About Robert Johnson

English teacher since 1997. Worked in High Schools in Yorkshire till 2005. From 2012 have worked in FE establishments. From January 2015, worked in Adult workplace training delivering Funky Skills Maths and English.

A Message From The Bard

If Shakey was alive this may be what he would say about A Level exam questions and also GCSE.







Extend Your Writing

Okay. So you are sat in a GCSE English exam. Here is your title piece: Write about a time where you or someone you know did something wrong. What would you write about?

Just how do you go about doing something like this?


The answer is not as difficult as you think. This task was in this year’s Edexcel examination as a choice between a blog piece, like this one I am doing and an article. My students went for the article, when this kind of writing is just so easy to do.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, plan the thing. Use the Power of Y planning that exists on this website. You have an idea, say a place where it happened. For me, that would be a camp site. So you put the words CAMP SITE into the middle of the page. Then you draw 4 lines away, one to each corner, but keep them short. Make sure each line is a centimetre long [ish] and ends in the shape of a Y. From that one idea you have to find two more and so on, so camp site gets us WITH MATE and ON Z250s if it was me. Do this for each line going outwards till you exhaust your ideas and suddenly, 4 ideas become 16 things to write about. It is so much easier to write about sixteen things than four!

Then number each area to show which you will do, in order. And then, begin writing. Easy really. But it is easier said than done if you have little confidence in your own abilities. So let me ask you a question.

How much can you talk about something you did that was wrong?

When you latch on to that one time, I bet you could talk the hind leg off a donkey, as we used to say where I come from, about the event. I bet you would have trouble stopping talking, so why not treat writing in the same way? You have the plan, but do not write about number 1 and just write three sentences before going on to number 2 and so on. Doing that will give you sixteen sentences maybe, bringing you an old fashioned F or G [2-3 in new money] score for your task.


Any work you just did in Section A has been wasted because you did not add enough detail into section B. Your exam script that now has to be sent off to be marked is uneven, imbalanced and might as well be half an exam paper that has been filled in.

The exam marker, people like me, love to see these tasks where there are six or seven pages written because we know you have really given it some gusto sharing your ideas when it comes to having a go at writing with style and verve. You have not just written a half of a page and left it at that, for you have decided to grab this task by the throat and give it one hell of a shake.

So, assuming you have gone into detail describing people, places, colours, smells, tastes, actions, reactions and a whole host of other things, your section B task will be a good one. Do not expect a level 4 if you do not do this in Section B.

At the end of the day, your work should be thought out, planned and detailed. That is the secret to success. Here is my example, written off the top of my head [highly inadvisable to do this]


A Time When I did Something Wrong … or 2P Or Not 2P. 

I hate cocky people; those types of individual who enter into your life and make it a damned misery. It has always been a pet peeve of mine to hate such people because I come from a dysfunctional family where my father was abusive and my mother just sat back and let it happen. So when I am out with my friend for a weekend camping, fishing and motorcycling, the last thing I need to do is get some other biker who is older trying to dominate us to the point where he is making our lives a misery.

I could go into extreme detail but suffice to say that within minutes of his arrival, he had Steve and I looking at each other and trying to decide whether to leave the camp site for another or to get our own back in some small way. Eventually, we decided to do the latter and hatched a plan. It was Steve’s idea really. I do not think my young mind, aged about 18, could have hatched such a nasty and devious plan as this, but I went along with it in the end and question, even now, whether or not I regret it.

You see, we decided to get the camping stove out and make a cup of tea. Not much of a plan I hear you thinking. We had one of those little single burners on the top of a gas bottle that is so hard to get balanced on grass and a pan to boil the water in for the enamel cups. We then had tea bags and sugar with powdered milk, for the “brew” as it is called where I come from. All was going well until Steve had the daft idea to get his own back on this goon. He said he would urinate in the water, so it mixed well, and then add it to the pan for us to boil. Gross, I know, when I look back now, but that was just two Doncaster lads out for the weekend on their bikes around Scarborough, being plagued by this idiot on his bigger, much more intricate bike.

I went along with it but there was no way I was going to taste the thing, even though survivalists will tell you there is nothing wrong at all in doing such a thing. Even now, I am not sure I could do it in even the most extreme of cases. So, the thing got boiled and the brews got shared. I chickened out and got a can of Fanta Orange juice to drink and Steve gave this guy a drink of tea. Steve even tasted his and carried on drinking. He was and remains a complete Troglodyte. How he kept his wrinkle free face from turning inwards, I will never know. But the goon loved it and thanked him for making him the brew. I sat there completely confused.

We waited for the splurrrtt as it would come out of his mouth but he must have had so much sugar in the thing as to alter the taste. Nothing happened. No reaction. No punch line to the joke. The gag had backfired and all seemed to have gone wrong. We knew it was not the right thing to do, but we still did it. We knew that there might be a reckoning, but we did it nonetheless. We were to cheeky lads who always held grudges. Did we ever tell him before the weekend was over? Oh no. He was bigger than the both of us put together. But we did enjoy the giggles that it gave us when the following morning, he asked, “fancy a brew lads?” We declined!

Do I regret it now? Partly. I do not regret getting my own back on the man, whoever he was [for I cannot remember his name] but I do think that perhaps, we could have found an even more sinister way to exact that revenge. Boys will be boys and all that, but one thing rings true from this story and that is Steve and Rob were not the sort to be trifled with. On that note, some things never change.


Now can you notice the style of writing there? It is, unfortunately, a true story. Notice each paragraph. Consider the following thoughts.

P1. Starts powerfully and sets up the scene to follow, always wise…

P2. Starts to tell the story, but only slowly – do not jump straight in there

P3. Expands the story, introducing ideas and events in greater detail

P4. It is only by paragraph 4 that the event is actually told – take your time

P5. Details the reaction in some detail, of the event happening and the reaction

P6. Retrospectively looks back and checks whether there is any regret


There is a logical sequence to all this writing. Logic dictates that when we tell a story, we do so by starting at the beginning, working our way through the story and then we come to an ending, which is best left reflective…….was I sorry etc…….so that the reader can make up their own minds about the story, whether true or not, fake news or just daft story telling.

In the end, you can write it off the cuff, like I just did, but you may lose out on detail, which is why it is best to plan it, including numbers of sections which come first etc and then write it, using as much detail as you can remember, even if you have to make it up. When you can do that, you can write an exam masterpiece to enthral the marker into giving you maximum marks.

Happy writing!

Lit Exam #2 – Oh, The Horror

Just when you thought it safe to go into the exam room again for the Literature exam, they go and do something horrible to you. I am advised this morning that the exam questions for today’s Lit exam, the second and final one, were as follows [assuming you studied these texts:

Q1 An extract showing Joe and Pip visiting Satis House, with the question being ‘How is Joe and Pip’s friendship portrayed in the extract?’ [Great Expectations]

Q1B How is friendship portrayed in the rest of the book?

Q2 The poem was ‘A Complaint’ and one other poem of own choice – Compare how loss is shown with another poem.

Q3 Compare Poems ‘British Summer’ and ‘The Month of May.’

My students tells me that Q1 was okay, that Q2 was awful and Q3 was really good to have a go at, so I am hopeful of success for them in the Lit exam this year.

But how did you do in this exam? What did you cover in each question? Below are just a few ideas off the top of my head and without any text in front of me, apart from when we get to the poetry ones in Q2.


Q1 An extract showing Joe and Pip visiting Satis House, with the question being ‘How is Joe and Pip’s friendship portrayed in the extract?’

Q1B How is friendship portrayed in the rest of the book?


The first part of this question, if my memory is correct, is Joe taking Pip to Satis House in the middle chapters. Did you put how Joe and Pip are close but how Pip would feel slightly embarrassed now because of how Joe might feel uncomfortable in such a setting as this? Did you add any of the following detail in there?


Pip and Joe are friends from the off, but as Pip changes when he is older and more affluent, so too does Joe, because of learning from Biddy and because he works hard to build up an income, so both are socially climbing. The fact that Joe pays off Pip’s debt at the end shows how much Joe has grown from humble blacksmith on the marshes to something of the gentleman that all men wanted to be in the Victorian era. It was the main goal of man at the time and still is, to a certain extent, but Joe is arguably the only real gentleman in the story because he is a ‘gentle man’ as well with all he sees. Friendship, to him, is easy, but for others it is not.

As to friendship in the rest of the book, that is one big book to consider, but did you write about:

Pip and Estella

Herbert and Pip

Pip and Miss Havisham

Joe and the young lady he eventually marries

Pip and Orlick [in opposition to real friendship]

Jaggers and Pip

Wemmick and Pip


[Pic = Herbert and Pip from the David Lean film.]

They are just a few ideas off the top of my head, but all able to be written about using short quotes in those lovely PEED chains to get your point across.

Q2 The poem was ‘A Complaint’ and one other poem of own choice – Compare how loss is shown with another poem. 

Now here, we have the horror question that comes up in every English exam, both Lit and Language. Lord knows what they have planned for you in June but this is not nice at all. I am in complete agreement with my students this year. What fifteen year old or sixteen year old knows about loss in such a way as this and can write about it even if they wanted to?

Unfair, Mr Politician! Totally unfair!

Here is the poem they specified, if you chose this question over the other [if indeed there was a choice]. I am assuming this was the one you got today. If not then apologies.

A Complaint – Wm Wordsworth

There is a change—and I am poor;

Your love hath been, nor long ago,

A fountain at my fond heart’s door,

Whose only business was to flow;

And flow it did; not taking heed

Of its own bounty, or my need.


What happy moments did I count!

Blest was I then all bliss above!

Now, for that consecrated fount

Of murmuring, sparkling, living love,

What have I? Shall I dare to tell?

A comfortless and hidden well.


A well of love—it may be deep—

I trust it is,—and never dry:

What matter? If the waters sleep

In silence and obscurity.

—Such change, and at the very door

Of my fond heart, hath made me poor.

The theme of loss in this poem is countered with the idea of what he has or had in love through his relationship. It is the change in his relationship that shows the extent of the loss encountered. The tenses used like in “What happy moments did I count” tell us this is in the past and he is remembering something good, feeling that profound sense of loss. But the question I have is how far into that did you go, depending on how much time your teachers told you to spend on this question, given the length of the exam itself from start to finish?


If you then chose another poem from that which deals with loss, like Neutral Tones, with its sense of greyness symbolising the dullness of loss or the sense of hopelessness that loss brings to a person, then you did okay in this exam for this question. It is impossible for me to assess how well or not you did because you had choice of poem for the second one, but was your essay balanced? Did it cover both? Did it compare, as asked to, saying how one was similar with the other? If so, then Bravo You!

Q3 Compare Poems ‘British Summer’ and ‘The Month of May.’

This, I believe, is the unseen poetry one which usually is a single poem, so for them to add in a second and say you have to compare them is for me, just plain wrong. GCSE English Literature is hard enough in the first place without making it harder for you, making it more likely you might mess up a question like this. Analysing unseen poetry is an artform and so long as you used the ‘Unlocking a Poem’ sheet ideas from this website, you should have done well on at least one of the poems, but did you compare them both with each other?

See this page to see how to compare poems…


In the end, this was not an easy examination, but the set text extract should have been okay, given which ever text your class studied, but at the end of the day, it will all depend on how well you were taught, how well you learned and how well you revised, to see on the day what grade you get.

Do not be disappointed in late August either way. Just enjoy the experience of this Lit exam which is now over forever [for most] and revise like mad for the Language exams for the one question that will nobble most students is the Language and Structure question in each paper. Language is easy enough, but folks get stuck on the idea of structure. For that, remember my posts on here for the three levels of attack: Word Level analysis, Sentence Level Analysis and whole Textual Analysis. If you write following such a structure, writing a paragraph for each [1.5 sides A4 total?] or one of your own making to make it easier, then you will Ace the two exams in June and be full of smiley faces afterwards.


Happy hunting!






The Lit Exam – Easy or Tricky?

Some students who come out of the GCSE English Literature examinations saying one thing; “that was easy, Sir.” They say this for one of two reasons. Either they have revised, worked hard, been taught well and done well in the examination, or they have rushed the question, not revised as well as they could do and done what they think is a good answer, but one that will in fact get them no higher than a G or an F in old money, or a 2 or 3 in the new ways of marking the thing.

So, how well did you do today?


My student that I tutored read and studied three texts: Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the great play, An Inspector Calls. He says, in round about words that the questions for his first exam were as follows [might not be word for word]:

Macbeth: How is Lady Macbeth portrayed in the sleepwalking extract? How is guilt shown elsewhere in the play?


An Inspector Calls: What is the significance of money in the play?

How did you answer these if you took this exam board question?

It was the first Edexcel examination so seeing this might give you some tips if you need a resit in November, or if you are looking at this next year and trying to figure out how the hell to answer such a question as these. The fact that he was unable to give me the Dickens question is a bit of a bind, for it is my favourite novel of all time, but that is for the second examination and so there is still time for me to write a later blog piece.

So here goes on the two from today.

Macbeth: Lady Macbeth the Sleepwalker

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Given the fact that I have not been given the exact text to work from it is difficult to see where it starts and where it finishes but the fact that it is a separate two part question says a lot. Normally, you would answer the first question and be expected to say something about the guilt she feels in the rest of the play in your answer. But here, they have split it to make it easier and so you will see the need to write [using those lovely PEED chains] about both sides of the question.

What would you include? Well, in the first part, you might write about the following:

  1. She is sleepwalking out of guilt
  2. Her mind is fractured because of the bad things she has done
  3. She cannot control or switch off the feeling of helplessness
  4. As such, she is damaged goods
  5. But then, she did ask for hell’s demons to unsex her earlier in the play
  6. She feels the nature of what she has entered into because the human heart cannot take such a thing as killing another human being

Guilt in the rest of the play

In the end, there is so much guilt to choose from. Here are just a few ideas for you to consider. They are not meant, if you took the exam today or whenever it was and you then read this and think oh dear, I did not put half of that in, to annoy you. If they do, then apologies from the outset, but they are meant to make future learners think about the depth of their answers.

  1. Macbeth feels guilt as soon as he does the deed
  2. He feels the guilt of Banquo’s death and sees the ghost. Is that not his fractured mind also at work? [compare to Lady Macbeth and get more points]
  3. There is the guilt of going to the witches for assistance
  4. There is the guilt of others for allowing Macbeth to do what he does; Macduff for not being able to protect his family etc

Guilt is resident throughout this play. It is there because the writer, Mr Shakespeare himself, wanted us to think of certain themes like this. He was writing around the time of the arrival of James 1st onto the throne in England and Shakespeare is almost saying what would we need to do to get rid of a monarch? How could it happen? It is pure conjecture of course, but can be seen as a muse for writing. The history of the Scottish battles, found in different texts [Holinshead Chronicles] will have had some influence as well. It is even possible to see the previous Queen, Elizabeth 1st, as being partly an influence. She is a strong woman in a man’s world and knows what it means to be so. With these and other possibilities, it is possible to run out of paper in an examination very easily.

But what of An Inspector Calls?

What is the significance of money in the play?


Written as a social criticism at the time against capitalism and its insidious activities in our lives, this play is a critique of how the rich treat the poor, how the employer treats the employee in a time before British benefits systems were invented. You worked and you got money to live. You didn’t and you ended up in the Workhouse. Sad, but true! Very Dickensian, I know, but true.

So to see a writer defining the importance of money in one’s life, one has to write an essay in terms of how one group of people in the play see money and how the other sees the need for it. The question is begging for you to compare the rich and the poor and their attitudes to income.


Here are a few ideas for you…

  1. The employer – Birling Snr – his sense of superiority over everyone
  2. The drunken party goer – Birling Jnr – a lost sense of family
  3. The employee – needful of employment to live, fearful of losing job
  4. The rich friend – keeping the little woman, male and female stereotypes
  5. The Good Samaritan – helping others out when we can
  6. The rich family – their attitudes to their wealth, keeping it in the family
  7. The workforce – How they are needful of the factory
  8. Inspector Goole – His comments on how one treats the other
  9. The Social Comment – the criticism being made of those who have at the time

There is so much more I can think of and that is without looking at the text in full, or revising it. I have not read it or taught it for about ten years, but they are the things that bounce back into my memory because it is such a memorable little play.

So how did you do?

I hope in August that you find out and it is good news from both Lit exams. When you take the next one, in a few days time, remember what is said here about depth and detail. Then it is time to revise for the Language exams in June and knock them into the stands when you answer. Remember, for all your English exams, write using those lovely PEED chains where needed and do not stop writing, for the more you can offer to the examiner, the better chance you have of scoring higher than predicted. If you only offer one page when there are four or five given for you to use, then do not expect much more than a 3.


It is up to you now. Time to get revising!

Making Sense Out Of Chaos

So, the government in their perpetually inept wisdom brought in a new grading scheme and everyone has been trying to grasp the nettle and work with it; student and teacher alike.

Here is how Edexcel Pearson think it works.


Regardless of what anyone else will say, especially teachers who claim that a level 4 is not a pass, the simplistic way to look at this chart is to see that the government are wanting you to look at two numbers; 4 and 7. If you can get an 8 or a 9, then brilliant. But we all can see from this that a 4 is a C.

However, I saw something yesterday that said the government and the exam bodies expect the same amount of students who got an A or a C to get a 7 or a 4. That is how they expect you to do. The rest then, are minor definitions of the highest grades and the very lowest ones. But remember, all of them, apart from a U [for Unclassified] are passes!

So, what do you need to do to get a 4 over the entire two exams?

Well, the first thing to note is do not panic and have a brain freeze on the day. One student of mine recently had a mock and this happened on the second paper. He knows what he is doing and should get a 5 or higher, [I am hoping a 6] but he let himself get flustered and then the old [or young, in his case] head froze and he shuffled his way through the rest of the exam, scoring a 4 overall [a 5 and a very low 4]. In the final exam to come in a few weeks, he should, if he does not let his nerves get the better of him, do well in both and then get that 5 for definite [if he does not, I will eat my car keys!], or a 6 if he writes the right things and does well in the second section of each, where being creative is not always the easiest thing to do on the day.

The second thing is to remember those PEED chains. You all know that the PEE stands for Point, Evidence and Explanation, or some other variant expression you have been taught, but how many of you take time to add Development to those ideas? It is so easy to write one point, use one short quote, to prove it and then say what it means before going on to the next point, but if you allow your life experience to find its way into the exam, especially in section A, where Q4 always catches people out, you will find that letting yourself go a little actually helps, if you stick to the answer. For example, if you write “The writer uses a pyramid like structure to his writing, using shorter sentences each time to make his point” [random, I know; first thing I could think of] and then add “when he says that ‘his life is always hectic” and then add that this sentence is mid length and leave it at that, then it is a waste of time.

I hope that makes sense.

But if you add development into that, at the end and say how it has an effect on the reader, how it makes the point come quicker, how it relates to modern audiences and is quite clever, reminding the reader of a sales and marketing tract, all these things can then add to your answer, before heading into the next PEED chain. Try it next time, in class, or in your next practice answer for Q4 and see what development does for your answer [and for the heart rate of your teacher].

The third thing you need to do is copy and paste the GLOSSARY OF TERMS off this site. Just type it in at the top and hit the link before copying and pasting into a word processing file. Then get someone to ask you to define [and give an example] of each one. Place a tick at each that you know. Asterisk those you cannot and then use that 6 pages to revise your technical English skills. Then learn them all by the exam so you know what hyperbole is and what it does etc.

Then there is that wonderful thing called Time Management which is covered here in this site as well. You have an hour, or 45 minutes for a section, whichever way you look at it, so break the time up for each question and stick to that time in the exam. Do not go over that time and especially under it, trying to pinch a minute or three from section A to give you a few moments more for section B.

Be ruthless in your time management!

But above all, go into the exams with confidence. You have been working towards this and working hard. Now go and make it worth the while. Make the best out of this situation and be the very best you can on the two days you are tested in this brilliant subject, and in August, when you get your results, rejoice with me, whatever they are.

Go on, get revising, now! What’s stopping you?



The Great Poundland Debacle

Normally, I would write pieces on this website which try to encourage you all in your efforts to get that old fashioned Grade C in your GCSE examinations, but something happened this week that has made me take the end of my fingers to my partly worn out keyboard in an attempt to counter something that someone in middle England has said in the public domain about the new level 4 pass and how it is to be considered as a “Poundland Pass,” whereas the higher grade of level 5 can now be considered as a “Waitrose Pass.”

Here is the article in question! It is to be found in the TES, the newspaper for education professionals. In my opinion, such an article as this is not very professional at all.


Firstly, to consider something like the level 4, which lots of students worked very hard to achieve last year and rejoiced in August when they received their grades, as a “Low Pass” [a local school teacher used that term this very day on a lad I know] whilst seeing the 5 as a stronger pass, is just wrong by anyone in the profession, so I say to the author of that comment, shame on you for even suggesting it.

A pass is a pass, whichever way you cook it. We all know that the old fashioned grades D-G were still passes, albeit at a lower level than the required C, which you needed to move on to such as A Levels or college courses, but they were still all passes and some of them well achieved, even the ones below the grade C. I remember a lad in Year 10 before I left Hall Cross School in Doncaster who was expected to score no higher than an F grade in his English Language exams [overall grade] but with help and assistance because of his Special Needs, achieved a B grade. Anything is possible. So when the government introduced the new system of 9-1 marking and grading, we as teachers asked a simple question; where will the C/D borderline be? What will equate to a C and what will not? We assumed that it might be a simple translation from 9 being an A* and so on, down the list, but soon found that this was not the case.

For months, teachers did not know for sure and then came the bomb shell, that level 4 would be what was once considered a grade C. So, we professionals knew we had to push for the level 4 and above as much as possible, for the student and for the school or college. As a teacher myself, I knew there was going to be some issues that would need ironing out; what is the difference between a 4 and a 5? How do we stop employers demanding the 5 or colleges doing the same when a 4 is still the equivalent of a C? How do we sell the idea to the country that if a level 4 is a pass, then that has to become the benchmark needed for students to continue in education or be seen as having what used to be termed a C grade?

Now, it seems, with articles like this one, that employers are trying to insist on the level 5 as the benchmark, making it totally unfair to those who worked their backside off last year to get that level 4. One young man I know took a tutor on in late March of 2017. His exams were at the end of May and early June for all his subjects. He was eighteen and working, as well as being a trainee engineer and all he needed was the confidence to write his head off in the exam, especially Section B, where writing freely was something he had never really mastered. In approximately six weeks of one hour sessions, he was successfully taken by his tutor from the level 3 [or below] to a level 4 and when the results day came, his level of joy and excitement, as well as blessed relief, was palpable. When his tutor got the email, it had lots of exclamation marks [tut tut, I know] showing his utter joy in his success. His reaction is what passing at the right grade does to a student and is the best thing in the world for any teacher to see when the grades are given out in August.

So, to make it so that the work and effort he put in is now a waste of his time, effort and money is something that makes me ashamed of the profession I love and adore, as well as being ashamed with the government who introduced this sham in the first place and have let this happen. I may have taken my pension and not work anymore in the classroom due to disability, but I see these comments in articles like this and I cringe. How can we let those outside of education suddenly say that level 5 is the benchmark grade to get, or else? How can we stand by and let articles such as the one above dictate the levels of success achieved by so many hard working individuals? I know the article is trying to make that assertion, but to even mention words like “Poundland Pass” and “Waitrose Pass” is essentially insulting and offensive to student and to teacher alike. I find it incomprehensible that any teacher should create such a label as this, especially glibly like this one! I would loathe the idea of working in his school.

To all those hard working English Language and Literature students out there, I say this: keep going, keep trying hard, keep learning and head for the best possible grade you can get. If that is a 5, then rejoice with me in your success. If it is a 4, then rejoice also, for the grade you get is accepted by this teacher as a C grade and is accepted as the benchmark for future development. To think any other thing would be tantamount to labelling someone as incapable at whatever they are doing. I for one, when any student gets their results, rejoice in whatever grade achieved. These students have put a lot of work in over the last few months and years and deserve all the success they can achieve.

All students expect the same thing. It is up to us as teachers not to disassociate ourselves from the positives by mentioning the negatives. It is up to us to promote best practice and that does not mean referring to a level 4 as anything but what it is, a pass at GCSE English.

The Bear – Robert Frost

The Bear

Robert Frost

The bear puts both arms around the tree above her
And draws it down as if it were a lover
And its choke cherries lips to kiss good-by,
Then lets it snap back upright in the sky.
Her next step rocks a boulder on the wall
(She’s making her cross-country in the fall).
Her great weight creaks the barbed wire in its staples
As she flings over and off down through the maples,
Leaving on one wire tooth a lock of hair.
Such is the uncaged progress of the bear.
The world has room to make a bear feel free;
The universe seems cramped to you and me.
Man acts more like the poor bear in a cage,
That all day fights a nervous inward rage,
His mood rejecting all his mind suggests.
He paces back and forth and never rests
The me-nail click and shuffle of his feet,
The telescope at one end of his beat,
And at the other end the microscope,
Two instruments of nearly equal hope,
And in conjunction giving quite a spread.
Or if he rests from scientific tread,
‘Tis only to sit back and sway his head
Through ninety-odd degrees of arc, it seems,
Between two metaphysical extremes.
He sits back on his fundamental butt
With lifted snout and eyes (if any) shut
(He almost looks religious but he’s not),
And back and forth he sways from cheek to cheek,
At one extreme agreeing with one Greek
At the other agreeing with another Greek
Which may be thought, but only so to speak.
A baggy figure, equally pathetic
When sedentary and when peripatetic.


This is a poem about a bear but it is also about so much more than just the bear itself. The poem uses “he” and “she” interspersed throughout, so I choose not to use a word of gender unless directly quoting, so as to not confuse. [It may be a typo off the website I took the poem from and if so, then apologies].

Written by Robert Frost, this poem describes how the bear acts and reacts in its natural environment. The description begins with the bear pulling down the tree branches that are over hanging for it to get at some food. But Frost describes the bear like we would a “lover” as it “draws down” the branch. As soon as it has retrieved the fruit it wants, it lets the branch go and the whole movement is described in one fell swoop, as it snaps back “upright in the sky.” There is a sensuous movement being described here, for the poet thinks the bear is a thing of beauty, capable of movement in such an exquisite manner that gives it a majestic manner as it feeds. This poem then sets the tone for the rest to follow, whereby we are led into the mind of the reader who is pro-animal and pro-animal rights in his approach, or so it would seem.

But could there be anything deeper than this when it comes to hidden meaning? To ascertain that, one has to consider what comes next as there are no verse endings like in four line verse. So one line interconnects with another and so on through the poem as we see the thoughts and feelings of the poet.

The progress this bear is making is the sort of progress that is seen as showing realism in the sense that the bear is in the wild but it is in its own element as well, something to not go near, something to watch and honour, rather than fear and hunt. Descriptions therefore, of how the bear “rocks a boulder on the wall” as how it is “making her cross-country in the fall” enable us to see the great animal in its element and at a certain time of year. The Fall, in America and Canada is the time of year we call Autumn, when all the leaves are falling from the trees and life is beginning to run out throughout nature as the elements give way from the warmth of summer, into the Fall and then moves on into winter. For the bear, it is a time of year where there is a lot to do, a lot to find, to store for its hibernation months through the long winter but there is also not a lot of food left for it to grab. That is its dilemma.

The level of progress it makes is called an “uncaged progress” in that it lingers where it needs to and lumbers off “down through the maples” leaving a wake of destruction in its wake as it leads its life in the natural elements. But then the poet makes us think of how we treat nature and animals in general, our attitudes to them and their needs. He says “the world has room to make a bear feel free” but at the same time, “the universe seems cramped to you and me.” It is true that what he is saying is that “man acts more like the poor bear in a cage,” fighting with rage against anything that will inhibit it. In this way, he is saying that we humans are just like the bear, capable of being nice and kind and also capable of living by our most natural, basest emotions and activities.

The bear fights a nervous inward rage, his mood rejecting all his mind suggests.” How true of humanity is that? We are so fickle at times, wanting things for ourselves over and above the thoughts and needs of others. There is an animal facet to humankind that the poet is making us think of as he paints the picture of the animal in the wild who “paces back and forth and never rests,” just like we do through life instead of focussing on something more solid and more worthy of our time and efforts. The bear’s head is described as swaying “through ninety-odd degrees of arc” as if it is looking at “two metaphysical extremes.” Life for us is like that. We can be taken up with one thing or another when we are either concerned, or worried, so when we look at this poem we need to figure out whether we think the bear is at peace, or not at this moment. Is the bear shaking its head from side to side in rapt contemplation, or is it doing that because life is an endless bore of walking and hunting and eating? Has the bear lost the plot of life and become useless and so, is shaking its head from side to side like some do when they are in the depths of madness? Or, is this shaking of the head that kind of side to side movement that a bear naturally does when moving? The sense of movement in the bear is so strong in this poem, even though the bearsits back on his fundamental butt with lifted snout and eyes (if any) shut.”

Whatever your answer is should be seen as the correct answer, for with poetry there is no wrong answer, for we each come to the reading of a poem with different life experiences and because of those differing life experiences, we interpret a poem differently to others. Therefore, your answer is just as valid as the next person and should not be taken as wrong, even by your teacher. This bear, to me, is nonchalantly sitting there, minding its own business. In parenthesis, Frost stresses that “he almost looks religious but he’s not.” It is the movement “back and forth” that paints the picture in the mind of the reader that makes them wonder why this bear is doing this. The bearsways from cheek to cheek” on a magnificent backside, as if contemplating what to do next.

It is as if the bear is thinking things through but it is also described as a “baggy figure,” something reflecting the utterly “pathetic” nature of life “when sedentary and when peripatetic.” The word “Sedentary” is sometimes used to describe someone who sits around not doing very much, so it suggests that life is one where there is not much to do any more. The bear has lost that special lifestyle that a wild bear should have, probably because of the influx of humanity into its natural region, which does suggest that the poet is being pro animal and anti human in his depiction of this animal in the wild. “Peripatetic” as a word, is usually used to describe someone, like a home tutor, who goes from one home to the next to teach his or her subject. Likewise, it here describes the bear’s wandering lifestyle, one of loneliness and despair and therefore, makes this poem quite a sad one, bordering on the depressive.

But then again, this would be natural for this poet because if you look online at his life, you will see that he had a lot of experience of things like mental illness and depression, in himself and his family members, both through his natural family and the family he married into. So, is this poem a metaphor for how he feels his life has gone? Is the bear a metaphor for him, shifting aimlessly on his own backside at times, sometimes feeling that life is nasty, brutish and short?

The answer is up to you, but it is worth a thought.

9-1 GCSE Exam Task: Write about a time when you did something without thinking it through.

This took 30 minutes to write out, including planning. Read it and then have a go at the task yourself.

Being Looked After

“He is okay but he is in a coma and he has been like that for three weeks now. We did not want to worry you until we knew for sure he would be okay!”

Words like that shock you to your core, to the very essence of your being, especially when the person being talked about is your older brother who you love dearly. So to receive that sentence over the phone back in 1992 was a shocker. I was in the middle of my GCSEs as a mature student and beginning to prepare for revision and then exams in June. This was March time, when my mother and father were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, a milestone for most people, let alone my parents. We got the call on the afternoon of their celebrations and I took the call.

Fortunately, for everyone concerned, it was me that took the call, for my brother James lives in the south of France, about 825 miles away from our home. His wife, Suzette, a French citizen he had met and fallen in love with, and then emigrated with, phoned us up my Mum’s house. Once the shock was over, I said that if I could, I would come over.

I actually said, “Right, I am coming over. See you in a few days.”

But after I put the phone down, I sat there and thought how am I going to do this? The solution to my dilemma is a story worth the telling, for it involved numerous people in my journey south. I lived in the southern part of Yorkshire at the time and when our church Minister found out, she asked me how I was going. I said I was hitching. I was unemployed, had no cash, just my allowance and needed help. So out went the telephone calls on my behalf. An hour later I got a call saying “I can get you as far as the tunnel that goes into Italy” [half way through France]. I was amazed so planned to meet two men somewhere nearby.

The following morning, I set off with a holdall and some spare clothes, my passport and a hopeful anticipation. I met two truckers at Rotherham and we set off south for Dover. The trip was pretty uneventful apart from them asking me why but what I did not understand was the fact that between our Minister and the owner of the haulage company, they had agreed to put me on their paperwork as a co-driver, so I did not have to pay for the ferry either. I was amazed really and now, looking back, I still am. We travelled onto the ferry, off the other side and then headed down some familiar countryside for me, who had done the same trip on two wheels a few years before. The time was spent in dozing half sleep or crazed coffee bouts when we stopped, but it was a great time. I cannot remember their names but I shall be ever thankful for those two men who drove me part way down to see my brother.

But the really amazing stuff was just about to begin. At Chamonix, the truck broke down. It was a refrigerated truck too with cow hides on, so it began to stink the town out. When they said it would be a day or so before they got moving, I decided to hitch hike from there to Avignon, a distance of about 400 miles I guess, but am not sure. So I wrote a place name further south on a piece of cardboard and SVP below it and hoped for the best. Within five minutes, I was on my way again, waving goodbye to the truckers from the back seat of an Alpha Sud.

Funny that it was going south, with a name like Sud.

At a spot near the Autoroute du Soleil, something very odd happened. The car I was in had to brake hard and hit the car in front. As they were all arguing, I thought this is my cue to get on with the journey and so I carried on my journey, again being picked up within minutes by a driver in an enormous, bulbous oil tanker.

But what happened next was even more amazing. The driver of the tanker asked me in broken English why I was heading south in March so in my broken French, I used world like “hopital” and “frere” and “Marseilles” to let him know. As soon as I had said that, he was onto the CB radio in the cab, jabbering away rapidly in French [could have been any language for me in my state] and then it happened. It rained! But it did not just pitter patter down. No, it belted it down! I was being stopped at every turn by fate, or someone more cruel than that, from getting to my brother. After about an hour of this rain, the tanker driver pulled over, stopped, pointed to the tanker at the side of him and told me that this was my next ride.

I couldn’t believe it!

Such kindness. Such graciousness. He had been organising my next lift all this time. It was simply unbelievable. That tanker took me as far as Montelimar, about 50kms from my brother’s house but by now it was getting late, so he stopped at a truck stop and left me to my devices. He pointed to the bar and the motel and gave me that look as if to say “it will be worth it mate.” So I got a room and bedded down for the night. I still had not gone through twenty four hours yet but was dog tired.

The following morning, I made sure I had some breakfast at the motel and then headed out to try the last 50kms. Within minutes I was visited by two men wearing guns at their side. If I had not seen the Gendarme uniform, I would have given birth there and then! They asked me where I was going, asked to see my passport and when I said where and why I was going to Avignon, [and then to Marseilles] they wished me well and left. Within ninety seconds, a white car pulled up and said he was going to Avignon on business, do I want a lift. Only 4k after that to his village and I am there. The man drove his car into the middle of the city, got out and did his banking and then set off. By now I am thinking the worst. This is Freddy Kruger in a beret! I had no idea where he was heading next. He had asked to see the address of my brother, to see if he was going anywhere near to my brother’s house but had shaken his head, not knowing the village.

I was clueless!

But then the most insane thing of all happened. As he was driving along country roads, my sense of déjà vu set in and I guessed what was happening. I had been on these roads before. He drove round one corner, over a roundabout and into Cabannes where my brother lives. Then I knew, he was taking me to the door. He did not have to do this but he chose to because of my predicament, just like the trucker, the two truckers before that and my church Minister. How did all of this happen? Was it a miracle in modern form? Or was it just a bunch of folk seeing an issue and getting in there to help and assist; modern good Samaritans as it were, or was some of it angelic?

I have no idea to this day and got there faster than I can drive there in a car [maybe not on a bike] which is nothing short of amazing really. Hitching should have taken me three days. I did it in about thirty hours; total. To this day, I stand amazed by it and by the fact that when I did see my brother, with broken legs, arms, head, wrist and both legs in a broche, I think to myself that someone was looking after me that day.

And yes, before you ask, this is a one hundred percent, bona fide, true story with just a hint of hyperbole. Your task is to find it.

An Idea from A Level English

Whilst with a student today, I reverted to something found in A Level English to help him to understand how to write for the new section B.

The task was to write about something that you, or someone you know, had to do and try really hard to do well. It could be real or made up and was based on a picture of a school football team Coach giving his lads a team talk at half time or before the game. It was all about trying hard and doing well.

So, I showed him a revised version of the A Level aide we use as teachers. It goes very loosely, like this:


In essence, it allows the reader a little bit of planning space, or the chance to plan and to be ultra creative at the same time. Other teachers will tell you planning is vital but to learn this list and to be able to memorise them will help you when it comes to writing in that section B of the exam.

Think about it. You have been asked to write about something that you have done that has been hard to do or achieve. What do you do? Panic? Possibly, but panic not my student body, for if you follow this plan, all will be well. See below for what I mean…

Set Scene = Under 21s Rugby team. Country = Scotland. Upcoming game to win championship games between 6 nations.

Chief Protagonist = Self, or a third person narrative character. Brought up in foster care. Problems with aggression and authority. Combustive relationship with Coach. But very good running forward; just overtly aggressive and always being sin binned or sent off. Give him a name which represents this. Oscar Strange?

Wider characters = his team, who are his only real family. They have been the defining force in his life. They are his levellers in life, his real mates, but he is injured two weeks before the final game.

Problem = injury two weeks before the last major game of the season and he wants to play. He has to play, in his head.

Resolution = He comes back from injury, to be on the bench for the final game, itching to get on to make a difference. His coach does not think he is needed but then there is a turning point in the game. He goes onto the pitch with minutes to go and scores the winning try.

Outcome = he wins and becomes so famous for this one event in his life. It is a Jonny Wilkinson moment for him. It does not matter that he does not do anything else worth the while in his career, so long as he is known solely for this.

With these thoughts in mind and only a few words written at the side of each heading, you would very easily be able to freely write a story of a time when you [as the rugby player] were able to do something that was hard.

So, now have a go yourself. The task is simple: Write about a time when you have had to something that has been very hard to do, using the plan as above. If you are a teacher reading this, try it with your students.