Reasons to Read

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Reasons, by Rupert M Loydell – Hesterglock Press

Reasoning is to do with logic and calculation, assessing and rationalising, asking and answering, persuading and cajoling – this list could obviously go on and on. It is an essential capacity/urge. It is compulsive. It is necessary.

As ever, writer Rupert Loydell takes such a colossal element of who and what we are as thinkers and explores this through everyday poetic touchstones that resonate with familiarity and insight. His poetic reasoning confronts the variety and vicissitudes of that very mental activity so that we as readers can share in understanding his and our living.

The opening poem Reasons to Believe is perhaps the most ostensibly rhetorical. Tackling belief in God, mental health, the darkness of being – there are no answers to the many urgent questions making it seemingly unreasonable to be searching, and all that is offered isn’t much under the weight of that not knowing,

….in the dark,
waiting for a glimpse of light, moments of calm,
distant voices raised in memorable song.

The next poem Reasons to Stay Alive – as if needing these is a natural enough requisite – takes a more domestic turn down the same dark alley, speaking of a friend suffering despair too,

He’s up to his neck in it, scared and ill,
with a daughter who feels the same.

One is never sure in the reading if the poems are autobiographical or wholly externalised [though this latter seems unlikely] and I know it shouldn’t matter and doesn’t, especially as it is in the sharing of common experience – whether personal or externalised for readers – that makes them compelling to read. Thus the rumination in I Had My Reasons (Hold Tight),

……If I look back now
I had been stressed or depressed
(possibly both) several years before…

is resolved, as much as it could be, in the universal ending of,

No-one tells you life gets harder
as the days and years go by.

You obviously have to read these apparently prosaic lines within the context of their poetic narratives, but it is the very ‘ordinariness’ that makes them immediately meaningful.

Reasons To Be Cheerful begins comically cynical,

Name one!

and we are then reminded of the continuing darkness in the following poem Beyond Reason,

I should be dead soon, read his text,
but I didn’t know if it was a self-aimed
imperative, or an update from the front
line of another suicide attempt.
Turns out to have been the latter.

There is the other classically existential view that gets explored as well: all this reasoning is by its nature challenging and/or depressing and we all want an exciting way out. Therefore in The Voice of Reason,

I want to be unreasonable, want
to take a running jump from the end
of the pier, want to shout and scream
and drink too much, want my friend
to stop trying to die, my car to start
when I want it to.

From the edge of the abyss [if only pier-end high] to the vagaries of the car starting, the excitement is, Loydell reasons, always going to be largely realistic.

And it is this realism that makes these poems, as I have said, resonate. There is little point in just asking us as readers big questions if there aren’t some answers, no matter how small. The process of human reasoning happens every day for all of us and it is usually pragmatic rather than philosophical because that way we carry on. We leave it to writers like Loydell to ask himself the questions many of us avoid on that day to day basis, and in that asking we have our own voices expressed through a poetry that is his trademark: accessible but poignant, thoughtful but without being pretentious, lyrical but conversational, and confessional without fear of that honesty.

[further details and where and how to purchase can be found here]

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SHATs Marking, Again

I recently posted commentaries on Nicky Morgan’s announcements about the need to look again at national testing, including extending this to 7 year olds, as well as satirical looks at the sample Key Stage 2 Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test for English.

If and when there needs to be a battle to prevent the proliferation of a testing regime – perhaps even a return to Key Stage 3 testing – I have been consistent in stressing that the teaching profession needs to step up to the plate and argue against it. The teaching unions and national subject organisations need to do this as well. Everyone who has an informed understanding of the dangers, both educationally and otherwise [that stress/pressure element], needs to voice their objections.

There is one other crucial and ultimately successful move the teaching profession could make to prevent these tests from happening: refuse to mark them. As an examiner of GCSE throughout most of my entire teaching career of 30 years, and now beyond this, I never marked SATs as a matter of integrity and principle, and am proud of this.

I know many brilliant teaching colleagues who have marked various SATs, and most of these, if not all of those who I respect, have done so for the payment. I understand entirely the need for this, especially younger colleagues struggling financially whilst pursuing one of the most challenging occupations, but they too need to find a way to resist providing the workforce to help make these tests a possibility. Any English teacher who has allowed themselves to be shackled by the ludicrous constraints of finite marking schemes must have felt the nonsense of it all, and the shame.

I’ll leave this part of the current commentary there.

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When I self-published my novel Writing with Hammers recently, I considered not including the following chapter as I felt the removal of Key Stage 3 SATs had made it redundant. This level was the only one I had experienced and I recall genuinely outrageous times when reviewing my school’s students’ exam papers and finding wonderfully individual or creative or even incisive, if unexpected, answers disregarded because they did not ‘fit’ the prescribed and narrow mark scheme answers. This, coupled with the generally deconstextualised and therefore meaningless questions themselves, underpin and inform much of my entire rejection of them.

Or to put it more satirically, here is that chapter that I did retain – for a poignant sense of nostalgia – but should/could continue to be contemporary as a warning both in light of the current KS2 proposals and any future expansion:

SHATs Marking

I wouldn’t touch them with any kind of pole, but there are colleagues who are prepared to mark the national SHATs papers. There was a time when as a profession we collectively refused to have anything to do with these, but like a slow insidious virus, they have managed to pervade and triumph.

My opposition isn’t so much based on the narrowness of the tests, as significant as this is, but more to do with the complete unreliability of the marking process. For years, my SHATs results have fluctuated up and down like a float in a whirlpool. One year our school’s results were about the best in the country (transparently inaccurate), and in another we had no distribution curve, a term I learnt from the Head of Maths, which suggested that we had cheated in order to give all of our students virtually the same scores (but I hadn’t yet implemented the then Head’s plan for such deception).

So it comes as a major surprise when a traitor in my department, who claims she marked them out of financial despair and desperation, shows me her SHATs Marking Manual. I think the gesture is an attempt to assuage guilt, and so it should be. She’s taking a bit of a risk because these manuals are meant to be confidential and in fact aren’t supposed to be taken away from the regional training meetings. I’m delighted to get the opportunity of examining one of these rare documents, and coming on the back of receiving Norm’s illicit video, I feel like a very successful if unintentional spy.

I’m surprised at how few words there are. The instructions are given largely through drawings and so it looks more like a comic strip than a conventional training manual. There’s very little information even in this illustrative form. The main page titled ‘Marking Process’ has a sketch of a woman sitting at a table, an exam paper in front of her that she’s marking with a pen, and she is wearing a blindfold that looks like the kind people buy for sleeping or wearing on aeroplanes. The only instruction is place random ticks, no more than four, down right hand side of page. That’s all there is. I turn the page and there is a drawing of the same woman with a large smile and a bundle of presumably marked papers being placed in an envelope.

“I can understand the random ticking business,” I tell Martina, our SHATs double agent, “because I’ve seen plenty of examples of this minimalist annotating, but the blindfold idea is more weird than even I could have imagined.”

Martina doesn’t reply and instead reaches down to her handbag. She picks it up off the floor, places it in her lap and then rummages inside. Like a magician with a hat, she pulls out a blindfold and holds it up to me, smugly, as if she’s performed a very special trick.

I take the blindfold and have a closer look. It’s exactly as in the illustration in the manual. The only thing the manual doesn’t show, however, is the little tag on the outside of the right eye covering printed with Government Issue. Martina sees me reading this and all she says on the whole subject is,

“Yes, everyone calls them their GIs. It’s an in-joke I guess.”

That night at home I sit in front of my stack of unmarked essays, feeling inundated and daunted as usual about the amount of work to be done. I get through about five papers in the first hour and start to feel totally exhausted, beginning to fall asleep at my desk. It’s a familiar pattern. I’ve already had my early evening nap, but the tiredness comes back like a wave up my soporific shore. I must be drifting in and out of sleep and start to dream or even hallucinate about the SHATs marking with a blindfold. This makes me snap out of my drifting in a sudden anger, but all I can do is sit and stare at the pile of unmarked homework. Then, feeling like a reformed alcoholic about to sneak a drink, I spot my scarf hanging over the back of the chair and with a strange compulsion, decide to try this blindfold marking. I know it’s hypocritical, but I’m desperate too. I tie the scarf around my head and just get down to it. It’s peculiar at first, not being able to read the students’ work, but it is remarkably easy once in the swing of things. One or two of my early ticks miss the pages altogether, but you soon develop an instinct for where the edges are. Before I know it, in half an hour I’ve finished all of the papers.

It’s proved such a successful system that I’ve actually got time to sit down and watch a film on television tonight. As I do, I can’t help feeling like I’ve just been involved in murdering someone.

‘Yesterday’s Music Today’, edited by Mike Ferguson & Rupert Loydell – Knives Forks and Spoons Press

ymtI’m delighted to announce the publication of Yesterday’s Music Today, an anthology of poems about music in its widest possible sense, co-edited by myself with fellow writer Rupert Loydell and including a number of our poems.

There are eighteen other writers who have contributed poems that range widely in musical focus from concerts attended, to musical instruments, to pieces of music, to types of music and much beyond.

Further details can be found here.

The Modality of Meaninglessness

I might pick away at aspects of the sample Key Stage 2 English Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling tests [GPS not SPaG, so even losing the familiar tag] rather than develop a lengthy argument at this point.

No, I will pick away at this nonsense.

I could pick my nose instead.

I am picking.

But before just playing, I think the profession, especially English teachers, need to argue against the test cogently on the basis of teaching and learning and everything that we know works to as well as doesn’t work to help students become effective writers. The aspect of the ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’ these tests cause students – of all ages, but for 7 year olds in particular – is valid and pertinent, but others should be allowed and encouraged to make this particular case. I think we as a teaching profession set ourselves up for mistaken but barb-sticking rebuttals about weakness and molly-coddling if we focus on this rather than the patent uselessness of the entirely rote learning and cramming that will proliferate in the addressing of these kinds of discrete language-knowledge tests exemplified in the sample you can see here.

Take one [a certain declarative]:

Screenshot 2015-11-03 09.55.03 (2)I honestly don’t feel the need to comment on the fatuous nature of this task. I will just ask: if a student ticks one ‘wrong’ box, do they receive three quarters of a mark or zero? We know the answer to that which adds to the complete nose – or do I mean nonsense? – of the task.

Rather,

Make these dull sentences more meaningful or interesting:

It will be freezing tomorrow as ice gnaws the countryside.

Had it not stopped in the driveway of his house, John might have missed the train.

Ann can speak six languages but she only understands three.

You could finish your work by the end of the lesson by ticking the appropriate boxes, or you can write a haiku about always learning beyond.

This playfulness is more than playful. For thirty years as an English teacher I have focused on encouraging effective writing by being creative and playful. I have consistently promoted this through that teaching, the texts I have written, and in the ideas I continue to produce for this blog.

I do not feel the need to state this but do so because it is true: in much of my creative writing ideas, especially the more experimental, I often state the mantra – it does not need to make literal sense, but it must make grammatical sense. This point is I do not dismiss conventions and fundamentals and encourage their learning through the playfulness I particularly enjoy fashioning. I leave it to others more experienced than me to provide explicit meaningful and worthy instruction on this where it is helpful: these sample tests, and the training [not teaching] they will necessarily demand – to hit those targets – will not encourage students to be good writers.

Multiple Sonnet Choice – a creative riposte

On the day Education Secretary Nicky Morgan announces the requisite regular announcement for those without a clue that there will be a review of how to ‘improve standards’ by considering a ‘robust’ return [or return to a ‘robust’] testing regime, especially 7 year olds who require some robust pressures to make them better, it will be no surprise that I have had my hackles raised.

I will likely return with a carefully considered response, though I might not when we have already the wisdom of Michael Rosen’s thoughts here. I used his link to the English KS2 SPaG ample tests here [I left that misspelling for its erroneous correctness, and you can work out what was meant], and was immediately – genuinely – appalled at the model of these wholly discrete, irrelevant, unnecessarily complex [at many levels, but especially at Key Stage 2] and meaningless tests.

They have for the mindless the singular plus of being measurable. The fact they measure meaninglessness in the context of what Writing should mean, both in terms of being a skill and in the exploration [teaching] of this, is I am sure entirely lost on Morgan. She cannot possibly have an intelligent idea – linked to what Writing is – about how these tests contribute to students’ Writing experiences and improving aptitude for this.

My critique here is, therefore, to subjugate [which has nothing to do with the elusive ‘subjunctive’] with a creative riposte to the KS2 test proposals. I use for my sonnet-response one of the silly questions:

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Multiple Sonnet Choice

the wind was blowing howling, actually, so we headed – for home.
headed for home.the wind – actually – blowing, so we was howling
howling, we blowing the wind – so was headed for home – actually.
the wind was blowing, howling – actually – so we headed for home.
wind howling – was blowing – so, we actually headed for the home.
home was howling. actually, we headed for the – so blowing – wind
the howling was blowing wind. so, for home – we – actually headed
home we headed for – so actually, howling – blowing was the wind.
the wind was blowing howling actually – so we headed for home.
blowing actually, we headed howling for home. – the wind was so –
so. headed for home was the wind, blowing – actually howling – we
– actually, we headed for howling home, so blowing was the wind –
we the wind – blowing, howling – so actually was headed for home.
the wind was blowing – howling, actually – so we headed for home.

Writing Ideas – Empathising with a sentence: how to write a long sentence

erf - CopyI have recently been pursuing on this blog, both satirically and seriously, approaches to helping students explore the impact and effect of the use of ‘long’ sentences in writing, thereby learning how to use themselves.

The idea of helping students in a structured way was first outlined in an article here, and the links below are the work sheets I have created and prepared to hopefully provide teachers a detailed resource to use with their students, as suggested in that article.

There is a Teacher Guide, a student ‘work sheet’, and various supporting resources. If you click on the link you will find a pdf document that can then be downloaded for use. Aimed at GCSE or year 9, this is an activity that will require teacher guidance.

Teacher Guide

Student work sheet

Sequencing Exercise

Prose Version

Prose Version Punctuation Focus

Prose Version Connectives Focus