LATE Conference: Changing Times, Constant Values

Today in the morning (12 July 2014), I attended yet another fabulous LATE (London Association of Teachers of English) conference at the Institute of Education. It was full of food-for-thought, insightful talks and workshop activities and has certainly broadened my mind and made me reflect – never enough opportunities for reflection, I say!

It kicked off at 10am with Morlette Lindsay’s keynote speech which explained the conference’s title: Changing Times, Constant Values. As educators, we are going through times of constant, year-to-year changes being thrown at us: such as the New Curriculum just around the corner and GCSE exams’ nature changing dramatically to name but a few. Yet, we need to stick to our core (as teachers) values, or rather “constant values” as in the name of the conference.

In a brilliant speech, drawing on her teaching in South Africa, Morlette was able to encourage us to stick to those core values that have made us teachers in the first place. Too often it is about data, not students, she says – and I wholeheartedly agree. She herself came from a privileged university town and, in her childhood, lived in what was a very isolated country back then – it was books that were a way for her to understand more about the world: as an example, she told us of she read about the fate of many Jews in the WW2, and how the books made her reflect).

In South Africa, she says, a high school can be understood to be a white school whilst a secondary school might be perceived to mean a black school. It wouldn’t occur to us that this is much of a distinction in the UK. However, as she continued speaking, I thought of how secondary can mean second important and high on its own may be understood as the top one. And as Morlette asked us about how we react to and what we read into words such as comprehensive school, grammar school, free school, academy and public school, I was able to reflect on that. For instance, can it be that the word academy is somewhat akin to high – in my country (Poland), akademia (academy) would be used exclusively for HE establishments. Therefore, could it be that calling high schools academies carries the meaning of higher status with it – status that that non-academies would not have.

Morlette reminded us that education happens in the strangest of places, often deprived of technology and resources. She urges us to think of what governmental agendas are and what we do with it. At this point, she referred to specific governmental prescriptions. For instance, according to Michael Gove, “All pupils will our island story”, claiming that our (British) literature is the best in world, it is every child’s birthright and we should be proud to teach it in every school. However, it is not just Dryden, Pope, Dickens and Hardy that are great – so is Chekhov, she says and many other international authors! She further argues that Shakespeare (obviously mentioned by the recent governmental documents as one of the greatest in British literature) actually speaks of matters that are still relevant now – for instance, students from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan can relate what he says to their own present-day experiences. Rosenblatt (1938) suggested that we shouldn’t impose a set of preconceived notions of the proper way to react to any work and students must be faced with their own reactions. Teachers must instil habits of reading and critical attitudes, but not insist on one understanding of a text only, but rather allow the students to explore and make their own meanings. Suffice it to say, this was not the kind of literature teaching I got in my secondary schooling – I remember clearly that we were “encouraged” to explore some, but it all had to lead to the same result: the one accepted interpretation as understood / taught by the teacher!

Morlette brought another excellent example of how Shakespeare can be seen as relevant to present-day students. In Merchant of Venice, the Jews are portrayed in a negative way. As a young person, she thought this was rather horrific. She understood later that in the Elizabethan times, Jews were outcasts and could relate this to other outcast groups of today. For instance, Morlette says, you can replace Jews with Palestinians nowadays. Back then, she understood that it was important to understand that we should remember how people were treated in the past so it doesn’t happen again. At this point, I actually had shivers going up my spine – the ones I get when something moves me – because, as she says, this is precisely what the teaching is about – the betterment of the young people, educating for creating a more just, better-informed future, understanding how the world works, making sense of it and being able to figure things out on their own. This is what teaching is all about.

Children are incredible thinkers. Some of the insights I have myself heard from them, the perceptiveness and sharpness of mind that they often demonstrate blows me away on a daily basis. The diversity, perhaps in particular the super-diversity of the kind that London experiences, adds to this perceptiveness and sharpness: different cultures will see things differently, through different cultural and linguistic lens. So I found myself almost cheering out loud there when Morlette said that Gove’s idea of “British values” being in direct opposition to London’s diversity needs. Please watch the video that I am including with this post below of a young man’s interpretation of the poem “The Raven”. It is an amazing way of showing a young person’s interpretation of literature. This young man, for instance, as Morlette told us, was likening flickering to a soul leaving a body! What is perhaps really amazing about this is that, actually, this is just one of many many examples of the brilliance of young people – and in my opinion, the cultural diversity that the UK of today enriches us with magnifies this brilliance tenfold. Our students are the makers of culture; it should not be imposed – neither by Gove or anyone else.

References:

Rosenblatt, L.M. (1938) Literature as exploration. New York: Appleton Century

 

I chose to go to two workshops. The first one, run by Jenny Grahame with the English and Media Centre and called Changing media, lasting literacy: media literacy activities for KS2 and KS3, was a great collection of resources and ideas for enriching pupils’ literacy learning experiences, aiming to fill in the gaps left by the current English curriculum. What was great about the resources presented to us was that, whilst the examples provided to us were for a specific group of learners, they can be adapted to any age group quickly and easily.

Jenny started by saying that, in her view, children are entitled to being taught literacy, English being taught to them in real contexts and through real knowledge and being provided with opportunities for exploring their independence, for instance through independent research or collaborative learning. Of course, at this point, I thought of the Collaborative Learning Project (http://www.collaborativelearning.org/), widely used by many EAL teachers, myself included. The resources for the teaching of media that she presented us with aim to incorporate all those entitlements.

One of such activities was about Managing a celebrity campaign, providing students with cards about young people who aim for a particular type of a career. The students’ aim is to act as their manager (PR), identify problems and suggest solutions on how to improve their popularity and career prospects. Step 2 involves a group of learners taking on a specialised job to help ‘save’ and promote the client. Step 3 involves planning the client’s publicity campaign and step 4: holding a press conference for the relaunched celebrity.

Another resource was a lesson called The Influenza Mysteriosa Campaign where students are asked to target a group in a society particularly vulnerable to a new particularly infectious disease (akin to the bird-flu a few years back) and raise their awareness of how to stay safe without instilling panic amongst the group. This means that students are turned into media researchers: they need to understand the needs of their target group through data collection and analysis and devise a workable and working approach. This involves asking questions such as what’s the most important message for your audience and why? Which media do they use? How will you reach them? How to appeal to the target audience? Finally, different methods’ usefulness need to be considered and the pack even includes incorporating budget into the campaign plan – for instance, if you wanted to place an ad on the radio, in real life, this would cost you. Finally, the students would have to present their campaign to others for consideration.

There will be a book with these types of resources produced by the English and Media Centre (englishandmedia.co.uk) – look out for this this autumn. The best thing about them is that they are adaptable and can be used with students from KS2 to KS5 and they can certainly be adapted for EAL students as well. Since the collaborative learning sits at the centre of what I believe is good teaching to EAL learners, this is a particularly interesting pack of resources!

After lunch, I went to a different workshop, also run by a member of the English and Media Centre Lucy Webster. This was entitled Reading as a WriterThis workshop actually blew me away – it was a set of extremely useful, simple and unique ideas on how to teach reading and writing challenging texts to students and how to develop their ability to delve deeper into texts’ meanings, style, registers and build their abilities to infer.

We were first asked to share with a partner our favourite walk anywhere in the world. Upon doing so, we were asked to pick out the words, phrases or descriptions of what made it stand out. For instance, I used the word ‘tranquility’ in my description that made this place and walk unique. At this point, we were given an excerpt from Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways (2012) (the book is available from Amazon), also about a walk. In each sentence, which we read together with our table partner, we picked one word that stood out to us for whatever reason. At this point Lucy asked us to consider: What is the significance of these words? How were they chosen? Is there a pattern? In my pair, we’ve arrived at the conclusion that the vast majority of the words we chosen had to do either with change and out-of-ordinariness. Of course, this activity allows one to think about the main message a text is trying to make or what is important to the writer that he/she is not saying.

Following this initial activity, we were now given a full page of text from Macfarlane’s book. We now picked out words, phrases and sentences from the book that stood out to us for whatever reason. I noticed for instance “halted, paused” (rather than “halted and paused”), “orange cone” (description of light as shaped by a street lamp), selection of phrases without any verbs (I’d call them non-sentences) and “snow caused everything to exceed itself” and “snow was overwhelmingly legible”. We were now asked to comment on what made us pick these out. Obviously, different groups in the room picked out different areas of the text. To me, for instance, “legible snow” referred to “marks in the snow” as described by Macfarlane in his previous paragraph, suggesting that the writer took the “reading” meaning of “legibility” (marks) and superimposed it on his description of “snow”. If in an English lesson, we could ask our students to try and mimic the style of the author – and such insights are incredibly useful to use: asking them to consider how colour is used or how unexpected metaphors are created. As long as we’re not dealing with new arrivals at very early stages of English language acquisition, I feel that we can use texts for similar purposes: stretching them to grasp the idea of how language is created and how it uses and mixes different ideas and concepts for different purposes.

At this point, Lucy taught us the technique of micro interventions. That is, rather than focus on the entire text, focus on intervening in one part of the text. For instance, what will happen if we remove all the adjectives from one paragraph? What will happen if we change pronouns from “I” to “he” or “you”? Will it change the meaning, style or suggestibility of the text? In my pair, we considered the non-verb sentences: “A few undrawn curtains: family evenings underway, the flicker and burble of television sets. The cold like a wire in the nose. A slew of stars, the moon flooding everything with silver.” What would happen here if we added verbs such as “was” or “were”, i.e. “A few curtains were undrawn.” To me, the lack of verbs in this string of “non-sentences” leads to the culmination of effect, making these elements becoming overwhelming to the narrator as he/she experiences/observes them. Having “were” or “was” in all of them would turn them into a simply story and a list of events with far less (if any) overwhelming aspect to them. However, my partner had a different idea here – in fact, the idea that it was the verbs that add that overwhelming aspect. Listening to different insights into this from other participants of the workshop was rather fascinating. Using this simple approach in the classroom will make students notice the changes occurring in texts. What is rather obvious as well is that it allows the teacher to focus on language and meaning at the same time. Noticing whether a passage is a sentence or not (are there verbs in there? are there adjectives there? are there adverbs there?) makes students aware of the importance of parts of speech and, perhaps, other linguistic elements such as subordinate clauses, prepositions, articles and any other you or they might want to focus on. In that, it is extremely EAL-friendly, but it works just as well for EAL students as it does for every other English student. It also takes the experience of reading and uses it for writing – making it clear that the two skills are not independent: in order to write well, we need to read a lot!

Finally, the last activity we did in the workshop dealt with the difference between a story and a narrative. A story is told in chronological order only, whilst a narrative does tell a story but can – and often does – deviate from the chronology of events, taking notice of the fact that we as humans do not always recall things in a linear story-like fashion. We were asked to write a short piece, a beginning of a story, using a list of events. Different writers will approach such task in different non-linear ways. This would certainly challenge and stretch some of my own EAL students who tend to write stories in linear way of only – and it would certainly allow for their stories to be so much more original, unique and interesting!

After this brilliant workshop, everyone went back to hear about the drafts of GCSE English Literature and Language examination papers and what type of tasks students are likely to be presented with in the near future. This was delivered by Simon Gibbons, who used to be the chaire of NATE (National Association for the Teaching of English). First teaching of these new GCSEs will be from 2015. The exams are going to be terminal and there will be no tiering. Speaking and listening are going to be reported separately and will not be contributing to the GCSEs. All the boards will have 2 papers (i.e. 2 for English Language and 2 for English Literature) for students to write.

The final item on the agenda for the day was the brilliant talk and delivery of a poem by Anthony Anaxagorou (http://www.anthonyanaxagorou.com). Anthony works with the Poetry Society and is a SLAMbassador, delivering poetry workshops in different schools in London, mentoring students and spotting young poets in many socially deprived schools and inspiring them to write their own poem around the theme of identity. He has an incredibly natural and down-to-earth way and has been extremely successful in his workshops, showing students how poetry and language can be exciting and relevant to them. He is a poetry performer. On top of delivering very successful (with students) school workshops and mentoring programmes, he is a poetry writer himself and continues to question how schools and English curriculum teaches literature to culturally diverse students. Yet again, this was another speaker at the LATE’s conference stating that Gove’s “British values” are not in agreement with London’s (and Britain’s) vast cultural diversity. Whilst Anthony himself did not relate to Gove himself, it is very obvious that teaching about British poets only is not a great literature advert for those coming from very different traditions and cultures, with vastly different family histories. Is it any wonder that so many will switch off it if they’re asked to take on the culture that is not their own at all?

Perhaps the best proof of what an inspiring, mind-changing and successful programme this is is this video of Sadia Ahmed’s Emotional Eutanasia poem.

The brilliant poem that Anthony performed for us at the conclusion of his talk is called This is Not a Poem – watch it below here as it’s also available on YouTube. It’s a great emotional journey and insight into the state of race relations, huge struggle of immigrants into the UK, the discrimination and uneven life start challenges that they face and how he sees what poetry really should be: an expression of people’s hopes, emotions and their real lives’ experiences and struggles. Most of all, it is a powerful reminder of the inequalities that exist between those who are white and those who are not.

And just one excerpt from the poem from you:

“… immigration is not a choice ,

that people do not come to the UK for great weather, hospitality and quality of life.

How do I explain all this and still retain artistic merit?

Be the fighter for equality and diversity. There is morality outside of British values.

And whilst we do fight for the rights, equal education for and recognition of the needs of those from different cultures and traditions, do read the brilliant article from Michael Rosen in The Guardian: Dear Mr Gove: what’s so ‘British’ about your ‘British values’? (read it below)

I was kind of hoping that we’ve been past this kind of they all have to assimilate approach long time ago or at least we were on the way to the creation of more inclusive, working-together society. No such luck, I guess.

 

 

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