Tag Archives: ‘English teachers’

Story Spine #2

During the summer I made the difficult decision to take a hiatus from mentoring the Concern Debating Team. I was sick quite a bit last year and my lovely GP gently suggested that if I set myself Realistic Achievable Goals instead of attempting a bad impression of SuperWoman, I might find myself getting flattened by chest infections and laryngitis a little less often. However, none of that made me feel any less guilty or any less sad. I love the wild expansion of knowledge that occurs as we research; the heated discussions at lunchtime about how exactly to tackle the motion; the buzz of the debates themselves.

That’s not why I’m writing this though. I’m writing this blog post because one of my debaters wrote an incredible tongue-in-cheek story spine that helped me to make peace with my decision. It speaks volumes of her talent and maturity and compassion and was a timely reminder for me that kindness is a two-way street between teacher and student.

Once upon a time there was an English teacher who had the unfortunate luck of being cursed. This curse rendered her almost entirely incapable of uttering the word ‘no’ and also had the effect of disillusioning her to believe herself capable of handling infinite projects, unhindered by the constraints of time.

And every day, the requests would bombard her in quick succession – a quick radio piece, did she have time to give her opinion? A grade on an overdue essay, because, I swear Miss, I just left it at home last week; supervising a TY project, and oh! cheers Miss, I knew you wouldn’t let us down! And every day a yes fell from her lips without any intent, just a knee-jerk reaction.

Until one day, the curse was broken. Realisation hit her like a truck; she was not obliged to say yes. She recognised that unless she could pull a Hermoine Granger and get her hands on a Time Turner, it was simply not possible to do everything she was asked to do.

And because of that, she bid her beloved and favourite-ever-of-all-time students on the debating team adieu.

And because of that, there was heartbreak, quickly succeeded by a frenzy and flurry of confusion. Where to find a replacement? Was there one? Was this the end? Oh, Shakespeare himself could not dream up a tragedy of such devastating proportions!

Until finally, their fate was accepted. The Mount Saint Michael debate team was, alas, no more. The loss was felt keenly by all four people who knew it existed.

And ever since that day the English teacher is filled with regret and sorrow, wishing she had seen that this team should obviously precede family, work and all else in her endless list of priorities.

The bitter end.


INOTE conference

How was it? Exhilarating and exhausting, inspiring, demanding and just very occasionally a little bit depressing.

After three and a half hours on the road in the company of Mark Kermode and the BBC philharmonic orchestra celebrating 50 years of James Bond, I finally arrived in Kilkenny. Somehow, however, I’d missed the email which told us that Clare Keegan would be doing a reading, so my copies of her brilliant short story collections “Antartica” and “Walk the Blue Fields” were left sitting on my bookshelves. Oh well, I still got to meet her and it was fascinating to hear her speak about the craft of writing so honestly and so eloquently. She spoke of the intensity required of the short story but also of the quiet observation of reluctant narrators which needs to happen before you’ll create anything worth reading. And she spoke also of the process of writing and re-writing, of revisiting the characters over and over again until what they are doing rings true and reveals who they really are. But quietly. Somehow you get to know them in silence not noise and I wondered how often our students do this? Visit and revisit draft after draft until they have crafted something to truly be proud of. Certainly they never get this opportunity in an exam which gives them only 1 hr 20 minutes. That’s why I generally recommend that students avoid the short story, not in life, but in the exams. In the real world I run a short story competition every year because I want my students to know the pleasure of crafting a beautiful piece of writing and of seeing their work in print but the brutal demands of writing a really good short story in such a short timeframe in an exam is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

Meanwhile I’ve bagged myself a signed copy of Foster that I’m dying to dive into but chance would be a fine thing! I often hear people commenting how family-friendly teaching is as a job, but right now it doesn’t feel like that. Last Wednesday I didn’t see my daughter at all as I was away with students at our first Concern debate; Thurday I was home late after work and there in body but not in spirit for the rest of the evening as I was distracted preparing for the conference; Friday I was in Kilkenny and when I got back late Saturday night the house was quiet and everyone was in bed. Today Sunday I’ll be at the school musical dress rehearsal and I’ll be at there again for matineees and evening shows Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. These past few days have been so crazy I still haven’t met my beautiful little niece Clíona (born last Wednesday) and it’s hard not to feel guilty and overwhelmed. I’ve also got a stack of personal essays from my leaving certs that need correcting but right now it just feels like somethings gotta give. Still, mid-term is fast approaching so I’ll get some balance back then. And maybe even get a chance to actually read “Foster”…

Saturday began with our keynote speaker’s observation that ‘success for English teachers is not defined by A1s but how many future readers we inspire’. So far, so obvious. Sadly, the rest of her talk was a rambling rant at everyone in the room, accusing us of teaching to the exam, of not encouraging students to read widely, criticising us for the selection of texts on the list of prescribed material. She generally seemed convinced that all English teachers are complete and utter failures. She spoke of her experience in school of being given out to for reading something that wasn’t on the course and for only the second time in half an hour I could connect with something she was saying – I too was given out to at school for reading instead of ‘studying’ and it stuck with me. That’s one of the reasons I became a teacher. That’s the reason why my TY’s are in the throes of setting up their own book club, and the first years are taking part in the MS readathon and the entire staff are on board with the drop and read initiative. I think what made me saddest of all was the way she sucked the energy and enthusiasm out of the room and patronised a wonderful group of people who passionately love what they do enough to have gotten up at 5 and 6 am to drive to a conference for which there will be no recognition (the Dept tell us to do CPD but refuse to recognise it when calculating Croke Park hours). She spoke of inspiring people but if that was her version of inspiration, in my humble opinion, she’s got a lot to learn.

Thankfully, things picked up once we got stuck into the workshops. I was presenting on some practical ways that teachers can integrate more ICT into their teaching (you can read some of those tips here) and once I got into the swing of it my nerves melted away. I pointed to the confluence of factors which so profoundly accererated my journey to integrating technology in my classroom- teaching in a school with zero discipline problems; grappling with severe laryngitis; desperately needing to find a way to communicate with my pupils without using my voice; having an IT technician on hand 24 hours a day every time I ran into difficulties (my husband John). In the end we decided that this is the vital missing factor in schools and the motto for my talk became “everyone needs a John!”. Meanwhile, thanks to the wonderful John I’ve completed chapter one of the paper one book I’ve been threatening to write for the past year – if you want to download the pdf and photocopy any of it for use in class click here: (Bible w cover)

Just before lunch, Colette Kearney offered incredibly wise words on Literacy and Learning Support and Tony Tracey gave a fascinating and in-depth analysis of Blade Runner. I caught some of both once I’d finished answering questions and queries and bouncing ideas off other teachers. After both sessions and at lunch I had great inspiring conversations with some really vibrant and enthusiastic English teachers and I’ve made some great new connections, something that is so vital in teaching, a profession that can seem so lonely at times. I was only sad that presenting meant that I missed the wonderful workshops by Fiona Kirwin, Delmot Bolger (really sad about this one! I have a thing for writers…), Frances Rocks and Edward Denniston. Then we launched into our AGM with a heated and passionate discussion of the new Junior Cert, focusing most particularly on the abuses of the system which can occur when teachers grade their own pupils. The general consensus seemed to be that maintaining any kind of national standard will be impossible; that assessing our own pupils will profoundly damage our relationship with them (we want to be advocates not judge and jury); that the lack of information about who will design the new English curriculum and what it might look like is profoundly worrying and frustrating; and yet there remain many things to be excited about  – for me, I’m particularly enthused about the short courses in Digital Literacy and Artistic Performance. Nonetheless, the suggestion that these changes aren’t a cost saving exercise was met with a gale of laughter.

After a second round of workshops and a drink in the bar it was back on the road again. My phone kept beeping and when I pulled over in Athlone for a McFlurry with the lovely Elaine Dobbyn I was delighted to see some of my workshop attendees already giving twitter a go. To me these connections are what give us the energy and the drive to keep going despite the obstacles and the challenges and the perception we were subjected to earlier in the day that we daily fail our pupils. For me our greatest success lies in the fact that we care passionately about doing the best job we can possibly do for our students. Everything else is silence.

INOTE notes

ICT for Technophobes

Step 1: Use what’s already there!

Google – do a search & a list of search options will appear along the left side of the page.

Find exactly what you need by clicking on:

  • Images

  • Videos

  • News

  • Pages from Ireland

  • More search tools – reading age (click on “web” to find “more search tools”)

YouTube – if searching in class, you can scroll down to the very bottom of the page, you can select “safety” and turn it to “on” to avoid inappropriate content popping up.

Wikipedia – find languages on the left hand side and select “simple English”.

Also, students may find wikiquote useful for writing essays.

Websites I may have mentioned at the conference:

Check if they’re blocked by your school filter – every school seems to be different! We have 2 lines in to the school, one unfiltered for teachers & a filtered one for students.

Developing vocabulary and grammar awareness:





Timing exercises:


Creating online newspapers from word documents:

www.issuu.com (might be blocked by school filter)

Speeches and talks on every topic under the sun:




Step 2: Learning from other teachers:

Reading, writing, listening and speaking are the skills we want students to develop – using audacity develops their listening and speaking skills as well as their digital literacy. Also, they can all be talking at once and still achieving something! Which is nice!

Download audacity – go to www.audacity.sourceforge.net

You will also need to install www.lame.sourceforge.net – all files need to be saved as mp3s and this allows you to do it.

Most students (and adults including me!) I’ve come across are programmed to always choose “file save as”. However, if you do this with an audio file it will save as just so much gobbledigook! Instead you need to train them (and yourself) to select “file, export as mp3”.

Remember, having audacity on your computer isn’t enough, you also need lame which encodes the sound waves as mp3s.

More advanced tips:

I’ve noticed that it can be very slow when students are trying to upload recordings they’ve made to edmodo. Our tech guy figured out that we had a very high download rate on our school internet but a very slow upload rate so he contacted the people who provide our internet and balanced it out better.

If you have your own blog and want to embed audio files, you need someone to host your audio online. I use www.soundcloud.com – they have hours of free audio hosting before you hit the limit, after which you have to pay money to upload any more (or you could just create a second account!)

Step 3: Set up a blog

Setting up a blog is easy. Figuring out how to create categories, add tags, photos, videos etc is a little more time consuming! The blog platforms I see teachers using the most are


www.edublogs.org (however I heard a rumour recently that they no longer host videos)



Basically running a blog helps you and your students to be more organized. Everything you (and they) need is sorted into categories and available at the click of a button. Blogging also helps you to realize that the content is everywhere – so it’s really what we get our students to DO with the content that matters. Other advantages include less time standing at a photocopier and less panic as exams approach as your notes are available anytime, anywhere to anyone. Oh, so you do have to be OK with sharing your notes…

10 blogs being run by English teachers in Ireland:

http://www.sccenglish.ie/ Julian Girdham is the King of blogging and if you haven’t discovered his site yet you’re in for a treat! He’s here today and presented on ICT at iNOTE last year; search his site for incredible resources on this and everything English related.

http://calasanctiusenglish.blogspot.ie/ Elaine Dobbyn, former NUIG Lit n Deb head recently returned to her native Galway and is now blogging from Oranmore – great posts, links and tips. (She’s involved in INOTE and is here at the conference – if you see her do say ‘hi’).

http://dgsenglishdept.blogspot.com/ Formerly the responsibility of the aforementioned Elaine Dobbyn, this blog has passed into the very capable hands of Louise Donohoe who is blogging up a storm since September (she’s here at the conference somewhere too I’m told! Hello!)

http://meighan.edublogs.org/ This blog is full of really great observations, quotes, posts and links from Laura Meighan who teaches in Gormanstown. She once gave me a lift to the train station in Dublin. As a culchie from Mayo I really appreciated it!

http://juliecullen.weebly.com/5th-year-blog.html Julie Cullen is one of those teachers I’d never have gotten to know if it wasn’t for Twitter – she runs a great blog with different sections for each year group which has loads of ideas, posts, links.

http://6thyearenglish.tumblr.com/archive Katie Molloy’s blog for her 2012 Leaving Cert class is now archived but there’s still a serious amount of really valuable resources available here. (Katie’s here today too – hi Katie!)

http://collegebookclub.weebly.com/index.html Another great blog with heaps of resources for teaching English from Eve Roche, also in attendance today. Hi Eve!

http://newenglishirl.blogspot.ie/ I had to take to twitter to uncover the mystery identity of the teacher running this blog – his name is Eoghan Evesson. And this is a blog you don’t want to miss!

http://bccnsenglish.com/ Also run by a teacher/teachers I haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting in person; some excellent resources and links here.

http://5j2012msgreville.wordpress.com/category/english-education/ Run by Natasha Greville, this site includes some great posts about teaching as well as lots of useful resources for English.

And there’s my blog www.leavingcertenglish.net

Step 4: Make connections

Join twitter to connect with other English teachers to swop ideas, resources & occasionally to whinge about the corrections you have piling up! Also, every Monday evening there’s a discussion on education issues on twitter. You don’t even need an account to follow what’s going on (referred to as lurking!) – just search for #edchatie or @fboss (he moderates brilliantly – he’s a former Art teacher who works for the NCTE).

If you can go to the CESI conference in February and/or the ICT in Education conference in Tipperary IT in May. Contact CESI on www.cesi.ie

10 English teachers (based in Ireland) to follow on Twitter:

@evelynoconnor @sccenglish @Elaine_Dobbyn

@brighidcannon @cullej29 @tashagreville

@ConnollyTrevor @newengblog @levdavidovic @portenglish

Step 5: VLE: There are lots of options out there.

Moodle is the most popular in Irish schools but you need someone in your school to do the techie bit and set it up. It costs a small amount of money so you’d need a few teachers on board to justify it.

www.icsgrid.ie Schools pay per user for this VLE but the courses are already set up for you in all of the major subject areas for both Junior and Leaving Cert.

www.edmodo.com – this is the one I use. I’ll be showing you this in action at the conference.

Make sure you do a quick survey of all students to see if they have internet access, how reliable it is, if they have to share one computer with many siblings. You’ll also need an ‘acceptable use policy’. Let parents know you’re using it in case they have any concerns.

Step 6: Create resources

To increase motivation make each group responsible for one aspect of the course. Tell them the Junior Certs are relying on them to create good resources for them to revise with (this may or may not work!). I generally go with groups of four.

If you buy flipcams don’t get ones with AA batteries – make sure they’re plug-in-able!

Step 7: Share with other teachers!

It’s kind of obvious but if we shared resources and ideas more we’d all have less to do!


Some more English teachers to follow on twitter – hope you don’t mind me outing you but if anyone does, send me an email and I’ll take you off the list! @Reve111 @NecieDon@susandhealy @ecenglish13 @gerinclare @Bcs_historydept @ClassiebawnKarl @treasanc @Kate_e_Ryan @DavidClarkeDub @KieransEnglish @gemmacorcoran3 @rsbeaver @RuthRkelly @GerADoyle @MrMcArdle @Markievicz @lcenglish1 @leenbre @eesxxx @MsFCampbell @JanetteCondon @HeleneOKeefe

And more English teacher blogs:







Comparative Crisps

Let me begin with an admission – this wonderful, creative method of teaching the essence of what the comparative is all about was not my idea. A guy I teach with has a sister who’s a teacher who teaches with a teacher in Castlebar who uses this as a technique to make the comparative clearer for students. If I knew the name of this teacher I’d credit them here but I tried and failed to find out their name – so if it’s you please get in contact! Anyway, it sounded like a stroke of genius to me so I decided to give it a go!

I did this with the entire class (four groups of six, three paper plates x four groups, lots & lots of crisps) but there’s no reason why you can’t try this for yourself at home if you’re a student with a paper plate collection and a decent crisp addiction!

  1. First get three paper plates. Write the names of your three comparative texts on them – in our case Casablanca, Babylon and Sive. Next you need three different packets of crisps – two should be quite similar (we used two varities of cheese & union crisps, one regular, one extra cheesy crinkle cut) and one kinda different (we used salt and vinegar taytos).
  2. Pour one packet out onto the plate of the text you know best – in our case we now had “Casablanca Crisps”. Now select two crisps off this plate – one to look at, one to eat.
  3. Next write an analysis of this crisp – it’s shape, size, texture (thick or thin, flakey, stale, soggy or crunchy), taste and anything else you notice. Remember, not everyone responds in the same way to the same crisps, so remember to focus on how eating this crisp makes you feel!

Once you’ve completed this exercise you now have part (a) of your comparative question done. The individual crisps from the packet are like the key moments in your text. It doesn’t really matter which ones you select as long as they capture the essence of this packet of crisps (text) and it doesn’t matter if other people in the class choose different crisps (key moments).

Another important thing to bear in mind is that the examiner is looking for your personal response to the crisp (text) – not everyone likes things which are extra-cheesy but some people LOVE that shiT! Some people like a really sharp crunch, others perfer a softer, gentler texture. And so it is with movies, plays and novels!

Remember that you CANNOT get your personal response from a notes book, a grinds school or a teacher any more than someone else can TELL you which flavours and textures you like best! If you try this then everyone in the room will be acting as if they all feel exactly the same way about these crisps (texts) but as we all know this is simply NOT believable – in truth everyone has different tastes and responds differently!

Now it’s time to move on to part (b)…

4. Pour the other two crisp types onto the other two plates – we now had Babylon Crisps and Sive crisps! Once again, choose two crisps off each plate – one to look at and one to taste.

5. In the light of your discussion in part (a) above, compare and contrast the other two crisps (texts), focusing on both similarities and differences.

For this answer, you focus on these two new crisps. You may if you wish refer back BRIEFLY to the first crisp you tasted (text you studied) but because you’ve already discussed it in detail in part (a) you only mention it in passing here (if at all). Your focus now is on the other two crisps (texts) that you are now comparing and contrasting!

You must use linking phrases

  • both; also; in the same way;
  • similarly; in a slightly different way; by contrast; unlike;
  • the opposite is the case; these two couldn’t be more different…
  • in some ways they mirror each other; although X is like Y, noetheless, I found myself responding differently, possibly because…
  • despite X difference, one thing they did have in common was..
  • a further similarity was evident in…

When you’ve finished this exercise, underline each linking phrase you’ve used. Every time you make a comparision (both similarities and differences) write a C in the margin – this is what the examiner will do when they correct your exam in June! In our class one student had used 13 linking phrases; most had somewhere between 8 and 11; a few had used only 4 or 5. In the latter case it became immediately clear to them that they probably weren’t comparing and contrasting enough – they tended instead to fall into the mistake of discussing one crisp (text) on its own, then the other crisp (text) on its own but for comparative studies you are not being asked to show off how much you can write about the individual crisps (texts) – you are being asked instead to demonstrate your ability to analyse similarites and differences.

Another way to double check that you are interweaving the texts sufficiently and moving back and forth between them frequently is to now pick up two different coloured highlighters. Each time you are speaking about crisp (text) 2, highlight in pink; each time you are speaking about crisp (text) 3, highlight in yellow and when you are speaking about both simultaneously place the highlighters side by side and drag them along the page together to show that both are being discussed. Now look at the page – if you end up with long blocks of pink followed by long blocks of yellow, followed by long blocks of pink etc… you are writing mini-essays about each but you are still keeping them essentially separate which is kinda wrong! If you look at the page and there is an ebb and flow back and forth between pink and yellow and two-tone pink & yellow sections then you’re probably achieving what you need to which is intertwining a discussion of both!

However, I need to clarify two things here.

First of all, you cannot compromise the FLOW of your writing – so sometimes in order to make your point in a clear and detailed manner you may need to discuss one crisp (text) in a bit of detail on its own and this is fine! Secondly, it isn’t enough to simply have loads and loads of C’s in the margin – you don’t want your essay to become some kind of hyper-active mess where you are jumping all over the shop. Instead remember this – the examiner is not going to simply do a crude exercise in counting; he or she is NOT going to give you more marks the more linking phrases you use. Instead, he or she will in the case of each comparison ask “Is this a really obvious similarity/difference? Or is a more subtle and sophisticated point being made here?

In other words, it’s not quantity but quality that matters. Have a look at these examples below:

The Babylon crisp and the Sive crisp are similar in texture – they are both thin and crumble in the mouth. The Babylon crisp is cheese and onion flavoured while the Sive crisp is salt and vinegar flavoured. The Babylon crisp has a sharp aftertaste while by comparison the Sive crisp leaves only a taste of potatoes in the mouth. One difference is the calorie count – the Babylon crisp is cooked in oil while the Sive crisp is baked in the oven. Another difference is the colour – the Babylon crisp is very light, almost cream while the Sive crisp has shades of beige and brown running through it in a marble-like pattern“.

In the example above there is NO DEPTH – none of the points are developed in any detail and the reader almost feels dizzy because the writer is jumping all over the shop. There is also an annoying tendancy to blandly state facts when the writer should be discussing how he/she feels about these facts (the flavours, textures, colours etc…)

Now look at the example below:

I really enjoyed the texture of both crisps, the way they crumble in the mouth makes the experience of eating them almost effortless. However, this is where the similarites end for me! The Babylon crisp had a very strong, almost overpowering cheese and onion flavour which I personally found quite unpleasant, particularly the sharp aftertaste which lingers in the mouth long after you have swallowed. By contrast, the Sive crisp had a refreshing sharp tang of salt and vinegar; it offers a much more pleasant sensation for the palette than the Babylon crisp. Nevertheless, I must admit that, like the Babylon crisp, the Sive crisp also left me with a significant aftertaste except this time it was the strong impression that I had just eaten a plate of potatoes. There are some who would argue that this makes the Sive crisps more authentic – after all, the major ingredient of crisps IS potatoes – but I just found it irritating and felt like washing out my mouth with soap and water!

This person has made fewer points – they only wrote about texture, flavour and aftertaste whereas in the first example the writer discussed texture, flavour, aftertaste, calorie count and colour. However, they would still do better, getting an A rather than a C+ grade. So let’s ask why?

Well firstly their discussion has both DEPTH and FLOW – they offer a detailed instead of a superficial analysis and there is a lovely smooth flow from one point to the next. They don’t try to cram in too much, instead choosing to focus on fewer details but developing each point they do make to the maximum! Furthermore, there is an elegance in the writing style and choice of vocabulary which makes the first example seem a little childish/bland.

Secondly, this example shows personal engagement and explores the experience of eating the crisps (reading the texts) rather then reducing them to a series of bland facts (which is what the first example does!).


Once you’ve eaten all the crisps it becomes harder to remember them – they become a memory which you must strain to bring to the forefront of your mind rather than something that is there immediately in front of you. It becomes harder to write about them because they are not there anymore. And I’m going to be really mean and insist that you don’t look back on your notes.

7. Take a blank page and a pen and answer the question below (the equivalent of the 70mark exam question):

We are all different and thus we respond differently to different crisps (texts)”

Discuss in relation to the three crisps you have eaten (texts you have studied).

You can select any crisps you remember from each packet (any key moments from the texts) but you must compare and contrast; you must use linking phrases; and you must focus on your personal experience and opinions. Remember it’s not about the number of factors / moments you discuss but rather about offering a depth in your discussion and creating a flow in your writing.

Most of my students found this much more difficult, particularly because they were grasping to retrieve their memories of the experience. This is one of the reasons why many students and teachers find the comparative frustrating – by the time you are ready to write about all three texts, the experience of watching/reading (or in the case of the crisps eating) feels long ago and far away! In our class we discussed how Casablanca (which we studied last May) feels quite fuzzy in their memory now and agreed that an essential part of their weekend needed to be watching the film again to unfuzzify it in their brains (I promised I’d watch it again too to unfuzzify it in my head too!).

Meanwhile, for now we’re going to ignore the fact that once you go into an exam you are operating purely from memory and you are not allowed to look at your notes. It’s better instead to focus on what you can do to preserve the experience of reading/watching your texts – basically if you make really good notes on the text as you are studying it (the Department refer to this as a “personal response journal“) then it won’t feel so fuzzy when you get to the end of the process and start trying to weave the texts together. By contrast, if you don’t tune in and turn on when studying the texts in class you’ll find it really really hard to write about the ‘experience’ of the text because you won’t remember it as an experience, in fact you probably won’t remember much of it at all!

Just as we were finishing this exercise (note to teachers – it took us an entire double class) the daily intercom announcements came on: “Students are reminded that the canteen is open for all breaks and there should be absolutely no eating in the school building” – at which point we fell around laughing, stuffed the remaining evidence of our crisp picnic in the bin and agreed to take our secret to the grave!!! But if you’re doing this exercise at home, your only problem will be convincing your parents that analysing crisps (with the side benefit of having to eat them all) qualifies as ‘studying’!

What’s wrong with the Leaving Cert?

Unless you’ve been hibernating under a rock you’ll be aware that the Leaving Cert results came out this week. As usual, the media focused almost exclusively on the two or three geniuses who managed to achieve near superhuman results, in some cases 9 A1s! These individuals are undoubtedly exceptional on so many levels and celebrating exceptional human beings in every field of human endeavour is a truly wonderful thing. I for one would hate to live in a world where individual achievement was ignored instead of exhalted.


What about the exceptional individuals whose talents aren’t recognised or rewarded by the Leaving Cert? Are they to conclude that the things they are good at simply don’t matter or have no value in an educational context? Talents like leadership, teamwork, creativity and innovation – are these things  really irrelevant when assessing their time at school and awarding college places?

I’ve been thinking about the Leaving Cert a lot over the last few months. What kicked it all off was an #edchatie discussion back in April on the possibility of achieving “A Better, Fairer Leaving Cert”. A few short weeks later I was delighted to hear the articulate and intelligent Fionnghuala King lambast the Leaving Cert at our school’s Graduation Mass  (you can read excerpts of what she had to say here in the Mayo News). Then the day of the results thejournal.ie rang me for reaction to the results and to the exams system itself and 24hours later I was in the middle of a heated row with George Hook on Newstalk about the relative merits of the current system. Only four short days after the results and after a summer of exhausting media interviews The Irish Times finally acknowledged that I might have something of value to say and yet I find myself still grasping for a coherent alternative method of assessing students achievements at the end of five or sometimes six years of secondary education.

For what it’s worth here are my thoughts. I’m aware they are often contradictory but this is a complex issue!So let’s embrace the paradoxes and tease them out…

  • Embracing change for the sake of change is a pointless and potentially damaging exercise.
  • Nonetheless we MUST find a way to reduce the pressure on students without compromising the integrity of the current system which is viewed by most as relatively transparent.
  • Transparency and objectivity are vital in a small country like Ireland which has always struggled with nepotism and corruption (exams which are externally marked & anonymous thankfully negate these negative societal traits).
  • There is no simple or obvious utopian alternative but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep looking for a lesser evil.
  • We need a terminal exam which assesses academic ability & aptitudes??? (I’m not sure about this one…)
  • Should a terminal exam be combined with some continuous assessment? Can we prevent plagiarism and maintain trasparency if we go down this route? Is there a danger of more grade inflation? Will parents/neighbours/teaching colleagues put pressure on teachers to give their son/daughter a higher grade than they deserve? Does this mean that those who shout the loudest will get the most? and how would this play out for students whose parents play fair? or don’t care? Aren’t teachers supposed to be advocates for their students not judge and jury? Will students just beg borrow or steal projects that they know will get them a good grade? And if this happens what are we willing to do about it? (Not very much, if this case is anything to go by).
  • The Leaving Cert as it exists is an incredibly blunt instrument which assesses a very narrow range of aptitudes and abilities and all too often leads to rote learning and regurgitation. However, is a certain amount of knowledge (stored in your memory rather than in a computer) a prerequisite for analysis and synthesis and deep understanding? This might be a chicken and egg debate – which comes first? Certainly you cannot rote learn your way to 600 points in your Leaving Cert. But if you repeat and select only the subjects which require and reward rote learning you can certainly get 500 points.
  • Exam technique and the ability to remain calm under pressure are the aptitudes which are rewarded most highly under the current system – if you fall down in either of these areas you fall down in your Leaving Cert. So God help you if you don’t (or can’t) nurture and develop these ‘talents’.
  • It is unforgiveable that there is no repeat procedure for students who are hit by illness or bereavement, through no fault of their own, immediately prior to and/or during exams.
  • It’s good that we offer a rounded education – I don’t think we should follow the British system where you could study English language, English literature, Drama and General Studies and then say you had studied 4 subjects for your A levels – let’s face it this is mostly different branches of the same subject and you’d have received a very narrow education indeed in your final two years of secondary school education.
  • However, we currently offer a very narrow range of subjects, with a ridiculous bias in favour of students who are good at languages – most schools have their subject choices arranged in such a way that you must study three languages. So almost 50% of your leaving cert subjects are languages irrespective of what your interests, aptitudes and abilities are. How fair must that feel if you love Maths, Accounting, Business, Art, Tech Graphics and Woodwork??? I know I certainly resented being told that I ‘had‘ to do a science subject when I wanted to do a combination of History, Geography, Art and Music. I was lucky in many ways – English and French were also on that list whether I liked it or not – but in my case I loved languages.
  • The range of subjects being offered is getting narrower all the time thanks to cutbacks. Physics, Chemistry, Accounting, Economics, History and Applied Maths are now all considered minority subjects. I mean seriously, WTF???
  • The bell curve sets students up for failure. It’s not about your achievements, it’s about how crap your achievements are compared to Mary down the road. Vomit.
  • We need to reform the system of college entry – the points system is so crude and so cruel we should be ashamed of ourselves. Fix this and a lot of the pressure, stress, worry and one-up-man-ship of the current system will dissappear.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Lots to grapple with.