Lockdown teaching

The question of How I’m teaching seems much more pertinent than What I’m teaching right now. With 23 years’ experience under my belt, it’s a long time since I’ve had to learn so much so quickly in order to do my job.

Parts of the media and government would have everyone believe that the only real learning taking place during the lockdown is happening via ‘live lessons’, and that independent schools are leading the way with this, leaving state school students far behind.

The reality, of course, is far more complex. Live lessons – lessons taught via Zoom/Google Meet etc, in which the teacher and students interact in real time – do play a part in my repertoire of online teaching strategies, and I’ve learned a great deal about how to conduct them successfully over the last few weeks. I’ve been team-teaching a sequence of lessons on First World War poetry with a colleague. We send the link to the lesson out to the whole of Year 9, and typically about 70 students ‘attend’, with the lesson also being recorded and sent round later so that others can watch it if they were unable to attend live.

There’s so much that feels odd about doing this. For starters, we’re each in our own homes, so we have to think carefully about what can be seen behind us. Students’ cameras and microphones are switched off, so all we can see is their names on the screen, which can make it feel a bit like teaching into a void. Teachers check instinctively all the time to see how well students are understanding and engaging with what they’re saying. How do you do this when you can’t see or hear your students? But we make extensive use of the ‘Chat’ function in order to keep the lessons as interactive as possible, and that has proved really useful. It’s lovely to ask a question and for responses to stream in on the chat. One of us is responsible for reading them out, whilst the other responds to the comments. It’s interesting to see who contributes in this format, and that it’s not always the same students who would be first to put their hands up in class. Students have also developed the confidence to let us know through the chat if they’ve not understood something, or if they need to ask a question about the task they’re doing. When we’re in full flow engaging with students’ comments and questions in the chat, it begins to feel like ‘real teaching’ – or at least the closest I’ve got to it over the last few months.

How helpful it is, too, to have both a recording of the lesson and a record of the chat to send round afterwards. Normally, there’s no written record of a class discussion, and no opportunity to play the lesson back afterwards, so these are both bonuses of online live teaching.

There are, however, really good reasons why most state schools are not offering as many live lessons as independent ones. At the start of the lockdown, a significant number of our students didn’t have devices at home on which they could have engaged with a live lesson, and/or internet access with which to connect. Even now, the government’s promised computers have not arrived at our school. A concerted whole-school effort of fundraising and logistics has now helped to ensure that the vast majority of our students are equipped with what they need to engage with online learning, but it’s taken a huge amount of work, and there are still some students who need work posted or delivered to them on paper.

And also, I challenge the assumption that live lessons are necessarily always better than the other sorts of learning we deliver remotely. Sure, the live interaction between teachers and students is hugely valuable. But we have other tools in our repertoire, and the most important thing of all, I think, is to give students a varied diet. This means sometimes setting work that doesn’t require a screen at all; giving students time and space to be creative through extended writing and drawing projects; providing powerpoints with audio commentaries that they can move through at their own pace; offering a choice of tasks. Above all, it means giving students regular feedback on what they’re doing so that they know that we still care about them, we value what they do, and we want to help them to make progress.

Overall, I’m probably just as busy as I would be at school. It’s just that my time is spent in very different ways: a lot more time at my desk responding to emails from students, as well as leaving comments on their work online; lesson preparation time that also now involves intensive learning about all the various settings on Zoom that we need to have in place for safeguarding; liaison with parents and carers about all the many disparate reasons why their children might be struggling; and lots and lots of planning and thinking about just how things might be when we finally return to school in September.

‘Brittle Star’ Issue 46

I’m delighted to have a poem in the latest issue of Brittle Star, which landed on my doormat yesterday. In between rain showers, I made an audio recording of my poem, The Chicken Question, for the magazine launch, which will be released as a podcast soon. Although it’s disappointing not to be able to gather for the launch in person, hopefully the podcast will reach a wider audience, and I’m looking forward to hearing the other poems and short stories read by their creators.

Growing poems

A while ago I wrote a post for the What I’m teaching section of this website about writing poems on seeded paper with my National Writing Project Cambridge group. Well, having shared our poems at our February meeting, I planted mine in March. It felt like a hopeful and grounding thing to do at the beginning of the lockdown. For ages, nothing happened. But now, I’m happy to report that I have a pot of baby poems growing on my decking. I’m not sure what they will turn out to be, but I’m watering them faithfully and they’re certainly getting plenty of warmth and sunlight.

Meanwhile, I’m encouraged by signs of new poetry life elsewhere. For the first few weeks of the pandemic I felt unable to write anything more than notes; it seemed to take too much energy and headspace just to know what day of the week it was and to find pasta at the supermarket. But over the last few weeks I’ve managed to write several new poems, and I’ve had good news of poems having been accepted for publication in Under the Radar, The Poetry Village, Brittle Star, Butcher’s Dog and elsewhere. I’m very grateful to all the poetry editors and competition organisers who are working valiantly in difficult circumstances to tend and nurture the poetry community, at a time when there seems to be a growing appetite for poems in the wider world.

Pandemic journals

I’ve been keeping a diary since I was 12, when, after a few false starts, it became a daily routine. By the time I was in my late teens I knew that this was a habit I’d keep for life; now, I find it unimaginable to think how I would function without it.

I’m not obsessive about it: I don’t take my diary on holiday, and I might miss the occasional entry after a late night.

For some people, it’s the act of diary-writing that is so precious – that feeling of confiding in someone, treating the diary almost like an intimate friend. For me, the really valuable thing is being able to read my diaries back. This helps me to spot patterns – ‘Oh, I always feel like that at the end of January!’ – which can bring a sense of relief. It’s also very handy if you’re involved in an argument with someone about the details of when or how something happened! More than anything, I just love being able to go to my diaries and look up what I was doing, thinking and feeling on any particular day.

I gain such satisfaction from keeping a diary that I’m delighted when I can spark that interest in others. 12 years old seems to be a fairly typical age for starting a diary, so I’ve often tried to chat to the children in my life about it at around that age, in the hope that they too might be bitten by the diary-writing bug.

But it’s not something I’ve ever particularly explored with my students.

And then the pandemic arrived. And all of a sudden we had to set two weeks’ worth of work for our classes to do independently at home before we (and they) could regroup for the Easter holiday. In thinking what to set for my Year 9 classes I was aware of two things: firstly, that an awful lot of the work they were being set was likely to need to be completed online; and secondly, that they were living through an epoch-defining historical event that they would be talking about for the rest of their lives.

For both of these reasons, setting my students the task of keeping a personal journal during this period felt like a really good project. Although obviously I had to set the work through my school’s remote platform – the students would need to go online to find out what to do – the first task I set was to find or buy a notebook – ideally one which reflected their personality or that seemed to them like a lovely or special object to write in. It felt important for these journals to be actual artefacts, rather than electronic documents. Assuming that most of my students would not be regular diary-writers, I explained to them that I wanted them to develop the habit of writing in their journals about their daily lives at least twice or three times a week if possible (and more often if they liked), but I also set a few short tasks each week for them to do. These were tasks that I hoped would help them to engage with the physical and natural world around them, as well as encouraging them to see the current situation from different perspectives.

Diaries are best-written, I think, when they are written without fear of anyone else reading them, and when they reflect the specific, everyday detail of what’s going on at the time – however trivial or dull that might seem.

So I’ve told my students that I won’t be ‘marking’ their diaries – that they are entirely personal to them. However, I have encouraged them to photograph snippets from them that they are happy to share, and to send them to me. It’s been fascinating to read what they have written so far, and I am struck once again by the resilience of so many young people in the face of quite extraordinary circumstances and restrictions.

I hope both that these journals will become precious artefacts for my students to look back on when they are much older, and also that for some of them, this kindles a regular diary-writing habit that will last them a lifetime.

Here are some of the tasks I’ve set my students to do in their journals:

Write today’s date at the top of the first page. Set a timer for 15-20 minutes and just free-write without thinking too hard about it. Write about this weird last week. Write about the changes in your life, your hopes and fears, what you’ve noticed most in the world around you, in terms of what’s stayed the same and what’s different. After your timer has gone, read back through what you wrote. Think if there’s anything else that a future you (in ten or twenty years’ time) might find interesting about what’s going on right now. Spend another 20 minutes adding anything else you want to.

Find something to stick in your journal. This might be a poem or an inspirational quotation that you find. It might be a feather or a petal that you pick up outside. It might be a ticket to something that you can no longer go to. You decide. It’s up to you if you want to add a note next to this or not.

Go outside – if you can do so safely. Otherwise, look out of a window. Write a journal entry from the perspective of a living creature you can see, for example a butterfuly, ant or robin. What does the garden or street look like from this creature’s point of view?

Find a poem either online or in a book which can provide you with inspiration at this time. Copy it by hand or print it out and stick it into your journal. Illustrate and/or annotate it with your response to it.

Living words

I’m really grateful to my friend Sean Dooley for sending me a poem written on seeded paper all the way from Shanghai and setting my teachers’ writing group the challenge of writing our own poems on plantable paper.

We’ll meet later this week to share our poems, with a view to planting them afterwards and seeing what comes up in the spring. Much as it feels a bit sacrilegious to plan to bury something in the earth that we’ve each created so recently, I also love the idea of literally growing something out of a poem. I hope to be able to post some pictures later on of what grows from our words.

The poem I’ve written, ‘Dark Peak, February’, was inspired by a visit to The Peak District during half term, during which I led a creative writing workshop for Her on a Hill. We were able to get outside despite Storm Dennis, although we were glad to retreat to the church hall in the afternoon to develop our writing further over tea and cake in the warm and dry.

12 Days of Christmas on Ink, Sweat and Tears

For the last few years I’ve loved following the Ink, Sweat and Tears ’12 Days of Christmas’ feature, which runs this year from 22nd December to 2nd January. It’s fascinating to see different people’s perspectives on this time of year. I was delighted to have my poem Christmas Eve in Dad’s Kitchen featured on 24th December, alongside beautiful, poignant poems by Kathryn Alderman and Carole Bromley.

Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition

2001 was my final year as an English teacher at Richmond School in North Yorkshire, the school where I’d very happily spent the first four years of my teaching career. The highlight of my time there came that spring, when I took a group of sixth form students for a week’s writing course run by the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank.

Our tutors that week were the late Julia Darling and Jackie Kay. Both were inspirational tutors: funny, patient, wise, generous with their time and feedback, and full of both playful and subtle exercises to get us all exploring new territory with our writing. It’s no overstatement to say that the week was life-changing for those students, several of whom had come to it from challenging personal circumstances.

It was life-changing for me, too, in that I got to write alongside my students – something I’d not done since I was at school. And I found that I loved it! At that stage I felt that I’d discovered something I was passionate to develop – but family illness and bereavement, relocating to Cambridge, and stepping up to a demanding new job all got in the way, and over the next year or two my writing ground to a halt.

So, fast-forwarding 18 years, for the last three of which I’ve created more space in my life for writing, it was especially exciting to have had a poem selected by Jackie Kay on the shortlist for the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, and to be invited to read it at the awards evening on 28th November. Shortlisted poets don’t always get invited to the winners’ readings, so I was really delighted to have been included in the invitation, and it was a lovely event. We were treated to a reading from Jackie, who always reads with such musicality, with an ear for silence as well as intonation, and then it was wonderful to hear the range and power of the winning and shortlisted poems, some read in person and some played as video or audio clips.

The evening finished, as all good evenings do, with tea and cake.

Graphic novels inspired by ‘The Arrival’

What a lovely pile of marking! Following our study of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, half of my Year 9 class chose to write stories in which they experimented in words with some of the visual techniques that Tan uses (such as zooming-in), whilst the other half created their own graphic novels. I’m blown away by some of these graphic novels. Here are the opening pages of my favourite:

Guernsey Poems on the Move

At the end of half term I made a quest to Guernsey to see if I could track down two of my poems, which were being displayed on buses as a result of having been selected in the 2019 Poems on the Move competition, judged by Maura Dooley.

Having been given the registration numbers of the buses to look out for, I hoped that all I’d need to do would be to find out which routes they were on and hop on a bus or two to find them. However, it was really disappointing to arrive at the bus information desk, only to find that the two buses in question were both at the depot for servicing, with no possibility of our being allowed to go there to see them.

Sunday morning walk to Icart Point

However, this left us with a whole weekend to explore the beautiful island, and we discovered some stunning cliff-top walks. At least I can picture where my poems have found a home, and I have these photos of the poems in situ, taken by CT Plus Guernsey, the local bus company.

I was really hoping to have the opportunity of seeing bus passengers reading the poems; I’m so curious to know what people might make of them. So if anyone reading this post has seen them on the Guernsey buses, I’d love to know! Please drop me a line on Twitter or via the ‘Comments’ section on this website.

At the airport with Sharon Black’s first-prize-winning poem