Exam Duties and Inspiration

I am currently heavily into my exam marking so posts here will be intermittent.

Whilst I do always find student responses quite inspirational, as individuals or as a collective impact, that is not the reason for a mention in this post’s title: I am referring to how the poem that follows was prompted, which was in response to a line picked up from an anecdote I was listening to, and the resulting sonnet is where I arrived and I enjoy that existential writing journey:


And that’s how Wilma came to Hereford, he
said, avoiding the loudmouth in the corner
shouting her name as well as Fred’s, telling his story
about the geography of love and the chance of how
a couple meet at its start as a real romance he knew
drunks wouldn’t understand, yet feeling that deep
within the history of this narrative there was a
meaning others could take to their own recall of a
journey made or a loving lived even if that has
already reached its end – but you can’t always touch
hearts and minds when a toilet at the side of the bar
reeks of a fragrance trying but failing to disguise
and an old guy in a booth behind is licking froth
from the rim of his empty glass as he is leaving.

Draft Dodgers Deux

For those who have followed the thread on this blog relating to my argument with firstly Michael Gove and subsequently Nicky Morgan via the DfE and its drafters, I have had what I suspect will be the last communication of this issue, and also one that has – inadvertently I feel – acknowledged the basic principle of my challenge: that the English Literature subject content and Order for teaching from September 2015 effectively bans the inclusion of American authors from being set for examination [please search out and follow that trail for a fuller context].

An additional contextualisation before presenting the core of this posting: I had just after the general election posted on this blog that I was going to resign from this continuing challenge. Two reasons – this was my genuine feeling of overall deflation, but specifically on the realisation that I wasn’t getting anywhere with the DfE, especially after a second phone call with a spokesperson at the DfE’s Ministerial and Public Communications Division when I wasn’t allowed to speak with anyone who even remotely had the capacity to answer my specific questions [where the drafters were clearly out of their depth]; it was also a decision I made as a rather weak jest in the light of Farage having resigned along with Clegg and then Miliband.

Not wishing to ever be compared with Farage, I actually withdrew the posting about my resigning even before Nigel’s turnaround, but more significantly, I also got a reply from someone at the DfE’s MPCD which seemed to have some knowing, and I assume was in response to my second phone call where I had been as demonstrative as I could politely be.

Thus my writing now, and I am going to conclude by posting my response to that DfE letter [just the essential details] which I think is clear enough in its quoting and other references to indicate where some essence of acknowledgement of my challenge has been made, but also how the pathetic obfuscation and evasion continues:

Thank you for your letter of 7th May in response to mine to Nicky Morgan. I appreciate you addressing some of my specific questions – at the very least, a courtesy long overdue in my previous correspondence with others, including two drafters in your division.

It is good to see some level of agreement, though this is largely platitudinous – to be honest – and of course there is yet again no direct response to my central and persistent challenge that there has been the effective banning of American texts from the study for examination in GCSE English Literature from September 2015.

However, the one telling and deeply ironic ‘agreement’ you have made with my challenge is in your fourth paragraph, though it is indirect and I can’t be sure you are aware you have made it: I won’t quote in full, but in acknowledging that awarding organisations raised concerns about ‘increased requirements for breadth [that] would reduce requirements for depth of assessment’, and that this was agreed and therefore the four text areas for study also agreed [and made compulsory by the Order], this completely counters your and others’ argument that awarding bodies and/or teachers could simply add the American texts! This was one of my precise arguments: I had asked, for example, about where awarding bodies would find ‘extra’ marks for further study outside the four agreed areas and thus, as you have detailed, effectively reduce depth of study as well as the ability to assess and reward for that. In essence what you have stated does totally, but apparently inadvertently, make my very point.

Unfortunately, further observations you make continue with the avoidance and offer very tenuous corroboration with what I expressed: an example of this rather peripheral ‘agreement’ is your concluding paragraph where you in essence re-present the point I had made about the difference between ‘reading’ and ‘studying’, where instead of acknowledging the clarity I had asserted, you rephrase my point as if it is of your making. Clever, but of no value. Your penultimate paragraph is similar if more obtuse: you acknowledge the accuracy of my challenge about unseen texts being poetry texts in the various new specifications [not prose as claimed in previous correspondence with two of your drafters] and then throw in the meaningless observation ‘the subject content for the English literature GCSE allows the exam boards to examine students on any type of text in the examination’. You of course mean ‘unseen’ texts, but so what? They haven’t, this choice of poetry has been approved by Ofqual, and I have been consistently challenging the situation on how it is, not what it could be.

The worst offense – although to be fair to you Mr Haynes, it is exactly the same obfuscating and evasive spiel I have been receiving since day one of my genuine and informed challenge – is to state ‘the fact that the works you mention are not included in specifications should not prevent teachers from teaching or encouraging children to read them in key stage 3 or key stage 4’. This is an obnoxious platitude as it completely circumvents my precise point, and is rudely trite: of course teachers can teach and encourage students to read various texts, but my point has consistently been these texts cannot be set for examination. I know you know this and I know you will yet again ignore this. But I have to state it, just for maintaining the integrity of the facts, even if this is a completely one-sided expression of those.

Raymond Chandler – Passion and Pastiche 2

Risking Sidmouth

Dormando and Nebraska Glenn were aware of the dangers. A night out rousting the clean streets of Sidmouth could pacify a heart to dormancy if you weren’t on your guard. A respectable Regency front could tempt a naive tourist into reasonable thoughts of retirement oblivion. Georgian gateways beckoned lesser men to the big sleepover. These guys were too young for that. Too young in this town anyway.

It was Friday night at the Manor. A Pavilion better known for Murder Mysteries and sweet sherry supped over dry lips during interludes that could last forever if you didn’t hear the bell knelling for the second half. Dormando and Nebraska Glenn would risk it all to hear AJ.

Both had worked with the jazz man back in the day and heard him play his horn: sweet trumpet and valve trombone, gold light bouncing from their dancing notes. Al took his own long walk years ago but the Band still carries his name, and tonight these two guys would pay homage to old times and good music played live and true, whatever the perils.

The stage was set in more than one way this night, and there it was, black on white, a silhouette chipped and scored in places, but AJ’s three-piece with flairs still fronted the band’s music sheets as if Al was there, orchestrating Miller, Basie and Ellington into the 21st century and for a clientele where some will have dabbled in the dark past of the early 20th. Dormando and Nebraska Glenn felt the flush of youth like bloodied anachronisms tattooed on smoothish cheeks.

And when the band played, the music united all of them. Ghosts of ballroom dance floors and late night radio swirled from the Big Band’s wall of sound, wrapping the audience in a veil of timeless musical haunting. Hearts would flutter, and some might stutter – the risks, the risks – but D and G gripped the worn velvet arms of their seats and stayed alive, alive to the memory of AJ and the great songwriters of standards that defied time like so many present this night.

Dormando and Nebraska Glenn had been linked by the likes of Ten Wheel Drive and East of Eden but tonight it was AJ’s Big Band and a sonorous Sidmouth supporting their musical partnership. Friday nights would come and go and many would have their other dangers, but surviving Sidmouth had been one to mark on the chalkboard of life’s many surprises, and D and G weren’t ready to see the dust fall for some time yet. No way.

Emmanuel Chaunu and Me

One of the greatest aspects of my 30 year teaching career is the fact it had a past. A past before the present, freedom before the measurement, fun before the fury, success before the failure, joy before the jaundice. The point is, that past carried me through my recent present, though that too is quickly becoming…….you get the gist.

Of the many experiences that fulfilled me throughout the better part of my career – for which teaching in the classroom [when it went well] will always be the consistent highlight – was being involved in running the French Exchange for my school for nine years. I didn’t then and do not now speak a word of French, so that in itself is significant, but a colleague and I would naturally always be accompanied by someone who could. This colleague and good friend, Tim Arnold, was the local Adviser for Media Education, and a core element of our exchange with a fellow school in Caen was to produce a bilingual newspaper by our exchanging English and French students here at the Devon County Show and in France at the Foire de Caen. There is much I could say on and illustrate about this, but I won’t now, apart from a comment on what a brilliant educational experience it always was for all involved.

My reason for posting this – apart from celebrating its positive impact on an early[ish] part of my teaching life –  is because I recently came across a photo of my sitting for the French cartoonist Emmanuel Chaunu at the Foire de Caen so that he could produce a caricature of me. I am posting both here: the caricature that includes an American football and helmet [not entirely sure about the running bird!] as a reference to my nationality, and the photo where Emmanuel, looking to the camera, has clearing said something hilarious about me as everyone is clearing guffawing in response to this and at my expense. I really should have learned some French….

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Writing Workshops review


Very pleased to have such a positive review about this, especially its practical use in the classroom [from Amazon uk]:

Unlike the vast majority of these guides, this one is written by people who not only are good at focusing on exams and techniques but also know how to write, and can write really well. So in terms of topics and organisation it is excellent – it has a clear focus on each topic in turn, develops logically in sequence and works well as a guide for teachers and students. But its real strength is that as well as this there is genuine flair and natural engagement from the texts chosen as stimulus and also from the tasks and how they engage the pupils. It is sensitively and intuitively written and compiled. We’ve used it in the English department I teach at very successfully with students of a wide range of abilities who have all related to it very well; it has been fantastic. Strongly recommend.

Poetry/Creative Writing Ideas – Beheadings

This is really the precursor to the first of these ideas which I posted here. It is a language game that helps students to explore and build their own vocabulary with, as ever, an element of poetic crafting for fun. It is an idea I picked up from early in my teaching career, so a thanks to that precursor, and going online this morning it was interesting to note how much more common it is as an idea currently, though invariably it is presented just as a vocabulary teaser rather than a creative writing prompt, not that this matters. It was also noteworthy – though I suspect this is largely because of the online access to so much immediate information – that a search engine throws up countless references to its literal meaning, and in light of the relative recent proliferation of the fact of this, or at the least its wide publicity, there would need to be an element of care and caution in presenting to students. To be honest, I don’t really know. It seems a shame to be so compromised by events and perhaps we need to hold on to and promote the meanings we chose. Again, I don’t know.


The aim of this unit of work is to get you exploring and maybe expanding your vocabulary by trying to solve some riddles. You will need to use a dictionary and a thesaurus.


Behead a vessel
and find a grain.

Behead a colour
and find an age

Behead a harness
and find a snare

Behead a valley
and find a beer

Behead a beginning
and find a part of your head

Behead a fastener
and find a part of your face

Behead a male deer
and find a playground game

Behead a barn
and find a piece of furniture

Behead a journey
and find a fault

Behead a part of a wave
and find a nap

Behead a washbasin
and find a liquid

Behead a beginning
and find a dessert

Behead a notch
and find the middle

Behead a fruit
and find a variety

Can you solve these riddles? (They were all written by students, based on the work of Czechoslovakian poet Miroslav Holub)

Here are some clues: to behead a word means to remove the first letter of that word.

For example, if you behead the word strap like this, s/trap, you are left with the word trap.

Here’s how a Beheading for this could look like:

Behead a harness (another word for a strap)
and find a snare (another word for a trap)

Can you solve the rest now?

Writing the Poem

First Stage: You will know by now that you must begin by collecting as many words as you can before going on to tackle more specific writing. The words for a beheading must all be capable of having their first letter taken away to leave an entirely new word. The example already explained is the word s/trap. Another one would be s/lumber:

1. slumber meaning to sleep, and 2. lumber meaning wood or logs

In selecting your words you should concentrate on finding nouns, either concrete or abstract (for example, you can behead fear!).

Using a dictionary at this stage will be very helpful.

Second stage: To make a complete beheading you are actually creating a riddle. You wouldn’t simply write Behead a strap because this would be too easy to do! Therefore, you now need to find a synonym for your chosen word. This is a word that means the same as your beheading. In the example we are using, a harness can be another word for a strap.

You use the same process for the second part of your riddle. You wouldn’t say and find a trap, because that is simply giving away the answer! Therefore, you will again need to find another synonym. In our example, we use snare as another word for trap.

Try to be as interesting as you can with your choice of synonyms. However, as the idea is to get others to solve your beheadings, don’t make them too complex.

Using a thesaurus at this stage will be essential.

Final stage: This is a case of writing as many beheadings as you can and listing them in an entertaining order. Make sure you know the solutions before you ask others to solve your creations!

If working in pairs or small groups, you can produce a class Beheadings (keeping yours secret) and award a prize for the individual who is the first to solve all of them. Have competitions with other classes. Have competitions with other schools using e-mail exchanges.

The best competition is seeing if your teacher can solve your beheadings!

WiTH 24 [Falmouth Uiversity] Review


The simple judgement to make on WiTH 24 is that I celebrate its celebration of writers and writing.

The anthology is published by Falmouth University and the writing is drawn from their three English; Creative Writing; English with Creative Writing BA [Hons] courses, though this edition contains an additional three short stories from the Falmouth Young Writers Prize 2015. It is an eclectic book both in terms of genres and impact, though the latter aspect is one of subjective judgement – the beholder and all – and I genuinely reiterate the fundamental celebration.

I am naturally drawn to the poetry and I did particularly enjoy much of the experimentation represented. One particular poem that impacted – and not experimental in the ‘concrete’ sense – is the imagined statements from 43 named people who are disappeared [and researching online their realities adds a poignancy to the already emotive sway of their given voices]. Those statements/voices range across the platitudinous, the comic, the grotesque and the heartrending, this realistic reflection of self-epitaphs combining to give an unflinching portrayal of injustice and loss. The poem is titled they buried them not knowing they were seeds and is by Ophelia Ciocirlan.

There are also two short essays, one academic on Daniel Defoe’s Roxana by Sarah Cave, exploring the elusiveness of identity, and the other a review/analysis of Magnetic Field’s 69 Love Songs by Samuel H. Birnie, and I enjoyed both for their brisk insights, also their inclusion in this wide-ranging collection as I have already stated – but it is worth repeating.

Many of the writers in this book are on journeys and being published like this is such a wonderful pit-stop for re-fuelling with recognition and [repeating again, again] celebration. There are shavings needed still to some of the counter-aerodynamics of overwriting, or trims that gloss too brightly, but I never felt I was reading the disingenuous or the mere cleverclogs [and goodness knows I have to keep fighting that latter fight and should really go back and edit that repeating again, again nonsense but leave it there as evidence].

My favourite piece of writing actually comes from the Falmouth Young Writers selection and it is the story What Goes Around Comes Around by Hannah Sayer. It is a story about a boy who as a “Special-needs donkey” narrates his take on that name-calling and all that informs it, from his own feelings to the typical judgements of others. It is a story that should be read in all schools, not because it conveys such a powerful message – which it does – but because it is a cleverly structured tale with a wonderful ruse of repeating the quirks that rule our protagonist’s inner and outer worlds [the ‘clean/dirty things’ dichotomy which on the one hand characterise a believable, complex psychology, and on the other simply reflect a boy’s growing up with touching empathy]. This is an upbeat without being sentimental tale and I hope Hannah writes more of this story, as well as others.

Raymond Chandler – Passion and Pastiche

One of my greatest sustained joys in teaching was covering AQA’s A-level English Language and Literature syllabus, especially Text Transformation in year 13 [perhaps more on this at a latter date: I’d love to be able to get permission from past students to post their exceptional writing for this over the years]. Another enjoyable and related element for year 12 was a period of teaching Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep – great fun in its own right, for me anyway [!] – and as a linked task to the creative writing element of this syllabus the students would write there own Chandleresque pastiches, as I would too in support and encouragement. The students’ writing here was also invariably excellent.

A personal passion for Chandler as one of the great American writers has prompted me to continue that honouring use of pastiche in a variety of my own writing, some of which I will post here, and starting with:

Vinyl Nite: Timbo’s Retirement

Timbo had given his job the heave-ho, or it had given him the short good-bye: whatever the bragging rights to a severance after forty years of doing things right, the boys would get together to toast his retirement and spin a few grooves of plastic whilst knocking back a sack-full of vino, beer and nuts. It was the least they could do.

Marti set the agenda out like he was the boss. Vinyl-meister my ass, Mikey thought, but it was his place and who was going to argue if he supplied the heat on a stormy night, and the glasses. But they all agreed that what was played had to be the real deal: records that meant something for whatever reason, and played on a deck rather than digitised and transmitted from some fancy-ass watch like Nikolai pulled a fast one the last time they met, showing off with his gadgets like he was raking it in with dumpsters.

Mikey started things off and tried to tell his stories but the other guys weren’t having any of it. Assholes. Yack yack yack they pressed his buttons, and he could have taken them all out then and there, but it was Timbo’s celebration, even if he was doing most of the pushing, so Mikey would play nice for the evening, even if the others wouldn’t. They’d all get the gist one day – just wait and see, he mused to himself. It was Hendrix anyway, and who was going to keep making a noise when that kinda perfection started everything off?

Marti played his cool jazz; Timbo threw those disco lps on the turntable, remembering his youth and all that hair and dancing; Nikolai played his crazy stuff: guys with their comedy routines or diatribes amongst the music. No one knows where Marti got his collection – probably did a raid on Ronnie Scott’s back in the day. Timbo ran his own discotheque years ago, playing at the bar mitzvahs and lifting wallets during the orations. Nikolai had his esoteric sources and most of it these days comes electronically from outer space.

Eclectic. That’s what one of them called the music played that night. It might have been pathetic in some funny-guy aside – who knows when everyone is drinking and having a good time, the music so loud the neighbours have called the fire brigade. Mikey kept a note of what they played, just in case there was a bust and they all went down. Someone had to know what it was all about. Someone had to be made aware of where it was all coming from. Someone had to understand just what these guys knew when all was said and done.

Gerald Locklin Strikes Another Chord

I taught for 30 years and rather like this poem:

At the Pedagogy Panel

he learns that he’s been doing it all wrong
for over thirty years.

so why do his students
keep coming back for more?

a guy his age who seems to feel similarly
tells a story of a study of child-rearing
in denmark and the united states.
the gourmet parents of america read
every book on parenting and put
the latest theories into practice. the
laid-back danes just pretty much
fed and clothed their kids and otherwise
stayed out of their way. there was
no discernible difference in the results.

toad waits twenty minutes to be called on,

then says “what i’d like to know is
if they conceive their kids differently
in denmark.”

Poetry/Creative Writing Ideas – Rhymes, Verbs and Nouns

This unit of work is a little more functional, though nonetheless encouraging some element of playfulness. I wrote this at a time where I felt compelled by the Literacy Strategy – not entirely sure to do what exactly – but instinctively driven to make whatever I did respond with contain an element of creativity in its urgings. It continued work I had done on Rhymes and Syllables, posted previously on this blog, so if used without that precursor, the ‘continuing’ exhortations can be removed! The target audience was year 7, but linked to other similar activities:

Rhymes, Verbs and Nouns

The aim of this unit is to continue your practice in using rhyme and add to this the use of simple verbs and nouns.

Verb and Noun

This exercise continues the use of rhyming couplets, but in addition to this you will need to end each first line with a verb and then each second line with a rhyming noun. Here is an example:


With special trainers you will run
but never catch a setting sun.

Camels smile but cautiously jump
when water fills each rounded hump.

With soft cement you can render
but do not mix it in a blender.

The ball’s lined up and with a whack
you slip and fall upon your back.

Turn a cheek and take a slap
to wake yourself up from a nap.

Make sure you look before you dive
if you’re above a concrete drive.

Slip on North Pole ice and slide
upon a never-ending ride.

Writing the Poem

First stage: You need to collect pairs of rhyming words where one is a verb and one is a noun. The verb will describe an action of some kind and the noun will describe an object, place or situation. It might be easier to start with a list of verbs, and then match these with nouns, or vice versa, rather than struggle to find matching pairs at the same time.

Final Stage: You now need to shape your verb and noun pairs into individual rhyming couplets. Each of these must make sense on their own, but they do not have to link with one another. You can try to make them amusing like those in the poem you have seen. For example, the noun hump suggests writing about a camel. This leads to the idea that a camel must be cautious with a jump if the humps are filled with water.

Go on then, you try and be funnier!