Category Archives: Teachers

Some posts aimed directly at teachers rather than students.

Adventures in unseen poetry

As an experiment with my brain, when I gave my leaving certs an unseen poem last Wednesday, I deliberately selected one I’d never seen before and wrote (well o.k. I typed, cause I don’t really hand-write at all anymore) my own personal response in 20 minutes.

The poem was “A Glimpse of Starlings” by Brendan Kennelly which I have since discovered is on the ordinary level leaving cert course.

A glimpse of starlings

This little experiment proved to be way more fascinating than I originally anticipated. I thought I was just going to put myself in their shoes, and model some good practice. How wrong I was!

As I “corrected” their unseen poetry answers, I was astounded and impressed by the vast array of interpretations we came up with, several of which I’ve reproduced below, none of which we could verify were ‘correct’ as we were responding ‘blind’ to the poem, with no knowledge of the poet’s biography or access to interviews with him asking what the poem’s ‘really’ about!

But this got me thinking about a truth we often whitewash, which is that there is no fixed, immutable meaning. I bring myself to every encounter with language and ascribe meaning to that encounter. It might mean something completely different to the other people in the exchange and I’ve got no control over how they respond to it! Every time I open my mouth, compose a text or a tweet, I know what I intend it to mean. And how often have I found myself saying, to quote TS Eliot “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all“.

We do this don’t we? We get agitated when people take us up ‘wrong’. We re-phrase so they’ll see things the way we want them to. We try to bring them around to our way of thinking; try to control their interpretation of events.

How much distress has this caused the human race down through the centuries? How many mis-understandings and arguments has it engendered? Perhaps that’s why we obsess over achieving clarity in our communications, in our speaking and writing, because we want to minimise any potential gap between what we mean and what people think we mean.

But we need to face up to one crucial truth:

Meaning is not something that exists, it’s something that we create. 

Then perhaps we can acknowledge that, for the most part, people are not deliberately ‘mis-interpreting’ us, they are simply bringing their own truth to the conversation. There will always be a gap between your intention and the meaning as it is received by the reader or listener. You cannot control this. The only thing you can do is try to make your intention as clear and unambiguous as possible.

Of course, poets are a different breed to the rest of us. They deliberately don’t do this. They wallow in the grey areas their art form creates. They LOVE ambiguity. They know that once you put something out into the world, you can’t control it anymore, or to paraphrase a well-worn trope they know that “language is in the ear of the beholder“.

Reading poetry is a complex process; an interaction between the poet’s intentions and the readers’ struggle to impose meaning on what they’ve just read. The annihilation of poetry occurs when we ‘fix’ that meaning. And while we can mock this process …


 … (yeah, the curtains were fucking blue!) we should also acknowledge that there might be something more going on here. Some dance of language between the speaker and the listener; some ever-changing, ever-moving complexity that is, in itself, a pleasurable tango that endlessly entertains even as it refuses to come to a standstill. Poetry makes multiple meanings, complex responses and a multiplicity of emotions possible.

And this is a GOOD THING if you ask me!

This experience also got me thinking about how the poetry textbooks we use, crammed with notes, shut down critical interpretations. They ‘fix’ the meanings of the poems. I’m guilty of this too with my poetry podcasts. In my eagerness to help students appreciate the prescribed poetry on a deeper level, I created mp3s of me discussing the poems, but there’s a danger that if students rely too heavily on listening to me, or any so-called ‘expert’, their own response, analysis and interpretation gets lost or demeaned.

This wasn’t my intention.

I created the podcasts to try and close the gap in time which opens up when you’re asked to revise a poet and write about them in an exam, sometimes a year, or even 18 months after you first study them. It was my intention that they would function almost as a kind of time portal so that the ideas we explored in class could be re-visited to refresh their memories.

But as the old cliché goes “the road to hell is paved with good intentions“.

Of course, this is why it’s important that students write at length and in depth about a poet immediately after they study his/her work. It’s so important their own unique response doesn’t get swallowed up, flattened out, diminished in a sea of notes (and podcasts!) so that it ends up conforming to the ‘norm’ rather than taking flight and becoming a truly original take on the poet in its own right.

So if you’d like to read some truly original takes on Brendan Kennelly’s poem “A Glimpse of Starlings“, have a look below.

Here’s what I typed in 20 minutes:

My personal response to this poem was one of confusion initially. The poet is remembering someone who has died, revealed in the first striking line as he admits “I expect him any minute now although / He’s dead”. There’s something shocking here, something heart breaking about the sad reality that we glimpse the dead continuously in our memories even though they’re not here anymore. I like how the poet made clever use of contrast (distinguishing between his expectation and the reality) to achieve this effect.

The poem does not settle into acceptance, however. Instead we get an atmosphere of gothic horror as we picture the dead man in some kind of afterlife “talking all night to his own dead” but the “first heart-breaking light” of morning brings no release or comfort. Personally I think he’s in some kind of limbo, although that may be me reading the poem too literally, because he’s desperate to know “why his days finished like this” but he gets no answer. As the contrast between what I expect for those who have died (either nothingness or heaven) and what this poem offers (“Daylight is as hard to swallow as food”) washes over me I am filled with despair. The simile of the “questions that bang and rattle in his head like doors and canisters the night of a storm” is so noisy, so ugly, so disturbing that I honestly didn’t want to read on anymore and the metaphor of starvation in the line “Love is a crumb all of him hungers for” is in my opinion the most haunting and heart breaking image in the entire poem, full of torment and longing.

The poet’s uncertainty about what lies beyond death is memorably captured in his allusion to the gates of heaven “The door opening to let him in” as simply being “what looks like release from what feels like pain” but the ambiguity captured in “looks like” and “feels like” leaves us with little comfort.

It is noteworthy, however, that the poem ends with “A glimpse of starlings” and that this is the title he chooses to give an otherwise bleak poem. It’s as if he’s looking for a sign in nature that all will be well, but I’m also reminded that this technique – pathetic fallacy – is called pathetic for a reason, because it is so foolish, illogical and ‘pathetic’ of us, as human beings, to think that our mood can in any way influence the weather or the seasons.

Sample answer 1 from one of my students

The poem’s opening line is in my mind extremely striking due to the poet blurring the lines between the possible and the impossible with the oxymoronI expect him any minute now, although / He’s dead“. The line’s ambiguous nature draws me in and implores me to continue reading.

His unusual description of simple everyday actions such as viewing a picture, as “eating a small photograph with his eyes” lends the poem an originality which I find incredibly refreshing. From the poet’s detailed description of the man in the poem, I believe him to be an extremely complex and troubled man who longs for affection as “love is a crumb all of him hungers for”. Throughout the poem there is a tangible melancholic atmosphere which I feel emanates from the man’s evident misery.

However, the final image of the starlings rising into the sky “a glimpse of starlings suddenly lifted over field road and river” is to me a somewhat hopeful image that there may one day be happiness for this man. Nonetheless, the poet’s simile in the last line “like a fist of black dust pitched to the wind” gives me the impression that this man is lost without any direction in his life. which again gives this poem a mournful, bitter feeling at its conclusion.

I gave her 20/20 because she’s managed a perfect balance of the 3 Ts – Theme, Tone, Technique (also known as ideas, feelings and writing style) with a wonderful flow of language and concrete coherent yet complex vocabulary.

Sample answer 2:

I found this poem to be a very poignant one, whose message – that life is a continuous cycle – remained in my mind long after I had read it. The poet uses simple images of the everyday actions of this man who is now dead to depict the lonely gap that is left behind, as only memories of him remain.

He seems to have led an ordinary life, when alive. We are given a list of his daily actions “sipping a cup of tea, fingering a bit of bread, eating a small photograph with his eyes“. However, the depressing tone that seems to linger in these lines made me feel sympathy for this man. The questions that continuously “bang” and “rattle” in his mind are compared to “doors and canisters the night of a storm“. This image simile is an upsetting one. He seems to no longer have an aim in life and can barely manage to walk down the “concrete path” but awkwardly drags his feet. It is not a life that I would personally like to lead.

The final three lines had an emotional impact on me as I found them to be very sombre and hopeless. The man walks in the door and looks over his shoulder to see “a glimpse of starlings“, flying, carefree, in the air. A simile is used to compare them to a “fist of black dust pitched in the wind“. For me the black dust represents symbolises this man’s ashes as he is now dead. The memory of the man is slowly fading away and will soon have disappeared, just like these starlings in the air.

I gave this student 17/20. You’ll notice two occasions where I crossed out her word and put in a more precise one which would identify the poetic technique being used; so “image” became “simile” and “represents” became “symbolised”. My comment at the bottom of her answer was “use the language of poetry in your analysis. Otherwise excellent

Sample answer 3: 

The poem “A Glimpse of Starlings” by Brendan Kennelly is a poem which contrasts an alcoholic’s life with that of a bird (starlings) roaming free in the wind.

At first reading of the poem this theme suddenly became apparent to me. The alcoholic man is called “dead” indicating to me that he is simply wasting his life. He shares a relationship with “his own dead friends“. This line reminds me of the old men and women who sit all day in my local pub.

Together, drinking, they forget about the rest of the world and it isn’t until the “first heart-breaking light of morning” that the man realises what he has become. Unfortunately he cannot resist his addiction, instead he follows his routine and returns to the pub awaiting the “slow turn of the Yale key“. This man, however, longs to leave his ways behind as “Love is a crumb all of him hungers for“.

As he enters the pub, cinematically, over his shoulder we see birds taking off from a field afar. The comparison symbolism here is that the birds are free while the man feels trapped and locked in his alcoholism. Evaluating this poem, it brings evokes in me a feeling of sympathy and understanding towards those who suffer from addictions. They are trapped, imprisoned by their addictions. This poem allows us to gain respect and understanding for those who spend their lives suffering “like a fist of black dust pitched in the wind“. The starlings drift into the distance continuing with their business as the man begins to drink again.

I gave this answer 13/20. Her interpretation is really original and completely credible from the details included in the poem. However, the one solitary word which nods in the direction of commenting on the writer’s technique is “cinematic“. She didn’t use the word symbolism, that was me. So although she implicitly traces down through the poem as a metaphor, she never mentions that word, or uses any of the ‘lingo’ we associate with the act of interpreting poetry. Whether or not you think she should be penalised or not for an honest response which ignores ‘jargon’ is a discussion for another day. I’m torn on this one.

Sample answer 4:

The poem is an explosion of the senses for me, a contrast between silence and noise, life and death. The first paradox is presented in the first line of the poem: “I expect him any minute now although / He’s dead“. This thought is immediately conflicted in my mind by the verbs following, the onomatopoeia creating a tangibility that clashes with the idea of death (“struggling”, “sipping”, “bang”, “rattle“). I feel relief and a connection when I am told that “he” is as confused as I am: “He doesn’t know why his days finished like this“.

The allusion further down the poem strengthens the connection between me, the reader, and the elusive presence in the poem, with the reference to the “Yale key“, a brand name I am familiar with myself. Symbolism is hinted at in reference to the starlings, connecting him to the birds by referencing “over his shoulder” (meaning unclear…). The ambiguity of the “fist of black dust” gives another layer of confusion to the poem. Is it a fist of triumph thrown up into the air, finally getting in the house, or is it a threatening presence, a reminder of the perils that await him outside the house?

I found this one difficult to grade. There is a deep appreciation of the language of poetry, a bright mind asking as many questions as she answers. There’s an engagement with her feelings and with the feelings in the poem but zero attempt on any level to suggest what the poem might be about. So in terms of the 3T’s, she’s established tone and techniques on a deep level but has only briefly mentioned the theme of the poem (life and death) in her opening sentence. It’s a complete contrast to the answer above which focuses on meaning but ignores style almost completely. 16/20???

Sample answer 5:

Upon reading this poem for the first time, I believe that the speaker is the grim reaper who is patiently waiting for his next victim to drop: “I expect him any minute now“. As the victim struggles tries to perform simple tasks “he is struggling into his clothes” and nostalgically looks at his past “eating a small photograph with his eyes” I feel some deep empathy for him. It appears he is really struggling to go on for an unknown reason, perhaps heartbreak as “love is a crumb all of him hungers for“. It is clear this man is going through a tough time. It makes me think about the cruelty of this world, how death can happily wait for you to succumb as you can barely cope.

His use of the similedaylight is as hard to swallow as food” really speaks to me. It paints an intense picture of how much pain he’s in, that swallowing a simple piece of bread is causing him great pain such distress, alongside his lack of willingness reluctance to go on as the brightness of day kills him inside. The writer’s use of vivid imagery is intense; “like a fist of black dust pitched in the world” really hits me on a personal note. I can almost feel the punch by the fist, like it is the last pang of agony he will ever experience, almost like a sense of relief.

Again, I found it hard to grade this one. On the one hand you have an original and intelligent interpretation, comparing the speaker to the grim reaper. She achieves a good balance of the 3Ts, although I would have liked to see a little more integration/analysis of techniques. The bits I’ve changed above have been altered for the most part because there’s a tendency here to get ‘stuck’ on particular words and to repeat them, instead of using synonyms. The last line takes a literal interpretation of the word ‘fist’ which doesn’t quite follow the logic of the simile it belongs to, but then the word is there for a reason, to make you picture a fist, so I don’t know…. 14/20 ???

A poem doesn’t have a FIXED meaning but it is possible to miss important distinctions if you’re not fully tuned in. A couple of students failed to distinguish between the “I” and the “He” in the poem. The speaker “I” is writing the poem about “Him”, the man he says is dead, the man he observes. They are not one and the same person and a careful reading of the poem reveals this but in the rush to respond, some students conflated the two.

Interestingly, if you google it, this is a poem about grief. So one student, although she did not distinguish between the “I” and the “He” in the poem, otherwise came closer than any of the rest of us to the ‘intended’ meaning of the poem.

Here’s what I wrote as feedback on some of the less successful answers: (it might help you to see where you’re going “wrong”!!!)

“Your job is not to translate the poem into simple English. your job is to examine how the poem communicates with us, how it creates ideas in your mind and feelings in your heart. Offer an opinion, an interpretation, not a line by line re-phrasing”

“You must integrate discussion of at least four techniques in your answer. Examine how she expresses herself as well as what she says”

“Don’t put the quote first and then comment on it. It prevents there from being any flow in your answer. Think of something to say first, then support with a relevant quotation and comment on the effect this quote has on you, if possible identifying the technique as well as the intellectual/emotional impact”

“Zoom in on individual words/lines. Don’t comment in general terms on an entire verse”

“Don’t jump around too much. Stick with your point and develop it fully before you move on”







Chief Examiner’s Report

Every year, the chief examiner in several subject areas will write up a report examining what students are doing well and how they could do better in that subject. In fact, if only just for an insight into what real report writing looks like in terms of language, layout and tone, you should read a couple of them!

The last time Leaving Cert English was the subject of one of these reports was 2008. It contains examples of student answers, with grades and commentary at the end. Before that, there was a report from 2005 and one from 2001.

This week, Leaving Cert English was once again under the spotlight. The Chief Examiner’s Report for the 2013 English has just been published and I’ve been browsing back through the various English reports to look for some trends & useful advice.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned from them:


It’s pretty eye-opening to realise that 63% of students get between a D3 and a C1  in Honours Leaving Cert English. This just goes to show that getting an A or a B grade in honours English really is a great achievement. In a class of 30, this means on average you’d expect about 3 students to get an A, 8 to get a B, 12 to get a C and 7 to get a D (or if unlucky, 6 to get a D and one to fail).

However, if a higher percentage of students than normal opt for higher level, the number of students getting Ds will most likely be higher, because there are more students in the class who are borderline hon/pass and who, in another school or with another teacher, would/should have opted to sit the ordinary level paper. I find more and more students who never read and whose standard of written English is in need of a lot of work would prefer to sit the higher level paper and scrape a D2 (50 points), rather than sit the ordinary level paper and get a B2 grade (40 points), in part because of pride but mostly because it’s worth more points.

Also, the number of students getting A grades in certain wealthy middle class areas would most likely be higher than 3 in a class of 30, because students from wealthy educated homes tend to have more access to books; hear more sophisticated vocabulary; and have a greater emphasis placed on education in the home from an early age (this is not prejudice on my part, it’s proven from research and of course there are exceptions). This then has a knock on effect on the averages, so in a socially disadvantaged area, you may well have a class of 30 where no-one in the class gets an A or a B.

Speak to any teacher and they’ll tell you that every class is different and every year the results are different. I’ve had a year where 25% of the class got an A – that’s way above the norm. I’ve also had a year where no-one in my class got an A. One way to understand this on a simple level is to compare football teams from year to year. The U16s might win the All-Ireland this year; next year, with a new team in place, they might get knocked out in the first round. Occasionally what can also happen is that you’ve got a great team who just don’t perform well on the day, which is the worst thing that can happen, for the students and the teacher.

Have a look at these stats, ranging from 1999 to 2013.

Results 2001

2005 resultsResults 2005 -2008Results 2013

I’m a little sad it doesn’t stretch back to the dark ages of 1997 when I sat my Leaving Cert but you will notice the jump from about 6% of students getting an A in 1999 to an average of 10% since the new course was introduced in 2001. It’s also interesting to note that the examiners felt that those failing the exam (about 3 out of every 200 students who sat it) should have just sat the ordinary level paper and this advice is mentioned again in the section on the rates of students taking higher and ordinary level.

Paper 1 – comprehending 

Two things to note here.

The first is that you’re not just expected to “retrieve information” from comprehensions and re-phrase it in your own words, although this is one of the skills being tested. Students are also expected to “draw inferences from what they have read or seen, synthesize the material, and question or critically evaluate it, as required”. What this means is that you need to figure out what is being suggested or implied, as well as at the obvious literal meaning.

You need to demonstrate that you can stand back from the passage and see the bigger picture of the point or message the writer is trying to communicate. You must show that you can question and disagree with the writer’s opinions (if the question asks you to what extent you agree with the writer’s viewpoint) rather than simply accepting and agreeing with everything they say. You must be able to evaluate the extent to which they have been successful in communicating whatever it is they wanted to communicate and to analyse HOW they did this, in their writing style (their use of persuasive, argumentative and literary techniques).

I also liked this observation about what exactly it is you’re supposed to be doing when you read a text (but only IF the question demands it) – “relate texts to [your] own experience, generate personal meanings, discuss and justify those meanings, and express opinions coherently”

The second is that despite living in the most visual era the world has ever experienced, lots of students don’t know how to “read” images. Here’s what the report had to say on this topic:

Visual literacy

Paper 1 – composing

The main advice was to know your genres. The report states in no uncertain terms that “It is imperative that candidates who choose to write in a particular genre be familiar with the conventions of that genre and show evidence of this knowledge in the course of their writing“. So if you choose a descriptive essay, you must write descriptively (5 senses, active verbs, adjectives, moment by moment description) . If you write a speech, you must engage with your audience, include facts, stats, quotes, embed the repetition of a key phrase. If you write a short story, you must develop plot, setting, character. The list goes on. Each genre has its own style and set of expectations.

However, I was amused to see that “skills in letter writing require attention“. I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this one. The examiner complained that “greater attention” needed to be paid “to the rubrics appropriate to the task (e.g. return address, date, salutation and closing signature)“. I would suggest that greater attention needs to be paid to the fact that THIS IS 2014!!! For God’s sake, when is the last time a teenager any of us sat down and wrote a letter? We email, we tweet, we blog, we skype. I’m as sad as the next person that the art of letter writing is in decline, but the day of the letter is dead and gone. I think it’s about time those setting the exam took a long hard look at themselves instead of criticising kids for not giving a crap what the correct format for a letter is, when the only time they have ever or will ever write a letter is in stupid school or applying for a job, in which case they’ll google a template! Ok, sorry for the rant but I had to get that off my chest!

In other news, correctors paid compliment to students composing skills: “the best compositions were fresh, well-organised, confident responses”; “there were great examples of aesthetic writing, poetic flourishes, and well observed situations”; “the quality of dialogue and description impressed”; “it was pleasing to see the varied and imaginative ways that students were able to approach the instructions in the questions”. However, they did mention that a small number of the compositions were extremely brief and in some cases where students decided to write a short story, they failed to grasp the fundamentals that entails – characterisation, setting, dialogue, atmosphere, plot i.e. action, conflict, turning point.

A previous report – I think it was from 2008 – criticised students for going into the exam with a pre-prepared short story and writing it no matter what came up. See 7. below…

Essay critiqueI also like the way they didn’t come straight out and say it, but the mention in no.6 of “heartfelt” articles is not a compliment. I’m willing to bet these were sickly sweet, full of cliches and made the examiners want to vomit just a little bit. Sincere can only bring you so far. Just because “that really happened” or “that’s really how I feel” does not mean it’s worth writing about.

As for QB, “writing in the correct genre using an appropriate register” was the skill they wanted students to demonstrate and we’re told that “Examiners pay particular attention to a candidate’s efforts to tailor their writing to the audience in question and to write in an appropriate register. This may involve writing in a particular style (e.g. formal, informal, rhetorical etc) and using language appropriate to the context“. This isn’t exactly news to us teachers, but it can be difficult to get students to take enough time to figure out who their audience/readership is and what kind of language might be appropriate to this audience and this task/genre.

Paper 2 – single text

I’ll quote at length here from the report, because I think it makes a very important point which students often miss. Just because the statement is written on the exam paper, does not mean that your job is to agree with it and then just find evidence to back it up. This is actually a terrible way to approach any question. It’s dull in the extreme, simplistic and prevents you from showing off your ability to see the nuances in the texts you have studied.

Here’s what the report had to say: we “invite candidates to engage with them but not necessarily to agree, either wholly or in part, with the premise put forward in the questions. Teachers and candidates should note that while it is essential that candidates fully engage with the terms of any question attempted, challenging the terms of a question, perhaps disagreeing with some part or the entire premise outlined, is an acceptable way in which to approach an answer. Such a possibility is often encouraged by the phraseology of questions e.g. “to what extent do you agree or disagree with…”. It is catered for in the marking schemes by the inclusion of points of disputation and also by use of the term “et cetera” to cover any possible worthwhile answers offered by candidates. Examiners sometimes report that candidates can appear to adopt an overly reverential approach to questions. This can affect candidates’ ability to demonstrate skills in critical literacy“. 

The other behaviour students frequently exhibit is not engaging fully with all aspects of the question asked, and lapsing into simply telling the story instead of using what they know to argue a point. Here’s what they had to say about this:

Single text 2008

The bit about adapting knowledge is a nod to the fact that students often learn off sample answers to questions but aren’t willing or able to transform what they know so that it applies to the question asked. I wrote this blog post recently examining this very problem which  you might want to check out. 

Paper 2 – comparative study

There were two main criticisms, the first relating to actually engaging with the texts and the question asked in a critical way “it is possible for candidates to challenge, wholly or in part, not only the premise put forward in questions but also the views and opinions they encountered in the course of studying texts“. So same problem as above, where students feel they’re being asked to simply agree and provide evidence, when in actual fact they can agree in part, or agree in relation to some texts but not all. So we’re told that “examiners were pleased when they saw candidates trust in their own personal response and demonstrate a willingness to challenge the ‘fixed meaning’ of texts. The best answers managed to remain grounded, both in the question asked and in the texts”. 

The second major criticism was similar to the complaint above about students learning off a short story and writing it no matter what came up. The same goes for the comparative where examiners complained that students had pre-prepared answers which they refused to adapt to the question asked.  Don’t get confused here: in the comparative section you have to have done a lot of preparation prior to the exam. The similarities and differences are unlikely to simply occur to you on the day under exam conditions and the structure of comparing and contrasting, weaving the texts together using linking phrases and illustrating points using key moments is not something you can just DO with no practice. It’s a skill you have to learn. But you MUST be willing to change, adapt, and select from what you know to engage fully with the question asked.

This compliment, followed by a warning, was included in the 2013 report:

Many examiners reported genuine engagement with the terms of the questions, combined with a fluid comparative approach. As in previous years, examiners also noted that a significant minority of candidates were hampered by a rigid and formulaic approach“.

A similar comment was included in the 2008 report. It seems the same problems we encounter as teachers correcting your work are appearing in exams too, unsurprisingly:

Comparative 2008

So the key to doing well is to know your texts, know the similarities and differences between them, have practiced weaving them together using linking phrases and illustrating points using key moments, but ultimately decide what to include (and leave out) AND how to phrase it on the day, depending on the question that comes up. Christ, they don’t ask a lot, do they!?!

One minor issue was students thinking they could get away with only knowing 2 texts. This is explicitly NOT the case, unless the question says “in two or more texts“. There’s no guarantee this phrase will appear, it often doesn’t, particularly at higher level, so going into the exam, you must be prepared to answer on three texts, as this is more than likely what the question will demand of you. Here’s what the report had to say: “candidates taking examinations in Leaving Certificate English should be prepared to refer to three texts in answer to questions on Paper 2, Section Two, Comparative Studies“. Also, it’s worth noting that you cannot answer on two films and you cannot include the text you’ve discussed as your single text in your comparative answer.

It also seems that there are lots of students writing comparative answers that are WAY TOO LONG. Aim for 5 pages not 9. Here’s the comment from the report which tells me that: “All candidates are reminded of the practical imperative of managing their time during the examination carefully and of the need to complete all of the requisite elements of the examination papers“. I’d say the comparative section is the main reason why students run out of time for poetry and in some cases, leave out unseen poetry altogether.

Paper 2 – poetry

Here, the problem of pre-learned off answers not being adapted to the task reared its head again.

Candidates were most successful when they avoided a formulaic approach and demonstrated the ability to link and cross reference the work of their chosen poet in the course of an answer. The syllabus requires students at Higher Level to “study a representative selection from the work of eight poets… Normally the study of at least six poems by each poet would be expected.” Candidates who had taken the time to engage fully with the work of a poet were better placed to select judiciously, comment intelligently and respond constructively to questions posed in the examination”. 

They’re also clearly arguing that if you only know three or four poems you’ll be limited in your ability to respond to the question. In other words you may have ‘left out’ the poems that are most relevant to that particular question.

The “link and cross-reference” phrase refers to the problem whereby students offer a poem by poem analysis without interlinking them, referring back to earlier poems, or emphasising the developing nature of the poets work. Your poetry essay, after all, should not be five mini essays on five different poems; it should be an integrated overview of features of the writer’s themes and style so this will inevitably involve referring backwards and forwards to poems previously discussed or about to be discussed and identifying common themes or stylistic traits as they recur or evolve.

Two more really obvious bits of advice come from previous reports, but I’ll include them here because they’re still relevant, particularly the first one:

Poetry advice

Poetry 2005 critique

As for unseen, the problem seems to have been that quite a few students just left it out, obsessed, no doubt with getting the other sections finished. This in turn skewed the average marks achieved in each section (see below). You’ll notice unseen is the lowest. This isn’t because people do badly in this section – those who answer it generally do very well. It’s ‘easy marks’ as long as you engage with the question(s) and balance the 3T’s – theme, tone, technique, also known as ideas, feelings, writing style. But enough people got 0/20 to drag the average down to 11/20. So let me re-iterate: Students Do Well In This Section – those that answer it that is!

Average marks per question Conclusions

What we’ve suspected all along – that the comparative section is bloody hard, is reflected in lower scores. The report says “in the Comparative Study section, candidates in general scored less well here than in other sections of the examination paper. Formulaic approaches to answering questions in this section can hinder candidates by inhibiting their engagement with the terms of the questions and curtailing the expression of independent thought”.

What they don’t recognise or admit is that the demands of the genre itself – comparative analysis – are what’s leading to formulaic answers. Many students find this section next to impossible even when they have unlimited time to compose their essays. Weaving texts together is bloody difficult. Weaving three texts together and answering a set question and expressing independent thought and illustrating using key moments, but not going into too much detail in case you spend too long on one text and then get penalised for not weaving, comparing and contrasting enough with limited time under exam conditions is a head wreck of mammoth proportions!

The results are lower because it’s the most difficult section. There’s no mystery here. It’s just BLOODY HARD

I mentioned earlier that the stats don’t go back to 1997 when I did my leaving cert. Back then I got an A1 (which redeemed the B in Junior Cert English that I found personally devastating) but the comparative didn’t exist. I’d love to sit the exam again for the hell of it and see how I’d get on. I’m confident I’d get an A1 again in every section except possibly the 100 mark composition (it’d depend largely on getting a topic that suited me and I’d find handwriting rather than typing infuriating in the extreme) and definitely the comparative, where I might scrape a B1, but only if things went well on the day. Are you getting the vibe that I hate the comparative? Yeah, I kinda do.

In more general terms, there’s no substitute for fluid but controlled sentence and paragraph structure, complex but accurate vocab, good spelling and grammar and fluency and flow with language.

Spelling grammar structureThese are things your teacher can attempt to teach you but the roots of this go deep deep into the vaults of your past (How much do you read? Did you read a lot growing up? Did your parents talk to you a lot using complex vocab?) and also reflect your personality. Do you actually and have you ever cared about planning and structuring your work? Do you and have you for the past 6 years checked your spelling or do you just fling down any oul guess? Do your thoughts appear in random disconnected bullet points or do they flow one into the other like a living stream of language?

Two more final observations.

You can’t do well in English by just learning loads of stuff off. This can be hard for students to accept, particularly because I’m told there are some subjects (but I wouldn’t dare name them!) where learning stuff off and vomiting it back up is rewarded. English is not one of them. You can know a lot but still do badly if you can’t express your knowledge in a coherent way. One of the reports identified this by saying that “some examiners identified candidates who were able to demonstrate knowledge of a text or texts but were less able to deliver this knowledge in a lucid or coherent fashion“. Ultimately, if your points are unclear, or unrelated to the question, you won’t be rewarded for simply knowing stuff.

Finally, finally, finally. The marking scheme PCLM stands for purpose, coherence, language, mechanics. But no matter how beautifully written something is, if it’s not relevant to the question/task (Purpose) then it won’t make any sense (Coherence) and you won’t get good marks for writing well (Language / Mechanics) if it’s completely off task / off topic. This wasn’t referenced in the most recent report but it did appear previously, the idea that your mark for P dictates your mark in the other sections C L & to a lesser extent M.

PCLM importance of pSo???


That’s the best advice I or any teacher can give you.



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:

Answer the Q!!!

We’ve been revising Kingship in class this week. We’ve got fancy infographics analysing the models of Kingship (or future Kingship!) represented by Duncan, Macbeth and Malcolm (see below) and I’ve been trying to get it to hit home that it doesn’t really matter WHAT opinion you offer as long as you can back it up with relevant quotes and examples.Duncan infographic

In order to illustrate why it is that teachers & examiners get so bloody upset when students learn off notes and vomit them up in the exam, I took two exam questions, both of which relate closely to the theme of Kingship.

The first was “Macbeth is about power – its use and abuse

The second was “Kingship, with all its potential for good and evil, is a central theme in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Then I typed my response – off the top of my head – to each question, in the form of a single paragraph looking at the character of Duncan. The result was far from polished (I’m not used to live typing in front of an audience) and I’m pretty sure my paragraphs would be longer in an exam, but the exercise was nonetheless a good one.

My aim was to show my students that:

(a) You can know the info, you can have an opinion, but you cannot know the exact words you’ll use until you see the question.

(b) The words from the question must be integrated throughout your response.

(c) You cannot possibly include everything you know about a character so you must simply select some of what you feel is relevant to the question. In English, you are not losing marks for the things you don’t say, you are only gaining marks for the way you use SOME of what you do know to respond to the Q asked, all the while offering your opinion.

So what did we do next?

Well we underlined the important words/concepts in this question:

“Macbeth is about power – its use and abuse
Then I live typed this (in about 5 minutes) as a sample (mini-)paragraph.

Duncan is the most powerful individual in the Kingdom as the play begins. He uses his power wisely – as Macduff later notes he is “a most sainted King”. Even the man who is plotting to murder him, Macbeth, observes that he “hath been so clear in his great office that the angels will plead out trumpet tongued against the deep damnation of his taking off”. Absolute power is not without its challenges however. Duncan’s rule is challenged by Macdonwald & an invading Norwegian army who view his meekness as King as an opportunity to seize power. Ultimately, although Duncan does not ‘abuse’ the power he has as King, he is perceived as weak and this allows others to challenge his rule. In this end this is why he dies!

[Reading this over it is very short.I’d probably add a few more lines in an exam but I was conscious of my audience waiting patiently for me to finish!]

Afterwards, as you can see above, we highlighted in bold the places where I explicitly used the words from the question in my response.

Then we turned to the other question.

Kingship, with all its potential for good and evil is a central theme in the play”

Again, we underlined the important words / concepts.

Then I live typed this (in about 5 minutes) as a sample (mini-)paragraph:

The first King we meet in the play is the “sainted” Duncan, who has used his position in a noble, wise and fair manner. Even the man who is plotting his murder admits that Duncan has been “clear in his great office”. He is not a perfect King, he certainly makes mistakes, rewarding Macbeth more effusively than Banquo, with a title and a royal visit as opposed to a hug. This favouritism may explain why he has made enemies in the past. Nonetheless, his murder is shocking and immoral and nature reacts with horror (we hear the “owls scream and the crickets cry”) because the King was viewed as God’s representative on earth. Ultimately, once a usurper, in the form of Macbeth, takes over, the potential of Kingship to become a force for evil in Scotland is unleased.

Afterwards, as you can see above, we highlighted in bold the places where I explicitly used the words from the question in my response.

I could have prepared the examples in advance, but I think they might have missed the point, which is that your brain needs to be ON – needs to be on FIRE – thinking thinking thinking even as you write (not remembering, remembering, remembering stuff you’ve learnt off!). I also reassured them that my total recall of the play & all the quotes is just a function of having taught and studied the play about 9 times!!! And obviously I’ll find this easier than they will cause I practiced this skill for six years of college! And ever since…

I didn’t want the whole thing to become me showing off. It was a demonstration not a telling off (why aren’t ye doing this? blah blah blah blah blah, rant rant rant rant rant – I don’t know any student who responds to that tactic!). Still I do think I scared them a bit. Oops! Ah well, if it helps them to do better in the exams perhaps they’ll forgive me! Having taught in a boys school previously, dare I risk being accused of sexism and suggest that girls – especially girls in an all girls school – can sometimes get obsessed with the idea of having the RIGHT answer, as opposed to just coming up with the answer that makes the most sense to them personally…

Right, I’ll shut up now before I start offending people!!!

Here are the other infographics. They now have to take these, pick one of the two questions above, and write a full essay, ensuring that they engage fully with the question throughout their answer! Hopefully it’ll help them improve!

Macbeth infographic

Malcolm 2

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?