Category Archives: Pedagogy

Gulliver’s Travels: Cross-Curricular Jollies with Geographers!

“In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

– Charles Darwin, Descent of Man

Map of Literary Britain and Northern Ireland by Geoff Sawers

Map of Literary Britain and Northern Ireland. Designer Geoff Sawers created a hand-lettered, literary map of Britain by featuring authors according to their approximate locations.

This week, the English trainees joined forces with the geographers to embark on a cross-curricular project entitled ‘Roots and Routes: Finding Place’ where, in groups, we explored a part of the university campus armed with clipboards and paper, mighty pens, instructions, cameras, and a jolly disposition in the face of impending rain.

Each group was instructed to go for a walk together outside, stopping at intervals to look around carefully. Each person in the group was allowed to call “stop!” once before our final destination, which, for our group, was the library.

Key Stage 3 National Curriculum, QCA, 2007

Key Stage 3 National Curriculum, QCA, 2007

At each stop every person in the group had to make individual notes on their clipboard, briefly describing their impressions using the five senses. The focus was left completely to individual choice – some focused on a very small object or angle whereas others elected to study a much wider aspect. We were instructed not to discuss what we saw and also not to write a sentence, poem or any kind of “organised” text. Each stop was numbered and we took a photo of the place before moving on to the next stop.

After our unusual-but-jolly jaunt, where we were mistaken for psychology postgraduates, building surveyors, international students, and fruit inspectors (I don’t recommend anything more than a brief eyebrow raise into that stop because it was terribly confusing and my pen blurted “prickly pineapple staring at a friendly teapot-looking man across an airport corridor of liminal doom” onto the page before my common sense overrode my five senses and we decided to move on), we brought our scribblings back to our classroom and shared our responses by writing our impressions of each stop on a separate piece of paper, collating them, and presenting them to the originator of each stop for editing and composition in order to create responses to our route. Then we combined our stops to make a display in the main corridor of the Education Block.

English-Geography Collaboration

Our group’s journey: from the Education Block to the Library


My choice of post title this week is not just parodical, but reflective of my own cognition – my “literary mind map” – of the meaning of a journey and how place and space, routes and roots, the literary and the geographical are inextricably entwined, complimenting and supporting each other. I think that Swift’s shipwrecked castaway Lemuel Gulliver was the first geographer-adventure I knew as a young reader. His accounts of the petty diminutive Lilliputians, the crude, vulgar giants of Brobdingnag, the abstracted scientists of Laputa, the brutish Yahoos, the philosophical Houyhnhnms, and their very strange worlds gave him new insights into human behaviour, filling my head full of ideas and a longing to travel and explore. On the other hand,  “głowa” (go-lo-va), is the Polish word for “head” and sounds very much like “gulliver” when pronounced, linking geography with the language of my thoughts and childhood imaginations. Indeed, growing older and reading A Clockwork Orange,  I was fascinated with Anthony Burgess’ invention and use of “Nadsat”, the teenage vocabulary of the future, which uses a combination of odd bits of old rhyming slang and Slavic-Russianate vocabulary – not mechanically, but with great ingenuity, as the transformation of głowa/golova into “gulliver”, with its Swiftian associates, illustrates. This particular connective pathway – the combination of geography, language and literature – forms the root of the route of my gulliver’s travels, my “geographical imagination”.

‘Roots and Routes: Finding Place’
English-geography cross-curricular journey 2012-13

I really enjoyed working with the geographers in our university group and I felt that we all contributed in different ways that complimented and enriched our ideas, compositions, group presentation and the final class project display. When walking together, we respected each other, decided the route together, and gave each other time and space to interpret and represent our perceptions of each stop, forming “geographical imaginations” of the university campus. However, putting up the display as a group – and as a class – became quite chaotic and stressful. There was not enough space on the wall for all work to be presented comfortably. Perhaps, on reflection, if a space for each group was allocated and marked out on the wall beforehand, then we would have understood the space allowance and planned and designed our work to fit. Although the walk was timed well, I felt that the classroom we were using to compose our responses and then to construct our display using the creative resources (including scissors, glue, staples) was too small to fit everyone safely and we felt pressured to finish quickly, which was frustrating.

If this activity were to be repeated at school, then there would be a few changes to consider:

  • a bigger room (or several rooms, which might pose supervision issues)
  • more time taken to organise and explain the creative composition and construction task to students after returning to the classroom from their walk.
  • staple guns issued to specific people (or, in the case of school, allocated to adults only)
  • staggering each group so that they would have clear, safe, and creative access to the display boards without feeling stressed or intimidated by a big crowd (this would also decrease noise levels and help to manage behaviour)
  • step ladder supervision

It was a worthwhile and fun experience and I’m looking forward to the cross-curricular project with the artists in January!


The Origin of the Species: What is an English Teacher?

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are.”

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

One of the first tasks undertaken by the English trainees during the first week of subject knowledge enhancement and professional development seminars at university was a character exploration of the thriving organism identified as English Teacher. We each asked two people for two words they thought described an English teacher. The words I collected were “nitpicker”, “creative”, “feminine” and “sweet”. The following morning, we drew around our colleagues and cut out the outline of their bodies to produce a paper representation of these collocated words. One body outline incorporated the public perception of English teachers and the other body outlines were words we, as student English teachers, had chosen to describe and represent ourselves, the attributes and the personae of those in our soon-to-be profession.

Public perceptions of an English teacher

Public perceptions of an English teacher


Cohort perceptions of an English teacher

Reflecting on the public perceptions of an English teacher is a fascinating activity. However, mentality attempting to arrange the adjectives and associated nouns in order along the ‘Adjective Garden of Good to Evil’ continuum, I find myself experiencing difficulty in the positioning of “leather elbow patches” and some others in this series. Perhaps this shows my maturity – and by maturity I mean my age and thus acknowledge that I have reached a point in my life where I secretly covet leather elbow patches when once I loathed them and considered them the aesthetic embodiment of dusty boredom and irrelevance. Opinions change given time and experience. I believe myself to be comfortably reconciled with this development, but this trivial example of a seemingly inconsequential preference makes me aware and uncertain of how perceptions of me might effect my ability, performance, and influence as an English teacher, my interactions with young people in my care, my colleagues in the English department, cross-curricula collaborations, school life, and the pedagogical preferences I employ.

There are big questions to contemplate. What do I consider my role to be? What do others (the government, the media, taxpayers, parents, young people, members of the community in the school’s location) consider my role to be? How might these preconceptions – or deeply established assumptions – effect or shape my training and development, my subject knowledge, my professional development? What is “English” as a subject? What is meant by the term “secondary English teaching“? Do I believe, as journalist Melanie Phillips asserts, that English  is “the subject at the heart of our definition of national cultural identity” and therefore  consider the teachers of English to be the “chief custodians” of that identity? Her words bestow upon every English teacher in the country a tremendous  power and weighty responsibility. However, further questions arise about the definition of “national cultural identity”, which naturally provoke comparisons with my own negotiation of cultural identity(/ies). We all bring with us, to any endeavour, our backgrounds and experiences that inform our thinking, choices made, critical analyses, and participation as members of communities. I believe sincerely that this is an enriching benefit, but perhaps there might be anxiety expressed by some if I were perceived as a “caretaker” of national culture…

So many questions. Some answers, but the answers provoke more questions and a desire to research further into the origins of our species, our subject, and our pedagogical preferences as English teachers.