My Top Ten Films of the Decade

Thanks to Andy Wallis for the inspiration to post my top ten films of the decade, a bit of an indulgence but what the……. it is that time of the year for making lists and there’s nothing we boys like better, so here goes. Please enjoy and feel free to respond.

1Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself Directed by Lone Scherfig

2 Talk to Her Directed by Pedro Almodovar

3 Les Choristes Directed by Christophe Barratier

4 The Lives of Others Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

5 Man on Wire Directed by James Marsh

6 City of God Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund

7 The Beat My Heart Skipped Directed by Jacques Audiard

8 Atonement Directed by Joe Wright

9 Brokeback Mountain Directed by Ang Lee

10 Amelie Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet


I Want to Tell You a Digital Narrative

Writing in this week’s TESS, Peter Wright, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, offers a six-point plan to ‘rescue’ Scottish education from the doldrums in which he claims it to be currently stuck. Some of his ideas I happen to agree with, such as his recommended class size maximum, but on the subject of improving literacy he has this to say: “It must be defined as the ability to read and write. The current fad, which defines it as the ability to access texts in all their forms, must be shelved.” On this I couldn’t agree less.

That statement is wrong on so many counts. For one thing, ‘the ability to read and write’ is in itself meaningless, as it immediately begs the question, ‘the ability to read and write WHAT?’  The ability to read, and the ability to access texts in all their forms, are not mutually exclusive. The use of the word ‘fad’ is simply a sign of a desperate man in search of an argument.

I have written before about the blurring of the lines between reading, writing, listening, watching and talking, and about the development of digital narratives which appear to be breaking down the divisions between books, films and computer games. Inanimate Alice is a particularly exciting example of a multimedia, interactive narrative which combines digital photographs, video, printed text, drawing, painting and sound. The narrative is progressive and increasingly complex, not to mention absorbing and engaging. For a range of other good examples of digital narratives in development, and a wonderful range of materials and suggestions for creating digital narratives I would suggest you visit Martin Jorgensen’s definitive website The Digital Narrative – Finding Your Story with New Media and its close relatives The Lightning Bug, where young writers are provided with a host of ideas to inspire and support them in their efforts, and Building Community in Your Classroom, for teachers who are keen to introduce new technologies into their classroom but don’t quite know where to start.

I have also been excited recently by computer games such as Samorost and Machinarium, which have a narrative structure, but little or no printed text. They are described as ‘games’ but have a definite narrative or story – even although they have very little or no printed text – which only becomes complete or obvious after the player has solved all the puzzles and the plot has been resolved. These games are visually quite stunning and provide the perfect stimulus for discussion and for the creation of text, including the writing of stories. Beyond these however, it is difficult at the moment to find computer games which have a strong narrative element, rather than simply providing a context for interactive learning and social integration, commendable as both of these aims undoubtedly are. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the narrative which counts, and at the moment it seems to me there are very few games which are able to provide this. The problem for games developers is perfectly summed up in this very funny presentation from Daniel Floyd of Animation Mentor.


The Jury’s Out

Met some really good people (and dedicated English teachers) yesterday in the Jury’s Inn in Glasgow to discuss the development of literacy in the context of Curriculum for Excellence. At least that’s my interpretation of what they were there to do, as I was delivering the course on behalf of an organisation called Creative Education, who had advertised it as Implementing the (sic) Curriculum for Excellence in Literacy and English, which, you will realise if you have any understanding of the thinking behind Curriculum for Excellence, doesn’t actually make sense. Implementing Literacy and English in Curriculum for Excellence would make a bit more sense, but not much, which is why I prefer to use the word ‘developing’. This may seem like splitting hairs, but I think it’s a crucial distinction to make.

The respective roles in the secondary school – of English teachers and other subject specialists – in supporting the development of literacy in young people, was a topic which raised some lively debate (and one which I have commented on before  (see post on November 25), as did the discussion of the literacy framework itself.  Are we ensuring that young people encounter a wide range of different types of text in different media as described in the Principles and Practice paper? How can we begin to assess progress within each of the outcomes?  What is English, when you remove the literacy outcomes? Is it literature? In that case, do we need to redefine literature? How can we, individually, as a department, or as a school, move forward with the notion of literacy as the responsibility of all teachers and turn it into a reality?

In answer to the last question, I would suggest that the following moves are an absolute requirement, and in many schools of course these things have already happened:

  • Make sure you have a truly representative cross-curricular group working on literacy policy development
  • Make sure the person leading it has drive, enthusiasm, passion, true leadership qualities and a vision of what the ultimate goal might be (not much to ask)
  • Make sure the policy is informed by the whole community
  • Try to move forward as a cluster, developing a common language and common understandings with primary colleagues
  • Begin to look at ways of giving ownership of literacy development to the young people themselves, including responsibility for recording of progress

The description of the curriculum frameworks as a series of outcomes and experiences, rather than a list of inputs, is what makes Curriculum for Excellence radically different from school curricula before the 21st century, in that it puts the focus on the learner. One simple way of encouraging responsibility in the learner and linking the idea of literacy across learning, is for every young person coming in to S1 to have a personalised ‘Word’ book in which they record new words and definitions in all subjects, helping  them to see the links between subjects, and making them aware that there are words which can have different meanings in different contexts.

Similarly, many departments and schools already include elements of self-assessment in their recording and reporting systems, which is a good place to start in establishing responsibility and ownership in the young person, as they begin to record a portfolio of evidence towards recognition of their achievements.

At the end of the course one delegate (who was generally very complimentary in her evaluation of the day) commented that it had raised more questions than answers, which I took to be an expression of disappointment; but if it raised the right questions I think I would settle for that.

I would like to thank Alastair, Avril, Cara, Claire, Heather, Hilary, Karen, Kate, Lorna, Martin, Michaella, Paul and Roz for sharing their own views and experiences so willingly in a spirit of openness and collaboration.

Thirty-Three Ways to Read a Poem

“As regards Dumfriesshire, whither both fame and notoriety had preceded the newcomer, the figure of a poetical farmer was rather an object of suspicious curiosity than of neighbourliness.”

Thus wrote Catherine Carswell of the poet Robert Burns when he took over the tenancy of Ellisland Farm near Dumfries in 1788. Fortunately, neighbourliness and hospitality were much more in evidence from the good people of Dumfries and Galloway when I went visiting them this week. First stop, on Tuesday, was the very attractive new Castle Douglas Primary School on Tuesday (I’m sure the heating in your lovely games hall will be working again soon!), to work with primary staff from across the region, before moving on the following day to contribute to the staff development day at Lockerbie Academy, where the secondary staff  and their primary colleagues had come together to discuss Literacy Across Learning, and to begin to lay the foundations for a cluster-wide approach to literacy, which will ensure that their pupils are well prepared to deal with the complexities of life in the 21st century. What impressed me most when talking to the cross-curricular literacy group was the willingness of the staff to get to grips with some very challenging issues, for the sake of the common goal of providing the best possible experience for every young person in their care. I thoroughly enjoyed both sessions and appreciated the very positive response to the workshops.

One promise I made – which is a pleasure to keep, as I think it demonstrates the fact that developing common reading strategies which apply to all media is the way forward – is this one. In Tuesday’s session, after some input from me on reading strategies, the staff were issued with a text which is fairly commonly used in upper primary or lower secondary schools – A Case of Murder by Vernon Scannell – and given the following task:

 “Rather than asking pupils to answer a set of questions on the poem, how many alternative lessons could you come up with, using the seven reading strategies, to develop and demonstrate an understanding of the poem and poetry in general?” 

The results, not surprisingly, were highly creative, rich and varied, so I have collated them (all 33 of them) below. Feel free to add more!

Thirty-Three Ways to Promote Close Reading of A Case of Murder by Vernon Scannell


  • Provide title and first line. Discuss what might follow.
  • Read up to ‘he loathed all that’. Write and/or discuss what might happen.
  • Provide title and last line. Predict what happens.
  • Read poem up to ‘under the stair’. Write possible ending before reading actual ending.

Asking Questions

  • Groups generate own questions which arise from the poem. Groups swap questions for further discussion.
  • Ask pupils to discuss what one single question they would ask each of the characters.
  • Use ‘surprises’ grid to list all the surprises which occur.

Making Comparisons

  • Talk about own ‘guilty secrets’ (could be risky!)
  • List the stories/characters in fiction this reminds you of.
  • Find other poems/stories with the same theme and compare against agreed criteria.

Looking for Patterns

  • List and count the words which are used more than once
  • Use Wordle ( to re-order the poem and pick out most significant words
  • Find all the rhyming words.
  • Use highlighter pens to highlight adjectives (descriptive words)

Making Pictures

  • Draw the cat. Draw the boy.
  • Storyboard the poem in 6 pictures.
  • Create cartoon version of the poem using online cartoon maker such as Comicbrush.
  • Draw character MindMaps for the boy and the cat.
  • Draw the murder scene.
  • Draw something to represent each of the emotions found in the poem. Discuss most appropriate colour for each.


  • Write the boy’s diary/blog entry for that day.
  • Issue the poem with the title removed. Ask pupils to write the best title. Discuss and compare with original.
  • Write the story of the poem in 6 words/50 words/140 characters
  • Write the newspaper headline as it might appear in the local paper.
  • Write the newspaper story.
  • Write the poem as a story in your own words.


  • Make a list of the excuses the boy might use for the cat’s disappearance.
  • Conduct the mock trial of the boy for his crime.
  • Write an alternative ending (in the style of the author?)
  • Stage mini-debate on the reasons for writing the poem.
  • Write the story from the cat’s point of view.


Finally, make a podcast or videocast of the poem. Rehearse and READ IT ALOUD with as much fluency, understanding and expression as possible!