York Literature Festival 2016

2016_programme2016 is shaping up to be a brilliant Literary year already!  The York Literature Festival is bigger and better than ever, the RSC are doing Dr Faustus (an A2 text, but also just brilliant so go and see it even if you’re not studying it!) and the final book of Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic trilogy is finally being released…

The York Literature Festival is huge and runs from 10th – 23rd March.  I’ve already booked my ticket to see Carol Ann Duffy (I’m so excited!) and I’m eyeing up a few more rather impressive looking events too. There’s a poetry writing competition, Literary walks, talks, readings, theatre and so much more.  It looks like it’ll be a superb couple of weeks so do make the most of the fact that we’re lucky enough to have it on our doorstep!

The website is here and  the programme is here.



A York English tutor’s collection of literary, Christmassy quotations. Merry Christmas!

“The rooms were very still while the pages were softly turned and the winter sunshine crept in to touch the bright heads and serious faces with a Christmas greeting.”
–Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

“Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time.”
–Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and color with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow.”
–George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
–Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

“Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love!”
–Hamilton Wright Mabie

“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!”
–Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

“It was the beginning of the greatest Christmas ever. Little food. No presents. But there was a snowman in their basement.”
–Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

“I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Oh I absolutely love Christmas!”
-Kay Thompson, Eloise

An English teacher on her high horse: ‘Academic’ vs ‘Creative’ subjects.


I re-read this article today and got very, very annoyed.  It’s about the government’s EBacc, about ‘academic’ and ‘creative’ subjects and about how a ‘rigorous’ education is more important than an artistic one.

To me it’s funny that English is considered one of the ‘hard’ subjects that makes for a ‘rigorous’ education, as opposed to one of the ‘creative’ subjects that the government doesn’t seem to value anywhere near as much. Obviously I think it’s a vital subject, but I think its importance lies in that it teaches us to think. I also think that it’s not necessarily ‘English’, the language, that’s important. In English lessons, in English speaking countries, we’re teaching three fundamentally important things, and only one of them is to do with the language specifically. Yes, we’re teaching communication in the English language, and that is necessary for both English speakers and those who want to be English speakers. In that sense, English is on a par with any other language, and it’s this element that the government seems to consider makes it ‘hard’ and therefore ‘worthy’.

The other aspects of the subject that make it so freaking wonderful though, are nothing to do with being able to recognise bias in journalism, or punctuate a sign, or write a letter to an employer.

0dac601965da5c8f440ae7c642eb81faThrough Literature we learn how other people think the world works, and we learn how to tell the world what we think about that. There is nothing more creative than exploring and analysing other people’s dreams and views, and showing your own to them. Literature is inextricably linked to ‘the creative subjects’, to Drama, to Art, to Music, and it is also linked to ‘the academic subjects’, to History, and even to Maths and Science, subjects which some people mistakenly think it is impossible to be simultaneously interested in if you are a ‘bookish’ sort of person. Reading, understanding, exploring and responding to a poem is not a ‘hard’ skill that children need to learn so they can get jobs as lawyers and accountants and doctors and all the other jobs that we aspire for our children to have. It is the very essence of creativity. It is a skill, for sure, that can help children get those jobs, but it is also a skill that can help children make sense of the world in which they live, can make them emotionally mature and secure people, and can give them the tools to make a difference where they want to, whether as lawyers or mothers or binmen.

quote-Boris-Pasternak-literature-is-the-art-of-discovering-something-137109_2It is saying, ‘why was Wordsworth ‘wandering’? Why wasn’t he striding purposefully? Why wasn’t he running? What was he thinking? Who was he with? Why? What was I thinking about the last time I took a walk? What is the point of exploring the field over there, or the world? What might I discover? What do I want to say about it? Why is it important to say whatever that is? Or why should I not say it at the moment?  What can I learn from other people who think the same thing, or the opposite thing, or a thing somewhere in the middle? What can we learn from each other?’

It is clear that these questions (and the hundreds of others we could ask) easily lend themselves to further exploration in other subjects-Arts, Sciences, Humanities…the world is multifaceted and so is a good education. What a waste of time and energy if a child who is a talented musician isn’t able to explore some of these ideas through writing harmonies or exploring how to convey the poem’s emotion on the piano, or a child who is interested in science and drama (yes! they coexist!) can’t be inspired to examine things like human psychology through devising, or the vital crossover between personal growth, scientific discovery and morality through plays like Copenhagenmg22730380.800-1_800

So yes, English is important, and indeed, in my biased view, it is one of the most important subjects we teach. But to split subjects into ‘academic’ and ‘creative’ and to assign more value to one group than to the other, is to completely miss the point.

Tutoring trips in York, books books books and excitement at PREP HQ!

OK, so PREP HQ is my little house in Heworth, but nonetheless, excitement abounds!

English trips for tutees (and their families)

You may have seen my previous post about the trips I’ll be running this year. Kicking us off on Sunday 10th October will be a visit to York’s newly reopened, beautiful Art Gallery, where we’ll get inspired and creative and write some wonderful verse to complement the paintings and sculptures we see!  All tutees are welcome – please remember that there is a small charge for entering the Gallery, and that Year 7-11 tutees will need to be accompanied by a parent.  Do get in touch if you’d like to join us!

Books, books, books

I’m a little ridiculously excited by my ‘Book of the Week’ campaign.  I’ve got to say that I had a really hard time whittling down my enormous list of ‘books everyone really must read’ to 52, but I got there in the end!  Week 1’s is Year of Wonders and it’s an absolute corker – historical fiction that goes way beyond the usual kings/bodices/beheadings that are popular at the moment.  It tells the true story of ‘the plague village’, Eyam, and is utterly compelling.

In other exciting book-y news, I’ve been asking tutees this week to tell me about their favourite books, and I’ll soon have a board of recommendations up for them all to peruse.  Parents are welcome to make contributions too of course!


Meeting a York poet

Wandering through town the other day I was surprised and delighted to see a man sitting behind an old fashioned typewriter and a sign declaring, ‘POEMS on (almost) anyone or anything’.  Of course I couldn’t resist going and talking to him!IMG_3243

He told me that he writes the poems requested and then people can pay as much as they like for them.  I (rather rudely) asked him if he makes money as a poet and he said he does, which I thought was pretty impressive because I think I remember reading once that even the most popular modern poets only sell a couple of thousand copies of each of their books.  At any rate, I asked him to write a poem on why poetry is important and about half an hour later I received this rather lovely little verse.  (I paid him £5.  Do you think that’s fair?)

Poetry is important, by Stefan Kielbasiewicz

Poetry is not important
because of ShakespeareIMG_3324
Eliot, or Frost, and not
everyone’s cup of tea
but important things
like engineering, medicine,
or programming aren’t either.
It’s not my place
to say whether it is important
or not, since that statement
like poetry itself, cannot
be true or false.
If it’s important, it’s because
it involves people from all over
the world, and lets them say
what they mean and feel
in a different way,
and nothing could be more important
than having that possibility.

So there we go.  This is for all my students who’ve ever asked, ‘but what’s the point of poetry?’  I hope you like it as much as I do!

Do go and find him – he was on Parliament Street last week though I don’t know if he’s always there.  And buy a poem!




He’s on Facebook at this link, or you can search streetpoetryyork (with no spaces, just like that) to find him.

My life in books

LittleprinceMy favourite book as a child wasThe Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  When I was little I was fascinated by the pictures (snakes swallowing elephants, monstrous trees, tiny sheep…) but every time I re-read it now I understand something different from it about philosophy and faith.  I have to read it at least once a year and I always give it to babies when they’re born.  It feels appropriate!

Jane EyreMy favourite book as a teenager wasJane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.  It’s haunting and beautiful and definitely not just a boy meets girl story.  I always wanted a Mr Rochester rather than a Mr Darcy, but when I discovered Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea it was a revelation to me that characters – and people in real life – could have multiple lives.  Re-reading Jane Eyre now, I can’t help but be swayed by Rhys’ evocation of Caribbean lushness and a woman so condemned to being ‘other’ that there’s nothing left for her but madness.

P_s_cell_2The best beach read isProspero’s Cell by Laurence Durrell.  Especially if read on a beach in Corfu, followed by a hike to find the cliffs and cell in question!  Durrell argues very convincingly that the island in The Tempest must be either Malta or Corfu, and that Corfu is the more likely.  There’s an amazing little hermit’s cell near Kaminaki, perched on the cliffs above enormous rocks, and all the vegetation around it is knotty pines like the one Arial was trapped in.   You can easily imagine a shipwreck, a monster and a magician appearing before you.   Then, in the evening, after your hike, the best book to wind down with is My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, Laurence’s brother.  It’s aimed at children but it’s hilarious, and makes it harder to take ‘Larry’ seriously.

why-study-the-bibleThe book I always have by my bed is…The Bible.  I’ve always meant to read it cover to cover, but I tend to get half way through Exodus and give up.  It’s fascinating to me, both as a spiritual and a historical text.

Mr-Pip-3.0-600x311The book that changed my life isMister Pip by Lloyd Jones.  It’s about a girl embroiled in a civil war which threatens to destroy her family and her island.  A man on the island decides that the only way to rescue the children is to educate them, but he only has one copy of one book, which is Great Expectations.  Ultimately, Matilda learns the same lessons as Pip, but in a very modern context.  It’s the only book which has ever made me burst into tears in public, when I was reading it on a train!  I also love it because it’s about teaching, and about how literature can be a salve for all of us when times are tough.  When I’ve had a long day at work it’s a brilliant reminder of what books can do for the human race, and makes me feel lucky to be able to talk about them all day.

_69322860_dictionaryMy favourite non-fiction book is…the Dictionary!

richardii460My favourite play is…Richard II by Shakespeare.  From John of Gaunt’s beautiful speech as a ‘prophet new inspir’d’ about ‘This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars’ that is the England which forms the prize and the battleground of all the History plays, to Richard’s heart-rending goodbye to his Queen before he is murdered, this is a play which looks at the character of the King and of kingship in such detail that the audience can’t help but empathise with him, even as they cheer on Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV.

421px-blake_ancient_of_daysMy favourite poet is…John Milton, for everything he ever wrote but especially Paradise Lost.  When I taught Book 9 for the first time I realised how powerful poetry can be.  If it’s possible to sympathise so whole-heartedly with Satan ‘involv’d in rising mist’, what can’t poetry do?

ulysses-james-joyce-1988-robert-motherwellThe book I was supposed to like but didn’t wasUlysses by James Joyce.  I love A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners but Ulysses was just…boring.

ShakespeareIf I could only read one book for the rest of my life it would be…The Complete Works of Shakespeare.  I know it’s a cheat!

Why I love books – an entirely incomplete list.

  1. They’re a chance to make use of someone else’s imagination for a little while.
  2. They smell nice.
  3. They’re an escape from normality.
  4. Other people write much more beautiful prose than that which I use for thinking.
  5. They’re a useful ‘leave me alone’ sign on public transport.
  6. I can make (semi) informed judgements about other people based on what they’re reading on public transport and then play a game whereby I imagine a name, job and amusing life for them.
  7. They fit in my handbag.  (It’s possible that I only buy handbags big enough to hold a book.  Or two.)
  8. Old favourites never get old.
  9. They’re a good icebreaker when not used as ‘leave me alone’ signs.  It’s all in the tilt.
  10. They’re links through time to other readers.
  11. They contain words and images I’d never have thought of.
  12. Some of them contain poems, some contain plays, some contain fiction and some contain non fiction.  Endless possibilities.
  13. It is pretty much impossible to run out of reading material.
  14. Films are often disappointing when compared to the book but books are never disappointing when compared to the film.
  15. Libraries are places where scrunching down into a sofa and not moving for three hours is positively encouraged.
  16. They make me a better writer.
  17. They make me a better reader.
  18. They educate me.
  19. They inspire me.
  20. As long as I’ve got one, I’m never bored.

acbc5b1a7d9c957e6b0257a4eb2ce56e Oh yes.  Books galore.

Haikus rise at dawn

Haikus rise at dawnhaiku
through the dreamer’s protesting
yawns and make her sing.

Creative writing has long been part of the GCSE English syllabus in some form or another and some A level options allow students to write creatively too, but lots of adults shelve their creativity and inwardly decide that they weren’t ever very good anyway, so there’s no point in carrying on writing now they’ve got jobs and children and inlaws to contend with.  If you, like me, have exercise books full of slightly angsty teenage poems tucked away in the attic, make some time to dust them off and start writing again – you may be surprised at what’s tucked away between their cardboard covers and within your mind!

What do you gain from writing creatively?

  • Peace and quiet to do it (tell the kids that Mummy’s got to do her homework)
  • An outlet for your feelings
  • An excuse to use beautiful stationery
  • Space to explore your imagination
  • A chance to question yourself about your ideas and emotions
  • A new way to look at yourself

Put simply, creative writing, even the most fantastical of it, in some way reflects life.  Tell a story and you understand a little more of yourself and of the world around you.  It’s worth investing in.

I’ll be running creative writing workshops for adults very soon – get in touch for more details.