Colonel Tim Collins’ pre-Iraq invasion speech: to teach or not to teach?

One of our sessions today was taught by a teaching fellow at my university and centred on formal spoken language and the use of speeches as texts suitable for analysis by secondary school English students. He reminded us that although the speaking and listening exam had been removed from the English GCSE that all pupils must be assessed on spoken language. I have to admit, I am still a little confused as to how this actually happens without a formal examination. The listening element has been removed, which is interesting, as despite this essential life skill being harder to assess, it is invaluable in life as what do you learn from blabbering on but not listening? Again, Gove’s educational reforms wade heavily into regressive swamps but as a teacher I will have to suck them up and be his bastion, despite deeply held reservations.

The teaching fellow is a Teach First lead at the University (a programme that I have reservations about due to my experiences as a TA at a struggling school in London last year) and has done a great deal of work with pupils from poor socio-economic backgrounds. These pupils are generally not exposed to formal language at home and can be very reticent to using such alien forms of expression in the classroom. Being that language is so wrapped up in identity formation and cultural expression and that teenagers can be very preoccupied with ‘fitting in’ and being true to their background and cultures, making them ‘speak posh’ can be met with understandable resistance. However, politics aside (yet remaining absolutely central to this discussion) in order to elevate the chances of pupils to meet the demands of future life, such as interviews and situations where their disadvantages in cultural capital become manifest when they open their mouths, it is essential that teachers help pupils become “more versatile users of the spoken language” (Brindley, 2003: 48). By this Brindley means enabling pupils “to make their language meet the demands of a wide variety of situations” (ibid).

One way of developing the utilisation of formal spoken language is through the teaching of speeches and developing pupils’ abilities to analyse the effect of the rhetorical devices that most memorable speeches are premised on. Pupils will then be encouraged to write and perform their own speeches, readying them for a life of public speaking, or so the assumption goes.

After analysing a hilarious speech calling for the nation to abstain from eating chocolate brownies, the fellow then discussed the Aristotelian rhetorical triangle. A mouthful, yes, but a useful way of describing the essential persuasive elements of a speech. The first is ethos – Do you trust the speaker’s ethos? Are they credible?  The second is logos – Does the argument make sense? Is it logical? The third is pathos –  Do you feel any emotion in response to what they are saying?


Thus far I was fully engaged in the lesson, until the clanger that threw myself and some of my peers off course. Before introducing what the fellow called “one of the most memorable speeches of the 21st century” he asked whether anyone had been affected by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I put my hand up and asked whether he meant emotionally or directly, which he skirmished past, not allowing me to express my thoughts. He reminded us that as teachers we had to be sensitive to the contexts in which we were teaching and be mindful of our choice of speeches that we taught. He then played us a video of a reenactment of Colonel Tim Collins’ eve-of-battle speech, given to the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment in Iraq in 2003.


I knew that a colleague of mine would be teaching this speech next week and that it was one of 20 speeches that could be selected as class material for AS Level English. This is when my anger began to surface. During a quick break I started to talking to a woman on the course and she was visibly as upset as me at the choice of speech not only in our session but that Collins’ words were being propagated across the country to young impressionable minds. What we need to be mindful of is that the children that this speech is being taught to were still in nappies when England waged an illegal war based on false premises despite the advice of the United Nations. What we need to remember is that there were around 655,000 deaths in the first three years of the war alone, let alone the devastation that its after effects have languished on the country since the withdrawal of troops. We also need to remember that 179 British troops were also killed, whether we agree with the invasion or not, they were led blindly into an illegal war for patently obvious geopolitical reasons. Yes, it’s a good speech but would children be taught that Collins was later investigated for alleged war crimes against Iraqi civilians?

Whether Collins’ speech was an example of Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle or not, how would we know whether this was being appropriately and sensitively dealt with by teachers across the country? How would we know that it was being contextualised in a manner that the children being exposed to it understood the continuing implications for millions of Iraqis today?  This is a speech that I would refuse to teach without an honest contextualisation, out of principal and respect to all those that have lost and continue to lose their lives after Colonel Tim Collins released those words from his lips.



Brindley, S. (ed) 2003. Teaching English. London: Open University Press


Lord of the Flies – 12th October 2016

lord-of-the-flies-imageLast week I team-taught my first class in a secondary school. It was a Year 10 class, top set with 30 pupils. The lesson was the second in a six-week scheme of work, and I was assisted in the planning process by one of the classes’ teachers. The lesson’s objectives were: To understand the symbolism of the landscape of the island in Lord of the Flies (LOF); to analyse the language in Chapter 1 and write how this creates meaning and effects; to select appropriate quotations which demonstrates an understanding of the task. The intended outcomes were: Build on the mind map annotated on the white board about what it is about islands that is intriguing; to create a list of memorisable quotations that suggests what is positive and what is threatening about the island; a written response to the question: How is the landscape of the island symbolic?

The lesson started off with some technical issues because the teacher assisting me accidentally froze the white board, which meant that I could not use the Power Point presentation. I should have felt stressed but decided this was futile and so whilst she dealt with the issue, I started the class. The starter I taught was a brief introduction, as I had not had the chance to meet the class before and initiating positive classroom dynamics was extremely important to me. We played a true/false game, which then lead into the second phase of the starter where I played the trailer for the film I was in with Leonardo DiCaprio called The Beach and another clip about islands. So far so good: everyone was engaged, listening and together we created a mind map of what makes islands so special. I taught them some new vocabulary by asking questions about new words’ morphology, which they answered with general ease.

I then put them into pairs, which meant moving some pupils. Unaware of any behavioural issues meant that I was able to start with a clean slate with everyone, and trust that everyone would work well. For 15 minutes they analysed pages 11-19, recording quotes that showed Golding’s description of the positive and negative aspects of the island. I allowed them to decide how they would work, whether together on both positive and negative, or they choose one or the other and share their responses at the end of the task. Most chose to divide the task, which was the most effective way of working. What I forgot to initially inform them was that because the GCSE Literature examination would now be closed book, that they needed to get into the habit of memorising short quotes. However, when I did remember, I reminded the class. Whilst they worked, I monitored the pairs, ensuring that they understood and were completing their lists with suitable quotes. I had seen in our subject-specific sessions at university that the tutors regularly celebrated pupils and their efforts to stay on task and the right environment for learning as a result of their behaviour, so I reminded the class often that they were working well. In the plenary, I then elicited a few quotations from the class, trying to ensure that pupils that I had not heard from earlier spoke. I also encouraged pupils to build on each other’s responses so as to try and facilitate a discussion. The teacher then continued the lesson, which due to the technical issues at the start, meant that the writing task could not be completed.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and felt very supported by the classes’ teacher, which definitely helped. The feedback that I received was positive, which is encouraging.lord-of-the-flies-lesson-observation

Future planning requires me to remind the pupils which assessment objective (AO) the task links to, as this is now the department’s policy. I was also advised to assign less pages to each pair as perhaps 8 were too much for the time allocated. The teacher also said that I needed to tell the pupils to record short quotes due to the aforementioned reasons. I look forward to teaching this class after half-term, and to continuing to learn from the teacher’s feedback.


The challenges of writing

I am someone who relishes in writing, in particular writing as a cathartic experience. I particularly enjoy travel writing, where I fuse philosophy and photography into stories on my personal blog. From my dusty memories of secondary school, I think I could even say I was a fairly good writer from a young age. Many forms of writing, such as reviews, letters, reportage and the occasional poem, are sources of freedom and opportunity for me.However, looking around the classrooms of the school where I worked as a TA and literacy teacher, it became very apparent that writing was a source of great angst, frustration, shame, confusion and imprisonment. As an English teacher, this is something I would have to face alongside my students and find ways of compassionately inculcating in them not only the skills of writing but a sense of intrigue at the power of self-identification and expression through writing. Of course, I would also have to get them to pass their GCSEs!

On Friday, I got a sense of what the prison of writing really felt like. Our tutor placed a lollypop each on our tables. She asked us to write in the opposite hand than we normally write with. We opened our books and awkwardly held our pens. We were then asked to write what the object looked like, without instruction as to what form or style we wrote in. I had always wanted to be left-handed as I associated it with creativity and being different so at first the challenge of this alien experience was intriguing. After a few minutes of intense concentration on simply getting the words to a state of legibility we were then asked to touch the object and describe how it felt. Normally I would say I tinker on the edge of verbosity when I write but as it was such a laborious process, scant syntax hit the page. We followed the same procedure for what the lollypop sounded like as we unwrapped it and finally what it tasted like. Although I am rather embarrassed about the quality of what I wrote, I will share it with you in order to see how little I managed to say and the quality of my writing:


After completion of the first stage of the task, which was received with very mixed emotions, we discussed how this task could be used in school. The list of possibilities included writing a poem, a script, persuasive writing, a letter of complaint, narrative or reportage. This was definitely an activity I was very keen to use in my classroom, perhaps not with a sugar-laden lolly but a strange fruit or something more healthy. I would not ask the students to write in their other had though, because even though I had always been jealous of my left-handed friends, actually writing in that way had been a very tiring, laborious and difficult experience.

We were then given around ten minutes to choose whatever style of writing we wanted and to write, again with the hand we did not usually use drawing from the notes we had made through the sensory exploration of the object. There were four people on my table, and none of us were that attentive to the task. We were distracted by each other and laughed and talked about anything but the task. Writing had become a chore, a place of failure and exasperation for me and all I managed to come up with is a shoddy attempt at a poem (see below).


What did I learn from this experience? That for many, especially students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) and to some extent, depending on their fluency, English as an Additional Language (EAL) writing is a challenging activity. The difficulty of the physical element of writing, which I have not experienced since primary school and the occasional four-hour International Human Rights Law exam during my Masters, obfuscated my enjoyment of writing. My flow was similar to a river that had been clogged up by debris and had become a trickle rather than a rush. My thought process became wrapped up in how hard it was rather than what I wanted to say and I was nervous about whether our tutor would call on me to read my work out as I had nothing of any substance to disclose. A sense of shame imbued me as I had declared myself a writer and I had nothing to write.

One of my peers had said that his response to the task had meant he omitted all punctuation as he had found it too difficult, which meant his work was not only difficult to read but also incoherent. This highlighted another issue that SEN students may face when teachers ask them to redraft or edit their work and correct their spelling and grammar (SPAG) mistakes.

Interestingly, a few of my peers had had a very different experience. They had found that because they were impeded physically, that they thought more before they wrote. They edited in their head, took much more time over planning their words and their more economical approach meant that less was more, and the few words they had written were more effective in conveying meaning than if they had written tomes. This was, however, not the general consensus.

One of the roles of the teacher pertains to how to respond to a piece of writing submitted by a student. Anderson (2014) suggests that “in the first instance, you should always try to respond to the content and to what the pupil has achieved”(italics author’s own, p102). Therefore, when initially marking a pupil’s work, focus on what they “can do” (ibid), rather than dissecting their SPAG and covering their work in comments about its deficits. If there is one thing that I have learnt through this task is that it is no small feat to submit a piece of writing, which may have left a student feeling very exposed, stressed and vulnerable due to how taxing it can be. It becomes of even more paramount importance to take heed of Anderson’s advice, by paying particular attention to what has been achieved.  I will then need to utilise methods (which I will discuss in the future) which provide those that find writing a challenge in order to help them overcome the seemingly insuperable.


Anderson, G. 2014. ‘Writing’ in Davison, J & Daly, C. (eds) Learning to Teach English in the Secondary School: A companion to school experience (4th edition). London: Routledge








The use of ICT to promote reading

A few days ago I received an email from my tutor with an invitation to edit a Google Doc. The message said:

Dear all

Please find attached a link that we will use in Thursday’s session. There is nothing that you need to do to prepare – just please don’t delete it before then!

Best wishes 

Its purpose was revealed in today’s lesson on Literacy and the teaching of reading, and it this theme that today’s post will explore. The class started with the tutor reading an excerpt from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird where Scout is describing her first day at school and the confusion she faces when her teacher tells her that the fact she already knows how to read will prove useless to her and that she should forget everything that she knows. Of course, we all understand that this is counter-intuitive and ridiculous as what teacher in their right mind would not want their pupils to have taken the initiative to teach themselves how to read, right?
The day’s objectives were then outlined on the board:
To understand approaches to the teaching of literacy and the debates surrounding it;
to know about phonics teaching and to be aware of the issues;
to explore approaches to developing reading skills.
And this is where the email from my tutor came in. On each cluster of tables was a laptop and those in the class that had received the email from our tutor were to open the Google Doc and to work in groups of four to define the term ‘literacy’ and to add it to the document, identifying our group number. Here are the definitions that we all devised:

1. Literacy is an individual’s ability to not only read and write, but also to comprehend and construct meaning from texts; literacy deepens our understanding of our own culture and other cultures.

2. Literacy = Having the skills to unlock layers of meaning.

3. A literate person is able to produce written language as well as read, comprehend and interpret the written word. These are the skills they need to express themselves fully and participate within a community.

4. Literacy is, at its most basic, reading and writing. At its most developed, it allows people to have a profound and complex understanding of the word and the world. It enables them to express their understanding.

5. Literacy is the symbiotic relationship between reading, writing, speaking and listening and meaning making.

6. Literacy is the ability to construe and communicate information via the written word. It allows people to function within society at its most basic level, and learn to express themselves as they develop.

What this task had demonstrated was how ICT could be used in order to gain input from everyone in the class at the same time. Because the room was organised in a manner in which groups could cluster around the laptop at ease, everyone was able to participate in the task and the tutor was able to manage the class by making herself available to answer any queries. She could also monitor how the task was progressing because the Google Doc was connected to the white board, so everyone could see who was writing and editing at the same time. The task was a collaborative effort that required summarising as well as drafting and editing, skills outlined in the 2014 National Curriculum programmes of study at KS3 level (National Curriculum, 2014).
After a presentation on the government’s preferred method of teaching reading in primary schools, which centres on systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) “where sounds or phonemes identified with letters are learned in isolation and blended together” (Dymoke, 2013: 7). Despite heated debates about the efficacy of utilising such an approach, perhaps in part because due to the decontextualisation of the units of sounds from words and that 20% of the most commonly used English words do not follow the grapheme-phoneme correspondence rules, SSP “is viewed by the government as the prime strategy for teaching children to read” (Wyse et al. 2013: 164). If Harper Lee’s Scout had been educated in a primary school in England, it would have been government policy to very much forget everything that she knew about reading and to go back to basic units of sound, despite her love for reading.
We then returned to our groups of four and to a laptop or an iPad between each pair. Each group was assigned a reading, which discussed different ways that teachers can support pupils in accessing texts and assist their reading. We had half an hour to read our set text and summarise it in 100-150 words and then we were to add it to the Google Doc, identifying ourselves by our group number. My group had to read an article written in 2000 by McGuinn entitled ‘Electronic Communication and Under-achieving Boys: Some Issues in English in Education’. Initially we all read the text on the iPad or laptop and then we discussed our impressions before starting our collaborative summary. The basic thrust of the argument is suggesting that in general boys prefer using IT as a mode of expression in reading and writing thus its use should be encouraged more within the classroom. Here is our summary:
[The article] is highlighting the discrepancy between boys’ and girls’ attainment levels, where girls outperform boys in almost every subject. It has been observed that ‘planned opportunities’ for the use of IT boosts the achievement of boys. Boys prefer the form due to familiarity and the anonymity IT provides. It is suggested that boys are more reluctant to commit thoughts to paper because this presents more of an opportunity for a sense of failure. Technical competence and self-esteem are two main issues for young males at school. The multi-modality of electronic media is hard to navigate and can be seen as a form of distraction. Furthermore, it may confine boys even more because their exposure to other forms of text written and read, are limited.
One of our main concerns, as was also discussed in the slightly dated article, was the isolation experienced when using a computer, versus other forms of reading and learning. And then it dawned on me, that the very task we were involved in was refuting this and demonstrating how reading, writing and discussion were all taking place via the medium of IT. Sharing ideas via the the web, whether it be forums, social media or Google Docs did not have to mean an isolated ‘reading’ experience, but could be shared and exploited collaboratively. If boys are underachieving in almost every subject versus girls in their GCSEs (Shivlock and Ingram, 2012: 317) and the research we summarised points to the use of IT as one method of seeking to overcome this gap, then it is a medium I am very keen to learn more about and its effective implementation in the classroom.
Our tutor outlined the approach she would suggest in order to ensure its intended outcomes, which included sending the initial invitation to edit to trusted members of the class (so I guess I am one of them then). She said it could be a task that was adapted for numerous purposes, for example during reading a class novel, groups could write about a character each or they could write a summary of a chapter. This document could then be photocopied and provided to everyone in the class and used as revision notes or the basis of future class discussions. Apart from the few technical issues we experienced, everyone enjoyed this task and we all now have access to excellent summaries which we can draw on for our assignments. A win-win situation!
Dymoke, S. 2013. Teaching English Texts 11-18. London: Bloomsbury
McGuinn, N (2000) Electronic Communication and Under-achieving Boys: Some Issues in English in Education, vol.34,no.1, pp 50-57
National curriculum in England: English programmes of study
Shivlock, K & Ingram, J. 2012. ‘Schooling and gender’ in Brooks, V, Abbott, I & Huddleston, P (eds). Preparing to Teach in Secondary Schools: A student teacher’s guide to professional issues in secondary education (3rd ed.). Maidenhead: Open University Press
Wyse, D, Jones, R, Bradford, H & Wolpert, M. A. 2013. Teaching English, Language and Literacy (3rd ed.). London: Routledge