The Full English
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The Full English describes tried and tested classroom activities which engage young people in learning that is fun, purposeful and creative. It is a collation of a wide range of the shared practices of English teachers, often only encountered by chance or occasional collaboration. Its aim is to help all teachers vary their approaches, try new ones and be reminded of old favourites.
Down-to-earth in style and often humorous, The Full English is broad enough to be useful in a whole range of contexts but specific enough to reassure the least confident. Its wisdom is grounded in practical example and frequent direction to particular Teachit resources to show techniques at work. The Full English should be of interest to all teachers but is mainly suitable for KS3, 4 and 5.
'The Full English doesn't patronise or dumb down but has a kind of knowingness that demands and implies a shared intelligence, professionalism and enthusiasm without being didactic or pompous.'
Siobhain Archer, Founder, Teachit
This book started a long time ago. As a PGCE student desperate for teaching ideas, I hoarded anything I could lay my hands on. I squinted at the sheet my mentor gave me, called ‘20 things to do with a book’, a side of A4 that had been re-photocopied so many times on machines barely out of the Banda era that it was almost illegible. I squandered my grant (‘Banda machines, student grants – how old is this woman?!’) photocopying (legitimate) chunks of a very good series of books about teaching English that I have only ever been able to describe since as ‘yellow’. And when I got my first teaching post, I collected a blue cardboard folder from the stationery cupboard and put all my scraggy old bits of paper in it.
Of course, in your first year of teaching you’re supposed to die of the shock, so I didn’t add much to the blue folder then, but at the end of it I moved elsewhere for a permanent contract and the head of department handed me a comb-bound compilation of teaching ideas. Into the blue folder it went. And back out of the blue folder came all kinds of experiments as I systematically worked my way through every single technique in there. One by one. Throwing out my teaching materials at the end of every academic year in order to make way for more experiments. No-one ever told me that was really weird, freaky behaviour…
Somewhere along the way, I saw a repeat of the movie Working Girl. Sure, I’m always a sucker for a girl-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks-hits-the-big-time story, but what distracted me from my marking pile was the scene where Harrison Ford asks Melanie Griffiths where she gets all her ideas from. She tells him she reads all kinds of stuff all the time, not just the hot shot business journals, and, finding ideas everywhere, she cuts them out and keeps them while she thinks about them. ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes!’ I exploded in a Molly Bloom moment all of my own, ‘That’s what I do!’ Except I hadn’t been doing the cutting and kept getting annoyed that I couldn’t remember the ideas I’d come across.
After that, no newspaper, magazine or random act of information was safe. Anyone visiting who idly picked up the paper would have the novel experience of it dissolving into hamster bedding in their hands. But the blue folder grew. I started adding in little notes on the backs of envelopes of things I’d seen other teachers doing, and handouts from all kinds of odd INSET sessions, and little features from The Guardian that I thought might work as writing activities. Reader, I was a techniques junkie.
But mostly I kept the blue folder going because I’m rubbish at remembering stuff. I would try something out, find out its strengths and limitations, then do something different the next time and forget all about it. I needed the folder in order to keep coming back and refreshing my ideas, trying things out again, or in different combinations.
Eventually I got involved in mentoring new teachers. By this stage the blue folder had been shoved down the back of countless filing cabinets only to be retrieved, dog-eared and coffee-stained, at the start of each new academic year. But to each new ITT or NQT I would hand over the battered blue folder in a preposterously ceremonial fashion, offering all my worldly wisdom like some wizened old hag-mentor in an epic fantasy, and threatening strange curses on their fertility if it didn’t come back to me. Somehow it always did, though that may have had something to do with sensible revulsion at the nastiness of the yellowing papers inside. And every time it did I muttered apologetically, ‘One day I’ll write it all down properly.’
I never did. And then Siân pitched up, a shiny young NQT on our team of old lags. By now the blue folder was really quite foul, and anyway it was never anything more than a random collection of clippings and copies. I wasn’t mentoring Siân, but she observed me teach many times and eventually reached the limits of her frustration, exploding, with entirely good cause, ‘Will you stop telling me it’s easy and explain what you’re doing!’ Well, that’s the polite version – if memory serves me correctly, there may also have been a few eye-melting Welsh expletives in there...
But there was a merger and a restructuring and, well, you know how it goes… So, instead of finding the time to give that kind of detailed explanation, I tried to buy Siân a book. Hours spent trying to track down the one that would do the job were fruitless. Of course there are plenty of more or less useful books, but I didn’t want to give advice about educational strategies and assessment objectives, generalised tips, generic teaching ideas for any subject, or text-specific photocopiable worksheets. I wanted something that would explain a technique, that would show how to apply it to specific texts or tasks but be transferable to others, and that would be clear in the pedagogical principles underpinning it. I also wanted it to show how much fun can be had in teaching English.
So, I wrote it myself. Too late. Siân left the teaching profession. But here it is, for everyone who knows that feeling of frustration, who wants some new ideas, or some new ways of looking at old ideas. The ideas are not mine. Like a Victorian butterfly collector, I have rounded them up, sorted them according to their underlying principles, and explained them. This is the collective body of knowledge that we all share, and it’s a work in progress. There will of course be techniques that I haven’t come across, and the applications described here can only give an indicative flavour of how they might be used. We all teach in different ways and in different contexts. What works here won’t necessarily work there. That’s what makes teaching fun.
The title The Full English should not be taken literally – it’s a playful title that has more to do with my love of bacon and eggs than anything else; it is not the full picture, nor can it be in a profession of wonderfully creative and inventive people. But I hope the techniques described here will inspire teachers to try a few new things out, to play around a little (or a lot) with texts and tasks, to have enough confidence in the pedagogical underpinning to give creative activities a go, and to have as much fun teaching as I’ve had so far.
And Siân, get yourself back into a classroom. It’s never too late.
Copyright © Julie Blake 2006