Category Archives: Junior Cert

Junior Cert English: 10 Things I Hate About You!


When I switch on the radio or pick up the paper to read about Junior Cycle changes, one thing I hear a lot is that we’ve pretty much got consensus on the need for change.

How exactly that change should be implemented is still being debated but the why is supposedly clear to us all. Except I’m not sure that it is!

Why would we change the way we teach and assess Junior Cycle English? Is it really so flawed?

To me, the answer is yes. While there’s a lot that’s commendable and worth retaining, there’s definitely room for improvement.

So with tongue firmly in cheek, dear Junior Cert English exam, here are 10 things I hate about you.

1. You’re a time trial.

You’re all about who can race through the most stuff in the shortest amount of time possible, firing out answers, making sure to make three points in every answer and whatever you do, don’t bother trying to offer any depth because there simply isn’t time!

Unseen drama? 20 minutes.

Unseen poetry? 20 minutes.

Unseen fiction? 20 minutes.

I like to take it slow and take it in. I read once to enjoy, twice to understand, three times to analyse, a fourth to respond.

You like speed dating.

I do not

2. You repeat yourself – a lot!

You keep asking me to demonstrate the same skills – critical thinking, emotional intelligence, level of literacy, ability to speed think and read and write (see above!)

The material I’m reading is different every time but the questions?

Well, they basically all do the same thing: they test how well I understand and can interpret what I’m reading. Which is a really important thing to examine.

But do we have to do it FIVE TIMES?

Yes, I know a poem and an ad and a descriptive passage are different genres. And non-fiction’s not the same as fiction. And drama is different again. But can’t you just take it from me that I’ve gained comprehension skills IN ALL OF THESE GENRES so if you select one at random, you’ll probably get a good sense of where I’m at with the whole reading – comprehending – responding thing?

Perhaps give me a bit more time (see above!) and let me flex my comprehending muscles a little more? Instead of repeating yourself over and over again so that I have to repeat myself over and over again until we’re both broken and weary and fed up.

3. You warp the learning!

This one may seem a bit harsh and I’m not trying to upset you here. I know lots of learning has happened because of you and for that I am grateful.

But I’ve had students APOLOGISE to me for writing four pages of utterly brilliant critical analysis of Shakespeare because “I know it’s stupid to write this much when there’s no way I’ll get this much written in the exam”.

I’ve had students anxiously present me with their very best work with slumped shoulders because “It’s not three pages long Miss” and I want to rip my tongue from my throat for ever mentioning that you’d be expected to write three pages for honours English. Because a students’ best should always be good enough even if it’s not good enough to climb the greasy pole of the bell curve and get a C.

I’ve had a student linger after class and mutter, whilst looking at the floor “I know you’re getting cross with me for not handing up my written work so I made this

And she fumbles a memory stick onto my desk from where it’s hidden up her sleeve and hurries out the door. It’s a poem set to music with images and text combined; text she wrote herself; and it’s beautifully written. She is a storyteller but her medium is not the short story. Not this week…

So I ask her the next day, as I ask them all when I encourage them not to let themselves be defined by an exam which cannot measure their worth: Have you learnt from doing what you just did? Well that’s good enough for me!

4. You’re a sheep in wolves clothing

You strut about looking so tough that all the people in the land are supposed to be afraid of you. Some people even believe your hype; that you really really matter; that when you’re coming to visit we should spend months – or even years – preparing for your arrival.

But the thing is, you don’t matter THAT much. You’re a nice guy and you give us good feedback on where we’re at. You act as a motivator (for some) and your heart is in the right place. Go you!


Except we’ve been pretending you’re something you’re not.

And as soon as you’re gone, we turn around to the people who believed in you and spent months, or in some cases years, preparing for your arrival and we say:

Yeah, we lied. That didn’t really matter. Forget he was ever here. Actually we’ve got a much more important visitor who’ll be here in two years’ time; that’s what you really need to focus your energies on!”

5. You don’t value all the things that should be valued!

Let me preface this by saying we’ve got a lot in common you and I.

We value fairness and transparency; we value great literature and critical thinking.

We want to expand the scope of what gets studied, not limit it, hence I love it when new questions appear about guerrilla advertising and the watershed and autobiography – but always with enough info for the students to figure it out even if they haven’t studied this specific genre before.

[It’s just a shame they don’t have a bit more time for thinking, because new ideas always need thinking space to breathe]

So, yeah, we value a lot of the same things.

But I also value the writing my students do outside of the exam hall.

And you don’t.

There are some vital things you just cannot offer students. Time to think and time to plan; time to research and refine; time to write and time to re-write (just as I have written and re-written this blog post after thinking about it for quite some time).

In class and outside of it I’ve seen students take the time to create something incredible. To write and re-write until their piece does what they want it to do; says what they want it to say; evokes the emotions, tugs on the heartstrings; touches the heart.

But if the system only values what happens in an exam hall, then the system itself promotes a lie. It promotes the lie that you can either write well or you can’t, when in reality, learning is incremental and as Hemmingway once said “the first draft of anything is shit”.

I know you know this. That’s why you’re willing to change.

But before I let you off the hook, there’s something else you need to value.

Public speaking skills.

I want my students to deliver speeches, not just read them and write them.

I want them to conduct real interviews not just imagine them in their heads and write them down. I want them to read poetry aloud not just dissect it. And I want them to find their own voice, however hard that might be in the storm of adolescence, and to trust that their voice matters and deserves to be heard (though not always agreed with!).

Stop sign

At this point I need to offer an advance apology. We’ve got history, you and I, dear Junior Cert exam, so while my first five reasons for taking issue with you might (!) be considered fairly reasonable, reasons six, seven and eight are entirely personal and in some cases, a bit silly!

Forgive my indulgence. Skip if you please…

6. You can’t predict the future…

You’re in many ways like the Witches in Macbeth – you both make people doubt themselves and inspire in them a dangerous confidence.

I’ve had very talented writers get a C in Junior Cert English for all sorts of reasons. Because they like time to think as they write. Because they want to offer depth not surface. Because they know the wolf is really a sheep!

Yet they can go on and get an A in the Leaving Cert.

Why is that? Where’s the disconnect?

I’ve also had students with outstanding exam technique (timing plus PQE can get you a long way at this level!) get an A in the Junior Cert and then wonder why they struggle so much when they transition to Senior Cycle English, with all the depth, complexity and long-term stamina that it requires.

Why is that? Where’s the disconnect?

Of course I do admit, dear JC, that for many students, you do seem to offer a fairly reliable indicator of future success in the Leaving Cert. So my wild generalisation based on anecdotal evidence that you don’t accurately predict the future is completely unfair and I apologise.

And I know I could just wriggle out of this one by quoting Walt Whitman

Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes

But this would be disingenuous so instead I’ll say this. I’d love to see some research into how well grades in Junior Cert English map onto grades in Leaving Cert English…

[- starts searching to see if this research exists…

7. You never really loved me.

I got a B in Junior Cert English. Back in 1994. 20 years on I still haven’t forgotten the disappointment.

My three older siblings all did very well in the JC. I did not (by O’Connor standards!)

It was partially their fault! They kept telling me you were just a sheep dressed up as a wolf. And wait ‘til I got to Leaving Cert – that was the really hard bit! And college exams? Man oh man! I was in for it! But the Junior Cert? Piece of p*ss.

So I didn’t do much study and cruised along, doing my homework (mostly) but not much else. Except for English and History. Those I loved. Those I worked at. I read The Merchant of Venice multiple times. I learnt off poems like “I see his blood upon the rose” and “Original Sin on the Sussex Coast”. We had a copy where we’d handwritten each of our studied poems, 15 or 16 of them. Even now I can recite most of them by heart. I still have that copy.

But I liked to pause and think before writing. And I wrote slowly.

This you did not like! You and your speed dating!

Thankfully Leaving Cert English was more like being in a serious long term relationship; now that was something I could commit to! I still wrote slowly so it became all about quality over quantity but at least there was less reading on the exam paper.

It seems strange to me even now that I care so much what grade I got from a silly dressed up sheep; but I was young and it was the first time an outsider had judged my writing and found it wanting. That’s why it stung.

8. You get me in trouble…

I tend to speak my mind. I tend to tell people that I think you’re very flawed.

(I hope you don’t mind, I never meant to hurt your feelings).

But because we have a cultural obsession with pretending that you’re really very important, some people don’t like hearing that. In fact I’ve been scolded – by parents and occasionally even students – for not buying into the myth of your supreme perfection.

9. You distract from our real purpose.

We get so caught up in your hype that we sometimes forget the obvious: students don’t study English so they can sit an exam.

Some might think that’s why they study it but we know better!

We study English because of how it makes us feel. We study English to appreciate the creativity of others and to develop that creativity in ourselves. We study English to hone our critical thinking skills and to develop the art of rhetoric.

We study great literature to see and understand our own and other cultures and because it represents the very best of what has been thought and written through the centuries.

We study media so we can understand and negotiate the often hidden messages that bombard us every day.

We study English so we can become better communicators; so we can learn to express and defend our own ideas, our own opinions.

We study English so we can contribute to society culturally, socially and politically.

Some say knowledge is power, but it is through language that we gain knowledge and so I say language is power.

Ultimately we study English because it is worth studying.

10. You’re not fit for purpose

Not quite.

But you’re not beyond redemption!

You’ve got a lot going for you. Unlike some subjects, you don’t particularly lead to rote learning as 75% of you is unseen prior to the exam.

I’d like you a lot more, however, if you were less of a time trial. If you stopped repeating yourself. If quality mattered to you more than quantity. If we expanded your remit to embrace film/multimodal/digital texts; writing as a process; and speaking and listening skills, things that cannot easily be assessed in a pen and paper written exam.

Wiser heads than I have designed a new English specification that aspires to do all of the above.

Of course, as ye olde cliché says ‘the devil is in the detail’, so it’s not surprising that how exactly these changes should be implemented is still being debated.

But having – more or less – achieved consensus on the need for change is surely a good starting point for us all!



Opinion Essays

For my second years who are revising for their house exams!

Taking an idea – building it into a paragraph.


  • What other people say
  • What I say! (strong statement)
  • Statistic
  • Opinion again (develop ideas)
  • Rhetorical Question
  • Quote


In these days of recession and poverty, you frequently hear people grumbling about those who receive social welfare – aka ‘The Dole’. Such people complain that these people are ‘spongers’, living off the state, too lazy to go out to work. In my opinion, this is profoundly unfair, judgemental and unjust. In 2014 the level of unemployment rose to 14% amongst the general population and 25% among those aged 18-27. We should not for a moment presume that these people do not want to go out to work. There is no pleasure to be had in sitting at home feeling useless, feeling as if you have nothing to contribute to society, but if the work simply isn’t there, what are you supposed to do? I believe we should be patient and kind to those who find themselves unable to find work. After all, as Ghandi once said “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” 


Obviously, you don’t have to put all these ingredients in, and you can put them in in any order you wish!

Global Teacher Prize

It sounds like a plot from a Hollywood movie. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it ends up as one!

His Royal Highness, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister, and Ruler of Dubai, has sponsored an international quest to find the Best Teacher in the World. When this mythical creature is found, from a long list of hundreds of thousands, to a shortlist of only 15, he/she will be awarded a prize of $1,000,000.

one million dollars

Yes, you read that correctly; I did just say 1 million dollars!!!

Now, if this were really a film script, a young, beautiful idealistic girl from a rough neighbourhood would be shortlisted. She’d have a quasi tragic backstory, coming perhaps from a broken home where education wasn’t valued, or a war-torn country where access to education for all was a pipe dream. But her determination to make a difference in the lives of her pupils and her colleagues would lead to her nomination for the Global Teacher Prize and after a lengthy montage of questionnaires and interviews and testimonials from those whose lives she touched the most, she’d find herself suddenly transported to the awards ceremony in Dubai. There she would fall truly madly deeply in love with one of His Royal Highnesses’ 9 sons; she’d go to the ball, win the award; and then face the traumatic decision of whether to return to her classroom, where her students eagerly awaited her, or re-locate to be with the man she loved, there to continue the career that defined – and changed – her life forever!

I quite like my movie. It’s a little clichéd, sure, but heartwarming nonetheless and with enough potential sting in the tail to keep us engaged up to the final moments…

Reading about the prize this week brought me right back to 2012 and the day I got the phone call to say I’d won Secondary School Teacher of the Year. The months leading up to that phone call had been pretty bleak, not in my classroom, but in austerity Ireland. Nothing truly devastating had occurred; no-one I loved had died, my daughter and husband were hale and healthy and despite the thousand little anxieties that crowd the mind of every teacher in the run up to exams season, I was happy – as I had always been – in my job.

The black cloud that hung over me was the prospect of someone else being parachuted into my position, a situation that had recently become possible with the advent of redeployment. It was the realisation that being good at your job; working really hard at it and giving your all for your students to the point where you, at times, made yourself ill with fatigue – the thought that this meant nothing at all, certainly to the faceless politicians making cutbacks, that made me so angry and so full of despair. That and the prospect of having to emigrate…

So I wrote my acceptance speech and stuck it up on youtube, where it exists to this day for the world to applaud or mock as the mood takes them.

I remember worrying back then that I was just going to make a complete ass out of myself. I’m still not entirely sure that I didn’t. Yet without wanting to sound too melodramatic, winning that award did change my life. Suddenly I had a voice beyond the classroom that I’d never really had before and it was a privilege and a scary scary responsibility and a joy all at once. I also learnt that while teachers can change students’ lives, students can also change our lives too, so genuine thanks to Cathy, Maeve, Cait, Catherine, Nicole, Lorraine, Laura, Grainne and Gavin for changing mine!.


The reason I’m writing this post is because I’m certain to the very core of my being that there are scores of incredible teachers out there who’ve never experienced that affirmation, that recognition, that acknowledgement of the difference they make in a thousand tiny ways every day to those whom they teach. I know they exist because I teach with them; I meet them at conferences; I chat to them on twitter and I read their blogs, gaining the most amazing insight into classrooms globally in the process.

If you can think of such a person, could you take a little time to nominate them for all that they are and all that they do? And as they probably won’t win, don’t forget to tell them what you did, even if it makes you blush a little. It’ll make their day, their week, their year and possibly even remind them why teaching is the career – the truly wonderful career – they chose to make their life’s work!

Now get to it! Here’s the link:

Collaborative Storytelling

Inspired by this talk by Sean Love of Fighting Words at last years TedXDublin, I decided to try some group storytelling with my first years this week. (It’s well worth a look, you’ll just have to forgive his misconception that “we don’t have creative writing in our formal education system“)

[youtube_sc url=]


We used this post on step-by-step storytelling to craft each paragraph (step 1 = set the scene, step 2 = introduce the characters, step 3 =  dialogue, step 4 = flashback, step 5 = return to the story, step 6 = end with a twist). I realise this ‘writing by numbers’ approach isn’t to everybody’s taste but I figure let them learn the rules first, then they can break them to their hearts content!

At each stage we wrote a list of suggestions on the board and then each person in the class put their hands over their eyes (so as not to be influenced by each others opinions) and voted for their favourite.

Anyone could suggest where the story should be set, or who the characters might be, or what their motivation was and where the story should go, so it was a very democratic process. We debated a lot about how to capture where the characters were from by writing the dialogue phonetically and we discussed the fact that a short story needs to be a slice of life. Often the suggestions in the room became too convoluted and we stripped it back to keep it simple and honest. We deleted dialogue that didn’t sound believable and argued about why the story should go in this direction, or that direction. I really feel it was a positive experience for them to consider how much thought and craft goes into even a short 500 word piece of writing.

The next step is that each student in the class will now write their own short story but they CANNOT write more than 3 pages. I want them to write less better, not write lots badly.

Anyway, here’s what we wrote.

Lost & Found

As I glanced around at the chickens pecking the corn; the cow pats hard crust drying in the sunlight and the sheep dog barking like a maniac at the tiny new-born kittens, I wondered when I would see my home again. The sound of the tractor purring in the distant field and the smell of freedom, and manure and freshly cut grass filled my soul with longing and despair.

I heard the crunch of gravel behind me and turned to see my father slowly limping across the yard, a look of anxiety written in the wrinkles on his tired worn face. He didn’t want me to go, he had made that clear, but I felt I had to make my mark on the world; make my own decisions; stand on my own two feet.

Da, are the sheep alrite?

Thar surely”. He looked at the ground though, he couldn’t look me in eyes.

Grand so. Shur, I better be getting on then?” I didn’t move though, I just stood scuffing the ground with the toe of my Sunday shoes. I didn’t know what else to say to him.

C’mon up ta the house. Yer ma made some wee sanwiches an a flask a tea for the journee

As we walked slowly up to the farmhouse, my father limping beside me, I remembered the day my brother left. The soft sobs of my mother choking back her tears and my father’s low warning, hissed at my brother as he turned to go: “Yer brother gets the farm if you leave. So don’t bother comin’ back”. I remember the look of absolute shock on Seamie’s face. Our father never said a cruel word in his life, not even to the god damn chickens, and here he was stripping his eldest son of his inheritance, his homeland and his family in one terrible moment. Now I stopped to wipe my feet on the woven mat just inside the back door, sick to my stomach at the thought of my mother’s face as she said goodbye, this time to her last son.

I dragged my body reluctantly into the kitchen, pulled out a chair beside my mother and sank onto the cold hard seat. She sat stiffly with her hands entwined, as if she was praying for a miracle. She looked up as my Dad shuffled out into the hall and whispered “I’ll miss ya laddie”. I clasped her cold hands in mine but I couldn’t say anything because of the lump in my throat.

I stood, grabbed my tattered brown suitcase and walked out the back door, knowing it was probably the last time I’d see home. But I had to find out about my other home; my other life; the future I’d never had because my real mother gave me up for adoption at birth.



Long Day’s Journey Into Light

Thanks to Nicole (Junior Cert) for letting me share this beautiful, heartbreaking piece of descriptive writing.

sad girl 2

The car journey felt like a long dreary 24 hours as my father and I drove up the steep hills, along windy roads and around sharp corners. It was a warm bright sunny day but because the emotions running though me were so gloomy and depressing I didn’t take heed of the sunshine gleaming through the windows, then suddenly hiding itself behind fluffy clouds that floated on the surface of the deep blue sky.

As my father drove our car, with me at his shoulder, we spoke few words, because every time a word was said both of us could find no way to hold it in; could find no way to prevent the wet bitter tears from streaming down our cheeks. He was the only one I could feel close to during that painful time. The only person to take the time to remember and cherish the precious memories that would never leave.

I missed my mother. She always assured me that alll would be okay; that the harsh pain I felt would fade like raw scars fading over time. It all just seemed so unbearable; too hard to comprehend. I was missing my family’s cheery smiles. I longed for the moment when I would see them to share the sorrowful, hurtful, painful feelings that racked my mind.

When we at long last reached our destination, I felt as though my heart rate was a thousand beats per minute. I knew that was impossible but it was racing, racing like a sprinter. I saw my mother for the first time in over a week. She held me so close with her arms wrapped around me, her tears falling onto my pale blue blouse.

I kept it in. I kept it together. But I felt like a tower of Jenga.

I didn’t want to fall apart, like a brick tumbling to the ground, smashing apart on the floor.

From the corner of my eye I spotted my four sisters, my brother and several more family members out front, some on the newly painted fence; others, dazed, sitting on the smooth green grass. They each approached, one by one gave me a friendly hug, like they always did when things were just not going good. I smiled, my first one all day.

My walk up to the house continued. The door was closed. I wondered why? That white door, with a sliver of black running around the outside was never closed, not even on wet days. It was one way you knew that you were always welcome.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was my brother-in-law. He held me up as he slowly pressed down on the handle and opened the door. My uncle greeted me, silent at first, tears streaming down his face. He never looked upset; he was never speechless. He always had a warm word to say. He was the funniest man I’d ever met and now here he was standing before me, broken. The few words he finally uttered were “Nicole, you’re here. It’s good to see you“.

Soon after I heard footsteps as the others followed me in. The older ones occupied the seats; the rest stood shoulder to shoulder. I lasted five minutes in there but it felt like hours. I had to get out! I needed fresh air. I needed to see the sunlight, hoping that it would make things brighter.

But it didn’t. Not one bit. My name was called from behind by my sister, who looked pale, standing on the shining steps. “Nicole, come in quick” she said. I ran as fast as my wobbly legs could carry me. The breathing had gotten worse. Weaker now. There wasn’t a word spoken, only sighs every now and again. I approached my mother and she took my hand. She knew I was scared. Everyone was. I didn’t want this moment to come. Nobody did.

It seemed so surreal as time slowed. After an age of standing and waiting my mother whispered “It’ll be ok”. It was what I was waiting for, words of comfort. Finally the horrible moment arrived. I still can hear the words so vividly “She’s gone”. All I could think of was that she wasn’t going to be in any pain anymore. She was going to be a sparkling angel in the sky. Our family stood together, arm in arm, comforting each other as we said our final goodbyes. She was the best aunt. She was the best friend.

How could she be gone?