Rambling In My Old Curiosity Shop: John Burnside, Trumpets, Booker Prize and Assessment

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October 3, 2013 by dragonflytraining


It has been a busy month. Ever since I was a kid I have loved the start of the school year because it holds such promise and possibility – the new uniform, the smart shoes, a pocket full of polished marbles and the newly dyed, flicked haircut – well, in my Duran days – and this September has been no exception. We are back (although some are on strike today, which complicates my opening paragraph somewhat). Let’s start my October ramblings with some reflections on …



John Burnside is Professor in Creative Writing at St Andrews University. He is also my favourite contemporary poet and if you are looking for something beautiful and crafted and honed for your ‘A’ level students, then look no further than ‘The Asylum Dance’, winner of the Whitbread Poetry Award in 2000. I cannot possibly do justice to the poems here but the structure of the collection, taking the reader from the comfort of home to the lure of escape and back again, is a joy. What I particularly like about Burnside is the way that he uses the white space of silence on the page (there is too much noise out there: big booming brassy noise and swarms of sotto voce mumbling and grumbling in and around the landscape of our daily lives) so that when you read his lines, they offer lyrical intensity, music, a dream world … calm. There you go: if you haven’t introduced your keenies to Burnside, you must. Anyway, noise.



TOOT! TOOT! It’s that moment in the year when things start to get hectic and I look forward once more to the hotel-based training in the run up to Christmas (you can’t beat Cardiff in the final week of term). In the corner of my old curiosity shop here, I have indeed found a trumpet, which I intend to blast, blow and TOOT! TOOT! And before you ask, yes, I can read music and play the trumpet, a skill inherited from my late grandfather, Wilfred Dickens, who played with Jack Judge in the 1930s, best remembered for writing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’.

My ‘Beginner’s Guide to Teaching Grammar’ gets another outing this term, starting in Manchester. I particularly like the 27-part syntax building activity with its colour-coding approach to understanding sentence constructions. TOOT! TOOT! I cannot wait to get my language patterns out for the C/D borderliners – this activity really does it for me – and if you are an NQT, come and have a look at ‘Dripping Umbrellas’, an exercise on how to sit back and watch your charges explore poetry and non-fiction texts without lifting a finger. TOOT! TOOT! I will be looking at ways to teach sophistication for an A* in GCSE English Language – ‘Crucial Lines’ here we come – and my ‘Aspiring Head of English’ course, which I am loving to bits let me tell you, kicks off on Friday 8th November in Manchester. English teachers are just so nice! TOOT! TOOT! And finally, my creating independent learners course, will consider a wide range of strategies – I’m quite partial to a bit of good old-fashioned project work here – which begins on Monday 25th November, once again, in Manchester. TOOT! TOOT! Hope to see you somewhere around the UK. http://www.dragonfly-training.co.uk/course.php?t_id=5



The winner of The Booker Prize 2013 will be announced on Tuesday 15th October and as always, I will make the effort to buy, read and enjoy the winning tome. I say ‘enjoy’ because there is rarely, if ever, a bad read to be found here. The short-listed six are: ‘We Need New Names’ by NoViolet Bulawayo;  ‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton; ‘Harvest’ by Jim Crace (odds on I would say); ‘The Lowland’ by ‘Jhumpa Lahiri; ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ by  Ruth Ozeki and ‘The Testament of Mary’ by Colm Toibin. (Do you realise how many times I had to right-click and select ‘add to dictionary’ whilst writing that?)

Anyway, if you are interested, I will start reading when the winner is announced and then tweet my comments as I go along. Join me if you are up a bit of tweety-style literary chit-chat darling.



A friend was having a colourful rant the other day about how much marking he had over the weekend. Ah, the vexed issue of marking. There is no way around it, of course, it goes with the professional territory and there are some nice little tips here from Claire Binns http://bit.ly/18fSfwf. A different approach might be VFG (verbal feedback given) which I have used a lot over the years. We are constantly giving individuals verbal advice on how to improve their performance but regrettably, once the utterance has been spoken, unless it is recorded, the advice is lost, gone up in a puff of smoke. So: (1) offer the student verbal advice on their work (2) in their book write VFG and date it (3) the student now turns to the back of their book (4) they write the date and bullet point the advice given by the teacher (5) when they think they have met that advice (or target) they call the teacher over and provide the teacher with some evidence. It might not be the final solution to the great marking dilemma, but it helps. It makes life just that little bit easier.



Alan Gillespie wrote a neat little article in ‘The Guardian’ last month suggesting that English teachers who ask students to write creatively should undertake the task too, sharing their results. Check it out: http://bit.ly/15vWuOs. I couldn’t agree more, Alan. One of the characteristics of a learning-centred leader, according to the national college of school leadership, is that they lead by example … oddly enough. So to round off my ramblings for this month I discover in the corner, somewhere over here … a dusty little booklet with the words ‘Sipping Whiskey With Edward Hopper’ on it. It has been a long time since I dipped into this, that’s for sure.  Hope you like it and don’t forget: if you are looking for a new read, watch out for the winner of The Booker Prize 2013. Mid-October I will twit twoo!


How fingers direct

The head back and scissors

Dance the cha-cha-cha.

I like it in here.

Cool and calm and cosy

With fragrant dreams in

Cobalt blue bottles swaying

The lotion waves

Cedar wood and spices.

The snip of precision.

How you work the blades in

Clean cut light

From strand to strand

With grace and care

And masterly motion,

Swishing the blades

A silver pirouette leading.

Your wife sits bathed in

Sunlight, your partner at the ball.

She checks books,

Confirms appointments,

Quietly contented below

The slow tick of time.

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