I have been thinking a lot recently about Alan Booth, my English teacher from the ages of 11 to 13. He strode into the suburban prep school I attended, cigarette ash on his sleeve, dandruff on his collar, with a kind of defiant panache born out of the twin engines of his craft: exceptional knowledge and razor-sharp command of the classroom. He was not the first teacher to teach me something, but he was the first teacher I encountered for whom teaching was a calling, not just something to be tolerated before leaving to do something else, or a backstop career choice having failed at other things, like the other ‘masters’.
I remember once reading round Willis Hall’s The Long and the Short and the Tall, taking it in turns to voice the different parts. ‘Not like that, Wilson!’ he would splutter. ‘Bammo just isn’t that posh!’ When we got to a particular line he liked he would stop the reading and have us say the line out loud in unison, the better to appreciate its music and force. ‘Why is Taff saying that now?’ he would ask. ‘He’s been silent for five minutes!’ He would also go on great riffs. ‘I remember one staging of the play I saw once…’ he began. ‘Robert Shaw made up a completely different line each night. I think he was trying to make the others laugh.’ This was giddy stuff. Implicit in his remarks, left unexplained, were the ideas that you could go to see a play in the theatre more than once; and that theatre itself is a co-constructed and social process of transmitting knowledge.
He often began his lessons with games, what I suppose we would now call ‘starters’. He just called them games. They involved arcane rules, the point of which was to trick each other into making mistakes, grammatical, lexical and orthographical. His marking was a baptism of fire in its own right. In luminous red felt tip pen he would scrawl all over our work to praise, cajole and admonish in equal order. He was not above using sarcasm. I clearly remember his capitalized ‘GAWD!’ adjacent to yet another misspelling of the word ‘immediately’.
The feedback from our homework was an event in itself, where he would read out chunks of our work that interested, pleased or puzzled him: ‘If there was no one else around, and they had taken the key out of the ignition, how did the car disappear?’ ‘God, that was good,’ he might say to one boy. ‘God, that was terrible,’ he would say to another. He openly invited us to make comments on each other’s work. He also encouraged us to disagree with him, as long as we could justify ourselves. Now we would call this ‘assessment for learning’. But he could be tender, too. ‘Have you ever read ‘The Prelude’?’ he asked me once after a lesson. ‘You should, you’d love it.’
I have been leaning these memories up against my coding of transcripts of the Teachers as Writers Arvon residential earlier this year, tutored by Alicia Stubbersfield and Steve Voake. I find that our tutors were remarkably similar in their pedagogy to the Alan Booth method. Firstly, they absolutely knew their stuff. I lost count of the times Alicia or Steve would pass round a poem for our perusal with a quick summary of that poet’s work and life, or respond to our work with a quote or line to exemplify the teaching idea they were promulgating. Secondly, like my old teacher, they took the process of public feedback very seriously. Though much more sensitive than he, they treated each publicly read-out piece with care, honouring it with silence followed by a quick, one or two sentence response which might feature some ideas for editing or clarification, but always containing the language of praise and encouragement. Perhaps good teachers have always known and done these things. It was a privilege to observe such great teaching for a second time, this time to savour it.
This blog post appeared today at teachersaswriters.org, the blog of the Teachers as Writers project run by University of Exeter, the Open University and the Arvon Foundation.