You Must Be Joking

funny_chemistry_teacher_quote_no_reaction_postcard-rf4872fee293747cbaf640617e0744679_vgbaq_8byvr_324A guy is sitting at home when he hears a knock at the door. He opens the door and sees a snail on the porch. He picks up the snail and throws it as far as he can. Three years later there’s a knock on the door. He opens it and sees the same snail. The snail says: ‘What the hell was that all about?’…………..Boom!

Three guys stranded on a desert island find a magic lantern containing a genie, who grants them each one wish. The first guy wishes he was off the island and back home. The second guy wishes the same. The third guy says: ‘I’m lonely. I wish my friends were back here.’

Two of the funniest jokes of all time, according to a team of researchers at Oxford University, who put them to a group of students at the London School of Economics and asked them to rate them out of ten. The jokes were from a pre-selected list of course, which makes the exercise less than useless, but nevertheless, jokes, and the ability to tell them, have been a part of our popular culture since God worried that Adam would be forever lost in the Garden because men hate to ask for directions, and most jokes are just another form of storytelling, which is at the heart of learning and teaching. Right?

How often, as a teacher, have you recognised in a young person the ability to tell a good story, to hold an audience rapt for minutes on end without script or prompt, and yet were never quite sure how the talent could be developed and nurtured? Well, fear not, because an outlet for that creativity is about to present itself, in the shape of a joint project from the BBC and the National Literacy Trust.

‘Comedy Classroom – Having A Write Laugh’ will officially launch on the 19th of April, and it isn’t just for extroverts. The project organisers are calling on teachers across the UK to get their students writing comedy – whether it be stand-up, sketch-writing or simply photo captions. And being the BBC, they have a huge collection of resources to help you on your way.

Footnote: For those teachers who think that telling jokes isn’t real learning, or for those who simply like ticking boxes, here are some of the literacy outcomes which may be enhanced by undertaking such an endeavour. Have fun, but be careful not to overdo it. Learning is a serious business, after all!


  • Take a role within group discussions.
  • Communicate clearly and confidently with an audience.
  • Verbally evaluate the work of themselves and others.
  • Be able to participate in discussions and presentations.
  • Demonstrate they can gain, maintain and monitor the interest of the listener(s).
  • Be able to discuss words and phrases that capture the reader’s interest and imagination.


  • Comment on the differences between spoken and non-spoken text.
  • Consider why texts can change to be applied to specific audiences.
  • Be able to prepare comedy pieces to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone, volume and action.
  • Demonstrate an ability to recognise different forms of comedy writing.
  • Be able to assess the effectiveness of their own and others’ writing and suggest improvements.


  • Communicate meaning, adapting their style where necessary.
  • Organise their ideas in an easy to understand, coherent way.
  • Demonstrate an appropriate level of spelling, punctuation and grammar.
  • Demonstrate they can draft and edit to improve their work as well as critique others’.
  • Be able to plan, draft, edit and proofread.
  • Be able to use relevant strategies to build vocabulary, grammar and structure.

See also:

 Eleven Jokes Only Smart People Will Understand

Top Ten Teacher Jokes

Best School Jokes Ever

Teacher, School and Education Jokes




What Would It Be Like To Be A Duck?

daffy_005_copyYesterday I had the pleasure of doing nothing for quite a long time, sitting in the sun beside Lake Banyoles, or L’Estany de Banyoles, here in Catalonia. It was the site of the rowing regatta at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and it really is quite a spectacular setting. An excited group of children, probably around the age of four or five, were chattering about the prospect of swimming in the lake, which they were just about to do, and throwing the odd scrap of pizza and chips to the ducks which were plentiful along the edge of the lake. ‘What would it be like to be a duck?’ asked one of the children, eliciting a few giggles. Yes, what WOULD it be like to be a duck. What a great question! Not, ‘Oh look at those ducks, aren’t they cute?’ but ‘What would it be like to be a duck?’ She may as well have asked ‘What is it that makes us human?’ because essentially that is what they set about discussing. What do they eat? How do they eat it? Can they feel cold? What do they think about? Do they get bored? I was reminded of the episode in The Catcher in the Rye when the hero, Holden Caulfield, is walking in Central Park, and he speculates about where the ducks go in winter.

Children always ask the best questions. Which is not to say that they always know what needs to be learned, or that the formal curriculum should be just one big extended session of sitting around reflecting on the nature of the universe, but rather, that as teachers we should reflect on our role and the relationship between learning and enquiry, and remember that real learning comes out of a need and a hunger to know stuff. Good teaching is often about providing young people with the best experiences or texts you can find, asking THEM to ask all the important questions, then setting out together to learn as much as you can.

Further thoughts on kids and questioning from a previous article: More Questions, Fewer Answers

If you are looking for some great questions to stimulate discussion, the following sources will provide you with an endless supply. Don’t blame me if you get lost in them for ever.

Fermi Questions – named after the Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who was well known for solving problems which left others baffled.

Little Book of Thunks – a great source of questions to stimulate thinking and discussion.

Philosophy for Kids – ideas to generate discussion and critical thinking.

The Critical Thinking Community – where teachers can learn about the development of critical thinking skills.

L'Estany de Banyoles

L’Estany de Banyoles

More Than One Way to Tell a Story

“All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”

Jean-Luc Godard

Queneau's iconic Exercises in Style

Very few people would dispute that there are some literary texts which are universally recognised as ‘classics’, some of the works of Shakespeare being obvious examples. What educated person could regard their education as complete without some experience of the works of the greatest writer in the history of the English language, whose lines have entertained, enlightened and moved us to tears for over four hundred years? Yet no other writer in history has had their texts re-worked in so many ways, from stage to film, musical to rap, ballet to opera, film to graphic novel. In 2010, members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in association with Mudlark, an internet and TV production company, presented a version of the play Romeo and Juliet entitled Such Tweet Sorrow as an improvised real-time series of tweets on the micro-blogging site Twitter, during which the performers engaged with the audience as well as each other, using YouTube to communicate images and video text.

What endures through all of these re-workings are two things: the beauty of the language and engagement with the narrative. But while the poetry and the flowing prose is undoubtedly Shakespeare’s, the story almost always isn’t. Versions of the tale of ‘star-crossed lovers’ for example had been entertaining readers and audiences for centuries before Shakespeare ‘borrowed’ it from Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem – itself translated from the original Italian – and embellished it for the Elizabethan stage to mixed reviews (the diarist Samuel Pepys called it ‘a play of itself the worst that I ever heard in my life”).

The attraction of the narrative of course isn’t simply that we find it entertaining or ‘dramatic’, but that we are able to recognise in it some universal truths about the world and about ourselves, whether that truth is about age, death, love, lust, family obligations, gender roles, loyalty, or any of the narrative’s numerous other themes. To put it simply, it has many lessons to teach us about the meaning of life.

The narrative of Romeo and Juliet itself dates back at least as far as Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe in the first century AD, a story of forbidden love which contains parallels to Shakespeare’s story: the lovers’ parents despise each other, and Pyramus falsely believes his lover Thisbe is dead. The Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, written in the 3rd century, also contains several similarities to the play, including the separation of the lovers, and a potion that induces a deathlike sleep, but the earliest known version of the Romeo and Juliet tale which we might recognise from the events of  Shakespeare’s play is the story of Mariotto and Gianozza by Masuccio Salernitano, in the 33rd novel of his Il Novellino published in 1476. As Christopher Brooker would have it, Romeo and Juliet ‘unfolds precisely through the five stages of the tragic cycle’ and thereby fulfils the criteria for one of the seven basic plots.

As the example of Romeo and Juliet amply demonstrates, there is more than one way to tell a story, but how many are there exactly? In 1947 the French poet, novelist and mathematician Raymond Queneau made a humorous attempt to answer the question in Exercises in Style, a collection of short narratives in which the author retells an apparently unremarkable story in 99 different ways. Standing on a crowded bus at midday, somewhere in Paris, the narrator observes one man accusing another of jostling him. When a seat becomes vacant, the first man takes it. Later, the same man is observed in another part of the city with a friend who is advising him on the style of his overcoat.

A page from Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story

Using a variety of styles ranging from the sonnet form through Cockney rhyming slang to mathematical formulae, Queneau’s work is both comical and experimental, a tour of literary forms and a demonstration of playful invention. The text became a cult classic and was the inspiration behind a similar experiment more than half a century later, when the graphic novelist and comic illustrator Matt Madden, in homage to Queneau, set out to explore the same idea using visual narratives in 99 Ways to Tell a Story. In a fascinating series of drawings which questions the very definition of narrative, Madden stretches the limits of the comics genre by telling the same story from different narrative perspectives and in a range of styles including maps, graphs, ‘Public Service Announcement’ and even ‘Paranoid Religious Tract’.

Experimenting with very short stories in the way that Queneau and Madden have done is a fun and engaging way to teach young  learners about narrative, and because the basic plot has to be as simple as possible, it is an inclusive exercise – everyone can try it. Similar success can also be found in setting young people challenges such as the Six-Word Story (where the writer has to compose a powerful story in only six words), the Six-Picture Story (the same exercise using six randomly selected pictures) and the 50-word mini-saga, in which writers have to compose a story of epic proportions in exactly fifty words, not a word more and not a word less.

For more on this topic see previous posts Every Picture Tells a Story and Stornoway Saga.

Hogmanay – A Poem for Burns Day

Interrupting the Highland tour to bring you a flavour of Burns’ Day. I was annotating some Burns poems for the BBC Bitesize website over the Christmas and New Year holiday, and thinking about a guest blogpost I had been asked to write for their Learning Blog. Hogmanay was a still, quietly eerie day in Alloway when I went for a walk, following parts of Tam O’Shanter’s famous and fateful ride, and the most bizarre thing happened. I decided to tell it in verse, given what was going round in my head at the time. So here it is, with apologies to Rabbie!


As I walked out on Hogmanay, towards the kirk at Alloway,

I heard a fracas in the dell, ahint the wa’ in old Rozelle.

A rustlin’ sound amang the trees, came driftin’ o’er in the breeze,

And turnin’ round with dreadfu’ fright, wow I saw an unco sight.

A Boxer dug, big, grim and broad, stood in the middle o’ the road,

And through the eerie silence bode an eldritch voice, crying ‘Oh my God!’

The dug it stood like ane transfixed, afore decidin’ what came next,

When sudden fae its dwam was jolted, off up the road the creature bolted.

Some ancient prehistoric de’ils, put life and mettle in its heels.

Read the rest of the poem here.

Or if you prefer to listen click on the title below!


The Revolt of the Pendulum

For the past couple of days I have been distracted by the latest collection of writing from the man the New Statesman calls ‘the most accomplished essayist at work in Britain today’ – Clive James. In The Revolt of the Pendulum he demonstrates once again the ease with which he moves around his subjects, whether they are from popular culture, academic obscurity, or somewhere in between. It’s when examining the use of language though, his own and that of others, that he is at his most entertaining and illuminating, two qualities which the best teachers realised long ago often go hand-in-hand.

In ‘Insult to the Language’ James argues that the quality of English prose writing is deteriorating rapidly, especially in the ‘quality’ British journals, through a combination of bad grammar and general ignorance, especially of the origins of many everyday expressions or metaphors. ‘Usually when a metaphor slithers into imprecision, it is because the activity from which it was drawn is no longer current practice’, he writes. ‘Nobody gets the picture, because there is no longer a picture to be got.’ One example he offers is the expression ‘shot himself in the foot’, which originated from the desperate act of some soldiers in the First World War who believed that the self-inflicted wounds would exempt them from further action. Almost a hundred years later, the original association is almost lost, so that ‘shot himself in the foot’ has come to suggest clumsiness rather than cowardice.

In another of the essays, ‘John Bayley’s Daily Bread’, the author talks about ‘those desperate commentators, omnipresent now in our multiple media outlets, who must always advance an outlandish opinion because they don’t write well enough to make a reasonable opinion interesting.’ Ever mindful of avoiding the same mistake himself, he steps back from the precipice of outlandish opinion to offer the reasonable opinion, a practice that anyone learning or teaching the art of discursive writing would do well to observe:

‘The language has always changed, so to protest looks reactionary. If there were no reactionaries, however, deterioration would become galloping decay. In reality decay does not gallop, but we all know what a horse is even if we have not ridden one, so everyone realises, so far, that ‘galloping’ is being used metaphorically. When all the horses have gone, ‘galloping’ will just mean ‘rapid’…….The typical prose of the present has no past. Whether it has a future remains to be seen.’

The Future Has Arrived

How refreshing it was to read again Sir Ken Robinson in last week’s TES, reflecting on the 10th anniversary of the All Our Futures report on creativity and educational policy in England and Wales, and to consider some of his comments alongside the discussions which are going on around Curriculum for Excellence . Robinson was bemoaning the fact that while most policymakers will instinctively argue that of course creativity is a good thing and we must have more of it, in reality they have at the back of their minds a notion that it is something messy and uncontrollable – in his words, “it sounds like people running around knocking down the furniture” – which presumably is why, ten years later, he feels that nothing much has changed:-CfE_Review

“We weren’t arguing for tinkering with the system; we were arguing for long-term, transformative policies because the old system is locked into an old culture – and we need a new culture for the 21st century. Kids starting school this year will be retiring in 2070.”

There are lessons to be learned here. It will very soon be a decade since the national debate in Scotland promised a radical shake-up of  “the old system” and “the old culture” yet the parallel changes required in the accountability and assessment systems have still to materialise in a way that gives equal status to each of the four capacities. Secondary schools (and indeed some primary schools) may well continue to see their main role as preparing young people to sit exams and everything else as a welcome bonus but not a requirement, unless and until there is a clear sign that all achievements will be recognised in some way, and that schools will be judged on the personal development of all young people for whom they have some responsibility. The next few months could be crucial in determining whether policymakers are serious about the vision outlined in that ground-breaking document of November 2004.

Make Your Lesson Go With A Bang

A few year ago when I was heading up our school’s learning and teaching policy group, we were trying to capture the basic requirements for effective learning and teaching. Checklists were flavour of the month so naturally our policy was full of checklists. However, I wondered whether an alternative checklist might be more effective in getting the message across. I kept it pretty much to myself at the time, and somehow I don’t think it would have made it into the official policy document, but I just wonder what effect it might have had…………………. Hope you enjoy!





  • Don’t arrive at the class too early. They won’t be expecting you.  Have another cup of coffee and a blether with your colleagues until the corridor is clear.
  •  When you arrive at the class, start shouting, whether they are behaving well or not. It lets them see who’s boss.
  •  Make sure pupils are well wrapped up in jackets and scarves to keep them more comfortable.
  •  Allow pupils to sit wherever they choose. This makes it easier for them to socialise.
  •  Start issuing instructions to the class before they are all listening, or even better, while some are still arriving.
  •  Keep the aim of the lesson to yourself in case anyone in the class gets wind of it.
  •  Don’t remind them of what you did yesterday. If they were paying attention they should remember.
  •  Remember to interrupt the lesson fifteen minutes in to take the register.
  •  Ask the biggest nuisance in the class to take the register slip to the office. Why should the rest of the school have peace and quiet when you don’t.
  •  Always refer to pupils by their surname. They prefer the formality and respect you more for it.
  •  Punishment exercises are a godsend. Make sure you always have a plentiful supply in the room.
  •  Never allow pupils to talk, even when engaged in group discussion.
  •  Make it perfectly clear you don’t want to be there any more than they do.
  •  Send pupils to the toilet and/or the medical room at regular intervals. It gives them regular exercise, keeps support staff in a job, and gives you a break.
  •  Time your lesson carefully so that you are in the middle of a sentence when the bell rings.
  •  Instruct pupils to throw books, jotters etc in a heap at the front of the room and run quickly to their next class.
  •  Don’t forget homework. This should be shouted at pupils’ backs as they leave the room. That way you can catch them out next lesson when they deny that they heard you.

Have a good day!

It Was a Dark And Stormy Night

“Though her beloved Roger had departed hours ago, Lila remained in her rumpled bed, daydreaming about his strong arms, soulful eyes, and how, when he first fell asleep, his snoring sounded not unlike two grizzly bears fighting over a picnic basket full of sandwiches, but as he drifted off into deeper slumber, his snoring became softer, perhaps as if the bears had decided to rock-paper-scissors for it instead.”

Thus began one of last year’s runners-up in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Run as an annual event since 1982 by the English Department at San Jose State University, the aim of the competition is for entrants to compose the worst possible opening line to a work of fiction. The competition was founded in honour of the minor Victorian novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who was responsible for coining phrases such as “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “the great unwashed”, and whose novel Paul Clifford opened with the line – since immortalised in parody by Shulz’s famous cartoon beagle Snoopy – “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents -except at occasional intervals when it was checked by a violent gust of wind…………..”

The rules of the competition are very simple. Each entry must consist of a single sentence but you may submit as many entries as you wish. Since its inception, tens of thousands of submissions have been made to the competition, resulting in the publication of five collections of the best of the worst. Sadly, however, all are now out of print.

Try your hand also at Literacy Adviser’s “Dark and Stormy Night Competition” with a difference! Using Twitter, the challenge is made more difficult by restricting the opening line to 140 characters. In this case the entries have to be on the theme of education and you should send your entries to @literacyadviser using the hashtag #DSN ie simply put #DSN before your opening line. For some inspiration, here is another entry from last year’s Bulwer-Lytton:-

“The pancake batter looked almost perfect, like the morning sun shining on the cream-colored pale shoulder of a gorgeous young blonde driving 30 miles over the speed limit down a rural Nebraska highway with the rental car’s sunroof off, except it had a few lumps.”

Failed in Style – Best Exam Clangers

Exams can be a real pain for teachers and students alike, but they sometimes do provide a bit of light relief and of course they don’t always produce the answers you were expecting – if you have ever had to set an exam you will know how difficult it is to set questions which are clear and unambiguous.

Take the case of the class sitting their practical cookery exam who opened their papers to find the instructions 1) Heat 3 tbs of oil in a pan; 2) Add chicken and seal. After a pause of a few seconds a hand went up at the back of the room and………..yes you’ve guessed the rest.

 I remember also the story – perhaps apocryphal – of the student who, when faced in a philosophy exam with the question “Is this question a question?” answered in a completely logical manner with “Is this answer an answer?” It is often when students have no idea of the answer however that they are at their most inventive. Here is another of my favourites from real exam papers. I think there should be some kind of honorary award for the most imaginative answer even if the candidate has no idea about the subject being examined.