All them empty lines

During a GCSE intervention session recently, I asked one boy why he disliked English so much. He sat back and, with a cheerful smile, provided me with a list. These were his exact words:

  • All that writing makes my hand hurt so much
  • You have to write loads of stuff just to explain one little thing
  • Making all them notes and putting colours and stuff on the paper [annotation]
  • Those rubbish short stories we have to read for the exam. And the poems – I hate them too.

The same evening I was watching a back episode of Tough Young Teachers and, again, it hit me how much was being said when a boy commented on exams:

  • “All them empty lines – you aint never going to fill them up.”

We hear these kinds of complaints a lot but do we stop and consider what they really mean for them as students and, crucially, for us as teachers? There are points here that we can respond to. All too often, in a culture of complaining, we grow immune to these comments (we’d probably go insane if we didn’t). Whole classes will moan and groan at the mention of work, exams, qualifications etc. We have to override that and get on with the job. But we also have to listen carefully at times and ask ourselves if what they are saying has some validity. And, if it does, what are we going to do to help them?

Imagine being confronted with pages of empty lines, not realising that this emptiness allows for an A* student and not having a clue how you can possibly fill them. We must tell students loudly and clearly that they don’t have to fill all the blank lines, explain that some students write 4 words to a line, emphasise that quantity is not always quality. Better still, exam boards should make this clear – maybe they should include fewer empty lines and an instruction to use the extra pages at the back of the answer booklet if their answers are long.

Imagine being told to run a marathon with little or no training. In 2014 students do significant amounts of their work using a keyboard. They text and email. They rarely write for 2 hours. When was the last time you wrote for 2 hours? It does hurt – try it. We need to train them to write in this archaic fashion if we expect them to do it. How often do you insist on a certain pen because it seems to flow better and write faster and more easily? Do we offer students a whole range of pens to trial? My son favours one which costs £2.50 and runs out after a few pages but he’s right – it writes brilliantly. Some of our students will never have access to a high quality pen but we can, as schools, provide them with decent ones or show them that there’s a difference so they can choose the better option if possible. And we have to give them extended writing opportunities long before Year 11. You can’t build up muscle and stamina the week before.

Imagine having to read texts you cannot connect with or even, in some cases, understand. If I really don’t like a book, I stop reading it and get another one. We need to re-evaluate what we are expecting students to respond to. We want engagement with the texts and yet we continue to deluge our students in texts written by adults whose experience they can never relate to. There are texts out there that they love – Duffy’s “Stealing” and Armitage’s “Hitchhiker” are obvious ones. Why? Because they are relevant in some way. How can a student really relate to Jennings’ “One Flesh” or Duffy’s “Head of English”? They would rather not begin to think about how an elderly couple relate to each other in bed or what the poor old Head of English goes through.

Don’t imagine what it is like to do the exam. One thing I do most years is to seize the exam paper as soon as I can. Then I do it myself. All of it. In the time allocated. In silence, with a mediocre pen. Try it – it’s much harder than you think and you’ll find it will inform your teaching better than any other form of training.