Thursday, 1 November 2012

Something what I wrote in class

Filing can be interesting...sometimes.

Here I go, off on another educational tangent.  Today I was in full work avoidance mode, filing and re-arranging teaching resources and data in readiness for the 'Death-eaters' visit at some point this academic year. The notion of being and feeling organised is only ever temporary. By and large, I think we teachers are much like swans: on the surface we show calm, grace and serenity; beneath the water ('scuse my French) we are paddling like f*** to keep afloat and to move forward. 

So, whilst trying to gain the appearance of calm grace, I stumbled across something that I wrote in the class with my Year 11 (all girls) last year as exam practice for the WJEC English Literature paper.  The final task on the paper is a comparison of two contemporary poems.  The pupils have a just an hour to read, analyse and write an essay comparing these two poems.  

I sprung this exam practice on the pupils when we had a double lesson.  I was military with the timing, dividing up the hour into: fifteen minutes for reading, annotating the poems and a plan, forty-five minutes for the writing of the essay (making sure they had time at the end to check their work). I used the timer from to make sure I, as well as them, were keeping to time.  While they worked in silence, I did precisely the same work I'd asked the pupils to do.   I had not sat and deconstructed the poems beforehand. I was precisely in the same academic, high pressure boat as the class. I had deliberately put myself in their shoes, not knowing what the outcome would be. For me, or for them. 

I have also been spurred on to write this post in response to 'Goveanasaurus-Rex's' over-use of the word 'rigour' when it comes to his blunt and brutal educational reforms.  On WHAT educational research does he base this on?  Which is the question I am constantly, indignantly asking.  To me, this exam task smacks of academic rigour.  I wonder how well Gove would do if he were put in the same position I put my Year 11s and myself in?  In the light of the GCSE English fiasco, I wonder what marks or grade an examiner (and the exam board) would give my essay? (I'm not sure I want to even know the answer to that one). 


To share this kind of writing with you is terribly exposing, if not a bit scary.  I mean, the first time I wore a bikini at the swimming pool when I was in my mid 30s.

I feel I must add it was a decidedly modest bikini, not far off the modesty of a Victorian swimsuit, where sunlight would merely glimpse, let alone touch, the exposed flesh.   Showing you 'what I wrote' feels very much like THAT moment I walked out of the changing rooms to the pool side in my first, but modest, bikini. 

The two poems were: 'Tramp' by Rupert M. Loydell and 'Decomposition' by Zulfkar Ghose.
Pupils are required to comment on:

  • The content of the poems
  • The ideas the poets may have wanted us to think about
  • The mood or atmosphere of the poems
  • How they are written
  • Your responses to the poem. 

So this is what I wrote in the same 45 minutes the Year 11s had. Before I begin properly, I confess I'd have tweaked a little and edited a tad; much like putting on a bit of fake tan to remove the snow blindness glare of my pale skin before wearing said, modest bikini. 

N.B. My chief editor @Xris32 has sat and proof read this essay, however, I am going to 'show and tell' errors and all, otherwise it's not a fair representation of what I did in those 45 minutes. 

Something what I wrote in class

The content of each poem is quite clear as both poets have chosen to write about homeless people, which on the face of it, appears quite simplistic.  However, the points of view of each narrator differs greatly. For example, 'Tramp' creates a rather unpleasant image of a homeless man because in the third stanza he narrates that, 'we fear him'.  Through using the collective pronoun 'we' the poet is not just writing about his own response to the tramp, but (middle class?) society's which can be a 'fear' born of ignorance. Interestingly, 'Decomposition' creates a far more sympathetic view of the homeless man on the streets of Bombay. The metaphor, 'cracks in the stone' indicates his fragility, therefore we fear for him rather than just fear him. The point of view here is clearly very different from 'Tramp'. Rather than narrate society's abhorrent reaction to the homeless and then questioning it, as in 'Tramp', 'Decomposition' offers a seemingly much more personal response to a homeless man, while at the same time questioning the morality of the observer's inaction. 

Loydell clearly wants to create a sense of fear, rather than sympathy, for the homeless man by first concentrating on the sound that the tramp makes, he, 'gibbers'.  The tramp is heard before he is seen, which is a classic horror genre tactic.  The sound the tramp produces is unintelligible, thus giving him a sense of madness. Society does not seem to like what we can't control or understand, and it is this that creates the sense of fear. Additionally, the use of religious words such as 'prophet' and 'heaven', signs of divinity, contradict the rest of the description of the tramp, as if the narrator is telling a cruel joke at the tramp's expense. 

Ghose, however, creates a far more sympathetic and emotive figure of his homeless man through first naming his homeless man a 'beggar', a term that appear much less harsh than the word 'tramp'.  Beggar is used in the Bible as a description of homeless people, perhaps also giving the man a more sympathetic divinity. The word also suggests a sense of hopelessness for the figure but also someone that we should look charitably upon, rather than to merely judge. 

Sympathy for the beggar is increased via the use of the metaphor that describes his arms and legs as 'cracks in the stone' which suggests many images to the reader. The 'cracks' imply fragility, brittleness and vulnerability whilst the word 'stone' implies a permanence, that he has been there forever; he is immobile.  This also allows the narrator to suggest the beggar's agedness.  It is here that the title of the poem, 'Decomposition' is a pun, a play on the word, 'composition' that which a photographer does in order to structure his photograph. Therefore the narrator, through the course of the poem, is deconstructing his image in order to question the morality of his actions of merely taking a photograph of the beggar but doing nothing to aid him. In comparison, 'Tramp' is a far more simplistic title, at least on the surface, however there are many negative connotations associated with this word, which are then played out during the course of the poem. 

Loydell's language in the poem, like the structure itself, on the surface appears very simplistic. There are few complex words or images but this is clearly deliberate, because his message which is a critique of our reactions to the homeless, is so clear. In order to make us fear the tramp, Loydell paints an altogether unpleasant picture in the third stanza; the adjectives being the most poignant, 'matted', 'patched' and 'grey' all creating a sense of disgust and decay. It makes us, the reader, and (middle class) society want avoid him. Alternatively, Ghose's description creates a great deal of sympathy because his beggar appears so close to death, for he is, 'brain-washed by the sun into exhaustion.'.  The personification of the sun, ever present and all powerful, emphasises the man's weakness and vulnerability on the streets of Bombay. 

The last sections of the poem also show great contrasts, revealing the poet's intended message to the reader about homelessness very clearly.  Loydell states that there is, 'no place for him in our heaven'.  The possessive pronoun 'our' explicitly shows the reader that the tramp does not belong with 'us'. 'Us' being the salaried, comfortable, middle classes. Society, and this class in society, has rejected him. Surely it is 'us' that have failed the tramp? In contrast, Ghose's more personal and humane response is very understandable when he described the beggar so sympathetically, 'His head in the posture of the weeping/into a pillow chides me.' Here the beggar is described as serene and beautiful, like the Virgin Mary, helpless, holy and vulnerable. The final two word Ghose uses to describe the beggar and his 'composition' are 'hunger' and 'solitude' which reveals the distaste the photographer has for his own actions. His distaste for the lack of his own morals is obvious. 

Both poems are highly emotive and pose interesting moral questions about people who are homeless and how certain sections of society respond to them (Loydell) or how we personally react to them (Ghose).  Even though one poet is clearly more sympathetic than the other, both are guilty of the same crime, passive observation.  Neither narrator does anything to aid the beggar or the tramp and asks the question, is this morally wrong?  By posing this question so clearly to the reader, it makes us question our own behaviour and ask us if we too feel ashamed of our own behaviour towards someone who is homeless. Denial and ignorance are ever present. Observing is only useful if something is then done about it.

My original, scrawled essay. Contact Bletchley Park to decipher
Do feel free to add comments about my essay, but as Ron Berger and @totallywired77 state: Be kind, be helpful, be specific.  You can borrow it to use with your classes if you think it is worthy.

The de-brief

When we'd all finished I shared my work with the class.  BEFORE I did so,  I told them how hard I'd found the task, and how drained I was at the end of writing it. Not to make them feel better, because it was true.  Now, if I found it a tough task, it made me ponder the question, how hard must they find it?  To be in their shoes, to work WITH them, exposed and scared, was a revelation. 

I also confessed how NERVOUS I was reading it out to them; it was downright terrifying. I began reading fairly breathlessly.  God bless those girls; they saw my nervousness, and smiled at me to make me feel at ease. 

When I read it out to them, I critiqued the flaws in it as and when I found them; when I waffled; when I could extend an idea; when my grammar had all gone a bit Yoda like or when I'd repeated the use of a quotation.   It was (and is) by no means perfect,  in an hour, how the heck could it be?  

I learned exactly HOW demanding these tasks are.  I wondered, who decided that an hour to analyse two poems would be sufficient (after they'd already spent approximately 2 hrs analysing extracts from two different literature texts)? I learned that, contrary to common popular belief (Daily Mail), the GCSEs already display academic rigour.  I learned of the exposure and the fear present when sharing your work with a group of people.  I learned how important it is to have a sympathetic ear to your work.  I learned that sharing your writing with the class is incredibly empowering (excuse the cliche) for teacher and pupils.  I learned how good my relationship with the class was.  I learned, after marking their essays, that they were able to analyse a range of texts with some skill and confidence. I learned how relieved that made me feel.  I think I have probably learned an awful lot more than that.  I know I will definitely do it again. 

Well done ladies, well done. 

N.B. After their last exam, I bought them in individually decorated cupcakes made by a very talented friend of mine. They presented me with this:


  1. I'm also in my 10th year but on my fourth school and still a main-scale English teacher, although this year I went part-time (yay!). I think writing along with the kids is a great idea even though it's scary. Good post.

  2. Hi Fran, thanks for your comment. The biggest worry is looking like a total numpty in front of them, and that they get nothing out of it. Oh I'd love to be able to afford part-time. May have something resembling a work/life balance then! Good for you.

  3. Wow this write up was brilliant, it should now help me to open up my mind when annotating and writing about poems. Thank you for this it really helped.