the Dragonfly journal

Rambling In My Old Curiosity Shop: Pace, Literature, Motivation and Creative Writing in the Classroom

By Tony Dickens - @TonyDickensCPD

This blog will offer some random thoughts and pieces from the bric-a-brac in my cerebellum. I will reflect on pace, Literature, motivation, writing in the classroom and offer some creative mediocrity of my own in the form of verse, last attempted over a decade ago when I broadcast ‘Knocked for Six’ on Radio Berkshire. Here goes…


Usain Bolt has it. In the 1980s Hale had a mate called. My mate has one (I’m being serious), my mate has one in the hope that he can stave off – for a little longer – the inevitable meeting one day with his maker. And in the eyes of many, all good lessons have it too. In the document ‘Moving English Forward’ published in 2012 Phil Jarrett wrote:

‘The quality of pupils’ learning was hampered in weaker lessons by a number of ‘myths’ about what makes a good lesson. The factors that most commonly limited learning included: an excessive pace; an overloading of activities; inflexible planning; and limited time for pupils to work independently.’

There we are: it is time to stop cramming as many activities as we can into lessons, slow down the pace and make sure that the tasks that we do set, get done properly (see WRITING below). The only problem I have is that if you consult OFSTED lesson observation criteria, under the heading ‘teaching’ we have the following: ‘outstanding teaching ensures a rapid pace of learning’. So am I slowing down or quickening up? From now on, it’s teaching in the middle lane for me (although do bear in mind that you cannot cruise in the middle lane anymore; you will be liable to a fine. Move left! Move left!)


It is time to put high-quality Literature back at the centre of English department operations, before every middle and lower ability student dies of boredom at the hands of decontextualised subordinate clauses and worksheets offering forty-six ways to use an adverb in narrative writing. We know why so many are not following a Literature syllabus, of course, and we point the finger somewhere over there, at league tables and spread sheets, but hasn’t anybody yet made the link between the diminishing importance of Literature in the curriculum and the fall in literacy standards? Research shows that decontextualised approaches to teaching grammar makes little difference to reading and writing skills, yet few would argue, certainly from my forays into English departments up and down the land, that teaching grammar is not important. Indeed, NATE has never objected to the teaching of grammar, only to its decontextualised delivery. So, let’s take a traditionally modern approach: let’s construct our schemes of work in English … around literary texts: for all of our students. This half term, we are going to read a novel! All the other important stuff will spill from here. And if you want to see how an old favourite – I’m referring here to Mr Steinbeck – can be used to teach grammar (with a little pace) I will be demonstrating a range of activities on my Beginner’s Guide to Teaching Grammar course this term.


Noun; the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way; the general desire or willingness of someone to do something (OED).

Look, I am going to name drop, okay? Live with it. Many years ago I had the great fortune (some would say misfortune, depending on your position, taste and ranking on the feminist scale) to have dinner with the novelist Martin Amis. Prior to the event I had been reading some of his essays and I couldn’t shake off the phrase ‘motivation is a shagged out force in modern life’. I wanted to open up the discussion. We talked about his motivation as a novelist; we talked about my motivation as a teacher (and an aspiring writer – the flame on that motive long blown out by the reality of needing to pay a mortgage) and we talked about the motivation of his characters: Talent; Self; Six; Highway. Over the years, I have thought a lot about the motivation of students in my classroom. Some have it; some don’t. Some have a little; some are drowning in it. On so many levels, I think that motivation is a ‘shagged out force in modern life’ but as a trainer and a teacher, I still believe that one of my key functions is to try and do just that: motivate, because what I see in the classroom these days is way too much inertia.


Last year I was teaching students at a comprehensive school in Newark-upon-Trent and when it came to writing, I reacquainted myself with an old observation which I made in the early days of my PGCE: it’s a fine line between not knowing how to use a full stop and laziness. So I introduced DIA. The idea is simple: a student asks you to read a paragraph of their work; you read it; you don’t mark it or correct it, you simply make a mental note of how many mistakes there are. At the bottom of the paragraph write … DIA6 … or DIA5 … or DIA4, meaning, do it again, you have that number of mistakes (the irony is lost on most of them, of course, so brush over it, offer a teaching point on homophones or acronyms, whatever). The student then has to re-write (not simply correct) but re-write the paragraph to a better standard. After the second attempt, if there are still errors, the student then has the opportunity to consult somebody else in the room to help them find the remaining mistakes. Now do it again: re-write the paragraph. I’m not saying it’s the remedy for every writing problem but it does help to conquer some of the laziness. In short: this year, take a zero tolerance approach to writing through DIA. It might make a difference. Oh, and Barry Smith (@BarryNSmith79), if you are reading this blog, I trust that you approve of the strategy?


It has been a long, long time since I contributed to, an absolutely superb website headed up by Tony Cook and his team of equally superb individuals, but the desire to create still flickers and who knows, perhaps one day soon I will make a fresh appearance on the site. The metrical mindset needs a little oiling but I will start up the engine and see where it takes me. This is the first in a series of poems called ‘Scenes from a Class Room’. Come back in October – if you are vaguely curious – to see if I have improved.


You played hide and
Fast and loose with
The bell
Until escorted in
A prisoner of war;

Crusty with fighting
Your nose unwiped
By a blow at break
You pick a tantrum,

Punch and wrestle
Your mate
Your conscience
Your 2b or not
For WF7.

Getting through
A derisive look
If we go
By the book,

But we know
You and I
The hurting
This mad world
For I have seen
The notes

In the trickle of
Your nose
The round black hole
In your

Hope you can join me in October when I will be fumbling in the curiosity shop for some more trinkets of dubious value.