Blog Reading

To Kill A Mockingbird

Reading To Kill A Mockingbird as a teenager was a seminal moment and awakening for me as a young man. It was the book that helped bridge the gap between teen and adult fiction. I was still pulp reading the likes of James Herbert and Stephen King but discovering Harper Lee led me to discover new authors like John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, James Joyce and Alisdair Gray.

The tension and segregation of the American south depicted in To Kill A Mockingbird was completely alien to me, partly because I grew up in a predominately white corner of rural Scotland. But I recognised the central characters of Jem, Scout, Atticus and Boo Radley straight away. The emotions of Jem and Scout were part me and part those of my friends. Bright, adventurous and easily misled. I could see Atticus in my own dad. Kind, fair, respected by his community and someone who also had a hidden talent for sharp shooting from his army days.

Boo Radley lived on my street too. There were about 3 or 4 neighbours who had older children who had either never left home or had returned home as uni dropouts or with mental health issues. They always seemed to remain mysteriously hidden and I would only see them during personal missions like Scout Bob-A-Job weeks or hear secondhand about their tales from my folks. My favourite being the story of the minister’s son (from the ubiquitous spooky Manse next door) forming a relationship with the reclusive/dropout daughter of the house across the road. They were both in their twenties and one day decided to build a raft and adventure down the local river. The story goes that they were nearly drowned and then banned from any further contact with each other.

By the time I began my 5th year, and was studying for my Highers, I must have read To Kill A Mockingbird 3 or 4 times. I had watched the classic Gregory Peck movie and seen the play adaption in Aberdeen. English and History were my favourite subjects. I was lucky to have had the same teacher for the first 4 years of secondary school, the inspirational Mrs S. But in my 5th year I suddenly had a new teacher, and we were at loggerheads with each other from day one.

Ma C was unashamedly Conservative. She enjoyed fox hunting, sent her children to a private school and claimed there was no word in the English language she did not know (she was right too, I don’t remember ever catching her out). And she seemed to hate me. After years of consistent As and A+s I was suddenly getting constant Cs for everything.  I also used to love writing short stories but suddenly they were deemed to be universally pish. She even ‘gifted’ me a Mills and Boon book in front of the class as feedback to a story I had crafted about teenage misery and unrequited love. I read the story recently. It’s admittedly dire and bloated with verbosity and purple prose. But it’s also a cry for help. At the time I was blighted by chronic acne and suffered from intensely low self esteem. She just made it worse. I hated English, I could no longer ‘do it’ and I hated her.

But when Ma C announced that the next class text was going to be To Kill A Mockingbird and that, despite teaching it for many years, it remained her favourite book – I felt a surge of optimism. At last we had something in common. And, for a while, everything changed. I was different to her and she was different to me. I knew the novel inside out and she could tell. But I was always careful not to show off or steal her thunder (as was her teaching style).


One Monday she came into class brandishing a copy of a Sunday supplement. It was a piece about the reclusive Harper Lee in which it revealed that the author was gay. Ma C announced to the class that because of this she would find it difficult, nay impossible, to continue teaching us the book. I honestly don’t remember how exactly I reacted in that moment but I stoked residual anger and hatred towards her for many years after.

In the exam prelim I was awarded straight Cs apart from the A for my essay on To Kill A Mockingbird. It was marked by a different teacher. And in the final exam I was awarded an A. I know my adult self can calmly reason how grades are not ‘all that’ but THAT one REALLY mattered.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

To be honest, my teenage self was equally capable of being cocky and arrogant but I am no longer angry with Ma C. I pity her if anything. I realise now that she was afraid, just like the poor white folks who were afraid of Tom Robinson. She was afraid of the unknown. I think as a society and as a profession we’ve come a long way since then. I hope I’m not wrong.

The influence of Harper Lee has accompanied me throughout my life. At university my history degree focused on modern history, slavery and colonialism. My dissertation was on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. As a teacher I have always been passionate about pupil participation, social justice, citizenship education, critical thinking and questioning. And celebrating diversity.

Blog Literacy

Tell Me Questions

One of my ‘go to’ thinking skills and discussion tools is a PPSS grid.

Puzzles, Patterns, Similarities and Surprises.

It is adapted from ‘Tell Me’, the seminal book about reading and book talk written by Aidan Chambers. The original analysis grid has Likes, Dislikes, Puzzles and Patterns.

I find it a simple yet powerful way in engaging the pupils in dialogue about books, short films, writing, self / peer assessment and why they pushed Jamie into the plant pot at lunchtime. Anything at all, really.

What puzzled you about the… ? (what do you not get?)
What patterns did you notice… ? (connections between characters, setting, music, colours, camera shots, phrases, themes)
What similarities can you find… ? (other books, films, animations, TV programmes, computer games, real life experiences)
What surprised you… ? (What happened that you were not expecting?)

The Tell Me approach extends these basic question to general questions and then special questions. There is a good one page summary here.

But I prefer and find it hard to leave the simplicity of the 4 part grid, which you or the pupils can alter and adapt, depending on the focus of the lesson and the discussion.

Blog Expressive Arts

Children and Chalk Walls

In the early 1950s, the artist Joan Eardley could be seen transporting her easels and paints around the Glasgow tenements in a pram. She painted and photographed the ragged children of Glasgow’s inner city slum housing. The artwork she produced is also ragged and childlike. Bold colours and brash strokes. She incorporates collage with newspaper scraps added like crude nursery school graffiti. Her subjects are innocent and bright eyed. Cheeky. Poor children painted with compassion. Her photographs share the same humanity.

The post-war Glasgow was a city in planning turmoil. The controversial Bruce Report proposed completely ripping up the town centre, clearing the slum housing and starting from scratch. Glasgow Council never followed through with report’s more extreme recommendations but the slum housing was cleared and the city’s poor cleared and moved to new high rises on the outskirts, and the New Towns of Cumbernauld and East Kilbride.

I use Joan Eardley’s artwork in class because it has a beating heart and a non-judgemental social conscience. Pupils can reflect on her free, childlike style and consider how this generates emotion and storytelling. Her artwork is a wonderful way to encourage pupils to be expressive and observational too. To sketch loosely, to mix colours, to experiment with pastels and paint, to cut out newspapers/magazines and mix elements of collage, and to look completely differently at portraiture. But NOT to copy.

Tracing the paintings back to examples of her photographs also inspires many deep questions and enquiry about the children, her depiction of poverty (and Scotland), the children’s lives and whether they were being taken advantage of. How would we react today if a random artist asked us to come to their studio to be painted? And if Joan Eardley was alive today, what would she paint?

I have used her artwork to stimulate discussions and debates about street children throughout the ages, whether they be in the Victorian era, the 1950s or now. This in turn links naturally with Children’s Rights and Global Citizenship.

Later, Joan Eardley moved to the small Aberdeenshire fishing village of Catterline (not far from where I grew up). Her new subjects became the sea and the landscape. She often painted outside in poor weather but her paintings lost none of their sense of freedom and joy.

I have been an admirer of Joan Eardley for a very long time. I love sharing my passion for her art with the pupils and revealing a little of the magic of how she told her stories so they may find new ways to tell their stories and find a voice.

(A post written for #teacher5adaysketch on and Twitter)

IMG_9820 IMG_9908

Blog Music


(Listen to this first:

My teacher in p3 and p4 was called Mrs Dickson. She was very old and had been enticed back after retirement because they couldn’t fill the teaching slot in the village school. It was a composite class with 3 year groups in one and I remember lugging in to the stage above when they were being taught maths so I could attempt to answer all the tricky ‘sums’.

Mrs Dickson was a keen gardener. We grew lettuces, radishes, carrots and spuds. And then ate them. I also did a lovely cross stitch of a castle and the Loch Ness monster. They hung on my bedroom wall until the day I left for university. She even introduced me to the surreal comedy genius that is Spike Milligan via his poem. ‘Sardines’. For years I actually thought I had written it myself.

One day, when she was hearing Gavin Davidson’s reading group, Mrs Dickson made a sudden anguished cry and slumped heavily over her desk in pain. She whispered the name of the P.E. teacher and David Johnston had the sharp wits about him to run out and get her. Mrs Dickson had suffered a heart attack. Thankfully, she didn’t die, but I don’t think she returned to class. At least, I hope she didn’t.

But the best thing about Mrs Dickson was Monday mornings. Every Monday morning would start with the wheeling out of the old Joanna, the dishing out of the wee red books and a rousing social chorus of hymns and psalms. I loved it.

Early… with Mrs Dickson.

Nothing beats a good old singalong. Okay, it wasn’t quite the ubiquitous Chas n’ Dave but it was bloody marvellous fun. Did it make me a diligent Protestant page boy? No, I’d already walked out of Sunday school in bored protest the year before. But it set the class up nicely for another week of 1980s’ Scottish education. Thanks, Mrs Dickson.


(This was in the charts that summer too…)

Along the promenade we spend some money
And we find a spot on the beach that’s simply sunny
The kids will all enjoy themself digging up the sand, collecting stones and winkle shells to take back home to nan

Image: here



In Mark Cousin’s characteristically idiosyncratic documentary about children in cinema, he says that the best films with children are ‘not when the children on screen are spellbound by the film but when the film is spellbound by them’. It’s a fantastic documentary, culled from rare and popular children’s films that all share a unique ability to capture childhood emotion, honesty and innocence. And loneliness.

Here is a list of 10 movies about children that leave me spellbound.

1. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
I was taken to see this for my 7th birthday. I was mesmerised by the vision of American life: massive fridges, huge walk in toy cupboards and gigantic take-away pizza. It is a world seen entirely through the eyes of Elliot and the strange, kind hearted and gentle E.T. I cried buckets at the end. I still do.
2. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
An unapologetically nostalgic film about the magic of cinema and the power of dreams. I worked as a cinema projectionist for 4 years and Cinema Paradiso gets deep inside my head and heart when reflecting about childhood and a job where I lost myself in movies and watched a thousand beginnings and endings of other people’s stories.
3. Kes (1969)
Ken Loach’s film is raw and unforgiving. I have taught children not dissimilar to Billy Casper, although thankfully my memory of school P.E. was nothing like the despotic Man United obsessed Brian Glover.…
4. Shadow On The Earth (1988)
A BBC TV film set in a 1961 mining community.… The central character Billy is obsessed with space and Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man in space. Violence preys on the fringes of Billy’s world with the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cold War politics and sectarianism present at every turn. And when his innocence is shattered his peaceful heart still beats strong.
5. Gregory’s Girl (1981)
Never grow tired off it. Brilliant cast including the class Scottish comedian, Chick Murray, as the HT.… My teenage self is visible in just about every scene of this superb film.
6. Empire Of The Sun (1987)
Christian Bale is astonishing in this harrowing tale of WW2, taken from the semi-autobiographical book by J.G. Ballard.
7. The Goonies (1985)
As a child of the 80s this was a film I rented endlessly from our local video rental shop (which was inside the local plumber’s). Everyone wanted to be in a gang like the Goonies and everyone practised the Truffle Shuffle at school!…
8. The Breakfast Club (1985)
The princess, the criminal, the athlete, the brain and the basket case. Which one were you at school? I was probably somewhere between the brain and the basket case… ‘Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?’
9. Back To The Future (1985)
1985 was a good year. This film is sheer adventure and escapism. And it looked nothing like the fairly dull town I grew up in. It is probably perfect.
10. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
Gregory Peck plays the best dad in movie history. End of.