English teachers have a tough gig. We need to constantly hone the hard-edged skill of analysis whilst simultaneously encouraging the fluffy stuff of creativity. There’s a lot said and written about creativity these days, much of it by Sir Ken Robinson. Basically, Ken’s argument goes along these lines: schools should value the Arts more highly and find ways to foster creativity in those subjects where it doesn’t necessarily appear naturally. We should do this because creativity (the ability to have new ideas which have value) is increasingly important in a world where jobs that don’t require creativity have disappeared or outsourced to other countries where people will do them more cheaply.

While there maybe disagreement about whether you can actually teach creativity as a skill, we can certainly expose young people to it, encourage them to use it and we can absolutely give them knowledge of the ‘rules’ of whatever area we wish them to be creative in. Having a thorough grounding in these rules gives one the ability to know when to break them, which is one (if not Sir Ken’s) definition of creativity. This means, amongst other things, that grammar needs to be explicitly taught. More on this here.

Now, I might be in danger of over simplifying things here, but the skill of writing is all about creatively putting together words and sentences whilst the skill of reading is firmly rooted in the ability to analyse. No one would, I hope, suggest that reading and writing should be taught in isolation; each builds upon the other. For the same reasons neither should creativity and analysis be seen as discrete entities.

There’s little joy in analysing poetry without having a stab at writing some. And it’s dangerously negligent to get students to unpick the work of professional writers without then giving students the opportunity to use some of these tricks and techniques in writing of their own. This is, of course, the thinking behind the teaching sequence for writing: first you read it (analysis), then you write it (creativity).

English teaching should, I think, strive to be a balance of these two components and to make them explicit. For every topic you intend to cover and every lesson you plan to teach take time to consider:

  • where can I get students to analyse?
  • how can I get them being creative?

Once you start thinking in this way, English teaching opens up a stunning vista of possibilities and your lessons will always be varied and challenging.

And comparison?

It’s not enough for us to simply say, “Now then boys and girls, today we are going to learning about similes.” A reasonable response to this statement might be to ask what’s the point of learning about similes? Or apostrophes? Or Shakespearean comedy? If the best we’ve got to offer is “Because I said so,” or “Because it’s in the exam,” then we’re making our lives much more difficult than they need be. Two buzzy acronyms that have been bandied about to the extent that even Ofsted have heard of them are WIIFM and CITV. These are not educational radio and TV stations but reminders that we ought to be offering kids are decent reason for learning the things we’re insisting they learn. Respectively they stand for What’s In It For Me and Connect Into Their Values.

Let’s say I want to convince my class that there’s a reason for knowing what a simile is and how to use one. I will first need to give some thought to the real reasons why writers use them and then allow students to discover for themselves how a well chosen simile can transform a piece of writing.

So how about trying this? Stride purposefully into the room and, without a word, begin drawing a face on the board. Draw an arrow next to the head and write, “Head like an egg”. Turn to the class to see the reaction. Offer them the pen. Don’t worry if they don’t get it yet, continue by labelling the eye with, “Eye like a crater”. Sooner or later they will begin to join in and end up sputtering with delighted laughter at all the hilarious comparisons they make.

How much better is this than waltzing in with the question, “So, can anyone tell me what a simile is?” Anyone inclined to dismiss discovery learning as nonsense need look no further. The power of students discovering for themselves the point of a simile (or apostrophe, or subordinate clause or whatever) is much more likely to be memorable than their teacher just telling them.

Not convinced? Whatever we want students to learn about can be effectively taught by showing them what it’s absence looks like. What’s the point of punctuation? Let’s compare two version of the same text, one with, one without punctuation. Can’t see the point in rhetorical questions? Try removing them all from this text. What effect do they achieve? Which version is better? Why?

Another (much less important) reason to make comparisons is to find a suitable entry point to greet young minds. We’ve all encountered the moaning and beating of chests when it’s announced that the next topic will be a Shakespeare play, or poetry (or anything else considered to be ‘hard‘. “What’s the point?” they wail. “When will I ever need this stuff?” And they’ve got a point. A lot of what we want students to read and enjoy can seem irrelevant. Especially the old stuff. The trick is to make it seem less alien and more approachable and beautiful for its own sake.

There’s lots been bemoaned about students’ unwillingness to read Dickens in the past week. With the exception of A Christmas Carol and Lionel Bart’s Oliver! I never encountered any of Chuck’s classics until long after I left school. Since then I have read and enjoyed several and would count Great Expectations as amongst my favourite works of literature. I have used it several times to get students to produce work on pre 1914 prose and always to good effect. But, I’ve never tried to read the whole thing in class. I don’t have the time, and what would be the point? I want them to have enjoyed the bits we’ve done and not to scar them with an unreasoned hatred for Victorian novels (I still suffer from this type of knee-jerk response to Hardy.) How have I got kids to enjoy Dickens? My making connections and comparisons to what they already know.

It’s very easy to be sniffy about what kids are interested in and know about. But if we can make meaningful connections between the pop twaddle they’re so passionate about and the high culture we want them to fall in love with (or at least consent to sit still and learn about) then we’re so much more likely to achieve our ends.

And the accusation that this is dumbing down, that ‘kids like these’ can only be brought to engage with something difficult if it’s presented in the format of a graphic novel (see this from Toby Young)? Well, frankly, I despair. It seems as if some folk will only be content when 11 year olds are expected to comprehend degree level material with no contextualisation from their teacher. What guff! Academic rigour should not, of course, be sacrificed to enjoyment and relevance: it should only be enhanced by these things.  It’s a sad fact that the pressures of exams make it impossible to wade through the entirety of a Victorian novel. The trick is to inspire them to go away and read it themselves. At home.

Hence the need for useful points of comparison.