Teaching Shakespeare

Early this year I decided to take a group of children down to Stratford to see Shakespeare’s birthplace and catch a RSC performance (preferably MacBeth).  Today I had to admit defeat and abandon the idea.  The dates tickets were available for the theatre, we couldn’t get accommodation; the dates we could book accomodation, we couldn’t hire a coach; the dates we could hire a coach, we couldn’t get tickets and so on.  A very frustrating exercise and I hadn’t even thought about Risk Assessment forms (it’s amazing the amount of ways children could harm themselves on a coach).  It’s a real pity the plans have fallen through as the pupils were very excited about it all. 

The idea stemmed from their enthusiasm for Shakespeare.  Teenagers raving about the Bard.  Doesn’t sound quite right, does it?  But we’re two plays down and they want more!  We began by studying Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet as a media text, exploring how  Luhrmann overcame the barriers to modern audiences and created a successful modernisation of the play. By the end of the unit the class had explored Luhrmann’s use of genre, mise-en-scene (still not sure how to use that in a sentence though!), cultural codes and more.  The Gas Station Scene, in particular, provided lots of material.  It was all very exciting!

And now we are studying MacBeth – my personal favourite.  When we finished reading the play I asked the kids to form groups of any size and do anything they wanted with any scene, act or speech from the play.  The only stipulation was that the finished product had to be presented to the class.  The results include a five minute updated version of the entire play (MacBeth as champion boxer), some photographic stills of key scenes, a set design and a translation of a major speech into teen talk (a la Vicky Pollard).  Superb.

Stratford’s not going to happen this year.  As a consolation I have organised a trip closer to home for next month: Cawdor Castle.  The MacBeth links are tenuous but they are there! 

A wee thank you to the Highland Year of Culture for the help with funding.  🙂

The Joy of Marking

I marked the S3 writing exam yesterday night.  71 papers.  It was a bit of a long night but I really quite enjoyed it.  Some of the essays were so intensely personal I felt honoured to be reading them.  Quite a few pupils wrote excitedly about the floods and gales that we experience up here last October.  One of these stories had me crying with laughter. 

The author, J, is a sporty yet bookish boy who is known for having more brains than common sense.  The afternoon of the storms J was, as he is often to be found, curled up in the local library with a book.  The winds were increasing dramatically outside and it was raining heavily.  When the lights in the library were switched off J didn’t question why, he simply moved closer to the window to read by the dimming sunlight and then, later, the street light.  Only upon finishing his novel did J get up to leave.

At this point he discovered that a) the librarians had gone home, and b) he was locked in the library.  Pressing his face against the window J spent the next hour shouting to the few people passing by.  It was dark, the winds were high and the rain was pelting off the ground: no-one heard.  The hillarious part is that at one point the phone rang in the library.  J decided against answering the telephone or using it to call for help as he didn’t have permission from the librarian.


 The story ends happily.  J managed to attract someone’s attention and was freed from his literary prison psycologically unscarred by the event. 

Love it.  🙂


The session today wasn’t on SMART marking as I thought.  It was on feedback.  Related, at least.  The pre-reading (handout from The Learning Set – Stepping Forward with Feedback – Learning Unlimited 2004) stated that much feedback is “too little, too late, too vague and too impersonal.” I am very, very aware of what my weakness is in this area.  I give plenty of feedback and pride myself on making it personal and specifically related to set targets and prior work.  Within class I do my best to give a individual pupils feedback on how they are handling current work.  The problem area is my written feedback on pupils’ work as it is sometimes handed back too late.   

When is “too late”?  The actual time period can vary dramatically.  “Too late” in my books is when the pupils have forgotten what they were supposed to have got out of the task.  By letting too much time pass between work being handed in, marked and handed back I’m running the risk of undoing a lot of hard work (both the pupils’ and mine).  I am not suggesting that teachers’ comments are the solely responsible for pupil progression.  Far from it!  They are powerful, however, and if I am not utilising them properly my pupils are losing out.   

The two main obstacles are time and energy.  Could better planning help overcome these?  I do tend to experience marking gluts a lot.  During these times a black haze of panic sometimes settles over me rendering me mentally paralysed.  More time passes, more marking builds up, haze turns into sea harr.  Starting now I am going to attempt to stagger marking. 

Actual, it will have to start next week as three classes are handing in essays this week!  Oh well…

If I Look Scared…


Originally uploaded by wjharrison77.

I was going to post a cute picture of my brother’s new dog this evening. Then my neighbour rang the doorbell. He was back from diving on the west coast and had some fresh scallops for me. The crab in the picture was he and his partner’s dinner. When I asked for a photo of the monster I had noooooooo intention of holding it. I mean look how big its claws are! Felt like a big girl’s blouse refusing to do so though. So there I am frozen in fear, smiling inanely, holding the biggest crab I have ever seen.

Crabs have faces. I didn’t know that.

The scallops were delicious.

Back to school this week. Feel like the crab experience has prepared me for it! Easing into the new term with an inservice day tomorrow. The morning session is on SMART marking. Am I right in thinking SMART is an acronym for Short Measureable Achievable Realistic Targets? It can’t be “short”, surely. Well, I’ll be reminded tomorrow.

As an English teacher I am never short of marking. I incorporate lots of self and peer assessment into my lessons but it never seems to lessen the amount of evenings I spend with a pile of essays in front of me. Hopefully tomorrow will help.

Chinese Dumplings

Not much mention of teaching in this blog recently.  School is but a hazy memory.  I’m 100% in holiday mode.  You can see the tell-tale signs of my state of mind around the house: the marking I brought home hasn’t made it out of my car boot; last weeks’ TES is still in its wrapper; a half hearted attempt at term planning lies neglected under well-thumbed cook books.  Usually by this point in the holidays I have taken a day to think about school and prepare materials.  Haven’t even considered it this time…

The following recipe has been adapted from one published several years ago in a Sunday newspaper. The article was called “Chinese Revolution”. It explained how the re-education policy in china affected one man’s family. Wish I could remember the gentleman’s name.  This was his mother’s recipe.

There is no denying the fact that making jiaozi is fiddly and time consuming.  I find the process quite relaxing though.  And the outcome it definitely worth it.  Serve with sweet chilli sauce, plain soy sauce or a mixture of soy sauce, crushed garlic and sesame oil.

Chinese Dumplings (Jiaozi)
(makes 50+)

For the filling:
1 head of pak choi, finely chopped
225g minced pork
100g prawns, finely chopped
5 spring onions, finely chopped
15g ginger, finely chopped
150 ml ground nut oil
2 large eggs
2 tbs rich soy sauce
1 tbs rice wine
¾ tbs salt
1 tbs sesame oil

Wonton wrappers

· Salt the pak choi and leave for 30 mins then squeeze dry.
· Beat the eggs lightly then using 30 ml oil stir fry the eggs over a high heat until they are golden and crispy.
· Combine all the filling ingredients using your hands.
· Put one teaspoon of filling in the centre of each wonton wrapper. Wet the edge of the wrapper and fold over, pinching to seal.
· The dumplings can now either be boiled in water for 6 mins, steamed for 10 mins or deep fried for 4 mins (until golden).
Jiaozi freeze well and can be cooked from frozen.
To freeze: line up dumplings on a baking tray and put in freezer. Once frozen divide into portions and seal in plastic bags.
To cook from frozen: boil for 8-9 mins or deep fry for 5-6 mins (until golden).

Holidays! Chilli!

Hooray!  It’s the holidays!

As much as I love my job I am absolutely ecstatic that the holidays are finally here.  I’m tired and need to recharge.  My next door neighbour laughs at me when I tell him this.  He runs his own business and is very envious of my 12 weeks of holidays throughout the year.  We teachers are definitely very very lucky.  I’m not sure I’d be able to do this job if I didn’t have these regular lengthy breaks though.  Even if I could I doubt I’d be as effective a teacher.  The post holiday period is when I come up with my best ideas.  🙂

Why am I trying to justify myself?!  Enough of this flimsy attempt to excuse my multiple weeks off.  Teachers are lucky!  Let’s leave it at that. 

Plans for the next two weeks:

1)  I’m off to Copenhagen this week.  I love Scandinavia.  Denmark is the only Nordic country that I haven’t visited and I’m looking forward to exploring its capital.  The weather forecast is predicting temperatures in the teens and sunshine.  Perfect.

2) Gardening.  I’ve built a raised veggie patch and am going to start sowing next week.  I’ve been recommended to plant potatoes the first year as they will break up the soil enabling other veggies to grow more successfully next year.  But I don’t eat potatoes very often.  And I’m hugely excited about growing my favourite veg.  Hmmmmmm…

3) Mountain biking.  Joining a ladies group on the Black Isle next month.  Want to get fitter on the bike before I do so.

4) Cook.  Including a huge batch of the following.

Chili Con Carne

This is the best chili recipe I’ve come across, and I’ve tried many! It’s adapted from a Jo Pratt recipe as featured on The Nation’s Favourite Food. It freezes well and is perfect for feeding large numbers. Purists will balk at the inclusion of kidney beans but I love them. So there.
Perfect with plain rice and a green salad. If feeding I’m crowd I tend to make some quesadillas too.

Chili con Carne
(Serves 4)

2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
500g minced beef
200ml red wine
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
2 tsp dried chili flakes
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 stick cinnamon
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
1 beef stock cube
1 x 400g can red kidney beans
1 green pepper, chopped

  • Fry the onion and garlic in oil until softened.
  • Increase the heat and add the mince. Cook until browned.
  • Pour in the red wine and boil until harsh alcohol vapours disappear.
  • Stir in the tin of tomatoes, chili flakes, cumin, ground coriander, cinnamon, and Worcestershire sauce and stock cube. Season well.
  • Simmer for an hour.
  • Add the kidney beans and green pepper and simmer for 15 minutes
  • Serve with fresh coriander and sour cream.

Punctuation Pains

I’m wondering if teachers have seen a noticable drop in spelling/punctuation standards in recent(ish) years. 

I am currently preparing my fourth year for their Standard Grade exams and, worryingly, the main area they need work on is their punctuation.  This is obviously not a new concern: I’ve been trying to improve their punctuation skills over the past two years.  Bizarrely, there is not a lot of space within the standard grade curriculum to focus on it intently though.  My attention on this area, outside of general marking and discussion with individuals, has been sporadic.  Furthermore, when I have found the time to teach and practise punctuation points the majority of the class have successfully proved their ability to use full stops or direct speech or commas or apostrophes or whatever.  Applying these consistently within their every day writing is the problem. 

I’ve spoken to the fourth years about this several times and they know that it’s an area they need to work on.  I told them exactly what my concerns were and they decided what they needed was just lots and lots of practise.  Preferably in the form of games or competitions with rewards.  Of course… And that’s what I’m doing.  Can’t help feeling that I’ve failed them in some way though. 

To Grade or Not to Grade

In accordance with AiFL I have been avoiding putting grades on the first drafts of pupils’ work.  The hope is that they will pay greater attention to the comments rather than looking at the mark then discarding the work contentedly/disgruntedly.  People generally liked to be graded though and so when I first started this practise the classes were not happy bunnies at all:

“But what did I get???”

“Miss, you haven’t marked this properly.”

“What’s the point then?”

After repeated explanations and assurances that I am not being lazy and, in fact, this is being done for their benefit they have finally come to accept this way of working.  And now I’m starting to question if it is for the best.  One of my pupils, Ryan, suggested an alternative.  He claims that whenever he gets a borderline mark (e.g. Standard Grade 2/3 or 3/4) he wants to know how to improve his writing skills to enable him to achieve a solid 2 or 3 or whatever. 

So I carried out a wee experiment.  I returned one class’s essays with comments but no marks (class A).  The other class (B) had their essays returned with comments and borderline grades.  The results were pretty striking.  More than half the members of class B came to me in the following few days asking for specific advice on their writing skills.  Only one person in class A did the same. 

Going to reverse the experiment after Easter and see if class B are just particularly motivated or if the “Ryan Method” is worth continuing.

Parents’ Night

I like parents’ nights.  Its fun meeting the creators of Liam, Stacey, Aiden etc.  So far (touch wood, touch wood, touch wood) I have only had one negative experience.  Super aggressive Mum convinced it was solely my fault that her son was not in the top set.  An unpleasant experience but certainly not the norm.  Generally find the parents to be highly pleasant.  Though an odd amount want to talk about their own school experiences rather than hear the ins and outs of how Jimmy is doing.  What’s that about?

Tonight its second year.  I have a fabulous 2nd year class.  Virtually all their parents are coming tonight.  Will I get out of here and be heading down the A9 before 9pm.  It’s unlikely.  Do I care?  Not too much tonight, actually.  Starting to feel some energy seep into my bones again after these manic last weeks.  I may even start seeing 10pm again soon.  Then again, maybe not.

Restorative Practice

When I first started this blog I sincerely imagined I would be jotting down something every couple of days.  And here it’s been more than two weeks since my last post.  What a crazy term!  Between Standard Grade folios and senior prelims and the HMI visit I have barely had time to catch breath.  As knackered as I am it’s been a good term.

The visit went pretty well.  The brief comments we have so far received were good or very good progress made in all areas except for overall attainment (for which we got a satisfactory) and the school building (poor progress – out of our hands unfortunately).  My only gripe is that they didn’t pop their nose into my classroom once!  Would have expected that to be a relief but it really wasn’t.  I also wanted a chance to prove that our school is doing great work.

And in other news…  Last week I spent two days in a conference room in Caley Thistle stadium exploring the idea of restorative practice.  The BBBL website defines ‘Restorative Practices’ as a means to “restoring good relationships when there has been conflict or harm; and developing school ethos, policies and procedures that reduce the possibilities of such conflict and harm.”  It’s a concept I warm to naturally.  I tend to work restoratively in my classes and have had some wonderful experiences in return.  Some horrible failures too, of course, but the successes far out weigh those.  Working restorative practises into a whole school policy is another issue.  No-one is suggesting that entire behaviour management systems should depend upon R.P., rather it should slot into current practises.  The suggested mini-conferences particularly interest me.  The suggestion is that where a pupil has been acting problematically in a certain class a conference between the pupil, a teacher and a mediator could be held to resolve issues.  How many teachers would be open to such a system though?  Some of my colleagues view R.P. as a negotiation tactic and fear this would undermine teachers authority.  Wonder if they have a point?  My gut says RP could work with many pupils but I am aware there are risks if it is not handled properly.  Will have to think about it some more.