ASLS SChools’ Conference, 2017

Leanne Welsh, SATE’s new local authority representative in Falkirk, reflects on the annual ASLS conference.  You can read Leanne’s excellent blog here.

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Yesterday, I attended The Association for Scottish Literary studies annual Schools Conference in Glasgow.   This conference is a vital resource for teachers wishing to explore Scottish literature and language in the classroom.  I left the event with many new ideas that I plan to use with my classes in order to enhance their understanding of Scotland’s heritage.

Eleanor Ormerod - landscape panelThe day started with Scottish war poetry presented by David Goldie and Rory Watson talking about a new collection edited for the ASLS, From the Line: Scottish War Poetry 1914-1945.   A poem that stayed with me was Mary Symon’s The Soldiers’ Cairn. This poem would be a great way to explore the impact of war with a class as it represents a different perspective than that of a solider.  The Soldiers’ Cairn is written in the dialect of North East Scotland and I believe this use of dialect helps emphasise the nature of home life and the pride people have for their country.  This can be explored in the first line of the poem ‘Gie me a hill wi’ the heather on’t’ which immediately transports me to the beautiful Scottish hills and the scenery that we have become so familiar with.  However, we soon learn that those bereaved by the war are ‘biggin’ the soldiers’ cairn’ in memory of the loved ones they have lost due to the horrors of war.  The speaker states that the driving force for building this cairn is the heartbreak that the families now feel, and perhaps this cairn will provide a little comfort and bring back the memories of happier times before the soldiers’ deaths.

We also learn that many of the soldiers will be ‘still’ in lands that their relatives will never see; which again highlights the raw emotion in this poem and creates a contrast between the safety of home and the dangers of unknown countries.  The families can only imagine what has happened to their loved ones and this ‘lanely cairn on a hameland hill’ helps them represent the overwhelming love they felt and, to some extent, brings their child back to the familiar scenery of Scotland.

In the final stanza loss is further presented through, ‘But oh, my Bairn, my Bairn’ showing a parent’s worst nightmare: outliving their child.  I believe this also represents the idea that a parent’s need to protect their offspring never diminishes, even when they watch them leave home and live their own life.  Therefore the death of a child, at any age, can never be forgotten.

My experience of war poetry is minimal; however poems like The Soldiers’ Cairn have helped highlight to me that war impacts the families, as well as the soldiers, as they suffer from the moment their child leaves to fight in unknown territories.  One of the speakers mentioned that the 4th stanza may lose the reader as the language becomes more sophisticated; however, I believe this is suitable as it stresses the unpredictable thought-process of an inconsolable parent.  The Soldiers’ Cairn can be accessed here:

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Another key moment for me was looking at the three short stories of James Hogg in The Devil I am Sure.   These stories all have an element of the supernatural and Hogg manages to create a contrast in social classes by exploring characters varying from the smooth educated English to the rough pheasant Scots.  These short stories could definitely be explored with classes and could make a refreshing change for senior pupils writing their critical essay.  Hogg creates stories with the intention of stumping his reader and making them think.  He also explores the quirks of the human mind and the impact differing personalities can have on relationships.   These would be thought-provoking stories to read with a class and I will be reading them all soon to discover their menacing nature.

I enjoyed many other elements of the conference, such as learning about the fiction of Nan Shepherd and the connections between home and the wider world.  Ewan McVicar was also entertaining and discussed ways to use Scottish folksong in the classroom. It was interesting to hear about how to keep folksong tradition alive by asking pupils to add a modern twist in order to make the songs relevant to modern day life. This conference is worthwhile for anyone with an interest in how to explore Scottish literature in the classroom and I will definitely attend it again.

 

 

“Small Shadows and Black Marks on a Page”: Taking the Panic out of Reading Poetry… NATE 2017

Kerri-Anne Campbell describes her experiences of NATE conference, 2017…

When I read a poem for the first time I am often left feeling perplexed and frustrated. Panic usually sets in if I read it over and over again yet still can’t uncover the underlying meaning. Attending the annual NATE conference in Nottingham made me realise that I’m not the only one. Some of the most experienced English teachers also feel this same sense of bewilderment when they read a poem for the first time, and they’re not afraid to say it.

The conference offered a wide range of innovative workshops and seminars which addressed many such concerns. One workshop which I learned much from was, Taking the Top of Our Heads off – Poetry for GCSE and A Level. The name of the workshop was derived from Emily Dickinson’s quote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry”.

The workshop introduced different approaches to the teaching of poetry, to meet its aim of alleviating the anxieties often felt by teachers and students when studying and writing about poems for exams preparation. Different activities were outlined to bring fun and excitement to the kids’ experiences of reading poems. I left the workshop equipped with so many interesting ideas which I hope to use to motivate and engage my pupils in their own study of poetry.

For me though, the highlight of the conference was Simon Armitage’s keynote speech. Armitage brought to profile the difficulty of reading and understanding poetry and confessed that when he was a student, poems often appeared as “small shadows and black marks on a page”. He went on to make an impassioned plea for the reconceptualisation of the traditional approach to teaching poetry away from the model within which poems are mechanically deconstructed word by word, insisting that a poem is not a lock to be picked, or a code which needs to be cracked, nor is it a riddle to which teachers have the answer. This was music to my ears, and is something I anticipate sharing with my pupils with no small excitement.

Armitage told us that an appreciation of language is one of the greatest gifts you can give to young people, and he suggested that in order to avoid instilling a life-long abhorrence of poetry in their pupils, teachers should introduce them to poems to which they can personally respond: poems which fire up their imagination; poems which inspire their creativity; and, poems which encourage independent thinking. He urged schools to achieve this by continuing to teach contemporary poems, and importantly, by contextualising and relating poetry to issues important to pupils’ personal and social lives. He said that by so doing the gateway to more difficult and unfamiliar work would be opened wide.

Armitage reminisced about discovering his love for poetry in the ‘Worlds’ anthology whilst still a schoolboy, and called for getting back to using poetry books as opposed to photocopies in the English classroom. Until this address, I had not heard of this anthology, but now await the arrival of my own copy with eagerness.

As an NQT I realise how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to attend the NATE conference before I even begin my first year as a teacher. I met so many inspiring people and left brimming with ideas. One thing that really struck me is that reading and discussing a poem for the first time can be a terrifying experience for teachers and pupils alike and I will endeavour to ensure that this is not a secret kept from my pupils. I want them to realise that we will journey and discover the world of poetry together.

Kerri-Anne Campbell is a newly qualified English teacher in East Dunbartonshire.  Views expressed here are her own.

Developing Characters for Story Writing and Drama… NATE 2017

Reflections on NATE conference 2017 from Leanne Welsh.  This is reblogged from Leanne’s excellent blog,  https://nqtreflections.wordpress.com/.

At the NATE conference last weekend I attended a number of workshops that will help me to create interesting and engaging lessons for the pupils in my class.  I am  grateful that I had the opportunity to meet so many inspiring people that shared their ideas and practice that I can now adapt for my own pupils.

One of the workshops that blew me away was Kat Burr’s All work and no play? Introducing new views and creative ways into plays.  In this workshop we gained fascinating insight into ways that we can help pupils to develop characters in plays.  However,  these ideas are not limited to plays and could be a worthwhile starting point for creative writing  and folio work.

One of the first tasks that Kat introduced us to was ‘What’s in my Bag?’   Pupils choose two items from their bag and the rest of the group/class have to work out what the persons ‘holes’ (flaws) might be because of the items.  I would say it is important to tell the pupils to think about the person with the items as a character rather than as themselves so no feelings get hurt in the process!  For example if  I had a small mirror in my bag, my flaw, as a character, might be that I care too much about my appearance and what people think of me.  This immediately allows the pupils to start to develop a character in their own head and what the person might be like.   If you have some pupils in your school that don’t have a bag or you might not feel comfortable doing this task, you could use YouTube.  There are many videos out there with YouTubers promoting ‘What’s in my bag?’ You could pause it in-between items and ask the pupils to discuss or write down what their flaws might be because of their chosen items.  This is also a fantastic task for getting to know a class or letting them get to know you.

Another task ( and probably my favourite) was Killer Lines.   In this task pupils would be given a number of lines in their groups and they have to work out what kind of character would say these lines.   You could make these lines up or use famous quotes from characters and see if the pupils can work out who is the baddie (we all know they get the best lines.) You might want to provide images and see if the pupils can match up the line with the character and give a reason why they think they could say that.  For example if you use the line ‘Long Live the King!”  Some pupils might say Scar because he is desperate to become the King and get rid of his brother.  However, there may be another opportunity for an interesting discussion on ambiguity. Perhaps it depends on the way that a character says a line and the tone they use. Voice is so important in order to develop an accurate character; we have to hear them speak, right down to the laugh that they use.   This line might have been said by a bunch of servants that are loyal to their ruler, so the status of the character is vital.  Where is the character in terms of the food chain?  Are they a boss or are they a disgruntled ex employee looking for revenge?  Therefore an important lesson could come out of this task – delivery is often more important than what the line actually is.

As previously stated delivery is important when it comes to creating a character. Another task that I used from the workshop with my pupils was ‘Words that Annoy You.’  I asked the pupils to write down a word on a post-it that made their blood boil when someone said it (or, at least, caused them some discomfort.)  To say they loved it was an understatement. They were doing this as a group and looking at each others and saying ‘Ugh, I hate that too! Why do people do that?’   I then asked the pupils to start to think about the mannerisms people use or do that annoys them. Now, if you want a successful task you should say the things that teachers do (obviously telling them to keep it anonymous) that annoys them. Each group had loads of words and mannerisms and I then asked them to explore how they think each of these words would be said or what the mannerisms would look like.  I then asked them to think about what kind of character would suit this line.  What personality would the character have?  How would they interact with other people?   How would their voice sound as they said it? Then, and I think this is really important for character development, to think about the back story. What makes this person have this mannerism? Where did the use of a word come from?  Did they start to use it when their status changed in society?  Do they only use these words or mannerisms with certain people and do they change depending on who they are around?   This task really was fascinating and it was interesting to hear pupils saying ‘Well they only say that to us because we are a pupil, I bet they are different around the Heedie!’

 

The final task, and one that I think is brilliant, is getting the pupils to eavesdrop on a conversation. This could be at break, lunch or on their way home from school. The pupils should take an anonymous comment that they find unusual or funny and bring it back to class.  The pupils can then explore these comments as a group, perhaps putting them all together to create a short sketch. Pupils could also provide the lines that they think came before and the lines that they think would follow. Again, another interesting opportunity to explore voice if you get the pupils to exchange their comment with someone else.

This was a fantastic and beneficial workshop that I will most certainly use to help pupils develop their characters in creative writing. Pupils often only have an image of a character in their head but it is important to delve into the history of a character in order to explore what their strengths and flaws might be.

Leanne Welsh is an English teacher in a Falkirk Council secondary school. Any views expressed are her own.

Text-Worlds and Freebies… NATE 2017

NATE Conference 2017, as experienced by Gavin Tulloch

Those who think that the NATE conference is just an excuse to get out the classroom for a day or two – with the primary aim of boosting stationery supplies with trade show freebies – would be much mistaken. You’d need only have listened to the fervent and excited discussions between the SATE contingent on the car journey home to realise that NATE’s annual event provides so much more.

Amongst the plethora of inspiring sessions, a particular highlight for me was a workshop on ‘Text-Worlds in the Classroom’ delivered by Joanna Gavins, Marcello Giovanelli, Ian Cushing and Jess Mason. I was familiar with some of Giovanelli and Mason’s work on authentic and manufactured readings in the classroom (their article had featured on our PGDE reading list), but this session widened my thoughts in this regard. The workshop started with a practical demonstration of ‘what goes on in our heads’ when we read, with participants drawing what they saw in their mind’s eye when listening to the opening extract of Dickens’ Bleak House. This helped us to understand text-world theory, the idea that we understand the world around us through our own mental representations, and initiated discussions into how this theory could be considered in the English classroom. Examples discussed by the workshop leaders included using text-world theory to teach grammar (how do we know who the ‘you’ is in a poem?) and thinking about how teachers interfere with a pupil’s authentic interpretation of a text by suggesting, or prefiguring, what the text-world should or will look like. This was a helpful reminder that the ostensibly sacrosanct interpretations of texts we read in study guides and school resources might not be what is going on in the mind of a pupil; and most importantly, no text world is more or less valuable than another.

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Other workshops I attended included ‘Literacy for Life – closing the gap for disadvantaged pupils through academic language acquisition’ presented by the National Literacy Trust (NLT), which was particularly pertinent for the Scottish contingent in light of the ongoing addressing of the attainment gap and literacy challenges in Scottish schools. Another seminar explored the benefits of incorporating newspapers into guided reading in class, supported by the findings of research carried out by the NLT, and introduced me to the interactive First News Literacy iHub, on which pupils can explore news stories, answering questions or playing games related to the content thus developing their critical reading skills. These were, of course, only a handful of the informative sessions I attended at the conference, not to mention the inspirational keynote speakers (including Simon Armitage and Henry Normal to name a few), and vast number of stalls at the trade fair. It was really interesting to chat to those who work with organisations supporting education too, especially in order to find out more about the English education system.

By the end of the conference, I was overwhelmed with ideas to ponder and resources to explore, and felt a heightened sense of excitement for starting my NQT year in August. The NATE conference emanates a palpable and infectious sense of enthusiasm and commitment from everyone involved, which every English teacher should experience… and perhaps especially those who are just looking for a few days out the classroom.

Gavin Tulloch is an NQT English teacher in a Glasgow secondary.  Any views expressed are his own.

Read Jess and Marco’s blog at studyingfiction .