I’ve had a very quiet blog recently because of pressures on my time (some very welcome, some not so) and because WordPress seems to be difficult to get into these days (I must check out my firewall settings, apparently, though why they have unilaterally decided to go wonky I haven’t a scooby).
July saw two very different major Scottish publications in which I’ve been included. First of all, “Lizard Isle”, a gentle fantasy story, has been included in Black Middens, New writing Scotland 31. It’s a major collection – over 300 pages of the best Scottish writing around – and I’m delighted to be included.
Just coming out from the printers too is the 4th edition of the seminal academic volume Scottish Education, edited by Tom Bryce, Walter Humes, Donald Gillies and Aileen Kennedy. Mine is a small contribution – one chapter out of a whopping one hundred and eleven – on “Ethos and behaviour in secondary schools”. I enjoyed writing it, and it’s a privilege to have been asked.
Unfortunately, neither will open the gateways to fame and fortune, but that’s never really the point, is it?
I had a good morning the other day doing in-service with English teachers from South Ayrshire on Persuasive Writing at Nat 4, 5 and Higher. It was organised by my friend Sally Law, PT English at Marr College, who has used some of the resources I wrote for Education Scotland last year and which can be found at http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/resources/nq/e/englishpersuasivewriting/introduction.asp
Much like my Creative Writing materials published two or three years ago, the basic premise is that pupils need to engage regularly with reading that is designed to persuade them, and then regularly undertake writing tasks that allow them the opportunity to persuade others in a variety of contexts. English teachers always – always – tell pupils they should be reading a quality newspaper regularly. That’s good advice which very few pupils take up, and I suspect it’s because (a) they have no incentive to and (b) don’t know what to do with it when they do. Just reading an article doesn’t seem to have any explicit relevance to them; so, it’s important we do something with it that makes sense to them.
In the materials, there are sheets to support regular blogging and tweeting, two social networking contexts pupils will be well acquainted with. It’s very easy to set up a class blog or Twitter account, even given the ICT restrictions common in schools, but these can also easily be done with a pen and paper “Blog Wall” or “Tweet Space”.
So the groups started off with two articles I downloaded on topical issues. In half an hour, they read them, briefly thought about tone and editorial position, identified their own reaction and then constructed a 140 character tweet in response to what they’d read. I think this sort of quick reading and evaluating holistically is something pupils rarely do: for many of them, reading a non-fiction article is only ever about an agonising search for rhetorical questions or identifying good link phrases to answer some questions on it that are, at the end of the day, pretty random. The teachers seem to get stuck into it, and I manage to get three tweets out of six groups (you lot in the other groups, I’m still waiting! Remember – @raymondsoltyek). All in all, it’s an exercise that works really well, and many of them say they’ll be using the activity with their classes.
We then take a look at Numeracy in English. The Using Numbers to Persuade resource looks at what, to me, is key when considering how we integrate Numeracy into the English curriculum: that is, the interaction between numbers and words, and how we use language to express numbers for different purposes. Basically, it’s based on the premise that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Pupils trawl the internet for stats to support their arguments, never really questioning how those stats are presented to them or what the agenda behind that presentation might be. Do they consider the difference between a statement that says that “barely half agree with X” and “a clear majority agree with X”, when the figure in both cases might be 51%? Can they interpret the difference in tone wrought by phrases such as “as much as a third”, “hardly a third”, “fully 30%” or “only 3 in ten”? I think this is where some really productive work can be done.
So the final task of the first session is to write press releases from different pressure groups on statistics issued to them. This, of course, allows us to investigate the whole notion of press releases and pressure groups, what they do and how they try to persuade us. Using the same statistics, they must argue that immigration controls should be eased or tightened up, they must argue prison sentences should be more lenient or more harsh, they must argue that clean air legislation isn’t doing enough or is moving too fast. It’s a difficult exercise that they find really challenging, but it can easily be adapted for less able groups. And the beauty of it is that, in a time of 24 hour news, it’s a real world exercise; a friend of mine from Glasgow Writers’ Group writes freelance, and she regularly has to come up with an article on something she knows nothing about in a matter of hours.
After a break, the groups look at three further resources, examining their use in providing formative feedback to exemplar essays in three areas: global structure, sectional structure and close structure. The resources on global structure are, I feel, the best in the package. Taking the lead from group discussion skills teaching, it looks at the Proposing – Refuting cycle as a means of structuring argument.
I think we sometimes pay too much attention to giving pupils rules and roles in group discussion, as if stipulating that everyone must take a turn or that Craig is the Chairperson and Jamie the Reporter somehow ensures that the pupils will then know how to discuss. Of course they absolutely don’t. What is necessary is that they acquire a metacognition of the behaviours exhibited in a discussion: that is, they are able to differentiate between those interventions where they propose an idea, where they question an idea, where they refute an idea. When they understand these behaviours, we can then help them build up a repertoire of language that enables them to engage in these behaviours; they know what to say when they build on a point, and how that differs from the language they would use to refute that point.
An analysis of a fantastic Naomi Klein article, “Looting with the lights on”, exemplifies the cycle used in writing. For those of you who don’t know Klein’s work, her breakthrough book, “No Logo”, is perfect to get young people furious about the way they are manipulated by the market and how their self-image is defined by advertising and branding. It’s brilliant. And if you want to read an excoriating analysis of capitalism’s use of war and disaster to extend its tentacles into every human being’s way of life, read “The Shock Doctrine”.
But of course, writing need not follow the cycle slavishly. The key here is that we build a sense of coherence in the pupils’ writing. I remember, to my shame, relying on a “make three points for, one point against” structure to teach persuasive writing. All that does is produce bitty, disconnected writing that is superficial and trite. Here, pupils are encouraged to think about the structural flow of an essay. Having made a point, what do they want to do next? Support it with further explanation? Build on it by introducing other ideas, facts or statistics? Question it by posing some problem scenario? Or refute it by making a convincing case for its inapplicability in certain situations? And if they refute the point, what then are they going to re-propose in its place? What happens is they begin to think about the progression of ideas throughout their writing, ensuring that there is cognitive linkage rather than just a surface level technical linkage. I think it’s extraordinarily powerful.
Having provided rich, formative feedback on the exemplar essays through the prism of the particular skills they examined, teachers then shared their feedback with each other. A couple observed that their feedback was very different but agreed this was a good thing. Rather than holistic – and probably sometimes quite anodyne – comments at the end of essays that amount to little more than ‘improve your structure’, the teachers found they were giving detailed and specific guidance: “This section might be improved by using an anecdote to illustrate your point”. It seemed to be a success.
Sally has offered to coordinate some feedback on the materials as the year progresses; that will be really interesting, and give me a real flavour of any tangible improvements that arise as a result of using these materials as they are meant to be used. In the meantime, if you’d like me to do a similar session for your school or authority, by all means e-mail me at email@example.com . Interestingly, a Geography teacher, Kenny (who was a former Educational Studies student of mine and who admits to kicking my shins at 5-a-side football) also comes along, and says he found a lot of it very relevant for the upper stages of Social Subjects. I’d love to investigate that, so by all means if you think persuasive techniques would help you deliver certain aspects of your SS courses, get in touch. Interdisciplinarity in action!
Last Friday, I spent the day working with groups of PGDE Primary students on poetry in the classroom; I had a lot of fun, and discussing creative writing pedagogy with Primary teachers was really enlightening for me.
I start from the premise that we kind of get poetry wrong in schools. Pupils’ experiences of it tends to be either for construction (“let’s all write an acrostic poem together”) or deconstruction (“let’s all highlight all the similes in the poem”), or a combination of both that, for example, uses deconstruction to elicit construction (“let’s all analyse the genre markers of the haiku, and then write one ourselves”). And while all of these types of activity are valuable and indeed essential to understanding poetry, it is, for me, quite a limited and sterile experience: poetry is something we do something with, something that generates work. Students – even English graduates looking to be English teachers – come with a great deal of anxiety about poetry, and that is, they say, down to their experiences of poetry at school.
And yet, why do we read poetry? Well, for enjoyment, of course. And I don’t think there’s enough of that, so we started each session with the students browsing through some poetry anthologies and magazines to find something they liked to read to the rest of their group. Then put it aside, because the worst thing we could do is to analyse it to death for the next three hours.
Having warmed up our poetry reading, we then warmed up our poetry writing with a quick poetry word wheel exercise, a simple resource of three concentric discs containing an adjective, a noun and a verb that provides a three word stimulus for a short poem. With “scientist”, “kind” and “eats”, I came up with“Working late, the scientist Fills his lab with sparks, eats Chinese food from a takeaway carton. Kind of tangy.”
For some unaccountable reason, I’m quite proud of that. However, some of the students’ responses were lovely: Heather, using “big”, “girl and “swims”, wrote“The girl swims slowly Big arcing movements of her arms Pulling her towards a warmer kind of peace.”
Catriona, using “empty”, “animal” and “hopes” thought of:“The dawn stretches empty over rooftops Below an animal limps across the road A dog? A cat? A fox? The sullen hopes of a city life are waking”
Poetry is stripped out of the curriculum, studied almost as a separate entity. I’m a great believer that the poetic sensibility should be embedded and integrated much more into the day to day work of the classroom, and that a poem is as much a way of recording knowledge as a report or a close reading test or a storyboard. To illustrate this, we spent some time looking at poems from Gerry Cambridge’s lovely poetry / photography / natural history collection “Nothing But Heather”. Cambridge’s poetry is gorgeous, but what is so striking about “Nothing But Heather” is the informative quality of the text. I remember looking at one of my favourites, “Chrysomelid Beetle Pollinating a Wild Orchid”, with a Fifth Year pupil, and she said she learned more about plant fertilisation from that poem than she learned in 5 weeks in Higher Biology. All the students particularly liked “Shore Crab”, which they could easily see themselves using with their classes: you can hear a musical version of it here, with Cambridge proving his Rennaisance Man credentials by playing a mean moothie.
So poetry, much more than simply being a form, also informs. We looked at typical Primary school topics, and brainstormed a wordbank. For example, with Vikings, we came up with:
Long ships Sails Shields Mead Sagas
Hats with horns Horned helmets Swords battle-axes Pigtails
Ginger beards Storm Fjords Fiery funerals
Gruel Seas France – Normandy
A technique I’ve used often with older poetry writers is close redrafting: you can read more about it in “Wind Them Up and Let Them Go: The Primacy of Stimulus in the Classroom”, an article I did for Writing in Education magazine a few years back. You can download a copy from the University of Strathclyde by clicking the link.
Basically, when we assess prose, we tend to mark it holistically, taking in an extended piece of writing and assessing it with broad brushstrokes such as “vary your sentence structure” or “avoid repetition”. It’s my feeling that this kind of assessment is inappropriate for poetry, since here the aim is to condense, distil. As a result, we need to do away with prepositions, conjunctions, articles, all the chaff that makes a piece of prose flow, because those are not the words that signify meaning to the poet.
So, we get the pupils to write three simple sentences from their word bank – something like
|Viking long ships sailed through stormy seas from their homes in the fjords to invade Scotland. They arrived on beaches in the north and battled the locals with their swords and axes. They told stories they called sagas about these events.|
Now, looking at this as prose, we’d probably never comment on the fact that the phrase “in their” is repeated, or that the word “they” is used three times, because we feel they are somehow ”essential”. The poetic way, though, is to get rid of all those little words in red to strip us to the words that really mean something, the words that communicate the core idea. With a little beating and shaping, we can begin to mould something that looks like poetry:“Viking long ships Through stormy seas From fjord homes Invading Scotland Swords and axes For locals On beaches Sagas to be told.”
I’ve worked with teenage boys who love this way of building poetry, bit by bit, three sentence prose chunks developed into verses. Working with groups in a Primary classroom, you could have your very own Viking saga in less than half an hour.
So the poem becomes not a poem on its own, something seemingly independent of the rest of the curriculum, but becomes a quick, relatively easy way of providing another source of evidence of pupils’ understanding of a topic. In addition, unlike the passivity of a close reading, it demonstrates individuals’ ability to make choices about the language which means most to them from a topic, and their ability to manipulate that language to express something that is genuinely an individual response. Light bulbs seemed to be going on in the groups, thankfully. Now, the poetic way of handling language simply became another literacy skill in the arsenal.
And what poetry also does is combine the objective with the subjective. We looked at simple items that might be found on a nature walk – a dead autumn leaf, a pebble, a scrap of wool caught on a barbed wire fence – and brainstormed it with a simple “Objective / Subjective” column. After sharing and developing, the task was to write a short poem that contained at least two informative details and two emotional details. With a picture of a bird’s skull, I came up with:“ A fragile piece Of weather bleached calcium It’s tiny brain cavity Empty sockets And beak All that is left Of what it once was A feathered, flighted beauty, Built for tearing flesh.”
Again, many of the students outdid me. Matthew wrote about a broken egg-shell:“On the ground broken, discarded A small cracked egg lies on its own once a house to a new walk of life. Or is it now dead? A defenceless lunch for creatures passing by.”
What Matthew was very clear about was that he had no idea when he came in that he would have been able to produce that in five minutes – and that is, I think, an extremely powerful message to keep giving children: five minutes ago, you had nothing. This poem didn’t exist. Now look at what you’ve done. That message has been hugely motivating for my pupils over the years. And it also encourages an increased quantity of writing: every student went out the door having done a lot, they had been busy, busy, busy. In classrooms, pupils will drag their feet for weeks over a big set piece essay; with five or ten minute poetry exercises slotted in here and there into their everyday activities, they actually produce a great deal
A final stimulus exercise using Farrow and Ball’s ludicrous paint colour range – Dead Salmon? Elephant’s Breath? – and some discussion about the possibilities of using the poetic form much more regularly in classrooms as a means of allowing children to respond to the topics they study wound up the sessions. I think they all got the message; that rather than “doing poems” as a box tick for the curriculum, divorced from the reality of the rest of their learning, poetry can be an everyday way to respond to experience. And in doing so, I reckon, that can only help develop a love of poetry that can last a long, long time.
Hot on the heels of finalising their list of Scottish writers to be studied at National 4 and 5, the SQA have announced the finalised structure of the Scottish Studies award that offers an interdisciplinary course of study for learners to “broaden their understanding and appreciation of the society in which they live.” And I’m all for that. Bolted on to the core mandatory unit – called “Scottish Studies: Scotland in Focus” and the least fleshed out of them all (learners will “plan and complete an activity that has a Scottish focus…. [which] will depend on the resources available in centres and the skills and interests of learners”, we are told) – are four “groups”: Language and Literature, Society and Environment, Arts and Culture and Business, Industry and Employment. Students must choose three units from at least two of these groups to complete the award.
First of all, I have a significant problem with the subjects under Business, Industry and Employment promoting a pro-business , pro-growth capitalist agenda, and I think it is a problem I have with much of the “Responsible Citizens” quartile of the Curriculum for Excellence. Quite frankly, it promotes acquiescence, the acceptance of social and economic norms that have brought the world to the brink of a precipice of injustice. Does any part of what is on offer celebrate New Lanark, David Dale and Robert Owen, the Red Clydesiders, the UCS sit-in? What about union studies? What about Co-operative studies? Worker rights? Economics for change? Green economics in an environmental Scotland? It sees to me that the syllabus looks back at preserving where we are, and doesn’t look forward to what we might be.
I have to say that I believe good citizenship goes much, much further than how it seems to be defined by Scotland’s educators at the moment: indeed, I believe that the good citizen should often be a difficult and cranky individual for those in authority. Was Jimmy Reid a “good citizen”? I certainly think so.
We are excellent at developing cultures in school whereby children expend a great deal of time, energy and emotion in running charities, from aid for foreign countries to Christmas boxes for old age pensioners. And they probably should. However, what we are not good at is creating the environment in which children can question the underlying context of these activities. Why, in 2013, do old people need charitable gift boxes to give them something to look forward to over the festive season? Why do working families need food banks? What are the geopolitical forces that keep developing countries in poverty and in need of charity from developed nations? What are the economic structures that create inequality and injustice and, more to the point, what can young people responsibly do to challenge and change that? For that reason, I believe good citizenship education in Scottish Studies should also teach children how to question, challenge, protest, organise and campaign.
But even bigger than that gripe is the content of the Language and Literature grouping. According to Matthew Fitt, that warrior who has, more than most, fought tirelessly for the regeneration of Scots as a language in a healthy, self-governing Scotland, reports, “The framers of the award are not planning to include Scots Units on the grounds that there is ‘no demand’ for them. Quite what a Scots Unit may contain should be open to discussion but I think that the claim there is ‘no demand’ is questionable to say the least.”
There are ten Gaelic and two English units in Language and Literature – and no Scots. None. At a time when Scottish literature is bursting at the seams with writers who are exploring and evolving the language – prose writers like James Roberston and Suhayl Saadi and Irvine Welsh and Fitt himself (for God’s sake, read “Butt n Ben A-Go-Go” if you want to see for yourself the dizzying possibilities of the language) – there is, apparently, no demand for Scots in Scottish Studies.
Quite how the framers of the award came to this preposterous conclusion is beyond me. I can only assume they consulted po-faced tweed wearing suckers of Werthers’ Originals (to which I am quite partial myself) Liz Lochead exposed in “Bairnsang” who complain about children using “yous” because it’s just not proper English. You are right, Daphne; it’s not proper English; but it’s bloody guid Scots.
Despite the fact that I can’t speak it, I love Gaelic, and am on record time and time again advocating it’s preservation like an endangered species. I feel the same way about Scots. With an English mother and a Silesian father, I am not a particularly prolific speaker of it, and only an occasional writer of it. I think one of its greatest difficulties is that it has become seen as the language of creativity, and has largely lost its former functional, expository usage; in other words, it is the language of “imagination” (never a comfortable concept for politicians and examination boards) and not of business or commerce or law. And yet it used to be, and is becoming again: hell, the Scottish government itself translates its document into Scots. So where on earth does the idea that there is no demand for the language come from?
And for all you non-Scottish readers – it most definitely is a language, not an English dialect. Had James VI not chosen to have his Bible published in English, and had English not been codified into a dictionary, and had the heroes of the Scottish Enlightenment not looked down their noses at the Scottish tongues they grew up around, we may well all be speaking forms of Scots around the globe today, rather than the mighty imperial English.
And to deny it its place in Scottish Studies while celebrating the heedrum hodrum of Scottish dance seems to me absurd, obtuse, elitist, stuck up and, godammit, English.
The other day, one of my students came up to me and pulled a couple of sheets of paper from her bag. “Raymond,” she said, “I wanted to show you this. We studied this story at Higher when I was at school.”
It was a copy of a story of mine, “Teuchter Dancing when the Lights Go Out”. I know that some teachers use “The Practicality of Magnolia”, but I was surprised by her teacher’s choice because the story contains more than a few swear words and a brief but explicit sex scene. How brave of him, I thought, and how original.
Education Scotland have published their Scottish set texts list for Higher and National 5 qualifications, and she got me thinking. There has been a vociferous campaign to make the study of Scottish literature compulsory in schools; there is a powerful lobby that says that Scottish schoolchildren should know about Scottish writers. And, in essence, I agree. However, sections of that lobby have also successfully pushed an agenda that prescribes who those Scottish writers schoolchildren study should be, presumably on the grounds that if there is no prescription, there will be no compliance. At that point, we part company.
The list itself is, I feel, a disappointment. It is not that I object to any particular text or writer; it is just that it is a tired rehash of the same old same old that seems to take more account of what texts English departments might have in their store cupboards than what actually might be relevant to pupils today who are studying in the context of the breadth of Curriculum for Excellence. I am particularly depressed by the drama list. Bold Girls may be written by a Scottish writer, but it is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles; hugely contemporary, n’est pas? Always a fairly insubstantial text, it gained currency by being the only option accessible to pupils who might struggle at Higher. Sailmaker by Alan Spence is set in the Glasgow fifty years ago and centres on a boy’s relationship with a father who works in the long gone shipyards; I used it with Standard Grade General classes in the 1980s. Tally’s Blood – a play I admit I don’t know – was written in the 1990s; The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was written in the 1970s; Men Should Weep in the 1940s; and The Slab Boys, set in a 1950s carpet factory in a town that hasn’t seen carpet manufacturing for decades, was written in the late 1970s, and is another that has miles of groaning shelves dedicated to it.
Now I am not criticising these plays – they all have merit – but in a golden age of Scottish Theatre, why is there not one play that has been written in the 21st century? Why have those who have constructed this list ignored David Greig, David Harrower or Gregory Burke? Why are school students studying the Irish troubles when Black Watch might actually connect with what they see on television every day? Where are the really big issues about Scottish history, nationalism and identity that could have been explored through the utterly magnificent Duninsane? It is as if the National Theatre of Scotland never happened, as if it has no relevance to “Scottish literature”.
However, the other genres are little better, I feel. Of all the prose texts, only two were written in the 21st century. And while Anne Donovan, Iain Crichton Smith and Norman MacCaig are fine short story writers, there are many, many others who are ignored. Where is Suhayl Saadi or Linda Cracknell? Where are Scottish adoptees like Bernard MacLaverty or Leila Abouela, both Scottish enough to have won a host of Scotland’s major literary awards? Where is the opportunity to pick up occasional brilliances like Beatrice Colin’s “Tangerines” or Michel Faber’s “Fish” – or, dare I say it, “The Practicality of Magnolia”. By prescribing these authors, the range and cultural diversity of Scottish writing is sidelined: there will be no other brave, original choices made, because “the list” will dominate. I cannot understand why Education Scotland didn’t simply trawl through the exam papers of students who write on a wide range of Scottish stories every year and publish a list of a hundred or so that seem to work. It’s tempting to think, looking at the list, that one of the major driving factors was saving money – what do schools already have on the shelf so we don’t have to listen to them asking for funding for new books – but that is hardly relevant for short stories, many of which are freely available online or cheaply available through the photocopier.
As for the novels, I love The Trick is to Keep Breathing, although it is again 23 years old, and James Robertson is a brilliant writer. Sunset Song is for some a classic, for others (like me) a wearisome trudge; again, where is the opportunity to look at the history of rural Scotland through a range of fantastic alternatives, such as Gunn’s The Silver Darlings or Alex Benzies’ The Year’s Midnight? I have yet to hear any teacher I know say a good word about the choice of Kidnapped for the list, including fans of R.L. Stevenson. The Cone Gatherers is a safe choice yet again: I can’t say much against it given that I helped create resources for it ten years ago that are still regularly used in schools, so I may get some in-service work out of it – but would I have been too unhappy to see a novel set 70 years ago ditched for the very best of A.L. Kennedy? I really don’t think so. Scottish literature we want our schoolchildren to read – and A.L. Kennedy isn’t on the list.
As for the poets, thankfully 5 out of the 8 are still alive. Once more, though, where is the imagination? I use a W.N. Herbert poem, Temporal Ode, with Higher pupils because I don’t think any other teacher in Scotland uses it, and because it’s brilliant. So once more, where is the encouragement to introduce Scottish kids to a smorgasbord of Graham Fulton, Jim Carruth, Liz Niven, Gerrie Loose, Gerry Cambridge, Roddy Gorman, Robert Jamieson, Alan Riach, Donny O’Rourke, David Kinloch, Kathleen Jamie, Stuart A. Paterson, Roddy Lumsden, Gerrie Fellows, Bill Herbert, Dilys Rose, Brian McCabe or John Burnside. Come on, John Burnside, for heaven’s sake!
It’s not really a question of who is on and who is not on the list, though; it’s a question of how having a list at all will direct the focus of teachers onto a narrower and narrower range of what pupils will come to see as “Scottish”. We saw it last time texts were prescribed for the Revised Higher, which left us chained to Bold Girls and the poetry of Norman MacCaig. In those days, pupils had to study a set author. For MacCaig, the list consisted of about 13 poems. Assessment consisted of either a context question – a whole poem or extract on which about 16 marks’ worth of questions were based, with the remaining 9 marks assigned to a general question asking about the author’s work as a whole – or an essay, which had to take account of at least two and usually more poems from the list.
When set texts were dropped, though, most schools found themselves with copies of the poems and units of study (many published by my old colleagues at Jordanhill), and so they continued studying MacCaig’s poetry. However, they no longer spent time studying 13 poems; instead, they trimmed that to three, or two, or even only one, and in the mid-2000s, the majority of schoolchildren sitting Higher answered a question using only “Assisi”, “Brooklyn Cop” or “Visiting Hour”. It got so bad, the Examiners had to change the nature of the paper to make it difficult to answer using the poems.
But teachers missed the whole point. In the set text days, studying one poem was never enough to get more than 15 or 16 marks out of 25, since in both forms, the examination paper demanded knowledge of more than one poem. But because it had been prescribed, because it had been given the exam board’s blessing, “Assisi” in particular became the default poem of choice for many teachers in the mistaken knowledge that such blessing meant it was adequately rigorous to get the full range of marks; I spoke to an examiner once who said that many of his colleagues called it “That fucking dwarf poem”. It was that seal of approval that damned a generation of Scottish teenagers to studying what is a short, lightweight poem – and I knew of some schools which studied only that poem – when they could and should have been swimming in a sea of the work of many varied, demanding, fulfilling Scottish poets. And history will repeat itself.
The thing is that the Scottish curriculum has always demanded the study of Scottish literature; it is in every guideline and arrangements document you can find. The issue, then, is oversight in schools, and that is quite easily remedied. Yes, pupils at National 5 and Higher should answer a question on a Scottish text; but why not any Scottish text, or, at least, one from a very, very long list of suggested Scottish texts. Then, teachers can talk about Scottish literature and can read widely around it: they can have professional discussions about the appropriateness of Scottish texts for the curriculum in their schools. And then, a department head can oversee the study of those Scottish texts in the classrooms of their teachers. The knock on effect that would have on interest in Scottish literature – and by implication, on publishing – could be enormous.
Ah, but would they do it? Well, if students have to fill out a box on the front of their exam paper that says “The Scottish text I have used in my examination paper is ……………… “ you can damned well be sure that teachers will train them to fill it out right. They already make sure candidates don’t answer on two texts from the same genre, and train them to within an inch of their lives on all sorts of aspects of the exam, some of them quite bizarre (“My teacher says I’ll fail my essay if I don’t have a conclusion”, many pupils tell me); so why on earth couldn’t they make it quite clear to pupils that they must make sure they answer a question on text A, B or C because those are the Scottish texts they studied this year?
I’m afraid. I’m afraid that in a sincere attempt to ensure that teachers do study Scottish literature, Scottish literature has in fact been done a great disservice. No teacher will ever do “Teuchter Dancing when the Lights Go Out” again, and although that sounds as if I’m bemoaning my own fate, what disturbs me more is that it will be the fate of the majority of Scottish writers, many of them much more accomplished than me, because they have not made that arbitrary list of the chosen few.
The Full List
|Drama:Bold Girls by Rona Munro
Sailmaker by Alan Spence
Tally’s Blood by Ann Marie di Mambro
|Drama:The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil by John McGrath
Men Should Weep by Ena Lamont Steward
The Slab Boys by John Byrne
|Prose:Short stories (a selection of) by Iain Crichton Smith
Hieroglyphics and Other Stories by Anne Donovan
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
|Prose:Short stories (a selection of) by Iain Crichton Smith
Short stories (a selection of) by George Mackay Brown
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway
|Poetry:Carol Ann Duffy, Edwin Morgan, Norman MacCaig, Jackie Kay||Poetry:Carol Ann Duffy, Robert Burns, Don Paterson, Liz Lochhead, Sorley MacLean (in English)|
Well, unfortunately, after weeks of preparation, reading avidly about the country, thousands of pounds spent on things like new double glazing to get my flat ready for renting, buying woolies and worrying about finding foster homes for my cats – my adventure to Kazakhstan is officially over before it’s begun.
There have been policy changes in the Kazakh Education Ministry, and cuts to teacher development have delayed the start of the 2013 programme. Rather than starting in January, it may start in March – and then again, it may not.
It’s a mammoth programme, delivering a certificated development course to every teacher in the country, and so glitches are bound to happen. However, this is the latest in a series of hiccups that must be frustrating for the Kazakhs and really difficult for those who have made commitments to going there.
Thankfully, my bosses were good enough to let me withdraw my request for unpaid leave, but for a few hours there it looked like I might not have a job for nine months of next year. It’s distressing to invest so much and look forward to it only to watch it unravel in a few e-mails over a couple of days, but at least I get to carry on working with my lovely students. I’m lucky that I have merely taken one step forward and only one and a half steps back; there are couples, families, who were relying on this starting in January.
I can’t keep messing my employer about – the University of Strathclyde has been very, very good to me, and I’m grateful to them – and so regrettably I’m withdrawing my interest. It’s a shame, though: I was so looking forward to such a huge and exciting professional and personal step, and already felt something like an emotional attachment to the country.
I’m absolutely gutted. I’m sure the Kazakhs will eventually get everything sorted out and run a very successful programme: perhaps sometime in the distant future, I can have some sort of input into it.
On Friday, I took the pretty momentous step of accepting an offer of a contract to undertake work for RIPSKO, the teacher development agency of the government of Kazakhstan. The country is investing heavily in education; a burgeoning economy, they are bucking the western European trend of cutbacks by growing their infrastructure and updating their education service. The work will involve delivering a Chartered-teacher style qualification to every single teacher in the country over five years, though I have signed on for an initial contract of nine months. It looks a fascinating project in a fascinating country, one that has embraced independence over the last twenty years, using its huge natural resources to create and develop a nation that is confident about its place in the world. Hey, it came twelfth in the Olympics medal table, with seven golds: for a country only twenty years old and with a population of only fifteen million, that’s pretty impressive. And, most heartening of all, after the break-up of the USSR, it found itself in the top 10 nuclear weapons powers in the world, and yet negotiated its way to unilateral nuclear disarmament through a process of transfer to the Russian Federation and decommissioning. In some ways, though obviously not all, it provides a template for how a hopefully independent Scotland might react to its new status.
So from mid-January, I’ll probably be living and working in Aktau, in west Kazakhstan and on the shores of the Caspian. It’s an oil-boom area, and the government are in the process of developing major beach tourist resorts there. Winters are vicious, summers are baking, but I’ll be in one of the more benign climates in this enormous country. Ninth largest in the world, its border with the USSR alone is over 4,500 miles long. Think John ‘o Groats to Berlin and you’ve got some idea of the scale. Being at one extremity, it’s going to be difficult to see the whole of the country, but I certainly aim to try.
Obviously, I’m apprehensive – I’ve never worked abroad before – but it’s a remarkable opportunity to meet new people and discover new cultures, art and music. I’m hopeless at languages and Russian is notoriously difficult, but hopefully I’ll pick up enough to survive.
Now, I just have to organise myself for leaving, get through a pile of stuff to leave my post at the University of Strathclyde, buy some really good winter clothing and find foster homes for my lovely cats. Easy.
The Jeremy Forrest saga seems to have our media whipped up into a prurient frenzy. Behind all the headlines, you can sense the undertow dragging at the tabloids’ sensitivities; you just know those hacks, while writing stories that focus on rightly weeping parents and the incompetence of a school that could have nipped this in the bud but didn’t, are sharpening their cheque books for the real bidding war, the sleazy and sexually explicit inside story of what the two of them got up to. I can imagine the centre page spreads in the Sunday redtops, and the bile is already rising.
Of course, we should not rush to judgement, and Forrest is innocent of all charges until proven guilty. In addition, we should not get ourselves so worked up that they both feel so backed into a corner that they resort to desperate measures to stay together; God forbid this should end in some sort of deadly pact. But there is a substantial minority out there who are saying that he hasn’t done anything wrong, that until it has been proven that he has had a sexual relationship with her, then he is guilty of nothing.
Of course, that’s unlikely. As I understand it, The Sexual Offences Act 2003 identifies a particular strand of criminal acts to address the issue of those in authority over the young or vulnerable taking advantage of that position . Thus, although it is not illegal to have sex with someone over 16, it may be illegal to have sex with someone over 16 if you are in a position of responsibility for them. Teachers certainly fall into that category. Even further, grooming is a particular category of offence under the Act, and it has been used against Facebook predators who have never even met their victims. To befriend a minor with the intent of committing a sexual act with them is an offence, even if the act doesn’t actually occur. But how do we know Mr Forrest intended to commit such an act with his pupil? Well, I don’t know about you, but quoting a song lyric to a fifteen year old girl through social media to tell her that you want to “wake up naked” beside her sounds pretty intentional to me.
But forget the Act for the moment: the second Forrest agreed to accompany his pupil anywhere without explicit parental consent, he made such a monumental fuck up of his professional life that he deserves little other than ridicule. We can all be led by our genitals, but when you are a teacher, you have to slap them down. Anything else is an abuse of trust, and that goes for any profession; is Forrest not on the same continuum as Stephen Mitchell and other police officers who use their position, resources and authority to prey on vulnerable women?
I’ve been a teacher and teacher educator for over thirty years, and there are some things you just do not do, no matter how smitten you may feel you are. In “Occasional Demons”, there is a story – “The Bus Fare Down the Tubes” – in which a key plot strand is a sexual advance made by a teacher to a pupil. Shortly after the book was published, I was interviewed by Alex Dickson for Radio Clyde’s book programme. Alex was great and I really enjoyed the show (I lost my recording of it years ago), but he latched on to “The Bus Fare…” and began to ask some pretty uncomfortable questions about the classroom dynamic, particularly about the way young girls dressed then; my goodness, if he could see them now! Isn’t there any temptation? Come on, isn’t it understandable? Don’t you sometimes look at them and think…? No. No, no, no, no, no, I kept saying. The character in the story commits an unforgivable act and he is totally responsible for it. Period.
And I mean that. Have I ever taught some very pretty – indeed, beautiful – young women in my classes? Yes. Have I even perhaps mentioned how attractive they are to some of my pals? Yes, I have to admit to that weakness, perhaps in my twenties. Did pupils ever develop crushes on me? Yes. But did I ever consider doing anything about it? Did I ever for one moment contemplate stepping out of that teacher’s role and encouraging a pupil to engage in intimate, personal contact? Absolutely not.
I was disappointed – in fact, really shocked – by a teacher I knew 17 or so years ago who was sent to prison recently for having consensual sex with two of his over-age pupils. I had travelled with him, and while I found him occasionally a bit immature, a bit gauche, he was just a pleasant lad. So I wondered what it could possibly be that fucked him up so badly he threw everything that publicly defined him as someone to respect down the toilet, and decided it must have been a defect in his character.
I’m not a particularly strong-willed person, nor am I a prude and I am certainly no saint; jings, am I no saint. I’m not saying that I can’t imagine me getting involved in such a situation, nor that under some circumstances, I might find myself making wrong decisions. But I cannot see how that situation could ever arise without some form of malicious intent underlying it. Teachers do not “fall in love” with their pupils – I can’t see how the context in which a teacher interacts with a pupil could possibly allow “love” to flourish – and so any teacher who does do this sort of thing is simply after sex. What the classroom does allow, however, is not “love”, but grooming. I can easily see how the unscrupulous can use that power, that authority – don’t let anyone tell you teachers don’t have authority any more, they are liars – to impress, to coax, to cajole and to seduce, and perhaps to be seduced by that power themselves so that they become deluded that this is the “real thing”.
I did date an ex-pupil once. Had I ‘noticed’ her while she was at school? Guilty, m’lud. But she had left school for over two years before we found ourselves out for a drink together, and ended up snogging in a phone box for one of the most giddyingly enjoyable hours of my life. Over the next few years, we sort of bumped against each other a few times, until I behaved reprehensibly once and she quite rightly told me to fuck off. But there were undoubtedly times when I felt a conflict about what might happen between us, because I had been her teacher and she had been my pupil.
Even now, I find it odd to contemplate the notion of university teachers having relationships with students. We are talking about articulate, successful, intelligent adults, but the idea of acting on any judgement I might have about how attractive they are feels wrong to me, despite the fact that some of my less emotionally and socially developed acquaintances sometimes ask me if I’m one of those university lecturers (usually pronounced “lecherers” with a sleazy wink) who shags all their students. No I’m not. I never have been. Even if they’d have me – and let’s face it, I’m getting to that stage of life where I don’t really have to worry about being the object of anything other than mild intellectual curiosity – I can’t imagine I ever will.
There are lines you just don’t cross. Perhaps mine are drawn thicker and blacker than others’, but I’m not exactly ungrateful for that. I suspect Jeremy Forrest might come to wish he’d drawn his a bit more clearly.
Today the Jordanhill campus of the University of Strathclyde had an official closing event, though the buildings will remain open for a few weeks longer before staff move to the refurbished Lord Hope building in Cathedral Street. I had lots of work to do and so didn’t attend what was billed as a “celebration of Jordanhill”, but I’m quite sure the 400 people or so who did go heard some inspiring speeches and had a very nice buffet while listening to the jazz band.
Jordanhill has been one of Scotland’s key institutions over the last century or so. I’ve been working in teacher education there since 2001, and it’s the one job in education I always wanted to do and the one place in education I always wanted to work ever since my own training in 1982. In the short time I’ve been there, I have personally been responsible for the training of well over 200 English teachers, and my English section has trained about a thousand. The potential for having an impact on how children have been taught is enormous and hugely rewarding.
Factor in all Secondary subjects, Primary teaching, social work, community education and a whole host of other graduate, postgraduate and professional courses, and we’re talking of several hundred thousand people in the history of the place who comprise a web of interconnectivity across Scotland and the world that is huge. So, despite the fact that most of what is still done there will be transferred to a new beginning on the city centre campus, there is a sense of the closure of an iconic part of education and the end of an era.
The process has taken some time, ever since proposals to build a brand new, £50 million “bespoke “city centre Education Faculty building with offices and state of the art teaching space were mooted in the mid 2000s. Times and priorities have changed since then. The Hope building houses accommodation for the School of Education staff to work side by side with many of the other subjects that have been subsumed into the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty in integrated working environments: teaching accommodation for the influx of the additional students is provided by the existing city centre campus stock. However, we are almost there now. I’m looking forward to meeting and working with people we have been dislocated from for so long, and having access to the facilities of the city centre; I’m also looking forward to the undoubted fun I’ll have delivering my annual Behaviour Management lectures in the Cineworld cinema complex!
As for the old campus: well, it seems it will be mothballed until the University can sell it to private developers, a transaction that will help finance the University’s ambitious aspirations to create a “leading international technological university” with a new £89 million “flagship” Technology and Innovation Centre. Most of the existing buildings will be bulldozed I imagine, but I’m sure the grand old lady that is The David Stow building, along with perhaps the beautiful red brick student accommodation, will be retained, possibly for development as luxury flats. It’ll be a pity that I’ll never be able to afford one of them – I reckon they’ll be out of reach of all educational professionals below Directors of Education or University Principals – because it would be lovely to live in a place that has had such an important influence on my life and my career.
Of course, the University of Strathclyde will continue to provide the very best teacher education you can find. You can find out about the School of Education and the courses it offers here:
I’ve blogged a couple of times about the excellent Northern Writes conference for young writers that Aberdeen council runs each year. The annual anthology of writing by those young people is now online here:
The quality of the young people’s writing is terrific, and I’d recommend it to English teachers for use with their senior writers. Well worth a download!
Tutors were asked to contribute something, and I submitted a short character study that goes to prove I can’t really write poetry! Here it is:
Edith Piaf on the MetroOld Edith Piaf is on the Metro. She sits opposite, asleep, buttoned tight in a burgundy coat which falls aside so slightly at the knee, revealing the colour picked out in the stripes of her dress. She is muffled in one, two, three scarves, layered thermally and aesthetically, purple, green-purple, green, and her sky blue headscarf matches the audacity of her handbag. She wears, though, sensible brown shoes, scuffed and worn smooth like the tiniest and oldest of otters. The train rolls into Falguière: I reach across, touch her elbow, “Madame, excusez-moi,” my fearful French supplemented by an eyebrow raised, “votre station?” She blinks, wipes a drool from the corner of her mouth, flusters to her feet. Bustling through the door she remembers her fading charm turns, gap-tooth smiles, flirts a wink and says, “Merci, Monsieur.” Having woken her and been so blessed I have not one regret.