Reflections on the ‘Being Alive’ anthology

As part of our ‘Research into Creative Writing Practices’ class, we read ‘Being Alive’, an anthology edited by Neil Astley and published by Bloodaxe. Part of a trilogy, I love these anthologies and I have a long history of reading them: they were some of the books I read most when I was starting to take my poetry practice seriously. It was great to look more closely at them.

The anthology is split into chapters based on aspects of life. We were each assigned a section to focus on, and asked to come up with a creative response. I was assigned ‘Men and Women’ (p211 – 256).

Although there was a lot I recognised in this section – from being a woman who interacts with men day-to-day – it felt very heteronormative. It deals almost exclusively with romantic and sexual relationships between men and women; I would have like to have seen poems on fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, best friends…

The knowledge it produces is around what it feels like to have a gender, and to enact that in a world which is unequal. Because it is poetry, it does this in an evocative way, and many of the poems are visceral. Many poems made me sad and/or angry, and some made me sigh with recognition.

It also gives interesting insights into attitudes and values around gender; for instance Frederick Seidel’s ‘Men and Woman’ gives away a particular kind of sexism through its focus on women’s (but not men’s) bodies, even whilst claiming that “women have won”.

The knowledge of what it feels like to have a gender in this context is meaningful and important. However, it immediately sets itself up as a binary through the title, which feels exclusive to people who don’t fit normative or binary ideas of gender. If the title referenced gender more generally, or feminism (as the chapter is really about the trouble with gender roles and patriarchy), it would have felt more like an interesting exploration – as many of the poems are when taken on their own terms. However, the way they are framed changes the knowledge they produce. The title makes the section more likely to reproduce essentialist ideas about binary gender; it reifies ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman rather than opening them up. And while there are poems that are not gendered, eg Alice Oswald’s ‘Wedding’, the title forces them into a heteronormative framework.

I found that as a queer woman, I didn’t really see myself in most of this section. This felt like erasure, because it’s claiming a universal theme with its title and introduction.

As well as imagining re-naming the section, I imagined adding some poems which would diversify it:

  • ‘Andrew’, Andrea Gibson
  • ‘A genderful pep-talk for my younger self’, Andrea Gibson
  • ‘The female husband’, Carol Ann Duffy
  • ‘Mail’, Danez Smith

I also decided to create my own space out of what was presented in the section; I wrote a pantoum using lines from some of the poems. This feels familiar to me because reclaiming language is something LGBTQ+ people have to do all the time: whether it’s because the language is offensive, exclusive, or irrelevant, we have to keep remaking it, and we often have to repurpose the materials we’re given. The repetitiveness of the pantoum fit my purpose because these are conversations we have to have over and over; in addition, the words we reclaim often take on multiple meanings out of necessity, which is something that is mirrored in the pantoum form.



Staying Alive


In the garden a moonflower is stretching its jaws in the cold

We talked across gin and grapefruit,

who are both vivacious and angry as a bee.

Summer thunder rumbled over Brooklyn, a far-off sadness


We talked across gin and grapefruit

because she was one of my kind, my tribe.

Summer thunder rumbled over Brooklyn, a far-off sadness:

I’ll wear it like bones, like skin.


Because she was one of my kind, my tribe;

and her to hell-with-everybody stare:

I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,

even though her lower lip is beginning to quiver.


Her to hell-with-everybody stare:

both vivacious and angry as a bee,

even though her lower lip is beginning to quiver.

In the garden a moonflower is stretching its jaws in the cold.


Lines taken from:

A: ‘Done’, Minnie Bruce Pratt

B: ‘A Simple Story’, Gwenn Harwood

C: ‘I’ll be a wicked old woman’, Radmila Lazic

D: ‘Men and Woman’, Frederick Seidel

E & G: ‘The Change’, Tony Hoagland

H: ‘Men in Space’, Billy Collins

Five Ways to Revolutionise Reading in Your School

These suggestions are based on the points raised at the Reading Revolution Conference held at Goldsmiths, University of London on Saturday 23rd September 2017.

ONE: Encourage Reading for Pleasure

Read for the sake of reading. Read aloud, read in groups, read in pairs, read silently. Read poems, stories, articles, blogs, relevant social media and so forth to your students just for the sake of it; for the pleasure of reading so that students become aware that reading is a joyful activity in itself. There doesn’t have to be any purpose to it, other than reading. This was a point re-iterated again and again in the conference by the key note speakers: Professors Michael Rosen, Teresa Cremin, the children’s author SF Said as well as the workshop leaders.

Professor Cremin’s research states: “Teachers need to offer a coherent and creative literacy curriculum that develops children’s intrinsic motivation to read, creates an engaging physical and social environment for reading, provides pupil choice and encompasses diversity as well as focused instruction and tailored support.” (Cremin, T., 2007, p. 10) One the key ways that teachers foster this intrinsic motivation to read is to show students that reading is enjoyable as a process, and that it’s not a purely functional activity that enables you to get a good exam result. The Research Rich Pedagogies website, which Cremin is a key member of, is excellent on showing how this might be done within the existing rubric of the curriculum and why it is so important: I strongly urge you to sign up for the newsletter and keep in touch with the important research which is highlighted here. Michael Rosen has also written a 20-point plan to help children read for pleasure which can be read here.

TWO: Encourage collaborative reading

Many people have the idea that reading is a solitary activity to be done in silence. While there are times when reading silently is entirely appropriate, the speakers at the conference and many delegates pointed out that reading is primarily a social activity. Both Cremin and Rosen illustrated the crucial importance of teachers and pupils reading aloud in an expressive way. If they are not confident about doing this, time and consideration needs to be made to prepare entertaining readings. Teachers should model how to do this by demonstrating it themselves, and getting students to read to each other in small groups, paying close attention to what their pupils need to do to improve their reading aloud.

THREE: Let students choose their reading material

This was another huge issue that was raised in the conference. With the obvious caveats, all the speakers and most delegates were supportive of the idea that students should regularly be given the chance to choose what they wanted to read. Cremin was particularly passionate on the power of recommendation: she argued that teachers needed to read widely around the literature that is aimed at the age-group they teach. Her research shows that when teachers are given the time and resources to read relevant stories, poems, articles for their classes, they then share this enthusiasm with their pupils, who then want to read more adventurously. The important point was that teachers are not forcing students to read particular material, but are, instead, recommending relevant reading with genuine, informed enthusiasm. This is what gets students progressing in their reading. So, for example, if a student only wants to read simple football match reports, if a teacher is given a bit of time to read around this subject, they can then recommend more cognitively challenging material on football – of which there is plenty. This is how standards are raised. Compelling students to read material because they ‘must read’ can seriously backfire, leading to pupils being demotivated. SF Said was funny and poignant about this in his keynote, talking about how he loved to read Willard Price as a child, becoming addicted to WP’s high-octane, formulaic macho adventure stories. This habit led him to become an avid reader who recently re-read a Price novel only to find that it was, for him, very disappointing in its cliched plot and characters, full of troubling stereotypes. But, as he said, it was important that he was given the freedom to read the books because they contributed him discovering a love of reading. He now writes fantasy adventure stories for children, which, while very different from Price’s work, are informed by WP’s zest for narrative action. This story drew knowing nods and smiles from the audience because I think all of us have read books as children that now we might be a bit ashamed of reading!

FOUR: Create lovely reading environments

Teresa Cremin’s keynote showed pictures of schools, libraries and bookshops where reading was promoted in the physical environment; walls were festooned with colourful illustrations of books, collages, playful sculptures, cosy book corners and dens. She argued that if classrooms and libraries look very functional, then the reading that happens there is often limited in scope as well. We all have favourite places to read: in bed, on a comfy chair, on the beach, under a tree etc. Schools need to recognise this and consider how reading environments might be made more conducive to reading for pleasure.

FIVE: Find Creative Ways of Teaching Reading

All the speakers and workshop leaders at the conference urged teachers to research innovative ways of teaching reading; the conference closed with Michael Rosen talking to one of his post-graduate students on the MA in Children’s Literature, Ellen Beer, about her action research as a primary school teacher educating her young pupils to become confident readers. Ellen emphasised the importance of listening deeply to her pupils and responding to their needs. Michael reiterated a point that he has said many times: teachers need the time and space to reflect upon their own practice, making links with it and relevant research. The delegates responded very positively to the workshops on offer which highlighted different creative approaches to reading. My own workshop on Mindful Reading showed how mindfulness can help people read in a more joyful, relaxed fashion, but I did not get time to go on to explain about how it might be used within the classroom context. You can find the PowerPoint for the presentation here: The mindful Reading Revolution. Vicky Macleroy and Sara Hirsch showed their group how digital storytelling might foster a love of reading many different types of text; Vicky has spearheaded a fabulous and very well-respected research project for many years called Critical Connections; their website has a whole wealth of resources and videos, including some very moving accounts by children about their experiences as migrants, refugees and pupils in schools around the world. Maggie Pitfield and Theo Bryer lead a very popular workshop on using drama to revolutionise reading in schools; this workshop was all about the ways in which drama can bring reading alive through things like role-play, re-creating texts and improvisation. Dr Julia Hope discussed the ways in which refugee stories can act as a catalyst for learning and discussion in the classroom, drawing upon her work for her recently published book Children’s Literature for Refugees. Teresa Cremin in her talk also suggested many creative ways of teaching reading, including Reading Rivers, Close Your Eyes…Listen…Talk…Draw, Red Carpet Reading and lots of other amazing ideas, which can found on the Research Rich Pedagogies blog.

Further research

Michael Rosen’s blog contains a veritable cornucopia of articles, poems, polemics about reading, including this great blog post:

This Guardian talks about the author’s obsession with reading YA literature:

This report from the Reading Agency looks at the impact of reading for pleasure and empowerment:

What impact did the conference have?

Overall, 9 out of 10 delegates felt that the conference had a very high impact upon their practice as teachers.

Comments from delegates:

“I just want to go straight to the ‘Children’s Section’ in the library and spend my Saturday night reading! SO INSPIRED!!! Cannot wait to create ‘reading rivers’ with staff as well.

“A very thought-provoking day with lots of great and practical ideas to take away. Would definitely recommend, thank you!”

“Great day!”

“Wonderful and inspiring!”

“Fantastic to participate in a short mindfulness session and consider our experience in response to it.”

“Really enjoyed using drama with reading and would like further conference workshops on this!”

“Interesting to find out how many books there are now on refugees: I have an idea now to have a whole school project during Refugee Week.”

“Highly inspiring day, which will alter the way I approach reading with Year 10 and 11s, and the questions I ask.”

“The Digital Storytelling and Reading session was very interesting: the poetry techniques were amazing, I will definitely use these with trainees.”



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Improving students’ reading using Reciprocal Teaching


One iteration of the Reciprocal Teaching Process.

Respected research has shown for some time that certain teaching approaches are particularly effective at improving students’ reading skills; one such strategy is called Reciprocal Teaching (Oczkus, 2010:Palincsar and Brown, 1984) which gets learners reading in groups. I’ve written about the success of this strategy in two previous issues of NATE Magazine (June 2015/June 2016) and shown how to do it in several NATE workshops. As I’ve worked with more and more classes and teachers, I’ve realised that while many English teachers are keen to adopt the strategy and are persuaded of its value, they don’t feel confident with teaching it without an “expert” there to guide them. The central problem is that to get Reciprocal Teaching “off the ground” it needs to be “modelled” by the teacher to small groups so that students can then start “doing it for themselves”. Based as it is on the theory of Lev Vygotsky (Vygotsky and Cole, 1978), the modelling is a vital stage; there needs to be an expert modelling the approach before students can confidently begin reading in groups with chaos being unleashed! In my experience, either the English teacher doesn’t feel that confident at modelling the strategy themselves or they have big classes and feel that they can’t work intensively with small groups over a series of lessons.

To get around this problem, I have begun writing some creative “teaching scripts” which do the modelling for the students. What follows is an extract of one such script, showing how Reciprocal Teaching might be done with the poem “Ozymandias”; I have imagined that a mixed ability Year 9 or 10 class might be reading the poem in the script. The script is not the “perfect” way to do the strategy; it is a “model” in the Vygotskian sense(Vygotsky and Cole, 1978), a possible approach which is open-ended and subject to criticism.

If you are interested, maybe you could photocopy the script and get a suitable class reading it in groups: it is aimed at groups of six reading it, but you could ask students to read the script individually, pairs or any configuration you deem fit, doubling up roles etc. The students should read the script, and then do the vital work of reflecting upon what they have learnt about improving their reading skills once they have read the script; what strategies are being shown in the script which they use already when reading texts? What strategies do they not use?

Another iteration of the Reciprocal Teaching Process

To recap quickly: Reciprocal Teaching involves students reading texts in groups, with every student at some point becoming a “teacher” who models and leads discussions which focus upon what the text is about, helps everyone clarify what the text means, predicts what might happen next or “fills in any gaps”, and gets everyone reflecting upon what they have learnt from the exercise, including what they have learnt about their learning. The following script is meant to be read by GCSE students as an introduction to Reciprocal Teaching, and is followed by a “model” of how RT might be done with the poem Ozymandias.

Learning script

TEACHER: I don’t like reading.

QUESTIONER: Hey, aren’t you supposed to be a TEACHER? Aren’t all TEACHERs supposed to like reading?

MOTIVATOR: Good point, QUESTIONER, as the MOTIVATOR in the group, I must say that telling your students that you don’t like reading is a bit demotivating!

ASSESSOR: And as the ASSESSOR, I would have to grade that teaching strategy as unsatisfactory. I don’t think any school inspector would be happy to hear a TEACHER say that!

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: As LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF, I think we need to give the TEACHER a break: my job, which is overseeing Learning to Learn is about helping people improve their learning by thinking about their learning and what works for them and what doesn’t. My first question is: what do we exactly mean by a TEACHER and what is expected of them?

SUMMARIZER: As summariser, I would have to sum up the meaning of being a TEACHER as someone who helps other people learn.

TEACHER: And it’s true, I have a problem. I mean I am actually a school student who has been asked to be a TEACHER in a group. And I don’t feel comfortable with the role at all! First of all, I don’t really read that much!

QUESTIONER: Why are you not comfortable being a TEACHER? I don’t get it.

MOTIVATOR: Come on, TEACHER, everyone likes you in the group so you don’t need to be frightened.

ASSESSOR: And having seen you outside lessons, I have seen you read the sports’ news on your news on your phone, and doing all that Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter stuff all the time. You’re always reading!

SUMMARIZER: So, to sum up, are we saying that our TEACHER is a much better reader & TEACHER than they think?

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: And perhaps we think reading means reading in school when reading is a lot more than that.

TEACHER: Hey thanks guys, you’re cheering me up! I didn’t enjoy the thought of being a TEACHER, but I can see now that I have helped you learn a bit because we’ve all thought harder about what teaching and reading is.

QUESTIONER: What is the point of making students TEACHERs anyway? I mean, we have got a real TEACHER over there, aren’t they supposed to teach us?

MOTIVATOR: But I reckon I learn more when another student teaches me something: I kind of listen more carefully. I’m less scared somehow and this makes me relax and listen more carefully.

ASSESSOR: And when you become the TEACHER you quickly realise what you know and don’t know because you must explain it in our own words.

SUMMARIZER: So perhaps the TEACHER is the person who learns the most in the classroom because they are always trying to explain things.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: This is interesting. It’s at this point, I would like to give us all a new term to learn. This term is called ‘reciprocity’ as a noun, and ‘reciprocal’ as an adjective.

TEACHER: Can you all write the heading ‘Reciprocity’ in your learning journals. What do you think it means?

QUESTIONER: Aren’t you supposed to tell us? Isn’t that why you’re a TEACHER?

MOTIVATOR: Hey, it’s better if we look up words for ourselves and learn to learn things for ourselves.

ASSESSOR: So let’s look it up in the dictionary – or on our phones. Here look, Google says:

noun: reciprocity

the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit, especially privileges granted by one country or organization to another.

QUESTIONER: What does that mean?

SUMMARIZER: Let’s try and put it into our own words. Hmmnnn.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: It kind of means “you get what you give”.

ASSESSOR: That’s a good summary, L2L Chief!

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: I like my new name, L2L Chief!

TEACHER: Come on, back to the main point, reciprocity when you give something, you expect to get something of equal value back.

QUESTIONER: So, if I help you with your reading, I expect you to help me when I find some passage difficult to understand.

MOTIVATOR: Or if I am really positive about your abilities, then I expect you to be nice about me.

ASSESSOR: Kind of. It’s more than people being nice to each other though, it is about people valuing each other, really valuing what they must say.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: OK, let’s all write down in our learning journals our definitions in our own words about what reciprocity means.

(Everyone should do this)

TEACHER: And I think we’re ready now to introduce the next idea: Reciprocal Reading.

QUESTIONER: Is this when everyone helps each other with their reading?

MOTIVATOR: Hey, QUESTIONER, well done! You’ve got it in one. It’s about really trying with your reading, and then expecting the other people in the group to try as well.

ASSESSOR: It’s also about us all assessing our reading skills and figuring out how we might improve our reading together. The reciprocity comes in because we assess ourselves and assess each other, valuing each other’s contributions.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: And to add to that, let’s see what dear old Google says:

Reciprocal teaching is a reading technique which is thought to promote students’ reading comprehension. A reciprocal approach provides students with four specific reading strategies that are actively and consciously used to support comprehension: Summarising, Clarifying, Questioning, Predicting and Evaluating.

QUESTIONER: what does that all mean?

TEACHER: We’re going to find that our now!

MOTIVATOR: We’re all going to read an exciting, brilliant poem. And we’re going to use Reciprocal Reading to read it together and question what it is about.

ASSESSOR: I’m going to check our understanding of the poem as we read it; the main thing to remember first when reading is to deal with two central points: what does the poem mean, and how well are we understanding it?

The key questions for Reciprocal Reading

Summariser: OK, let’s outline the first and second parts of the RR cycle:

First part of the reciprocal reading cycle

What is this text about? What is happening in it? How might I best summarise my overall understanding of the passage: do I have an unsatisfactory, satisfactory, good or outstanding understanding of the passage? (Summarising)

Second part of the reciprocal reading cycle

Are there any difficult bits we don’t understand? Is anything not very clear? If so, can other people in the group help us understand the text better? (Clarifying)

QUESTIONER: OK, let’s outline the third part of the RR cycle:

Third part of the reciprocal reading cycle

Does anyone have any questions to ask about the text? Do you have any questions about how you might improve your understanding of the text? E.g. Do (Questioning)

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: OK, let’s outline the fourth part of the RR cycle:

Fourth part of the reciprocal reading cycle

Is there anything that is NOT said in the text that we think might be important to consider? In the case of many texts (but usually not poems) we ask: What does everyone think might happen next? (Predicting/hypothesizing)

ASSESSOR: OK, let’s outline the fifth part of the RR cycle:

Fifth part of the reciprocal reading cycle

How well are we reading? What could we do to improve our reading? (Assessing/Evaluating/learning to learn)

TEACHER: Then the cycle begins again with the next scene. At that point, the goal is that the role of the TEACHER passes on to another person so that everyone has a go at being the TEACHER. The idea is that you do the cycle a few times and then it becomes “natural” and you naturally ask the right questions that come to mind. You “internalise” how to read well by summarising your understanding of the passage, by clarifying difficult bits, by asking good questions that make you think more deeply about the text, and by predicting what might happen next.

QUESTIONER: I am confused. What am I supposed to be doing? Can someone help me?

MOTIVATOR: Don’t worry, we’ll have a go with the first scene and then you’ll begin to get the idea.

ASSESSOR: It generally takes a few lessons before people get the hang of Reciprocal Reading – sometimes called Reciprocal Teaching. It always starts with people being confused because it can seem complicated at first, but after you’ve done it for a few goes it becomes quite natural.

MOTIVATOR: It’s like learning to walk or drive; it seems difficult at first but then it becomes natural. And when you get used to it you really start to enjoy it and reading much more. It’s really fun reading in groups and you learn a lot from it!

SUMMARIZER: But to sum up, it really is about people learning to read together and discuss what they are reading.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: That’s a good summary, SUMMARIZER. OK, let’s all write down in our learning journals, what we think Reciprocal Reading means.

TEACHER: OK, off we go, we’re going to read Ozymandias, a GCSE set text on my courses! Come on, let’s have some fun! Can I ask all of us to read the poem silently to ourselves first, and then before we do any discussion work, we are going to read this poem 3 times out aloud; MOTIVATOR, ASSESSOR, and QUESTIONER, can you read it aloud to us?

QUESTIONER: What’s the point of reading it aloud without trying to work it out immediately?

SUMMARIZER: We need to get familiar with the words first and get an overall sense of it.

ASSESSOR: Can I also ask us to underline difficult phrases/words, and sum up what we think the poem might be about and how much we understand BEFORE we read the script about the poem?

MOTIVATOR: Yes, and let’s not get depressed if we find it difficult! Difficult texts are fun! We have a chance to work out their meanings by ourselves!

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1792 – 1822


I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”


Using Reciprocal Teaching to read difficult texts

TEACHER: OK, what we’re going to do now is to use Reciprocal Teaching to read this difficult poem – well, I think it looks tricky!

QUESTIONER: As the QUESTIONER, I would have to ask: What do you think makes it such a difficult poem for so many GCSE students, do you think?

MOTIVATOR:  As the group MOTIVATOR, I would guess it was partly linked to many GCSE pupils’ motivation to read it; I reckon they often look at the title and some of the words like “antique” “trunkless” “visage” etc. and think there is no way they can understand the poem, and they lose their motivation and give up.

ASSESSOR: That’s very interesting. As the ASSESSOR, I would have to agree with you. I have been assessing many GCSE students and I have observed how they often just give up if something looks too difficult, saying to themselves, “I can’t do it!”

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: OK guys, points taken, but how are we going to understand this poem though?

SUMMARIZER: Do you think we should look up the difficult words FIRST of all?

TEACHER: We could do that. That’s one strategy, which we could do because we’re not in a test, but what do you do if you’ve got no dictionary/Google?

MOTIVATOR: Not give up! We need to tell ourselves: ‘This is interesting work, we can solve it!’

QUESTIONER: How will that help us understand better?

ASSESSOR: It might give us the confidence to work out WHAT WE DOES KNOW! We need to honestly ASSESS our true knowledge because I bet with a bit HARD thinking, we can work out bits of the poem.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: Yes, let’s look at the poem again and highlight what we DO know.

SUMMARIZER: And make some notes around the poem.

TEACHER: OK, let’s take it line by line, and work it out together.

MOTIVATOR: Togetherness, man! This is about being resilient learners! Growth mindsets, not Fixed Mindsets!

TEACHER: OK, team, let’s go for it!

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: Right, the title — what does it mean?


QUESTIONER: Not a clue. Does that mean we give up, I mean if we can’t get the title, how on earth are we going to do it? I can’t even say it!

SUMMARIZER: Break it down OZ –Y-MAN-DI-AS.

MOTIVATOR: Well done, break it down. That’s what we do.

TEACHER: OK, I think we ignore the title for now and go onto the first line:

I met a traveller from an antique land,

QUESTIONER: What does antique mean? Who is this ‘I’?

SUMMARIZER: Antique means ‘very old’.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: So the line means ‘I met a man who travels a lot who came from a very old land’.

MOTIVATOR: Great work!

TEACHER: Next couple of lines:

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . .

QUESTIONER: What does ‘vast’ mean?


ASSESSOR: Trunkless?

MOTIVATOR: Not sure, it makes me think of an elephant, but ‘less’ means ‘without something’, so it means without an ‘elephant trunk’. Doesn’t make sense!

TEACHER: Let’s read on: ‘Legs of stone’ so we might guess that…

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: That the legs don’t have a body! So the ‘trunk’ means ‘without a body’!

MOTIVATOR: Well done! You’ve got it!

QUESTIONER: So, can someone put this in simple language for me?

SUMMARIZER: There are two very big legs of stone standing upright in the desert, a very sandy place, which don’t have a body…

MOTIVATOR: Great work! Well done!

TEACHER: OK, guys, we’re getting this! Onto the next lines:

Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies,

QUESTIONER: Here we go again, what does ‘visage’ mean? I need a dictionary!

MOTIVATOR: But hang on, let’s look at the other lines, this thing, this ‘visage’, is ‘half-sunk’ and is near the legs of stone.

LA: Great work MOTIVATOR, this is giving us a clue.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: So, the sand has covered this thing.

TEACHER: Let’s read on and see if we can work out what it might mean from the context:

whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

QUESTIONER: What has a ‘frown’?


SUMMARIZER: Yes, ‘visage’ means ‘face’! Woah! We did it! High five!

TEACHER: Hang on, there are other things too. LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF, can you work out more?

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: The face has a ‘wrinkled lip’; in other words, it’s looking rather nasty like this! (Makes a wrinkled lip)

MOTIVATOR: Oh yes, I see, the face has a ‘sneer’. What do you think of my sneer? (Makes a sneer)

QUESTIONER: What is a ‘sneer’?

MOTIVATOR: When you look really snidey, or in a nasty way, at someone. You can kind of work out the meaning from the sound of the word, which has a sneeeeeering quality to it!

QUESTIONER: The face has a ‘sneer of cold command’ so this is a face which was commanding someone?

QUESTIONER: But why ‘cold’?

ASSESSOR: Maybe the face was very unfeeling, emotionally cold?

MOTIVATOR: Great point! Let’s read on:

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive,

TEACHER: So what is happening here?

QUESTIONER: What is a sculptor?

SUMMARIZER: A person who makes statues.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: So, the person who made this face ‘well those passions read’. This is difficult. Any guesses?

ASSESSOR: Maybe the sculptor was really good at reading ‘passions’.

QUESTIONER: What are they?

MOTIVATOR: Feelings?

ASSESSOR: Yes, that sounds about right.

TEACHER: So, the sculptor was good at understanding the feelings of the person whose face lies all broken in the desert. What survives are the feelings in the face: the sneer, the wrinkled lip.

MOTIVATOR: Great work. Let’s read on:

stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

QUESTIONER: What is ‘stamped on these lifeless things’?

MOTIVATOR: These feelings were ‘stamped’? Did someone tread on the lifeless things? What are the ‘lifeless things’?

ASSESSOR: Guess! Are the ‘lifeless things’, the stones on which the sculptor carved his face?

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: That makes sense. The feelings are ‘stamped’ or printed, or drawn, or carved on these dead stones.

TEACHER: What have we got so far? And how much do we understand?

MOTIVATOR: This is important; summarising our ideas so far so that we remember what is going on and checking in on the level of our understanding.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: OK, we’ve got a guy who met someone who travels a lot who has seen a stone face in the desert which has a nasty face, and this tells the traveller that the person who made the face was good at understanding the feelings of the person he sculpted.

ASSESSOR: That’s great work! Well done. And if I were to assess our level of understanding I would say that we are understanding most of the meaning of the poem, which we are working out because we are reading the lines slowly, not getting demotivated if we don’t understand something immediately, and we are re-reading, and asking questioning about what we don’t understand.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: We are also working out what we don’t understand; this is important because sometimes it’s difficult to work out what you know and what you don’t know. When you know what you don’t know, you can kind of focus upon it, and then work out what it means by re-reading and asking questions about it, and make good guesses at its meaning, like we did with ‘visage’.

TEACHER: Great points L2L Chief! OK, onto the next line:

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

QUESTIONER: What’s ‘pedestal’?

MOTIVATOR: Guess; is it a platform or sign or something because there are words on it?

ASSESSOR: Sounds close.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: We don’t need to know exactly what it means to get the overall meaning though, because what is important is the next two lines:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

QUESTIONER: Who is speaking here?

MOTIVATOR: The traveller?

SUMMARIZER: It couldn’t be the traveller, because he’s a traveller, not a king.

ASSESSOR: The speaker of the poem?

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: He’s not a king either.

MOTIVATOR: What about the actual person who is the statue? What if it was a statue of a real king who lived once?

ASSESSOR: Very good, that makes sense!

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: In other words, the guy that the statue was made of was a real king, and he wanted on his statue the words that said he was ‘King of kings!’

QUESTIONER: He thought he was the very best king of all?

MOTIVATOR: I’m getting this now, and he said to ‘ye Mighty’ to look on ‘his works’ and ‘Despair’?

QUESTIONER: What does that mean?

ASSESSOR: He is speaking to ‘mighty’ people?


SUMMARIZER: Who were important people, because they were ‘mighty’ or strong?

QUESTIONER: What does ‘ye’ mean?

ASSESSOR: Guess: an old-fashioned word for ‘you’?

QUESTIONER: What are his ‘works’? Drugs?

MOTIVATOR: No, not drugs I think, but all the great things he did as a king, maybe a huge palace or something.

QUESTIONER: Or this statue?

TEACHER: OK, I think we’ve got this, the king said to everyone he was the greatest king of all, and he told everyone to look at all the great things he’s done: ‘my Works’ and ‘despair’.

QUESTIONER: But why ‘despair’?

ASSESSOR: Maybe he wants people to look at his great works and feel really bad that they will never be as great or as important as him?

SUMMARIZER: Yes, a bit like a really important celebrity who says to everyone: just look at my huge mansion just so that we will all feel bad that we can never be as rich and as important as him or her?

ASSESSOR: Yes, that’s it. The king had a statue made himself, a very big one, which was to show off!

MOTIVATOR: Great work guys!

TEACHER: I think we can read the last lines now:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

QUESTIONER: What does he mean ‘nothing beside remains’?

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: There’s nothing else, there are no great works, no great palaces, nothing.

ASSESSOR: And the statue is a ‘colossal wreck’.

SUMMARIZER: Colossal means very big.

MOTIVATOR: And it’s a complete wreck, a total mess.

TEACHER: And the sands or the desert ‘stretch far away’.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: And there is nothing around the sands, the desert is ‘boundless and bare’.

QUESTIONER: What does that mean?

SUMMARIZER: ‘Boundless’ means without any boundaries I think, and bare means naked.

MOTIVATOR: There is nothing around. Absolutely nothing.

ASSESSOR: And the sands are also ‘lone’ and ‘level’.

QUESTIONER: What does that mean?

SUMMARIZER: Maybe ‘lone’ means ‘lonely’?

MOTIVATOR: Yes, that makes sense. The statue which is all broken up is in a ‘lonely’ place.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: And it’s ‘level’ or ‘flat’. So there are not even the outlines of the palaces and great things in the sand. There is nothing there.

QUESTIONER: So this big, show-off king thought that everyone would look at his great works and feel bad that they weren’t as important as him, but actually, there’s nothing left of his work?

MOTIVATOR: I reckon that’s it. I reckon we’ve cracked it! This poem is about a traveller who saw this broken statue and this sign which said this bloke Ozymandias was a great king, and everyone should despair that they could never be as great as him, but actually, there is nothing there.

TEACHER: Very interesting.

QUESTIONER: What do think the message is for this poem?

QUESTIONER: How great big show-offs die and are forgotten?

MOTIVATOR: That time kills you off in the end, and nothing is left of you, no matter how important you think you are?

ASSESSOR: Yes, very good Lead MOTIVATOR. Now, could I ask what we learnt about reading difficult texts in doing that exercise?

MOTIVATOR: That if you work together, and really think about what you do know, and make some guesses, then you can more or less work it out. We never did know what ‘pedestal’ meant, and I wasn’t sure what ‘sneer’ meant, but I basically got most of the poem from the other words.

QUESTIONER: And that asking questions helps?

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: Breaking the poem down into small bits, and working it out that way.

ASSESSOR: But also, assessing what we know about the poem so far: what we know and what we don’t know.

MOTIVATOR: And not being frightened if we don’t know something, but seeing it a great challenge! Being motivated to work it out like a really interesting puzzle.

QUESTIONER: But what if you guys are not here to help me?

TEACHER: Well this is the great thing, we can remember how we did it as a group, and then carry these different roles in our heads when we read a poem by ourselves, so we are a TEACHER to ourselves, explaining things clearly and not panicking.

MOTIVATOR: And we have a Lead MOTIVATOR in our heads going, ‘Yeah, we can do this!’;

QUESTIONER: And we have a Lead QUESTIONER in our brains, asking questions that help us focus upon what is important.

ASSESSOR: And we have a Lead ASSESSOR in our head checking what we know and don’t know.

SUMMARIZER: And we have a SUMMARIZER in our heads summarising things in clear English.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: And we have a LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF in our heads, working out how we know and don’t know, figuring out strategies to help us learn better, doing things like noting things down and working out difficult words.

TEACHER: Very good guys. Together we are like a gigantic brain. A community of learners which we can carry in our heads forever and forever.

SUMMARIZER: OK, before we get too carried away, can you now write a summary of the poem in your Learning Journals, or if you prefer what you learnt about reading difficult poems from our Reciprocal Teaching?

(Everyone does this.)

TEACHER: The next step would be to then perhaps do some analysis of how the writer achieved his effects, but you can’t do that until you’ve understood the poem properly.

QUESTIONER: Why not? I’m used to just analysing the alliteration and onomatopoeia, and never really worry that much about understanding poetry. I used the DAFOREST acroynym. I always do well in my tests because it looks like I am really clever, knowing all this terminology.

LEARNING TO LEARN CHIEF: But you won’t be able to write very well at the very top level about those things if you don’t understand what the lines mean.

QUESTIONER: That’s true. I never get the top grades, but I do generally pass, but the real teacher always writes, “Discuss the effects of the techniques you have spotted” or says I am “feature-spotting”. Whatever that means.

TEACHER: That means you are just finding certain techniques and now relating those techniques to what the poem means.

QUESTIONER: That’s because I don’t usually know that well what the poem means!

TEACHER: Exactly, so that’s why you need to work out what it means first, and then find the techniques!

QUESTIONER: OK, I think I get it!

ASSESSOR: I have to say, analysing poetry can kill the enjoyment. Maybe it would be better to write our own poems about show-offs?

MOTIVATOR: Yes, let’s write a poem called ‘The Ruined Mansion’ about a huge mansion of a celebrity who has died and how it has all these signs that big him up, but now the wind and the rain has got into his king-size bedroom, his sports car has rusted to bits and his bathroom has the ceiling fallen in.

ASSESSOR: Yes, and you could show you understanding of Ozymandias by writing a modern update of it, where you met someone from Hollywood who told about this house.

SUMMARIZER: Yes, I could write a poem about Michael Jackson’s ‘Neverland’ and how it was all abandoned and shut up, and how this famous guy is now dead.

MOTIVATOR: But not forgotten.

SUMMARIZER: Oh yeah, but he will be in a hundred years’ time, probably.

TEACHER: OK, everyone, can you either write an analysis of ‘Ozymandias’, discussing the effects of the poetry, or write your own poem possibly called ‘The Show-Off’.

MOTIVATOR: Well done guys! We did it! We understood a difficult poem!

Learning Activities

Now have a go at annotating this script so that you highlight the reading strategies that were used to get the group understanding the poem. Then answer this question: what reading strategies could you use to help you improve your reading?

Re-read the poem in a group WITHOUT this script, and have a similar discussion to the one above which uses Reciprocal Teaching to help you understand the poem even better, exploring this time the language techniques in the poem. You could use the DAFOREST acronym to help you annotate the language features of the poem.

For Teachers

Have a think about how you might use this script in the classroom; the key thing to bear in mind is that it is only a model; not the perfect way. Students and you should reflect critically upon it and use it as a way of getting groups to discuss poetry and texts meaningfully.


Another iteration of RT.


Brown, A.L., Palincsar, A.S., 1987. Reciprocal teaching of comprehension strategies: A natural history of one program for enhancing learning, in: Day, J.D., Borkowski, J.G. (Eds.), Intelligence and Exceptionality: New Directions for Theory, Assessment, and Instructional Practices. Ablex Publishing, Westport, CT, US, pp. 81–132.

Gaskins, I.W., 1998. There’s more to teaching at-risk and delayed readers than good reading instruction. Read. Teach. Newark 51, 534–547.

Mason, L.H., 2004. Explicit Self-Regulated Strategy Development Versus Reciprocal Questioning: Effects on Expository Reading Comprehension Among Struggling Readers. J. Educ. Psychol. 96, 283–296. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.96.2.283

Palincsar, A.S., Brown, A.L., 1984. Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension-Fostering and Comprehension-Monitoring Activities. Cogn. Instr. 1, 117–175.

Petty, G., 2009. Evidence-Based Teaching A Practical Approach Second Edition, 2nd Revised edition edition. ed. Nelson Thornes, Oxford.

Street, B.V., 2011. Literacy inequalities in theory and practice: The power to name and define. Int. J. Educ. Dev., Literacy Inequalities and Social Justice 31, 580–586.

7 Things I Loved About Min Jin Lee’s great novel ‘Pachinko’

  1. The page-turning story which is rooted in historical facts. Pachinko is nearly 500 pages long but you can’t stop turning the pages once you start reading it. From the start, you’re immersed in the family saga of Sunja, the loved daughter of Hoonie, who was born with a “cleft palate and a twisted foot”, and Yangjin. Extremely poor but happy, they lived in the fishing village of Yeongdo, near the post of Busan, now situated in South Korea but at the time when the novel opens, in the 1920s, Korea had been annexed by Imperial Japan in 1910. Much of the tension in the story is generated by the extreme prejudice the Korean characters encounter at the hands of the Japanese; Min Jin explores the horrifying discrimination that Koreans suffered with real subtlety but never shies away from showing things as they were. Japan+Times+Article
  2. The compelling characters. When Sunja was thirteen, her father, Hoonie died of tuberculosis and then in 1932 the Japanese invaded Manchuria, causing widespread suffering in Korea because the Japanese were given extremely preferential treatment in Korea above the native Koreans: the Depression meant that Sunja and her mother, Yangjin, had to run a boardinghouse to survive, taking in six lodgers into their tiny house. All the major characters in the novel are complex and sympathetic. Yangjin appears on the surface to be a doting, diligent mother and cook, but, without giving too much away, we see a dark side to her when she passes judgement on her daughter’s lover on her deathbed. Sunja is even more finely drawn: she is a “peasant” girl — and then mother — who is a fully-rounded character with conflicting desires.190fd57aff3465ffa79c3fd667f5cec5453512-120630-inq-japanese-troops
  3. The exploration of desire. Above all, this novel, for all its brilliant evocation of Korean and Japanese culture, is an investigation into the conflict between human desires and social conventions. Sunja suffers because she wishes to enjoy the moment with Hansu, a rich Korean who appears to offer her the chance to rescue her from a life of poverty. Min Jin Lee’s writing excels when it is sensual. It is worth quoting an important moment in the novel when Hansu seduces Sunja while they are mushroom picking in the forest (p. 46): “Hansu moved towards her. She could smell his soap and the winter-green of his hair wax. He was cleanly shaven and handsome. She loved how white his clothes were. Why did such a thing matter? The men at the boardinghouse could not help being filthy. Their work dirtied all their things, and no amount of scrubbing would get the fish smell of their shirts and pants. Her father had taught her not to judge people on such shallow points: What a man wore or owned had nothing to do with his heart and character. She inhaled deeply, his scent mingled with the cleansing air of the forest.” I loved the way MJL entered the “thought-stream” of Sunja here; we can see her conflicting wishes to do the “right thing” and yet also discover what it means to touch, to smell, to taste a person you’re intoxicated with.

    A Korean forest (Gwangneung)
  4. Immersing yourself in another culture and era. The novel has a really immersive quality. I read it over the space of a few weeks; I would come home after work and would want to read it rather than watching TV because the novel has the quality of a really brilliant HBO serial: you want to see what happens in the next episode. There is an epic sweep to the narrative which spans the whole of the 20th century. After Sunja rejects Hansu’s offer of an “arrangement”, she marries a poor cleric, Isak, and moves with him to live with his brother, Yoseb, in Osaka, Japan. There, the climate is much harsher and the prejudice against Koreans even worse, with Koreans not even being allowed to become citizens even after living in the country for decades. Sunja befriends Yoseb’s beautiful wife, Kyunghee, and together, despite great hardship, they triumph.

    Kyobashi Station Osaka in 1946
  5. A brilliant evocation of what it means to be a parent. Sunja has two sons, Noa and Mozasu. Her husband Isak is imprisoned by the Japanese in the late 1930s for refusing to honour the Emperor above his Christian faith and then dies. Sunja has to more or less bring up her sons by herself. Her eldest son, Noa, seems to be set for great things, attaining a place to read English Literature at Waseda University in Tokyo but there is an unexpected twist in the narrative and things do not go according to plan. Once again, MJL’s facility to create complex characters means that you never quite know what is going to happen next.

    Waseda university in 1910.
  6. A fascinating insight into pachinko culture. Sunja’s youngest son, Mozasu, is not academic and does what many Koreans do in Japan who wish to make money: he works in the pachinko industry. I knew nothing about this arcade game — which is a bit like a cross between a fruit machine and a pinball game — until I read the novel, but I certainly do now! MJL shows us the good and evil side to the industry, right down to the tiniest details of how deals are made.
    A pre-war pachinko machine
    Billard japonais, Southern Germany/Alsace ca. 1750–70.
    Mechanical pachinko machine from the 1970s.

    A modern, electronic pachinko machine in a Tokyo parlor.
  7. A mouth-watering narrative about food. Cooking plays a central role in the novel, with kimchi, a traditional Korean dish of fermented vegetables, becoming extremely important in rescuing our protagonists at a pivotal moment, and food generally being very important. I loved all the descriptions of cooking, eating and the selling of food.


My Life, My Stories: Creative Writing Mentoring Project 2016-2017

This year, the Creative Writing Mentoring project will publish an anthology ‘My Life, My Stories’ with students from a variety of London schools being encouraged to get students to write about the stories that are important in their lives, the stories they tell about their lives. The video above explains the main points (please ignore the deadline at the end of the video, all submissions must be emailed to by mid-June 2017). The anthology will contain the following topics:

  • Words I will never forget
  • Belonging
  • My favourite objects
  • Reminders
  • When it all kicked off
  • My earliest memory
  • I wish I could return
  • Stories my family loves to tell
  • I’ll always be grateful to…

You can download the PowerPoint for Phase 1 here: first-steps-introduction-and-first-exercise

You can downloaded the PowerPoint for Phase 2 here: next-steps-write-about-belonging

My Dreams, My World: London schools and Goldsmiths Creative Writing Anthology



What happens when 14-year-olds across London are encouraged by postgraduate students at Goldsmiths, University of London, to pursue creative writing outside the curriculum? This is the result – an outpouring of ideas, memories, thoughts, fears, certainties, doubts and dreams expressed in a mash-up of styles, from first-person confessional to poems, gothic fantasy to absurdist humour, rap to reportage. Beloved pets, troublesome siblings, fantasy quests and painful dislocations spill out from these pages. As the certainties of home life blur into an unknown future, stories of playground spats take place alongside abductions and brutal murders. But for every dark dream there is a celebration of friendship, tolerance, the beauty of the world and our potential for growth and change. Moving, funny, assertive, reflective, revealing and raw, this writing will take you to the heart of what matters to a generation whose voices are not often heard.

A video made by students who wrote pieces for the anthology can be viewed here.