat, ready to have their packaging torn open and their insides and ‘booky smells’ briefly excavated and then, lovingly, carefully, shelved for future consumption.

I am terrible ; terrible at getting round to doing stuff ; terrible at To Do Lists. I carry thoughts around in my head like so many shopping bags, like a bunch of receipts fluttering on the edge of my consciousness, grasping at uncertainty and trying to form it into concrete ideas, lesson plans, micro poems, reviews. I love it, I lust after it, crave it dreadfully and painfully; but its make up is somehow irresponsible, irresolute, a bit cavalier. Herein lies my desire for KNOWLEDGE and reading is where I find my place in the world, where my brain expands and feels safe, a balmy summer evening, street lamp lit, a familiar place for its pulsing cells to renew, anew.

In school, I see students, every day, who don’t enjoy reading. I know there are countless reasons for this and others better qualified than I have addressed ways to counter this falling away, this literacy diminution. I tell students about my reading habits : that I have about 10 books on the go at any one time, all started, sometimes not looked at again for weeks at a time. It could be a poetry volume that I dip into for a few precious minutes ; that incredible non-fiction book called ‘The Soul of an Octopus’; a recent foray into up to the minute publishing stars such as Sally Rooney or my regular dives in politics via the weekly injection of reality from New Statesman magazine. I tell them at the start of each school year [thank you, Andy Tharby] about what I’ve read over the summer holidays. I send them reading lists, including my personal favourites. I get excited when I see the reading ages of my Year 7 and 8 classes and actively consider how I can RAISE and INCREASE those ages, so that an 11 year old can read like an 18 year old and be unafraid, determined, resolute and fitted with an imagination boundless, without borders, fizzing with possibility – all because of BOOKS, BOOKS, BOOKS : yes, the unrivalled power of the written word.

Recently, the starter for my Year 12 Literature class was ‘what is your favourite book that you have read so far, in your life?’ I had some interesting responses. One that stood out for me was a student that I have taught since Year 10. He is one of only two boys in the group of 9 – we need more boys on board, please!! He responded with ‘New York Trilogy’ by Paul Auster [see above…] and then gave a pithy, more mature than I could have expected reaction to it. I almost exploded with pride. Somehow, I had reached the holy grail – a student had only gone and read a book that I had recommended to the whole class before lockdown cut us short, like statuary in mid stride [thanks, Ted]. Revelatory, indeed. My efforts had not been completely in vain, after all…

If you can touch one life, inspire one student, you have done your job – isn’t that what people say? I will keep on recommending, I will keep on being excited, I will keep on trying to think of ways to convey the magic of what lies on the page, between two covers, bristling with intent, ready to leap out and grasp at nascent, bubbling and frenetic minds. After all, what else is there that brings life into being more than words, lines, sections, a multi-coloured, overspilling grammar, a gracious rainbow of creativity, ripe and ready to celebrate in each waking moment?

Writing Prompt from Team English – No.1

This is my personal response to the image posted by Nikki from Team English last weekend. The aim of the project is to write once every two weeks and then share as widely as possible with a view to ultimately sharing this writing with students around the country, as exemplars. It is also a welcome opportunity to just be creative. If you feel like joining in, go onto the Team English blog or Twitter page and sign up.

The Couple (using the above image as inspiration)

We emerge, again, in a drunken haze of nostalgia, the echoing sounds and the insistent beats swirling in repeated recognition: how those nights expanded within our lithe bodies, pirouetting and slinking effortlessly across the highly-polished floors like we were floating across the city skyline, a spotlight shining upon our blissed, blessed faces, radiant with smiles, with love, with vigour, a countenance divine – like nothing, at all, could ever, might never, seek to stop us in our quest for perfection!

On those nights, we touched, our limbs ablaze with possibility, our lips so close, acting out our own private, sensual abandon. Around us, other couples swayed in time, out of time, on that higher plane, in synergy, synchronicity, shimmering and swooping. We laughed, gales and peals of happiness falling from our mouths, so much confetti, multi-coloured and left in minute trails of celebration. We felt unstoppable, we were unstoppable, we ravished the complete moment and dwelt within the rhythm of time – that three minute long samba stretch, the jerk of the polka, joining the dots until even they disappeared, as we whirled into endless crescendos, so dizzy with joy.

And we would skip back home, the star attraction in life’s endless play, where the pavements reflected the moonbeams and the birds twittered in the silken treetops, sentinels for our celebration. Excitedly replaying those cat-like moves in our minds, the softness of our embrace, the hours and hours of practice leading to grace and fervour, a sense of there being something more, not ephemeral yet vibrating with meaning.

Later came marriage, our union on the dance floor transformed into loving domesticity, the responsibilities of parenthood, of taking charge, of time passing and less time being available to celebrate like before – those simple, delightful pleasures wrapped up in the complexity of movement, the freedom of just being. There were no regrets, not really; how could there be? We were young, frolicking in the Spring of our lives, lambs, calves, amazed at the newness of this experience.

Yet, experiences change and change brings difference and compromise and movement towards another state, where limbs stiffen, memories start to fade, the sepia tint blotting out the brightness. Now, rather than facing forwards, we face each other, wondering about what was and, perhaps could have been : you in that dashing suit, me in my flowing gown, our eyes sparkling, enlivened, torches burning bright, fuelled by our naive enthusiasm. We’ve still got it, somewhere, haven’t we? That trophy, silver, cloaked in some varnished ash branch, shimmering, like us, a pool of water, greeting us with a promise – then reflecting back.

You turn, I creak a little, you take my hand. We can still turn on the style, can’t we?

I sip from the cup, you dip your Rich tea and try to think back, through the valleys of your mind, awash with memories but, like the tea leaves, steeped in confusion. Can you hear that sound? Can you? Shall we take one last dance, together, throw down these sticks hewn from the same ash tree and be free, in each other’s hearts. It’s still there for the taking – remember, my dear, my sweet, we still have each other. I see the sparkle in your smile, in your eyes, your hair a river of dreams and no regret. It will never dim. Thank you, endlessly.

The Quest is on…

One of the strangest ironies for me as a Teacher of English is my perennial inability to actually finish a book more than about three to four times in a calendar year. Most of my days and evenings are consumed with school-related stuff and I don’t give over enough time to engage in ‘reading for pleasure’. Although, in the current climate of self-isolation, I have managed to start realigning my priorities and I am reading more, as well as often. This, in itself, is liberating and inspiring.

And thus, it happened, this morning. I finished off a volume started in the depths of a not so freezing winter and I wanted to briefly share my thoughts on ‘Go Ahead In the Rain – notes to A Tribe Called Quest’ by Hanif Addurraqib. Divided neatly into twelve chapters, Hanif sets out an enduring tale of love for his favourite hip hop group. Published in 2019, this volume is composed of part biographical detail set against personal and often soulful reflections upon his lifetime affection for a quartet that heavily influenced his musical listening over three decades.

Including open letters penned for individual members, the format is disarmingly honest and emotive without ever becoming hagiographic in approach. Most of all, however, Hanif dwells on the magic of the music that often became obscured by the rifts and divisions between the two frontmen, Phife Dawg and Q Tip. This is music created by brilliant minds, using samples from five different tracks to compose a single drum track, forming architecture ‘based on extending the sounds laid by other hands‘.

Hanif proclaims the history of hip hop on the East Coast of America, through a travelogue incorporating the sounds and voices of different influencers within the burgeoning Native Tongues movement: Queen Latifah, The Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep and De La Soul to name but four. Hanif describes the mindset in this way : ‘To be aware that your presence in a space is political is to sometimes assume and take on the responsibilities that come with that presence, whether or not you feel as though you should have to.‘ This generates a sense of responsibility, a feeling of community, a desire for change through clear expression of thoughts and ideas, seeking a way forward, a way to progress. I remember those times myself when I was falling deeply in love with the myriad levels of connection that rap and hip hop were throwing into my headspace. All I heard was a celebration of possibilities.

I wasn’t aware of the developing tensions between Tip and Phife, which Hanif details with enormous sensitivity and a growing sense of dread. He does this with skill and aplomb, charting the meteoric rise and fall of the Tribe over seven short years, from being feted and producing some of the most influential albums of the mid 1990s to disappearing into relative obscurity before rising from the still glowing ashes with a fist pump of a swan song, released just as Trump took malicious hold of the Presidency.

Sadly, those tensions altered the rhythm, put the skids on that meteoric rise, projected an ending before it was warranted. Adopting a fan’s persona allows Hanif to display honest, naked emotion and palpable regret, not only at the group splitting due to creative differences between Phife and Tip but at the subsequent, all too early demise of Phife himself due to complications with diabetes. Yet the tone is eternally hopeful, never self-pitying ; in fact, it remains celebratory and defiant till the bittersweet end.

Hanif is a fan, a true fan and this shines through, golden and undaunted through every sentence, a perfect homage to an almost perfect hip hop group who could not quite make it all the way but deserved to. Whether or not you are a fan of the music itself, this tale, true indeed, leaves the reader feeling inspired and energised, eager to explore new avenues of sounds, just like the Tribe did and still do.

ResearchEd Brum – a journey towards enlightenment in 2020 and beyond…

Inspiration has the potential to be eternal, fill one’s soul with hope for the future and allow you to haul yourself out of your peaceful slumber on a daily basis. Inspiration can be found in many places : a waterfall, the new born baby’s yawn, a freshly sprung leaf on the branch of a tree that has been helping us to breathe for however many years, the smile on the face of a sloth, the films of Truffaut, Shane Meadows and the Coen Brothers. Yet, most of all, inspiration comes from the company of others, discussion, discovery of new ideas and opinions, arguments for and against and the hubbub of mutually agreeable conversation.

As I swept smoothly into Birmingham New Street station on Saturday morning, I knew, for the second time in five months, that I would seek inspiration and find it, in spades, forks, soil bags and whole damn allotments. So, here is my real CPD, in the company of strangers who can just as easily become friends and some of whom now are : I still find that bizarre, incongruent yet brilliant that I can meet people that I have communicated with online in person and they are so accepting, loving and welcoming. It’s a bit like a merry go round, in slow motion, that never stops and you can have some more candy floss and throw a smile into the ether and someone catches it for you and stops you from falling or feeling lonely. That’s what it is like when I am with some of those twitter educators : these people who are so brilliant, furiously intelligent, yet so magnificently generous with their time both on and off line.

So I arrived at Nishkam High School, just in time to catch the end of Claire Stoneman’s opening introduction, swiftly followed by her partner in crime, Andy Brown, the Assistant Principal at the school. All set up for Amanda Spielman , Ofsted Chief Inspector and her key note speech. I took notes, loads of them, but I’ll try to keep it relatively brief.

What emerged instantly was how engaged she is with the research community. I cannot imagine Wilshaw ever being as approachable. She emphasised that Ofsted wants to work ‘with’ (not against) schools. ‘Stuck schools’ were her starting point, making it clear there were no substantial differences between those who are stuck or unstuck ; it is just that the level of advice may have been too much, well-intended but without the intended impact. In order to create positive change, the content of any such support must be focused and direct.

She covered ITT and the need for efficiency in a well-sequenced curriculum, taking account of the needs of novice teachers ; a ‘below the radar’ report about low level disruption and how to determine what good behaviour looks like ; and moves towards making CPD more intellectually satisfying, acknowledging that it needs sustained support with opportunities for teachers to develop professionally and personally.

Her speech felt supportive, encouraging and welcome in light of our dear PM’s move towards no notice, 3 day inspections – just to add to teachers’ already substantial workload!  What a catch and a favourable reflection upon the ResearchEd movement and its important, progressive, forward-thinking approach.

Following this keynote, off I went to a number of subject specific presentations. In hindsight I wish I had mixed things up a little more but I felt the need for more subject knowledge, especially because I am just a humble classroom Teacher of English and my current focus is on self-improvement.

First in line were Prof Malberg and Dr Wiegand, both from Birmingham University and joint creators of a fascinating and fantastic website which is FREE to all users and offers support in the way of resources for English teachers of 19th century novels at both GCSE and A level. I picked up on corpus linguistics and concordance – linked to the number of occurrences of a specific word in a text – as well as co-location [i.e. some words like each other more – really, that is a true WOW moment for me : like, certain words are actually drawn, inexorably, physically towards one another? Yes, it seems.] Go the free web app called http://clic.bham.ac.uk/ for more information and free, yes FREE, resources. There are myriad possibilities here – from classroom activities, help with homework, to lesson planning and links to NEA projects as well.

After this eye opener came the Panel chat – I am afraid I cannot remember all of the names of the speakers but there were four with a charismatic, cheerleading chairperson. Whilst there was a lot to take on board, some juicy soundbites emerged, such as cultural capital not just being a ‘list of what is best known’ but, as so delightfully expounded by Nimish Lad, ‘the route to truth‘ ; that education is about ‘changing lives and advancing civilisation’ and that good teaching involves conceptual understanding, over time, which becomes broader and deeper. Further discussion centred upon implementation under the new Ofsted framework, that it should not lead to mimicking or mutations and that subject communities should be encouraged in Universities, linked to ITT, with guaranteed access to subject knowledge and cultural capital. The overall feeling was that students need to know what it is or means to be good in certain subjects.

My second session was led by Tom Needham, an all round research geek who applies all the cognitive science in his classrooms, whose aim was to develop 6 propositions to the Application of Theory. There actually turned out to be 8; however, he genuinely thought that he couldn’t fit them all in. Well, he did! Starting from the basis that learning is a change in long term memory, he took his audience on a whistle stop tour of recap quizzes, retention, recap lessons, explicit instruction[EI] being superior for novices linked to direct instruction itself. The latter supposes that fully guided is better than ‘discovery’ learning, since such EI requires ‘attention driven’ effort on the students’ behalf and translates into teaching ‘from the front’ with whole class, teacher-led instruction.

Other propositions included : novices use thinking skills whilst experts use knowledge; for examples to be most effective, they must be accompanied by a problem to solve; thinking reading [i.e. drawing correct inferences and acquiring good background knowledge] as to which Ed Hirsch commented that any reading comprehension requires knowledge of words and – importantly – the World. This same proposition links to the building of background knowledge. Tom explained this very bluntly as – ‘teach them stuff and get them to apply it, without endlessly devoting practice to inferring.’ He managed to briefly cover comparative judgment, a much faster and more reliable way of marking essays and, finally, whole class feedback.

So, in essence, this talk was designed to confirm to us teachers that the best route is the most direct one, as research explains : it is fine to stand at the front, provide the requisite  knowledge in your given subject and show students how to write well-crafted responses without falling into cognitive overload territory.

Next up, more intellectual, mind-expanding discourse with Marcello Giovanelli and the fascinating title of ‘What is Cognitive stylistics?’ Something until Saturday morning that I had never heard of, if I am being totally honest. This title incorporated the mind-enhancing  duopoly of conceptual metaphor theory and text world theory and started with the simple proposition that reading a text amounts to engaging with language. This dived into the word-rich waters of metaphor referenced by using one ‘domain’ of knowledge to explain another – and there was me thinking it was when you say something is something else but not literally!

We were then treated to different images representing different schema and different contexts for metaphors which led neatly into text world theory which propounds reading as a ‘navigation’ process, which I really really love, very much indeed. Essentially, your mental representations come from different knowledge and backgrounds. By the end, I felt cleverer, also slightly dumbfounded, yet thirsty for more. Respect due, genuinely, for providing the opportunity to engage with extracts by Shakespeare and Keats with some teaching ideas and selected reading as a most welcome addition. Deep joy indeed – I now want to return forthwith to University to perform a second degree, yes please…

Lunch came, as promised, consisting of a fruity, spicy curry and the opportunity to chat to friendly strangers : like at every education conference I have attended in the last couple of years.

The afternoon’s final presentation came courtesy of the inestimable Chris Curtis, entitled ‘Talk your way to excellent writing.’ There is so much to communicate here, apt, since the whole session centred upon the spoken word. He posited an opening thesis that the majority of the curriculum misses out on ‘talk’ and that we rely on doing reading and writing in our lessons because we can control those two disciplines. Although talk is both MESSY and NOISY, it is an area where we can become more passionate and can be used carefully to UNLOCK boys where they obtain SPACE to talk about and articulate an idea.

Chris proceeded to flesh out his already enticing argument by contrasting girls and boys : girls are aware of the sequence [using highlighters helps here!!] and boys are very task-orientated – it’s all about the end result! He later employed a lovely phrase – ‘the green shoots‘ – that relates directly to the showing of potential. The proposition is to arrange precise, short term goals that are achievable but thrive on being prioritised as important and timely. Having the ‘green shoot’ helps to motivate and English does not have to be ‘all about writing.’

Developing this appealing train of thought still further, Chris opined that teachers need to challenge the Question Answer Response method [QAR], slow things down and ask students to question them instead. His words: ‘talk takes time / it takes probing / it takes questioning.’ We don’t have to like an idea and quickly move on. We can dwell, linger, reflect, expand, journey with it, until we have started to exhaust our options. It then leads to the nature of questioning in order to extend ideas and thought processes. Chris suggests, quite properly, that we link questions to dialogue, with command verbs like EXPLAIN, CLARIFY, DEFINE, ARGUE and CONSIDER ; it comes down to working with functionality. This eventually leads to automaticity, steering away from false confidence but a ‘build up’ is needed to reach this point.

This talk proved to be both inspiring and emotional to me, since I was reminded of my own teenage son who currently finds it close to impossible to express how he feels and meaningful conversations are limited. Yet, this is how Chris finished his wonderful talk and left me reeling at new possibilities towards self-expression:

‘Talk is messy, dirty, chaotic but it is the thing we are missing out – if you can speak it, you can write it!!’

This, so it seems, is what we must all try to do, regardless of our subject discipline.

And so, back to the Main Hall at Nishkam High School to be calmly confronted by the seer-like Christine Counsell, present to talk with authority and extreme interest on the twin topics of curriculum and research. It carried the sub-title of ‘the retrieval of what‘ and spent the first ten minutes providing a captivated audience of close to 750 teachers with a history lesson based on storytelling in its purest form. There is a need for contextual knowledge when we are trying to open up ‘ancient worlds’ for students, that myths and legends have power and that we need to tackle texts as a whole, interrogate it, take historical critical thinking seriously.

Curriculum is what? The deliberate crafting of readiness – how elegant is that?  Oh my, I made so many notes! Curriculum needs to be critical and disciplinary. There are four things that need to be tackled, head on : SCOPE, RIGOUR, COHERENCE and SEQUENCING. Naturally, she tackled each with clarity and focus, underpinned by control and sensitivity.

The ‘what’ is far from obvious and surfaces through subject sensitivity. So, context can include crowded scenery and the density of meaning creates a sound world of music. Yes!  The curriculum must be VALIDATED, CONTEXTUALISED, TRANSCENDED ; we must have a sustained and critical conversation with the content, subject teachers need to be informed on the debate, need to be lovers of content, having a living relationship with it. This, yes, this!

There was so much to admire here : pace, delivery, conviction. And presence, such presence.

And Claire Stoneman’s closing remarks, well I rushed to scribble them down, so you can revel in their significance:

‘We need joy and beauty, to think, craft and design. We need to have cradled ideas in our hands, wrestled [with them], handled [them] and put aside to consider. They shine a light: to help us think, question and reflect and consider our profession. 

The more we know, the more we see.

It is, indeed, because of people like Christine, Claire and all of the amazing speakers who presented without payment that I am so proud to have left one profession to join another where I feel moments of transcendence, being amongst like-minded souls, people who care, who want the best for students, who want to improve their practice and attend these more frequent gatherings to do just that. Words like these above and many others shared with hundreds of teaching fellows are what we cling onto, when we are beset by data drops and deadlines for marking. We cling onto the reasons we do what we continue to do. It gives us purpose and, if 700 plus of us want to take time out from our busy lives to be together to learn, reflect and come away inspired and eager, then who needs to question that choice?

 

 

 

I remember when – reflections upon a life consumed by hip hop culture…

I’ve been wanting to explain my furious and enduring love affair with the most exhilarating and uplifting forms of music on this green planet for some time now. Education takes many forms : my education in music is largely self-taught ; I’ve taken myself down elegant avenues and turned hard right with a handbrake turn on hearing a certain track. It is strange – I started my teenage years all full of Dire Straits and prog rock – Genesis, Yes, Marillion et al – but I held an eternal candle for the wild and fantastic: New Romanticism, the sub-operatics of Billy Mackenzie and the funky pizzazz with substance and heart that was ABC, doom-laden synths from Heaven 17 and The Human League.

As far back as I can remember, I was aware of difference in music. I started out with ABBA and Boney M, I knew disco and anthemic pop. Yet, I also remember Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambataa, Blondie’s ‘Rapture’, Rapper’s Delight, breakdancing, the crazy advent of The Beastie Boys and acts like Run DMC. These groups were exotic to me, creating sounds unlike anything else I had heard before. What I recall, even now, was the energy, the ire, the sheer verbal attack. The sounds of records being scratched and wondering why, whilst I grooved to ‘Ghostbusters’ by Ray Parker Jr and felt entranced by the ways Paul Weller was experimenting with funk and soul after leaving the post punk new wave of The Jam, spreading his wings with The Style Council. I revelled in difference, originality.

After leaving secondary school, I was fortunate to be awarded a scholarship to a school in America, about 30 miles south of Boston, Massachusetts. It was there that my love started and has continued , grown, flourished and become more intense year on year. It might seem strange that a white home counties boy would dig a form of music that is so readily identifiable with African Americans. I can’t explain it, at this point, other than to say that I was fundamentally touched by rap, hip hop, the culture, the meaning, the mass deconstruction and subsequent reconstructions of sounds using samples from records that I may not have even experienced yet. I believe I fell hard for the rhythms, the rhymes, the backflipping poetry of it all for no other reason than I was caught up in it, unable and never wanting to escape.

I’ll try and explain as we go and explore some epiphanies. But, first, this – from ‘Go Ahead In The Rain’ by Hanif Abdurraqib, a volume I’ve been digging deeply over the last few weeks : ‘ …the first bits of hip-hop were born out of DJs breaking apart funk and disco beats and relegating every other sound to a graveyard until all that was left was the percussion, cut up into small, danceable portions for the people in the audience to sweat to.‘ This takes me straight to a club on the beach in Brighton, one cold, windy January evening. My girlfriend and I went to two clubs that night – the first was a hip hop night. I remember reaching into my sternum to extract the essence of what I was experiencing, whilst the snap-back, dirty groove of  ‘No Diggity’ by Blackstreet coursed through my body. I can’t recall the other tracks but what remains crystal clear is the room awash with SMILING FACES. Joy echoed around that room for the time I was there, a joy I have experienced since, innumerable times.

Throughout my listening life, I have ploughed a lone furrow when it comes to hip hop, pulling along the odd fellow with me on my journey but mostly flying solo. I don’t mind that but, boy, I wish there were more souls to share my febrile passions with. So, I’m going to approach this as a remembrance of things past, present and future. Here goes…

I remember when – I first really met hip hop head on. It was the same time that I encountered R.E.M. and Steely Dan. I mean, they have also soundtracked special portions of life but The Beastie Boys, Run DMC and, even more importantly, Public Enemy were a blast to my cranium, a new experience like no other before or since. I mean, I was aware of reggae, soul and disco : the simple beauty of an endless groove, bumping urgently, an aphrodisiac of sorts, the sound of temptation, redolent of sweat and tremble. Here’s Mr Abdurraqib again : ‘But sweat isn’t always political – not when it’s the small river being formed between two warm bodies in the midst of some block party or basement or anywhere music is coming from hands touched to records.’ This sweat, this lingering spark would flow with and follow me for the next 30 plus years of my life. It still does, even now.

I remember when – Public Enemy first really HIT me and made sense. I was in Boston, 1989. I’d returned to see Boston again, at the end of my first year at University. I remember that summer due to three films, all of which impacted me in different ways : De Palma’s Casualties of War, Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape and, most importantly, Do The Right Thing by Spike Lee. The opening credits of this film are incendiary. Rosie Perez executes an intensely physical street dance in front of brightly lit neon colours. At one point she dons boxing gloves, slinging at the shadows, at another she has a bright yellow skirt on and you can feel the sweat emanating from her pores. The soundtrack? ‘Fight The Power’ by Public Enemy, a riotous call to arms, declamatory and SO LOUD, like nothing I had ever heard and perhaps never will again. It was, literally, a sledgehammer to my sensibilities : in that moment, I was reborn. Chuck D’s voice was like MLK and Malcolm X amplified, a pure, righteous teacher, a bolt from the blue into black power.

I remember when – I returned to America, again, in 1993 and toured around, settling in the deep South for a short while. During that tour, I browsed in an Atlanta record store and picked up a bunch of Public Enemy CDs and lots of other hip hop which I later crammed into my luggage. That was the year I acquired my first CD player – I had bought those discs in anticipation.

I remember when – I was travelling with a Walkman tape player – yes, really – and sitting on a Greyhound bus, travelling within New Hampshire, heading down to Rhode Island. I had Ice Cube’s ‘The Predator’ on one side, ‘The Low End Theory’ by A Tribe Called Quest on the other. Talk about a match made in heaven. Cube was angry, the production was raw, vicious, terrifying even. His raps were pointed, in your face, overflowing with the tumult of youth and anger at the racism within society : this was around the time of Rodney King being beaten nearly to a pulp by the LAPD. It was a challenging time for race relations in the US. The Tribe, meantime, were bringing conscious knowledge to the fore, sampling jazz and funk and bringing some perfectly executed rhymes courtesy of Q Tip and Phife Dawg. The bass lines courtesy of Ron Carter (who’d worked with the Miles Davis Quintet), were sublime, chest-high, locked in, addictive. I couldn’t get enough, ever.

I remember when – I read the end of year list of best albums for 1994 in NME. Nestled in at around 25 in the top 50 was an album that would not only completely redefine hip hop as a art form but would act as a new level of revelation for me personally. ‘Illmatic’ by Nas is as close to perfection as any single album could ever be. Just over 37 minutes in length, staggering in its lyrical scope and complexity, the musings of a 21 year old Queensbridge resident are set against some the most astonishing productions and samples. It is like a roll of honour – DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor and Q Tip rewrote the rule book. I went on to meet people between 1995 and beyond and would rant rapidly and rabidly about the genius I had encountered. It might have been in a pub, at a party, in a cafe, wherever, maybe even a record store. Still, to this day, it resides firmly in my top 5 favourite albums. I willingly share and publicise this to any soul that will listen to my insistent resistance to anyone NOT knowing about it. That’s it – ‘Illmatic’ by Nas.

I remember when – the two times I saw Public Enemy live. First was at Reading Festival in 1993, the same year that Nirvana headlined on the Sunday. The experience was motivational and then some. The flat field set in a featureless landscape became a hotbed of undiluted hedonism and rampant self-expression. That field transformed into a sprung dance floor, like a green, grass-fed trampoline. I was floating on a luminescent high, thousands of people around me, smiling, flamingoes flying from their craniums – or something. The next time was at the Royal Festival Hall for Lee Scratch Perry’s Meltdown Festival – mid June, as I recall; it may have been 2000. The audience sat politely in the not so cheap seats. Shortly Flavor, Chuck, Terminator  and the Security of the First World emerged, fully-formed as ever. The place went bonkers, bananas, the ceiling collapsed upwards, peeps leapt from those seats and started finding space to bump, party in the make believe street, celebrate, just simply rejoice in the glorious noise coming in from all 6 corners – at least that is how it felt.

I remember when – I would troop down to Leather Lane, on the edge of the City of London, into the local record shop whose name escapes me, past the broken biscuits and dodgy batteries being sold off the back of a lorry, adjacent to Hatton Garden and its diamond emporiums. As I slowed up, I scanned the racks of CDs. This is where I first discovered Wu Tang Clan and countless other acts, picking up on The Roots, no doubt, whilst also deepening my love of house and techno music. It was all there ready to be discovered. The Wu Tang were another shock to my sensibilities, the production skills of RZA completely flooring me with slowed down samples, found film dialogue about Shaolin Ninjas, dexterous sword play and some of the illest, phattest rhyming from luminaries like Method Man, Chef Raekwon and the perfectly monickered Ghostface Killah. I was standing there, all suit and tied, revelling in this new reality, wanting it more and more, finding the sounds irresistible still.

It was around this time I came across the West Coast sound – Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg et al. I was already aware of N.W.A, Ice T [perhaps the very greatest name for a rapper, ever] and Cube, I’d seen ‘Boyz N The Hood’ and been slain by its all too powerful and prevalent message. Snoop had an utterly ridiculous, smooth as caramel flow, Dre’s production skills were sublime. My love for the West reached its summit when I encountered the supernatural skills of Kendrick Lamar some 15 years later. The first time I heard ‘Good Kid, Madd City’ I was a little taken aback : it was an anti-Gangsta LP. He was ruminating on religious faith, the perils of drinking, the family unit – it was a concept album unlike anything I had heard, with 10 minute long tracks, intimate and revelatory story telling but unafraid to be vulnerable and doubtful about the choices he and his peers were making in a clearly and cruelly divided society.

I remember when – ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ came out. I listened to it solidly for weeks on end, soundtracking my commute into Exeter, my head flipping open at the sheer, incandescent beauty of those lyrics, the way Kendrick could generate and mutate within three different vocal deliveries in the space of one song. Ridiculous talent, again and over again.

I have forgotten to mention another double moment. I remember when – I first heard ‘Three Feet High and Rising’ by De La Soul. This was a multi-coloured celebration of life’s essence and woke me up from any possible slumber I might have been falling into. One of the most quotable albums in hip hop history, a bit like Pulp Fiction : you just want to keep coming back to it, again and again. Posdnous, Trugoy the Dove and DJ Maseo hooked up with Prince Paul and made history. Remember now, this was created in 1989 and it STILL sounds relevant and forward thinking in 2020. That’s 31 years, more than half of my lifetime. They have stayed with me, a constant, friendly companion throughout the ups and downs.

When I saw DLS play the Jazz Cafe around my birthday in the early 2000s, it was a dream fully realised. On the smallest stage imaginable the dynamic trio bossed the area, surrounded by a gleaming sea of smiles, bouncing, call and responsing, my own broad grin seemingly about to lead to self-decapitation. Memories are made of this type of holy experience.

I remember when – hearing ‘Poor Georgie’ by MC Lyte which subtly sampled Toto and laid claim to heartbreak with aplomb and genuine emotion. I remember when – every damn time I hear ‘The World Is Yours’ by Nas, I find it difficult it hold back the tears. Yes, I have not experienced the pain and loss he refers to in that poetic diatribe but does that matter? We often live vicariously but I admire his integrity, the realness, the authenticity. I remember when I heard Jean Grae for the first time, experienced the sternum cracking flow of Rapsody, both women absolutely owning the mic and making me smile at their fountains of flow.

I am discovering and rediscovering hip hop every week, as I am with other forms of music – genres, sub-genres, embracing difference. Some of this goes back to the early 80s, 90s, all of it makes my head nod, my lips part in astonishment, my heart beat faster, my limbs want to contort in unknown formations, makes me want to write about it, write for myself, revel in the knowledge that ‘Bonita Applebum’ by A Tribe Called Quest has a beat made up from FIVE separate samples, that my head still nods, that I don’t really care whether anyone else cares about my lifelong obsession, my passion that takes so little to be rekindled. That Mos Def is the most underrated, polysyllabic rapper who has ever taken to the Mic.

One final memory. I remember a night in Exeter, The Phoenix. I’d picked up a ticket, flying solo again. I was unbearably excited. I turned up and saw movement on the floor. near to the stage. Yup, breakdancing, some serious breakdancing. The crowd was amiable and pumped for the occasion. The DJ played out some banging joints from the past – some Gang Starr [I could write a whole blog about them alone], Naughty by Nature, Eric B and Rakim, the usual. Then, just as it seemed the crowd couldn’t be more hyped, on the stage, eruptions, minor earthquakes. The tears flowed, I screamed like a teenager, even though I was in my late 40s. KRS One – Knowledge reigns supreme over nearly everyone. Just thinking about that night causes me to lose a little control. For an hour, the true maestro, the teacher, the philosopher held us in the palm of his hand, his flow mercurial and effortless, his message as relevant and hard-hitting in 2018 as it was in 1985.

In school, I talk about my love for hip hop to most of my students. I do this not because I think it makes me trendy and ‘down’. No, I do it because this music, this movement means EVERYTHING to me. So when I tell my Year 11s that J Cole is a genius, I expect them to check him out and have their eyes opened, their minds even wider, letting the rays of influence in.

Now, I just need to find a way to use this in my teaching… so many possibilities.

Quotes can start a revolution

It started with a quote – at least that’s how I remember it…

Essay writing for English in my secondary school was an exercise in exploration and significance. My teachers would exhort us to locate a pertinent and memorable quote and then launch into a discussion about how it all related and interlinked with the thoughts and ideas of the given author : whether that be Milton, Shakespeare, Henry James, James Joyce, Turgenev or the poetry of Dryden.

We would have spent fruitful hours listening to each other ruminating on the relevant themes, structure, language and overall meaning of a text before plunging [in my case] headlong into a – hopefully – insightful analysis of the writer’s craft. In those days, the heady 1980’s, there were no assessment objectives (AOs) that I was aware of. We just, literally, got on with it. So what did come before the actual ‘writing’ that leads, inevitably to a comment, observation, sympathetic critique and a grade? It was letters in those days ; numbers were for Maths.

Whilst reading from Grayson Perry’s hugely enjoyable ‘Playing to the Gallery’, a funny and clear-sighted exposition on contemporary art and how it can be understood in myriad ways, I came across this intriguing quote: ‘Memory and understanding are not purely intellectual processes. They are also very much emotional.’ This had me thinking, ruminating in the way I used to at school and do even more now I am teacher of English myself.

We are encouraged to explain the GCSE and A level AOs to our students, so that they can fit their responses neatly into the marking rubric – to an extent setting aside individuality on the altar of progress and grade chasing. I was never taught HOW to write a grade A essay, whatever that amounts to. I remember, clearly still, that I adopted a very subjective outlook when writing, allowing myself to become entangled in the sheer beauty of language, wrapped up in the lives of the characters and twisted into the fabric of the plot until I almost lost my breath. This certainly applied to Joyce, influential to me even now, some 30 plus years later. I lived for reading, inhaled words like the smoke from a strong cigarette, returning to the page, heart aflame, searching for more meaning than was maybe permissible. Why, you may ask? Because I was fully immersed and the emotional side in me was reacting, perhaps over reacting.

This is where Perry’s quote takes hold. Teaching to the text or exam is all very well but there has to be more to it. There may not be time in every lesson to slow things down and focus on the minutiae of a paragraph or an opening line. What we, as humans and teachers, have to strive for is to enable students to engage in that ‘great debate’ : not necessarily about what is or isn’t worthy of canonical status but what sets our hearts on fire and makes us look at a text from a number of different and fascinating perspectives.

A twitter disciple was waxing lyrical about ‘inspiration’ the other day. I feel that this quality is so important. Infusing a text, a novel, a play, a poem with significance and deep meaning helps us to feel inspired and to inspire our students : to make their time within the four walls of our classrooms become more than just knowledge but to form memories that are gilt-edged and golden, because we, as their teachers, allowed our own emotional responses to channel furtively into their spoken and written responses.

When I encounter a poem for the first time, I might be taken in by one line, one word, one little gobbet of structure. I might become caught up in the headlong rush of emotion. It might take me three readings before I start to understand it all. When I hear a new song, it could be the bass line, the lyric, the purity of spine-tingling vocal tumbling around in my head that captures the moment. I could return to a song I haven’t heard for a decade and I will be taken back to the moment I first heard it – the magic is reborn, over and again.

Being a teacher of any subject is a distinct and incredible privilege. Instructing upon content, retrieval practice and interleaving are all, of course, vitally important to learning and knowledge retention but we need to keep blowing students away with our own abundant and sometimes outrageous passion for our subject, so that they can tap into that emotion not just ‘in the moment’ but when they reflect upon the stage directions in ‘An Inspector Calls’ or the use of oxymorons in Romeo and Juliet’s speeches about the overwhelming power of love. That way emotion and memory have the unique ability to knit and intertwine. And if a student retains that emotional connection, one can further hope that will, in time, lend itself to more memorable and invested responses that stand out on the page, like beacons and satellites.