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PostPosted: Fri Apr 20, 2012 7:23 am    Post subject:  Reply with quote

Apologies for the long post which follows...

The things I remember about school are generally what happened when I wasn't being taught, so my recollections of lessons are hazy. Memories of my first school: I suppose I must have been one of the better readers in the class, because when I was five my teacher asked me to read the class a story in the afternoon. Perhaps she needed a break, not that she was ever one of those teachers who would leave the classroom and put one of the children in charge, a cruelty I cannot comprehend. No other child was accorded the honour of reading a whole book to his peers, and it must have been a daunting experience for me. We used to sit on the floor around the teacher's chair, and I had to sit in her chair, which seemed titanically large. I doubt my voice carried very far. There was a series of books about a caveman (or boy) called Trog, and I read one of those. Various non-teachers used to come into school to listen to us read. I remember in particular an old man called Basil Barendt, who looked like the actor Michael Bilton. We would go out of our school lessons to read to him for ten minutes. I hope that such people are still permitted to visit schools, though presumably everything has to go through the CRB nowadays.

Most of my other memories of that school are of being read books rather than of reading them ourselves. That teacher also read us George's Marvellous Medicine, which I already knew off by heart. My parents had explained to me that liquid paraffin was funny because of its laxative properties, and I was the only child in the class who laughed at the point where it was mentioned. I think I explained it to my friend Mark. My next teacher read us a book called The Chimney Witches by Victoria Whitehead, which I liked so much that my parents bought me my own copy. I wrote my teacher's name inside the cover so that it would resemble her copy. In fact I wrote it several times over. Looking inside other books that I owned at the time, they generally have a messy childish signature inside, or my name written neatly (for a six-year-old) followed by 'PLEASE DO NOT BEND' as though the book were a certificate in the post. The next teacher read us some Dick King-Smith books - Harry's Mad (fabulous) and, I think, Tumbleweed (dreary), and Harriet Graham's A Fox Under My Jacket, which I sought in libraries for years afterwards. I have since bought a copy of it online, but I fear rereading it in case it has lost its magic. Each child had his or her own reading book, and I remember being permitted to go to the school library to choose a new one, maybe because I had exhausted the classroom's own resources. I foolishly chose something by Paul Theroux with a pretty cover (possibly London Snow), which was much too difficult for me and I hated it.

My memories of English lessons during the first two years at middle school, when I would have been 9 and 10, are slight. I remember reading Danny, the Champion of the World in class, which I enjoyed though it was never my favourite Dahl as a child. My teacher was a very gentle man, and I'm sure it appealed more to his sensibilities than the likes of The Twits would have. He was a Northerner, and read us stories from Bill Naughton's collection The Goalkeeper's Revenge which I loved. I do recall vividly a 100-question spelling test he set for the whole class, which was divided into three sections. Those who got 60 out of 60 in the first section progressed to the second, and those who got 30 out of 30 in the second progressed to the third. I was the only child left at the end, so there was the embarrassing situation of Mr Platt reading out ten words and me writing them down while everyone else sat around listless. I only got seven or eight of the last words right, and one of the ones I got wrong was 'attorney', which I was guilty of overthinking. I had only seen it written down before in Peanuts cartoons, and guessed it might be one of those American words that omitted the 'u', so I wrote down 'attourney'. A small number of people started referring to me as a walking dictionary, I think affectionately. I took pride in being able to spell words like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and antidisestablishmentarianism very quickly, and my friends/enemies used to try and catch me out.

At the ages of 11 and 12 I had my first really good English teacher, Miss Muir, whom I still see regularly. I think she was handicapped somewhat by the curriculum and the tastes of the other teachers in the department, which meant she had to teach some books for which she personally didn't greatly care, though I didn't pick up on this at the time. Macbeth was the liveliest thing we studied in class, and we were exposed to several different productions of it, including a travelling one that came to the school to perform for us. It was my poetry that she really encouraged. She even appeared to like it, which is more than I can pretend, looking back on it. We did a project on poems where we had to assemble a portfolio of poems by ourselves and others. I think I wrote more than 100 poems for it, most of which must have been pretty awful, but I remember feeling genuinely excited about the project.

Year 9 (age 13) was bad. I had a teacher who wasn't really up to the job. She was absent half the time, and not, as far as I could tell, an English specialist (she also taught me Maths, when she was there). She was also the only teacher I ever answered back to. She caught me drawing in the back of my English book while I ought to have been working, asked 'What is that?' and I replied, 'Art.' I think I bottled it when she asked me to repeat myself. Anyway, we struggled through Romeo and Juliet, which to this day is a blur in my mind, though we watched the Zeffirelli film in class and our study coincided with the release of the Luhrmann film in cinemas, which a lot of us presumably went to see. I remember her explaining a pun on sycamore/sick amour, and what maidenhead meant. Reading aloud a passage from The Friends by Rosa Guy, not an inspiring set text, she was obliged, embarrassed, to say the phrase 'big tits', which seemed to diminish what little authority she may hitherto have possessed. I think my parents wrote to the school out of concern that her attendance was short-changing the class, the only time they ever did that. She set another spelling test of 100 questions, which I reckoned I had got full marks for, but we never got our papers back. I pestered her repeatedly for my mark and she told me I had got 99, though my belief is she never marked them. I think my mother or father met her a couple of years ago by chance and reported how nice she was. I'm not sure we treated her very well, but then there are some teachers who, to their misfortune and to their pupils', are inherently unsympathetic, and of course children are adept at identifying the smallest character flaw and exploiting it mercilessly.

Mr Withers taught me for GCSE, a pleasant young man who had recently moved to the area from Nottingham. I think liking a teacher is a good first step to getting something out of the lessons. I'm not sure he was terribly popular with others - he had a rather dry sense of humour, which I think may have been lost on some of my classmates - but I remember wanting to impress him. I didn't do it very often, but I think an essay I wrote on The Tempest was praised on account of its having been less 'laconic' than previous ones. I was pleased to have moved him to use a word I didn't understand. It was The Tempest that really excited me, but I also enjoyed studying To Kill a Mockingbird (though didn't love it as much as I do now) and Psycho (which he had to wait until we were all 15 to show us). In those days (perhaps no longer?) there was an oral component of the English Language GCSE, which was essentially a discussion with your teacher about a prepared topic, intended partially, I think, to demonstrate you could like speak the language and that. Some people would probably object to this on grounds of dumbing down; my objection, at the time and now, was that it was cruel to expect teenagers to be able to talk. Few of us are at our most eloquent or coherent at fifteen. I felt much more under pressure having to talk to someone under exam conditions than I did having to write things down in written exams or play the piano in my music practical. Anyway, he let me talk about football and I made a fool of myself waffling about the proposed European Super League. He gave me free rein to write a comparative essay on aspects of growing up in Oliver Twist and Lord of the Flies, and encouraged my reading of things like Crime and Punishment (which I never finished - I think I was repeatedly distracted by football and decided it wasn't meant to be). A year or so after I'd given up English he caught sight of me reading Lolita in a classroom between lessons and remarked that it was one of his favourite books. I wonder what might have happened if I'd stayed on for A-level, but although I enjoyed English it wasn't my strongest subject at school by any means. I've learnt more about literature on this message board than I did at school, and that's probably because now (as opposed to then) I want to learn.

Sorry, me me me as usual. It's fascinating to read other people's memories on this thread.

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:20 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

No need to be sorry, Gareth - a fascinating trawl through your teachers, good and bad.  And the spelling tests!

We never had to do anything oral in English - not at least for any official reason.  Probably had to read some parts of plays.  Now, I think speech-delivery is part of the English curriculum for kids and some of them are very good at it indeed.  I was too shy at school to do well at anything that required any type of acting; I did things in monotones, though I have always been able to tell a story (usually about me!) to a group of people when sitting down at everyone else's level.  Doing Toastmasters helped a lot with that though.

Your comment of bottling a retort when asked to repeat it brings to mind an event at school.  I was a polite, though somewhat maverick child.  In one English class with the finicky male teacher I mentioned (short and pompous, he was) he must have been ranting a bit about our behaviour and I said something like, "Wouldn't that perhaps have something to do with the teacher?"  There was a shocked gasp and giggles from the class (much more polite we were in those days, but there had been a snideness to my question which was pretty obvious), but at that moment there was a knock on the door, and when the teacher returned and asked what I had said, I just made some excuse.  

People's reminiscences of their youth are fascinating.  I suppose why memoirs and coming of age things are entertaining.  

Cheers, Caro.

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 20, 2012 11:34 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'm mightily impressed by these fascinating memories. I can remember little about my schooldays - but that's probably because I'm advanced in years and memories are disappearing ever more quickly into the past.   I can just remember the older children at St Aloysious RC School, Oxford performing a play, but nothing else.  This must have been about 1940. I remember winning a threepenny bit (presented by Mother St Christopher) at St Kentigern's School, Blackpool, for coming top in a word test. We had to find as many words as possible that made their plural by changing the Y into I and adding ES.  I always enjoyed writing 'compositions' at secondary school, and still remember Mr Cross reading one of my pieces to the class. It was 'Night Scene in India', and had been inspired by seeing that week the film 'The River' directed by Jean Renoir. Mr Cross said it was very good, but maybe a trifle too exotic.
Brother Browner (I was startled once to encounter him in a cinema - men in Holy Orders went to the pictures!?) taught me 'Julius Caesar' and 'Pride and Prejudice' which I didn't much enjoy until years later.  And I recall that I made him laugh when reading Falstaff in Henry IV Pt 1.  I still don't understand why I was never cast in the school plays.  I was quite a good actor and I always felt I would have made just as good a Maria in TWELFTH NIGHT as RT did. (The sixth former playing Olivia, made sexual advances to me a few years later! Rejected). We later played the murderers in Patrick Hamilton's 'Rope' together. Poor PT. he made something of a mess of his life and died young.
On the whole I don't think the English teaching at my Catholic Grammar School was especially good. There was an awful lot of Religion. We had to stand up on the hour and say the Hail Mary - and the Angelus at midday.  
But something must have been right because I've been a voracious reader ever since.  I vividly remember playing truant sometimes on sports afternoons and going to matinees at the local theatre.  I was never missed - being rotten at everything - and I'm sure my theatre visits did me more good. And I remember avoiding cricket by hiding in the long grass by the side of the field with RW. I wonder if he remembers....

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 20, 2012 9:05 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I was a bit concerned that Gareth could remember so much more of his teachers than I could, too, Michael, but reassured myself that he has had a lot less time to forget.  I'm not sure that is a perfect explanation but it will have to do.

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 21, 2012 7:16 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

My first English teacher when I went to grammar school in West London was Mrs. G.  She had long red hair and wore flamboyant clothes and all us gawky pre-teen girls thought she was wonderful.

There was a lot of free expression.  One task was we each had to devise and deliver monologues - I remember the class laughing uncontrollably at one of my comic monologues but a subsequent one died the death.  We did a lot of improvised drama.  

I can't remember much about the books we did with her.  I have a feeling we did animal books such as "Tarka the Otter", which didn't interest me.  I have a hunch that Mrs. G. tried to introduce us to Pinter but we were too  young to appreciate him.  Mrs. G's husband was a TV producer and she left when he took a job with Granada in Manchester leaving all of us girls heart-broken.

The wonderful Mrs. G. was succeeded by Miss Thingy ( I genuinely can't remember her name or what she looked like except that she was rather mousy).  Miss Thingy introduced us to Shakespeare but in an uninspiring way (everything about this teacher was uninspiring) and I'm afraid at this stage I found Shakespeare boring.

I then changed schools when my parents moved and I went to a direct grant grammar school in South West London.  My English teacher was Miss E.  She was definately the old school of English teaching with lots of emphasis on correct grammar.  One of our four or five English lessons a week was on grammar, which I hated, but I realised this had been neglected at my previous school.  

Miss E.'s idols were Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Her teaching on Shakespeare was superb and I can remember the plays were studied with her (Henry IV Part I and Henry V) in detail even to this day.   By this time I had seen the wonderful John Barton/Peter Hall production on TV of The War of the Roses (adapted from Shakespeare's Henry VI Parts I, II and III and Richard III) and I was a convert to Shakespeare.

Like her idol Jane Austen, Miss E. had a sharp tongue and could be snobbish  (I sometimes wonder if I would have dared to do English A-level if she had still been in change).  However, she was a wonderful teacher and I loved studying the romantic poets with her.

She retired and her place was taken by Mrs. R.  Mrs. R. had the charisma of Mrs. G. and the teaching ability of Miss E. without the latter's sharp tongue.  One of the first things Mrs. R. did was to set up a school drama society (something which had neglected by Miss E).

Mrs. R., together with the other English teacher Mrs. A., made English A-level a wonderful experience.  (The history teaching was equally excellent but this thread is about English teaching).

I think I mentioned on a previous thread that we spent an entire term studying novels written at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, not one of which was on the examinations set list, so that we could put "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", which was a set book, in context.

Mrs R. and Mrs. A. had the attitude that if students have a deep understanding of the  set texts and a real enthusiasm, then they should be able to excel in the examination questions.  There was none of the ghastly teaching how to pass the exam questions which seems to dominate in a lot of educational establishments today.

I feel so sad when I read of the experience of Apple, and I'm sure that there are many others with similar experience .  I also get angry when I hear glib talk about how teaching is so much better today - usually based on the inflated grades pupils are getting.  There is a lot of criticism of teachers - sometimes justified - but there have always been teachers such as the ones I've mentioned who were truly inspiring.

I know I've rambled on a bit but I would like to pay tribute to them.  I know that Mrs. R. died of cancer just a few years later and Mrs. A. has died as well.  This my way of saying how much I appreciated them.

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 21, 2012 10:19 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Reading these most interesting posts I was suddenly reminded of teachers from my Blackpool primary school that I'd forgotten.  There was Miss Brookes who taught me about 1941. She was quite old, and I can remember than she wore long skirts down to her ankles and a long coat when she went home.  She was about sixty and had therefore been born about 1880 and looked it. She sat at a high desk and looked down at us. I remember she told us a cautionary tale about the dire results of nail-biting. It seems there was a wicked child who had bitten her nails and died - and when they cut her open found that all the bitten-off nails were sticking in her heart!  Like something out of Struwelpeter! And there was lovely Miss Nicolson who read us some of the William stories and said that when we were older we must be sure to read Colette's Claudine stories.  She also taught us how to make our own ink!  And there were always nuns about - in full habit, big skirts and veils, smelling of soap and goodness, driftng and flapping about the school like holy bats. And from Mr Read, who taught me briefly, I learned a poem by Walter Raleigh beginning 'Even such is time...' an appallingly gloomy piece to teach nine year olds.
I also remember that when we learned to do proper joined-up handwriting I was absent the day the class did O.P.Q. and it took me ages to master those letters.
Along side school - I haunted the local library.....
I remember - when I was a trainee teacher sitting in with an English teacher who had a fearsome reputation. During one session the class was listening to a poetry programme on the radio. A poor child seemed not to be attentive and the teacher roared at her,  'WHEN THE RADIO IS TALKING, LOOK AT IT!

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