Back Thursday 11 Jul 2019 3:59 pm

Big Picture English - Beyond the Brushstrokes

In this full transcript of the 2019 Harold Rosen address at the annual NATE conference, Barbara Bleiman looks at what has been happening to English teaching in recent years, suggesting that we need to foster a broad, more expansive view of the subject, in keeping with the principles and practices of the late twentieth century, rooted in the work of educationalists like Harold Rosen himself.
main image for blog post 'Big Picture English - Beyond the Brushstrokes'

[You can also watch Barbara delivering the address in full here.]


Part One

Harold Rosen was Professor of Education when I trained as an English teacher in 1976-7. His insights and understandings have remained with me ever since. That doesn’t mean to say I haven’t adapted and developed and enthusiastically taken on board lots of new things. 

But I also haven’t abandoned some core principles and values that came from him, from thinkers like him, and ones before him.

I was trained in a period when there were ‘experts’ like Harold. Expertise was valued. 

For me expertise is a mix of two things – experience and knowledge. Older teachers or teacher/educators worked closely with younger ones like me. I remember in the late 70s and early 80s LATE workshops with people like John Dixon, or NATE ‘strands’ on poetry with the amazing Geoff Fox, where I never felt patronised or undervalued but nevertheless, these extraordinary English educators were there, sharing the knowledge they had accumulated over time, with a vast range of reading inside their heads, both in the subject and in education more generally, as well as substantial, significant, classroom experience, often as Heads of English. The two things together. Practitioners and theorists. Theorist/practitioners. And they were often conducting their own research too. Practitioner/ theorist/researchers. 

You’ll notice I distinguish between research and theory. Theory seems to me to bring an additional dimension. It’s not the here today gone tomorrow research of what works (or rather what might work in some contexts but not necessarily your own classroom). It’s something more fundamental about political, societal, human values and ways of being. It’s theories of language and thought, of knowledge, of human behaviour, of aesthetics and culture.

Something has changed. This kind of three-pronged expertise seems not to be valued so much any more, despite the fact that the knowledge of the past that I’ve described, combined with the energy, vitality and new vision of younger teachers is a potent mix. It has huge potential. But divorce one from the other and you risk English teaching becoming deracinated – losing its roots. Lovely looking shoots but nothing to anchor them firmly into the soil.

We can see endless new initiatives and ideas coming around and feel as if on a merry go round. Those of us who’ve been on it too long have begun to feel queasy. We saw something in other iterations. We doubted it then. We’re sceptical now. We recommend care and caution. But no-one is looking back. No-one remembers what came before.

So I want to start my talk proper with a reference back. In my view it’s an extremely important reference for English teachers, and it’s to Harold Rosen himself and the insights this exceptional theorist, researcher, practitioner had to offer – and still does.

This is powerful stuff. Important stuff. It was then and it is now. It has big aims for students and for the subject, big ambition, big ideas. Opening up, not narrowing or closing down, drawing students into the process not shutting them out, admitting rather than rejecting, allowing them to think big and think for themselves, and think beyond the limits of what the  education system is currently imposing on them.

The rest of this talk is going to be all about that. The need to resist the subject shrinking only to what is assessable, to resist it becoming smaller and narrower and more limited but instead to allow it to be big, expansive, broad and inclusive in all kinds of different ways. If it sounds like I’m proseltysing, preaching, I am. This is a moment for beliefs and visions as well as facts. Ideas and values are what our subject is all about and I am unapologetic in stating that this is what I believe to be important. It comes from the experience, wisdom and knowledge of those, like Harold Rosen, who came before me.

So let’s start with a text and some talk. Two vital things in anything to do with English teaching. (This is a poem by Helen Tookey from her collection, City of Departures, It’s shortlisted for the Forward Prize 2019, so bang up to date.) 

[Read the poem here:]

I’m going to read it out loud first of all. I want you to look at it and ask yourself four simple questions:

  1. What are my first thoughts?
  2. Am I puzzled or intrigued by anything about it?
  3. What do I like about it?
  4. Does it remind me of anything?

Now turn to the person sitting next to you and share your ideas.

This is not the way texts are currently being explored in many of our classrooms. What’s your response and why?’ has been supplanted by a focus on other things – often small things, at word, phrase or sentence level – small language techniques and devices. Vocabulary is one of the new ‘obsessions’. The ‘mantra’, ‘The more words you know the smarter you are’ and the idea that students can’t access texts without knowing every single word in advance (drawing on E.D Hirsch) has led to lots of pre-teaching of vocabulary. And lots of pre-teaching of context too, as if you can’t ever approach a text without knowing everything about it first. As if it’s risky and dangerous ever to just read and see what you make of it for yourself. As if texts don’t ever explain themselves. As if they don’t provide new knowledge. As if they’re simply excuses for teaching vocabulary.

With the text I’ve shown you, you might start with something like this:

  • Quend-Plage-les-Pins is a seaside resort in Picardie, in France.
  • Here’s a photograph of it. 
  • A pine is an evergreen tree.
  • Dunes are mounds of sand on beaches.
  • Tenacious means clinging firmly, determined, persistent.
  • Pennants are flags.
  • Crêpes are pancakes.
  • A promenade is a walkway along a beach.

You might pre-teach literary and linguistic terms like syndetic and asyndetic listing, caesura, alliteration, assonance, demonstrative pronouns and ask students whether they can find examples in the poem.  In all instances, you can!

I’m exaggerating a bit of course, but not much. If you google vocabulary and Jekyll and Hyde for instance, you will find lists for each chapter that are pages and pages long, with comment to students telling them ‘These are the words you need to know before even reading this chapter.’ or ‘These are the words you need to know before your exam’. Given that the unfamiliar words in the first paragraph of Jekyll & Hyde alone include ‘eminently’, ‘beacon’, ‘austere’, ‘symbol’s ‘mortify’, ‘a taste for vintages’, ‘approved tolerance’, ‘extremity’, ‘inclined’, ‘reproved’ this is very, very daunting. 

Who would want to read the poem (or Jekyll and Hyde Chapter 1) if learning unfamiliar words is your main starting-point? Burrowing down into tiny details before even getting a chance to discover for yourself what kind of text this is going to be and what your first impressions are. 

I might actually give you the information about where the place is, and perhaps even show you a photo or two:

If a word stands in the way of your broad understanding perhaps I might also offer that to you.

But would you really need all the word information I gave you, up front, in order to talk interestingly about this poem? Were the pleasures and difficulties in the poem predominantly a question of words anyway? If you knew all the unfamiliar words would that, in and of itself, have opened up the poem for you? Could you talk about it without knowing all these words and this context, if some were missing? Could you work out enough for yourselves? And in doing that, would that not then stand you in really good stead for reading the next poem and the next one and the one after that? This is know-how in English literature alongside knowledge of a particular poem in relation to others – skills at the service of knowledge and vice versa. It’s what Professor Robert Eaglestone helpfully describes as ‘doing English’, or more humorously ‘being an Englisher’ in the way that others are geographers, historians or modern linguists, who discover the processes which subject disciplinary experts use to ‘do’ their subject . 

How about, instead, if I had asked you to focus just on the first two lines and spend some time discussing those, perhaps in relation to other things? Can the students think of other things which would be beautiful if they didn’t exist? How’s that possible?  Or if I asked you to think about that repeated phrase, ‘It wouldn’t need’ and what ‘it’ is and what exactly ‘it’ wouldn’t need and why? Wouldn’t that take you further? Or in thinking about the question, ‘what’s puzzling or intriguing?’ what if I asked you whether this is similar or different from other poems you’ve read. Are there aspects that aren’t very poem-like? Or more poem-like? 

If we narrow the focus to words only, to small detail, and always and only to the narrower questions of comprehension in a single poem, rather than big picture ideas, we risk becoming blind to the aspects of texts that are both most important and also cause students most difficulty. We focus students and their attention on little things and don’t encourage judgement about what’s significant and what isn’t. We also narrow the conversation, confine it to elements that students cannot contribute much to, in which we are the sole experts and they must rely on us for answers, only to questions that can be answered. We deny the importance of their response and the fact that sometimes their response might collectively take the class further than just our own response, and take our own response further too. 

English Literature is all about readers, writers and, crucially, the relationship between them. That’s a complex business, nerves and muscle and bone and blood supply and chemicals and hormones all operating together to make the body work. If we look only at a small bone in the foot in isolation, not even at a whole skeleton, or at blood in a test tube, or at a single nerve twitching, we never see the whole body in motion.

To turn now to the question I asked about the poem,  ‘What does this remind you of?’ it seems to me to be a particularly important one. The text might remind you of personal experiences and send the conversation outwards (and inwards) into life and mind and emotion – that’s after all, what poems are meant to do – to connect with you personally, to make you think and feel. It might bring up strongly held feelings about the environment and nature.

How about, if I’d asked you to use the first two lines as a starting-point for a poem of your own? Or if I’d suggested that you write about a place that you think has been spoilt for you by people. (In my case, it might be the Alhambra, with all its tourists taking photographs – or my neighbours’ new back extension, blocking out the light in my kitchen.)

 But equally it might and should send you into other literary experiences and encourage you to make connections with other reading and writers. These kinds of conversations, with yourself and with others, are vital not only to reading literature but to studying it. They are a fundamental part of the way all thinking and all knowledge works – the categorisation of what we encounter – why a text is this, or this or this but not that, or that, or that. 

So, encouraging those literary connections and comparisons is really important – going out from a text in big, expansive ways and then back in again. I recognise the poem as a poem only because of others that I’ve read. It’s more like a lyric poem than a narrative one. It’s short, intense and it has a point to make. I recognise it in these ways only because I’ve read other poems, ones that are both like it and not like it, lyrics and narratives. I automatically start to categorise it in my mind to discover what makes it special, where it sits in the world of poems and poemness. It makes me think of other sea poems, Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ for instance – also questioning humanity in the wider landscape, both natural and spiritual. It makes me think of Anne Stevenson’s ‘With My Sons at Boar Hills’. A very different poem – much more personal, using a memory of her sons as children to think about time passing. It’s a bit more like Larkin’s ‘To the Sea’ perhaps? But his vision is more photographic, and more about people and their lives, less about nature and what people do to it. It makes me think of William Carlos Williams – the simplicity but also that taking you out of a scene or a description into something more profound and yet still elliptical and uncertain. Or new ecological writing in other genres – Robert Macfarlane for instance. And so on and so on. If I started to talk to someone else about this –  any one of you for instance – I’d hear about other poems, I’d remember others myself, I’d refine my thinking not only of the specific poem but also poetry in general.

Now obviously students don’t have all these poetic reference points. But they have to start somewhere. And that’s with us. In English classrooms. If you’ve read only a handful of poems in detail, that gives you limited experience. So students should be reading lots of poetry, in lots of different ways – sometimes close up, of course, looking at the brush strokes, but sometimes also just strolling through the gallery, noticing the different kinds of things on offer, and visiting many different kinds of galleries. We should be drawing them into the process of being to be able to refer back and forwards in this kind of way. Unprompted they might say, for instance, ‘it’s not at all like that other poem we read ‘The Sea is a Hungry Dog’ by James Reeves and their teacher might ask why. And that opens up the conversation about themes and ideas, one being about this, the other about that, but also about the very different poetic stances, voices, stylistic choices. By the time they reach GCSE and unseen poetry, and then perhaps, hopefully, A Level they will have broad experiences and big ideas to draw on, when looking at any single text – a rich context into which to put it. 

As those of you have read my blogs will know, I’m very taken with the work of an American acolyte of Harold Rosen’s called Arthur Applebee. Rosen supervised his PhD when he was living and studying in London.  Applebee and his colleagues, undertaking research in 2002 into the most effective English classrooms in the US, drew attention particularly to this idea of connections – the linking of one of idea to another, the drawing of parallels and relationships, the bigger picture of literature and the subject. The write-up of this research says:

Applebee sees the English curriculum as one big, continuing ‘conversation’. He sees knowledge as being about entering into subject disciplinary conversations and traditions of thought. I find this a very appealing and intuitively ‘true’ way of thinking about the English curriculum in schools. I can look back at my own teaching over thirty years and at the great teaching I saw both then and since, and this particular way of characterising it seems to me to have been a feature of the very best of what I’ve experienced, seen and still see in classrooms. 

I’m going to take the time to read to you a few extracts from Applebee’s book Curriculum as Conversation, because I think it has such important messages for us, particularly at this moment, when the curriculum and knowledge are being debated so passionately and when English departments are searching for a rationale and a set of principles for new thinking. 

Applebee says to new students of English:

He says:

What I love about this is the way it encapsulates everything I’ve said about the interrelationships between particular bits of knowledge and textual experiences but connects this with Rosen’s and others ideas about the student’s ‘perceptions, experiences, imaginings and unsystematically acquired knowledge admitted as legitimate curricular content.’ There is no need to exclude students’ own experience from the conversation. In fact, the conversation can’t really happen without it. 

Part Two

So…for the second part of my talk I want to focus on what actually happens when you construct your teaching in this way – where conversations about individual texts are at the heart of teaching but where those significant conversations go beyond the narrow confines of the single text and reach both back into memory (and sideways) into students own experiences of life and literature. And go forwards too, anticipating, prefiguring and developing the kinds of conversations that we hope that students will go on to have about future texts and experiences of literature, both in academic study and in their reading lives as adults.

In our project, It’s Good to Talk, as its name suggests, conversation is seen as a means of learning as a well as being fundamental to knowledge in the subject. In September last year we worked with a Year 9 cohort in a school in East London who were studying a novel. Half the cohort did their old scheme of work, the other half followed a new scheme written by myself and one of the teachers at the school, Lucy Hinchliffe, who was working one day a week at EMC. 

The project on a novel, that started with ‘let’s add in some group work’ pretty quickly became engulfed in the much bigger questions of ‘why are we teaching a novel?’ ‘What do we want students to know about this novel?’ ‘What kinds of conversations do we want our students to have about it?’ ‘What’s important for them to learn about narrative texts that can be taken further into KS4?’ ‘How important is it to know the book inside out as opposed to enjoying reading it and studying it in terms of what it offers as knowledge to take forward?’ 

The book was In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda.

It is a novel based on a true story of the migration of a 10 year old Afghani boy, Enaiat, who embarks on a 5 year journey to find a place of safety in Europe. Geda, the novelist, is the journalist who interviewed the boy on his arrival in Italy and turned his story into fiction.

The previous scheme proceeded, as many do these days, largely by powerpoint – a sequence planned in advance by one teacher and followed by everyone teaching the book. It had several lessons of prior knowledge – slides with images of Afghanistan and historical information, followed by student research into Hazari and Pashtuns (despite the fact that many children in the classes were themselves Hazari or Pashtun and probably knew more than the teachers could tell them. And in any event, the book itself gives you pretty much everything you need to know and teaches you all about the context). The focus of this was all taking them out of the book into the wider context. Fascinating as that might be, it wasn’t a literary experience.

Something very powerful and horribly upsetting happens right at the beginning of the book, in the first two or three pages – when the boy’s mother leaves him, hoping that he’ll have a safer, better life away from his village and suddenly he realises that he’s on his own, having to fend for himself. The first time I read it, the tears welled up. I don’t think I could read it aloud in class without choking. But there was little time in the original scheme of work for students (many of whom have personal histories of migration, in their own families), to talk about the impact of this on them and how the writer had conveyed the horror and the heartbreak.  

The bulk of the study overall was GCSE exam led, with a very close focus on language in preparation for the GCSE Language questions – a lot of PEETAL paragraphs on short extracts, concentrating on small details of language at word or at most sentence level. 

There was very little of what I’d call bigger picture thinking –

  • What’s my response? Which was the most powerful moment for me? What does it remind me of?
  • What kind of book is this?
  • How does it compare with other novels I’ve read?

And so on. 

The scheme Lucy Hinchliffe, the lead teacher, and I developed, (which came to be known by the teachers as ‘the EMC way’) offered a radically different approach, that would encourage these kinds of ideas and insights, responses and thoughts, conversationsthat were serious and high level and personal and literary in their nature.

We asked ourselves what happens when you focus on big things – big ideas first, before small techniques:

  • What is your response to the text and why? Its subject, its events, what you find most interesting, moving, powerful
  • Big ideas and concepts in literature – e.g. the novel, genre, fact/fiction 
  • Significant narrative features – e.g. voice and point of view, narrative arc, dialogue, coherence, significant aspects of prose style
  • What makes the text distinctive? What are the ‘characteristic’ features and qualities of the text? Big patterns.
  • Understandings about the way texts work that can be taken forward into the study of the next & future novels.

We had half the Year 9 cohort doing it the new ‘EMC’ way and the other half using the existing scheme of work.

Right from day one, lesson one, the students in the EMC groups were encouraged to think about these issues – to think big, not just in terms of the kinds of ideas but also in questioning, drawing in previous experiences and knowledge. To think hard about important issues.  In that first lesson, they were given fragments of the text to explore – to whet their appetite without spoiling the book, and to set them thinking about what kind of text this would be. Their first thoughts about what was most significant were collected on the whiteboard, in order to establish an on-going, class agenda – a kind of flexible, provisional, changing, developing, ever more sophisticated set of ideas about what’s important to them about the book. It could be done differently, by reading the first chapter and then pooling ideas about important aspects of subject matter, themes, style, voice, genre and so on. In our case, we did it using these little fragments, that were explored in groups and then discussed in class. 

Have a look at this slide for a few moments. 

Here’s one example of a first lesson agenda:

I want to show you a tiny fragment from a student’s exercise book, just to give you a glimpse of how these agendas developed over time. As lessons went by, new ideas were added, both collectively in class, and individually by students. So we start to hear, by lesson 2, about how they’ve been discussing the fact that it seems to be non-fiction written in a fiction-like way, for instance, and what that means. (Incidentally, as an aside, it’s worth thinking about the use of subject terminology here. The language of the subject is being included quite simply & naturally. No lesson time was given separately to explaining the meanings of words like protagonist, imagery, voice, rites of passage and so on but they were being used. In lessons, useful terms were used….when they were useful. They came up naturally in classroom conversations. No modelling was needed to incorporate them in writing because students had heard them said enough to know how to do so. Students weren’t rewarded for using, or not using them. What was valued was good ideas well expressed in whatever way one can best express them.) 

Here you see a student adding their own ideas to what’s been discussed to the agenda – a rich mix of stylistic observations and ones about the events of the novel and what their underlying implications are. (We’re at 13thSeptember here – so just a couple of lessons in to the study of the book.)

  • Conversation between the teller and writer are in italics to show present tense and when they’re having a conversation.
  • He wants to move to Iran for a new life.
  • People are racist to him.
  • He changes during the chapters, becoming braver.

This gives a sense of the range of thinking going on – uncompartmentalized, grappling with themes but also very strongly engaged with the subject, the characters, the events, the ways of telling. 

In another lesson, Lucy gave her students these challenging statements cut up in envelopes. They had to agree/disagree, pick ones they were most interested in, talk about them and then choose one to write about in an exploratory way. She read to them something she’d written herself about an entirely different statement, to show how she used writing to think and explore, to work out her own ideas about it.

Here one student chooses to write about the statement ‘It’s possible to tell both the truth and an entertaining story':

Now, if you were going to mark this on GCSE criteria, you’d probably complain about all sorts of things. You’d see it through a very different set of lenses to the ones I hope we can all see it through. The student is struggling a bit to express his ideas. But what he’s trying to express is really difficult and interesting. It’s at the heart of what makes this book especially complex and special – the telling of someone’s real life story as fiction, but with the teller stepping out of the fiction from time to time, to include fragments of dialogue between himself and the real boy whose story he is telling.

One extra question from Lucy, as a kind of ‘Think harder’ question, elicits a range of sophisticated thoughts about how the writer has crafted a ‘novel’ out of fact – the difference between Geda (the writer) and the boy, (which involves the complex issue of voice and viewpoint, the sequencing of events, the hook at the start. Lucy’s focus is on developing the student’s ideas. There’s no formalistic attention paid to a structure into which these ideas must fit. It’s exploratory and developmental in nature, at this stage, not writing to a GCSE question task.  And what emerges is good thinking in my view, for a Year 9. He’s exploring the text in ways that will stand him in very good stead when he goes on to his next novel – in this case Great Expectations – allowing him to engage in Applebee’s connected curriculum, in a long term set of ‘conversations’ between one text and the next. Lucy did, in fact, find that students drew spontaneous, insightful parallels and contrasts with ‘In the Sea There are Crocodiles’ as soon as they started work on the Dickens – exploring ideas about rites of passage novels, differing narrative arcs, child’s eye perspectives and so on – often without prompting.

What kind of writing emerged from the EMC groups generally, as compared with the non-EMC ones, who were doing something very different in classwork – lots of PEETAL paragraphs and constant reference made to the demands of the GCSE Language paper?

Here are a couple of short examples of writing taken from the student exercise books. The questions, as you’ll see were slightly different – in seemingly small but significant ways. The non-EMC questions always mirrored the GCSE Language exam.  The EMC questions varied but writing about extracts quite often took the form of ‘in what ways is this extract characteristic of the rest of the novel’, with students being expected to draw into close reading their understanding of the text as a whole – small detail at the service of big picture thinking.

I’m going to read the first one aloud. 

What do we notice about this?  

For me, PEETAL has shrunk literary studies to words and phrases, disconnected from bigger, more significant meanings. Endless mining of single words or phrases means we have no sense at all about what makes this book special, why it’s been written, what its impact is, what’s been learned about how narrative texts work. And the exploration of the words themselves ends up being repetitive, banal, not very illuminating at all.

Here’s an extract from a much, much longer piece by a student in Lucy’s ‘EMC’ group. It was written for homework. It was based on the student’s own annotations of an extract. 

In this you can see the use being made of the sophisticated thinking that started in the very first lesson, and in the one about the nature of fiction and non-fiction. Her reflections on the use of parentheses is rooted in thinking about the nature of the narrative and the way it is told. Even in this tiny extract, one has a good sense of it being about this particular novel and what makes it special. Incidentally, being freed up to talk about what’s genuinely interesting and significant means that the EMC students go into many more areas of language, in much more varied ways. The non-EMC students are so focused on proving their knowledge of language in PEETAL style, that they only ever talk about metaphors and similes, as if that’s all language is.

What’s interesting about the 'EMC way’ students’ writing is that, although there is a common spine to their writing – the things that have been emerging through the collective agenda – how they choose to write about these things and what they focus on is very, very different. Even writing about a short extract, they choose different quotations to focus on, they say different things, they say them differently. They select what they genuinely deem to be most interesting and important. No two pieces of writing reads the same. By contrast, the other groups focus on just a handful of the same quotations that have been modelled in class. Across the whole book, when you look through their exercise books you see that they have only focused on a few quotations. They don’t make judgements, decisions, choices for themselves, nor do they apply knowledge to fresh evidence themselves. They have some limited knowledge, but little know-how.

And one thing that is also really noticeable is the authenticity of the EMC students’ response – the language in which they express it. So they use phrases like ‘What stands out for me’, ‘What intrigued me the most’ [as in this example], or  ‘I was struck by’ or ‘I think’ or ‘I hope that’. The students own ‘perceptions, experiences, thoughts, imaginings’ (as Harold Rosen describes them) find a valid, important place in their writing and their writing is all the richer and more authentically ‘English’ for that.

Part Three - Poetry

There’s been a lot of interest in the novel project. But it’s not just about novels. It’s about everything. It’s about how we work on texts across the whole landscape of English. So let me conclude by going back to the idea of how students work and think about poetry, which we examined earlier, when we looked at the poem about the beach in Picardy. 

The brushstrokes of close reading are important, of course they are, but in the wider context of the painting, the movement, the whole gallery and many, many different galleries. 

And here’s what happens when you allow students to walk around a gallery, enjoying the art works, before looking at the brushstrokes of a single painting– how you allow them to read openly, enthusiastically and develop points of reference and comparison of their own, engaging with important ideas. 

Richard Long, a Head of Department in High Wycombe who has been a hugely enthusiastic, committed member of EMC’s project worked with me on poetry at KS3. Here’s what the happened in the first lesson:

  1. Teacher chose a poem, read it to the class, talked it –  what they liked about it, what’s puzzling, surprising, intriguing about it.
  2. Gave the students a small cluster of 5 or 6 poems to choose between (individually), with the same prompts - what do I like, what puzzles me etc
  3. Students worked in groups, presenting their poems to each other and picked one that the whole group liked. Prepared to read it and present it to the whole class.
  4. Students individually wrote about one poem chosen from all those encountered in the lesson, in an open, exploratory way, on a class blog. 

The student choices were fascinating, often not at all what their teachers expected. 11 year old boys were choosing Maya Angelou and saying ‘I really, really like that!’. Students were picking challenging and enigmatic poems –  sometimes ones the teachers had been a bit reluctant to include –  not than the simplest. Naomi-Lee picked her favourite poem from the lesson to write about in the blog. 

[Read the poem she chose, 'This poem is dangerous', here:]

Her response was addressed to Richard and to the other students. 

For me, Naomi-Lee is fully entering our subject discipline and, aged 11, doing it with gusto. She’s engaging in the big, important conversations of English. She’s doing just what Applebee talks about in terms of engaging in disciplinary traditions, and, just what Harold Rosen describes as bringing in ‘affective’ and ‘unpredictable elements. For me, (as in the work of the students on the Year 9 novel), this is indeed, ‘knowledge made not given’ and these students ‘perceptions, experiences, imaginings and unsystematically acquired knowledge’ have truly been ‘admitted as legitimate curricular content.’ 

If we want our subject to thrive and grow, if we want students to choose to study it at A Level and at university – and if we want students to do well at GCSE – this is what it has to be – a subject with genuine intellectual interest, that brings students on board, that takes them and their own contributions seriously and allows them to take a full part in the conversation. It’s what made the subject one we all chose to do ourselves and they have an entitlement to that. We shouldn’t expect them to settle for anything less.


At last someone has called out that the emperor is naked with this technical and scientific 'analysis' of texts. Being over-whelmed by the meaning of vocabulary is indeed very off-putting - and not only for students, but adults too. We should be looking for personal interpretation and appreciation of poetry and prose - not going at them with a scalpel and microscope approach. Of course, the context and broader understanding of the text is important and of course, it's important to not be too off-beam, or random in interpretation. However, we need to get back to seeing English as something that is open to the imagination and creativity of young people and not something that is like a science to be taken apart. I am typing this sitting at a table. I can appreciate the table for its utility and aesthetic appearance. I don't need to go sub-atomic and study the atoms it is made of. I also don't need to know that atoms have neutrons and other quantum particles that make them what they are. This is what we are doing in English - talking too much about the atoms! By Alan Savage on 13th Jul 2019
Thank you for the interesting, thoughtful response! By Barbara Bleiman on 13th Jul 2019
A terrific piece of advocacy on behalf of real English teaching. It has to be about ideas, questions and meanings first, and technical craft second. I cannot agree more wholeheartedly with your questioning of pre-teaching of vocabulary and context.

Imagining doing this for a Star Wars movie, explaining what kind of creature a Wookie is, how light sabres work, and how George Lucas borrowed ancient mythological narrative structures and motifs - and then watching the film. It is tantamount to inserting a ‘screen’ of mental concepts between the reader / viewer and the text / story, disabling innate emotional response and involvement.

Why on earth would we suggest that this is what constitutes reading? We should teach that the real purpose of analytic tools is to analyse our responses to the text, not solely to form the basis of that response in itself. And that is what I see at work in ‘the EMC way’ you describe. Fascinating stuff. Thank you for sharing this in such close detail.
By Freddie Baveystock on 14th Jul 2019
Thank you for this. Your Star Wars example is superb! It makes the point beautifully. Your incredulity about why this view of reading is being promoted so widely echoes my own. By Barbara Bleiman on 15th Jul 2019
I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to read this. You’ve articulated what I have been feeling in my very bones and given me hope that English teaching the EMC way may spark interest and encourage departments to step outside the exam bubble. By Karen Jones on 17th Jul 2019
I'm genuinely thrilled that you're thrilled! The comments I'm getting suggest a huge appetite for a kind of English that is exciting, enjoyable and intellectually challenging, not just for students but for their teachers too. By Barbara Bleiman on 17th Jul 2019
I'm a student teacher, currently in the middle of my PGCE English. I was so inspired to read your words as so SO much of the English I've seen in school so far this year models the "non-EMC" approach. Students turn into tired robots when it comes to these PEEL / PETER paragraphs! My jaw almost dropped to the ground when one teacher even told me the text itself we are teaching is effectively 'irrelevant', because it's all about using it to help students master these language analysis skills! So the text of a novel / poem, in this view, is purely a vehicle for teaching these skills. I was feeling quite despondent after she said that... Moving forward, I really love some of your 'big picture' ideas and I'm going to try them out in my own classes. Thank you very much for fighting for the soul of English. By Rebecca on 02nd Mar 2020
Thank you for your comment. I believe that the tide is beginning to turn. It will have to turn, if teachers like you are going to want to stay teaching & students are going to want to continue studying the subject. There are many English teachers who agree. I hope after you complete your PGCE that you'll find one with a good, thoughtful approach in keeping with the best traditions of the subject. By Barbara Bleiman on 02nd Mar 2020
I'm so glad I just read your lecture! I've been teaching for 25 years and recently moved from IB programmes back to IGCSE/A Level/PEEL paragraphs/death-by-PPT! I was beginning to feeling frustrated and constricted by the rigid assessment criteria. I agree that distilling texts to a list of literary features kills students' enjoyment and engagement and misses the point of our subject. I'm about to embark on unseen poetry with AS Level students. After reading your lecture, I'm determined to have discussion-based, organic sessions that draw on students' experience and knowledge. After years of spoon-feeding, this will be hard for them, but I'm up for the challenge of making them think! By Michelle Miller on 18th Apr 2020
I'm so pleased it resonates with you. I've had a lot of similar reactions, which makes me think that the tide is turning and many teachers are determined to make changes in the long term interests of their students. By Barbara Bleiman on 18th Apr 2020

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