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  • Writer's pictureDiving Bell

New year, stronger skills?

My professional weakness is graphic novels. I just hate them. I can’t see the point, and I don’t know what to do with them. I’m worried by characters with eyes that cover 60% of their face and still can’t see the bad guy. The subtleties of prose seem to vanish in graphic novels, but I’m assured that this is untrue – by people whose judgment I trust. I’ve always considered myself a visually rather stupid person; I’d be quite happy if websites were the old 1980s-style lists of links. But English teachers have to engage, to an extent, with visual texts – especially visual narratives.

I rely on colleagues for help and instruction to get across this weakness, and I’m much better than I used to be. Actually, I’m guided a lot by my colleagues’ enthusiasm and belief that there’s something in these confusing things; their love of these things encourages me to have another go at fixing a definite gap in my professional toolkit.

As the new school year trembles on the horizon, it’s good to review that toolkit and see what you’re missing. Be honest about it; think about how much better and stronger you’d feel if you got across this thing. You can start the year by telling your Head of Department or Head of Teaching and Learning that you’d like to use some of your mandatory Professional Development hours on these.

These are a few elements I’ve noticed English teachers are recurrently weak on, and some suggestions for places to start planning a fix:

Graphic novels. If you’re like me, and have yet to be fully convinced by the graphic novel bit, this is an interesting read:

The Grammar Gremlin! It's certainly true that correcting grammar and idiom in student essays is much harder than the simple grammar learning exercises you get in a PD course. But you have to start somewhere! This is a DoE approved course for teachers in NSW schools, but there are hundreds of other resources out there. Just buying a primer and having it to hand is a good start. It's old-fashioned now, but I like Swan's Practical English Usage.

Reading repertoire and level. A lot of English teachers actively avoid anything written before 1920 because the language is too difficult, and the context too foreign. Reading challenges are excellent ways to move out of your comfort zone - Ann Morgan read a book from every country in the world, which is horizon-opening. Check out her accompanying list.

In 2020 I'm doing this reading challenge for non-fiction and academic books, by the University of Pittsburgh (I'm bought all the books from my local second-hand bookseller, who also chose them for me).

First-hand acquaintance with BOTH theory and criticism, particularly for teachers who teach Extension or G&T students. Are you confident about the difference between theory and criticism, and why both are relevant? Have you read primary works of both, or are you relying on secondary guides? It's surprising how little we generally know about the history of our (mostly American) discipline.

This is a good place to get started: - you can pick and choose what interests you. I have to be brought kicking and screaming to anything gender-oriented, which is why my bookseller friend put some women's writing on my Reading Challenge list!

Logic and argument. Ability to use logic - not just the 'fun fallacies' of informal language, but the basics of propositional logic on which we rely for argument. You can buy a book and teach yourself, though you may want to have a tame maths teacher on hand to help, or you could sign up for a free online course, like these ones (don't be put off by the terrifying-to-English-teachers description). and

General knowledge. We tend to think that Google holds all the knowledge until we need it, like a personal shopper. But integrating it into your picture of the world has a huge impact on your understanding of texts' historical and cultural contexts and confidence in teaching them. If you like podcasts, the BBC's famous series In Our Time is a fantastic resource. It currently stands at 860 casts, with one coming out each week. If you can't find something interesting in this archive, you're much too hard to please!

Confidence in your own writing! How many of us have written an essay or a short narrative since we left uni?

Fear not - a post about the weaknesses of History teachers will follow soon!

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