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‘Sir’ is a state school English teacher in a big city in the UK. Prior to this he worked with children with a variety of Special Educational Needs, particularly those with behavioural and social problems. His teaching has been rated as ´Outstanding´ by Ofsted which means he once did a great job for 50 minutes. Save for a light dusting of fiction in order to protect the innocent (and indeed the guilty) anything recounted here is absolutely true. Otherwise, there will be some exciting political debate where everything Sir thinks is also absolutely true. Twitter: @seekingsir

17 June 2010


I am due to teach a poetry unit to a bottom set Year 8 class. They are politely described as ‘challenging’. Their regular teacher has given me a set of poems to look at which I might like to use with them. I am told they are ‘quite fun and about the right level’. I instantly hate them. They are insipid, empty ‘children’s verse’ nonsense. Just reading the first two makes me want to poke out my eyes with blunt cocktail sticks. They are just horrible. I am filled with rage every time I see this sort of patronising insignificance peddled out to bottom sets.

That’s it, I decide, I’m teaching them Dulce et Decorum Est. ‘You do know they’re a bottom set don’t you? And they are only Year 8?’ says their regular and vastly more experienced teacher. ‘Yes, and yes’, I reply, ‘and I’m still doing it.’ ‘OK’, she replies, ‘I’m intrigued’. Her tone suggests that she is intrigued to see exactly how I am going to fall on my over-ambitious face rather than to see whether or not I might actually succeed. In fairness to her, there have certainly been precedents and she is only trying to look out for me, but I have a good feeling about this.

The key thing, if they are going to understand the poem, is that they must be able to make sense of the imagery and some of the more difficult vocabulary. First of all I teach them about ‘connotations’. We look at pictures of basic symbols on the board - a dove, a cross, a heart – and discuss what their connotations are. Then I give them a sheet. On it are pictures of an old-beggar, a hag (or as close as I could get with Google Images), a man on fire and a small pile of powder. I tell them that the powder is ‘quick-lime’ something that can ‘eat away at your flesh until you’re just a skeleton’ and that they should imagine what that would feel like. They write 5 connotations for each picture. We add some more together.

Finally, we read some isolated excerpts from Dulce et Decorum Est.

‘Bent double like old beggars… coughing like hags… … Floundering like a man in fire or lime…’

Then they list as many words as they can to describe a soldier – we have some pictures on the board to help us. The class list words such as ‘tough, brave, strong, young, male, smart…’ Then we compare the list of vocabulary we have used to describe our preconceptions of what a soldier is like with the language from our poet. Finally, I tell them that the poet was describing soldiers too. We discuss why Owen chose words that are so enormously different from ours. And they get it. And not on a pithy, superficial level either: they really get it. We even use the word ‘emasculation’.

I deliver a few more lessons like this until we have covered the whole poem. Whilst I am convinced the pupils have loved my poetry teaching and, more to the point, have really learned things because of it, the approval I am really seeking is from my mentor. I receive lukewarm acknowledgement of any success and a list of ‘points to improve on’. I had spent countless hours planning these lessons. Some acknowledgement of my efforts if not my success would have been nice. I am utterly deflated.

As I’m leaving, a parent stops me. Her son is in my Year 8 class. She says to me: ‘I just wanted to tell you that last night my son told me that you’re the best teacher he’s ever had.’ Then she puts her hands on her hips and gives me a mystified look: ‘Somehow or other you’ve managed to get him writing war poems!’ she says, laughing.

I dance all the way home.


  1. Well done! Strange that your mentor was so unimpressed with your year eights' enthusiasm for war poetry. My bottom set year eight class last year seemed hell-bent on starting a war every Thursday afteroon, so we were only halfway there.

  2. :) If they could dig trenches and keep us out with barbed wire I'm fairly sure they would...