About hughogilvie1

I was a lawyer defending suspects who converted to teaching English in order to spread my passion for the subject and convert young minds to the brilliance of language and literature. My prevailing desire is to have an impact and to make a difference.

Murder – it was written…

[In response to a writing stimulus imagine you are on a train or at a train station when a murder takes place. Expand upon this scenario by writing a story of 500 words or fewer] -I’ve exceeded the word limit, by a little…

It starts and ends on the shelf in Sainsbury’s. The craziest moments, where life spirals out of control and transforms into a vortex of pushing, pulling, helpless screaming. My story begins here.

“Bleep, bleep”. Not sure what this sound means but some round metal objects and a blue, rectangular-shaped scrap of paper gets handed over. A brief exchange of muffled voices and into the bag I go, jostling for space with Super Chilli Noodles, a can of Red Bull and a tempting bar of Cadbury’s. If I had wings, I would fly…

Dumped unceromoniously into a rucksack, everything goes dark, blind dark. I don’t want this but no one ever asks my opinion. An engine starts, revving, the tart, liquid stench of petrol – or is it oil? After an age – to me, at least – I hear a zipping sound and the world reveals itself in several shades of colour and extreme brightness. Me? I’m just the same as a lot of my kinfolk, maybe a little longer in some ways. Placed in the drawer, ready to be useful, to play my part in the furtherance of humanity’s nascent dreams – or not…

Time passes, so slowly. Weeks go by. I mean, I’ve been used and washed and used again. Yet, the sameness of everything starts to wear me down a little. There is no growth, no trips out, no flippin’ conversation. Then, one day, it happens and my dull existence takes on real significance.

I’ve been hearing a lot of raised voices, lately. These people seem pretty upset about something but one, in particular, is angrier than the rest. That word a singer called Aretha uses – I hear it on the tinny black box that has DAB scrawled across its front. I think it’s respect. There’s some swearing as well – a lot and it’s happening more often. Even I can taste the tension in the air, the loud shouting, the even louder music : it blasts at me, surging in a wail of repressed aggression. Days coalesce into nights and time becomes immaterial.

I can see the rucksack again. Am I going back to the shop, where they saved me from? It feels like early evening. Zipped in, a journey to be taken but I am not in another bag, like before and there are no Super Noodles and the chill I feel is different now. Breathing around me is heavy. Footsteps turn into faster steps, into running. I hear beeping but this isn’t a checkout, it’s a crossing. If I just could just peep out and take a look. Oh, wait…

Now, this is stranger than fiction. I can hear an announcement : ‘The next train to Finchley Central leaves in 3 minutes ; please mind the gap!’ Other voices, two people, both raised. ‘No respect’ is herded about. The roar of fear rises up to greet me as, without the chance to protest, I am lifted from my darkened domain and into the flickering light.

I flash, triumphant in the cold night air, raindrops cascading down my sliver sides. I plunge, feel myself penetrating a mass of flesh and bone then comes a scream, like no scream I have ever heard or ever will again. Red, blooming outwards. Dropped, clanging, clinging, let go. Let me go.

Maybe an hour later, I am picked up, put in a bag and taken to my grave, to a shelf in a locked room, away from the bright lights, the packaging, the sense of something. But, I cannot get the stain off my face. I never will.

Spontaneity, hibernation and the spaces in between

Whilst catching up on my reading of The New Statesman, I came across and devoured an essay by Ian McEwan, a writer with whom I have enjoyed a fitful reading relationship. I endured his Booker Prize winning ‘Amsterdam’ many years ago and was left both deflated and defeated. His later volume, ‘On Chesil Beach’ was much improved, a sensitive examination of a torturous newly-married couple’s first night together, that read like a thriller and left me breathless and alive, gasping for air at the candid beauty of his evocative prose.

Through reading his essay, I revelled in morsels from John Updike, whose expression for writerly intention is ‘to give the mundane its beautiful due.’ Later, I read that Nabakov instructed his undergraduates in how to read and write about fiction by forgetting about themes and the ‘moonshine of generalisation‘ and instead to ‘fondle the details.‘ McEwan goes on to highlight the literary titan, Henry James, whose own essay ‘The Art of Fiction’ from 1884, advised that writers should not ‘think too much about optimism and pessimism‘ but ‘try and catch the colour of life itself‘. George Orwell, whose ‘Animal Farm’ I have been teaching over the last couple of years, himself wrote about the impulse to write in his essay ‘The Prevention of Literature’ by arguing, with force and no small degree of passion, that ‘Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another […into writing…], literary creation is impossible.

All of these insights compelled me to respond. Although life is linear, in that we are guided by the clock, dawn breaking, winds rising up, the patter of rain on bodies, stone and tree tops and the going down of the day, we can and should allow for moments to take us in a wholly different direction, to allow us to be creative – verbally, in writing or physically – which does not have to fit around a pattern of existence but can sit outside, like an insistent pulse, beckoning us towards an unknown turning, like Frost’s ‘road less travel’d‘, where the details of something fresh and unadorned are waiting to be ‘fondled‘ in the way Updike exhorts, revealing our intentions, hopefully anew and with no standard formula to adide by. We could call it the era of constant discovery, if we choose to embrace it in that way.

Yet, in order for spontaneity to be nurtured and allowed to flourish, we need to give ourselves time to do it. I am amazed at the amount of writing that is posted on Twitter and I sometimes feel inadequate with my own ability to keep up with, respond to it and write my own offerings. I feel that, where someone makes the effort to put their thoughts down on paper and then spread across the multiverse of the internet, it is our duty as readers and thinkers, to lend our eyes for a few moments. Why? The answer is simple : it then gives us all the opportunity to reflect and, perhaps, decide to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard stroke, and come up with our own personal and precious creations: maybe flawed, maybe touching perfection, always honest and true. This reaction is spontaneity. I did not wake up this morning thinking that I was going to write something. However, I read something and here I am.

After McEwan, I embraced a delicate reflection by the nature writer, Helen McDonald. She was ruminating upon hibernation and referenced some harlequin ladybirds that had taken up residence in her kitchen. The same has happened in our bedroom, at each end of the window frame facing out onto the garden. As the temperature drops, they seek solace and huddle, similar to a trio of tiny mice we found one late Autumn afternoon, their tiny hearts beating in syncopation, nestling in a box in the shed, normally occupied by a power drill. McDonald describes the beetles’ motives better than I could : ‘Like many beetles, when external conditions become inimical to existence, they seek refuge, become near inert, their world shrunk to the few millimetres between their carapaces.

Hibernation normally leads to a retreat from the normal and everyday, giving animals the opportunity to rejuvenate and regenerate, readying their bodies for the pleasurable onslaught of Spring. Humans, to an extent, can do the same, but because our brains are so full and always expanding to encounter new knowledge and experience, we tend to write about the winter months, romanticise them or detail the suffering of the less fortunate in colder climes. It is our duty to do so, whilst the animals remain in a state of suspended animation and blissful ignorance, not worried about the price of things, wallpaper patterns or the potholes outside their front doors…the detritus of being an adult, with responsibiities.

Returning again to McEwan’s lengthy and brilliant essay, a few things occurred to me. I need to read more of his writing, I need to read more generally and I need to make time for and give time to the things that I love doing, including writing and reflecting, like James and Updike and McEwan. It is what we were born to do and what completes us as humans. It might be a snatched conversation in the corridor at break ; it might be a hastily scribbled response to a weird fever dream ; it might be some poetry inspired by the colour in the sky, the chink of a wine glass, the laugh of a toddler, the smell of a bonfire – deep and all-encompassing ; or just your breath on the wind.

It is James and his words that resonate the most and typify how we can consider the hours we spend more thoughtfully and allow that spontaneity to grow and stay and express itself more fully:

‘Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every airborne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind ; and when the mind is imaginative…it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.’

Honesty, truth and passion – keep them close and celebrate your existence. The possibilities for us here on earth are endless. Let spontaneity be a part of our lives, so that we can be febrile, searching and adventurous, and, as Updike says, ‘give the mundane its beautiful due.’


In homage to the wonderful, achingly honest musings of Alex Wright, I wanted to pen a few lines to reflect upon a spot of digging I was doing earlier today. Words started flowing in my head and I needed to pause to try and capture them. You can call it poetry, if you like:

Roots : they stick out, they burrow down…

Always searching, restlessly, relentlessly, their ponderous march towards infinity – mapped out amongst earthworms, soft tendrils, snaking and wisping /whispering, their alma mater cascading from the air :the default of sun, rain, showers, downpours, windy days and breezy afternoons.

What is above resembles nothing like below. Who could care to know when we witness hyperreal greens, luscious stems, the fragrant hum of bee pollen, dew in amongst the lattice of a plant’s drifting imagination. Could they sing to us, a tune of folksy proportions, a ballad that absorbs our candour?

Here, now. Be. The roots will continue to search, longingly, for the reason of their birth : see them entangle, twisting, diving. They are permanence beneath the brownest of soils. They centre everything.

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.