A history teacher’s reading of Star Wars: The Force Awakens [SPOILERS]

Firstly, don’t read this if you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as it contains spoilers for the film.

Secondly, I am not suggesting here that the film-makers were definitely trying to make the points that I do below; that would be ridiculous.  Sadly however I always have my history teacher head on, so these things occurred to me a few days after seeing The Force Awakens, digesting it, and discussing it with my friends and family. There have already been some ‘identity politics’ readings of the film (here and here, for example) which I’m not going anywhere near here, for the reason that these are concerned with character whereas the things I point out below are more to do with context and background; broad brush-strokes rather than specific, plot-based allegory.

Thirdly, I won’t be making references to or comparisons with the previous Star Wars films. They’ve been picked apart for four decades now, I have nothing new to say.

Right then. Here we go. The First Order look like Nazis. Look at them:

Here’s some Nazis at a rally in Nuremberg, in case you weren’t sure what they looked like:

nuremberg colour

“Deutschland, Drittes Reich – Reichsparteitag NSDAP Nuernberg 1936 NSDAP Parteitag in Nuernberg: Appell von SA, SS und NS-Kraftfahrerkorps (NSKK) in der Luitpold-Arena: Blick auf die Rednertribuene, im Vordergrund SS – 13.09.1936 Germany, Third Reich – NSDAP Nuremberg Rally 1936 Parade of the NS-Driver’s Corps, the SA and the SS at the rally ground; – 13.09.1936 “

Their soldiers are called ‘stormtroopers’, they love red, white and black, and they are massively evil. We also have the ‘Resistance’ pitched up against the First Order, echoing the French Resistance to Nazi occupation during the Second World War. The First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke, meanwhile, rules from afar by fear and decree, letting his underlings get on with the actual day-to-day running of affairs amidst petty administrative squabbling. He’s a big giant head playing Hitler.

Let’s push this even further. Maz’s palace/pub is basically Rick’s bar from Casablanca: a refuge from the wider goings-on in the world, clearly it will be affected by larger events but people can generally go about their business. Rick didn’t have a lightsabre though. If he did, that French national anthem scene would have been a lot less tense.

The First Order aren’t just Nazis, though. Confusingly, they’re also the Soviet Union. They seem to live on Starkiller Base, a place covered in lush forests and snowy wastes, which they have turned – in a very short space of time – into a hugely industrialised military machine capable of immense destruction. Russia under Stalin, then. On a more general totalitarian theme, the First Order also raise and indoctrinate their soldiers from a young age and take orders from one figure of authority.

The thing is, the First Order are just playing at being in power. Look at them. Hux, Kylo Ren and all the officers and engineers we see are really young. Even the officer guy that Kylo tries to Force-choke isn’t as old as the experienced, English public school, civil service chaps that Vader loses his temper with in the original films. So instead of Nazis or Communists, the First Order really represent the naivety and inexperience of post-revolutionary regimes who think they know what they’re doing but actually haven’t got a clue. I’m on about the post-Arab Spring Middle East. Kylo Ren is the radicalised fanatic, all flaming sword and long black robes. Hux is the civilian politician. Both are rubbish at their jobs.

Let’s stay in the Middle East. Finn, our ex-stormtrooper. He quits his job, despairing after witnessing an atrocity against defenceless villagers in a sandy place carried out by his colleagues, as well as being unable to help his dying army buddy. Is he Bowe Berghdal? Probably not. But he is at least a shout out to US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. This makes the First Order the USA, as well as Nazi Germany, the USSR and the post-Arab Spring Middle East. Broad brush strokes, not specific allegory.

Back to Maz’s palace/pub. It isn’t Rick’s bar in Casablanca. It is actually in Restoration London. It’s been a time of great political upheaval, with civil war and changes of regime all over the place. But the ordinary people just want to get on with their lives. Maz is very old; she’s seen all this before but her customers keep coming.


Blogs for the Week Ending 4th May 2014

The Echo Chamber

This is round up of the best education blogs from the last week. If you are an education blogger on WordPress, please reblog this post. I believe this week’s blogpost of the week will once again feature on the  Chalk Talk Podcast  (unless I’ve left it too late), so  any suggestions gratefully received either in the comments below or on twitter, directed to  @oldandrewuk

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So long GCSE Classical Civilisation, and thanks for all the guilt

Why couldn’t I have died and yielded my soul to the sword of Diomede, bravest of the Greeks, on the Trojan plains? – Aeneas in The Aeneid by Virgil, Book One


This weekend I have been marking my very last batch of GCSE Classical Civilisation Controlled Assessments (our school dropped the course from the curriculum last year), and again I’ve been feeling like Aeneas, torn between duty and my own desires. On the one hand, there are very clear regulations one must follow when pupils are planning and writing their Controlled Assessments. On the other hand, I want to make sure I have done everything in my power to ensure the pupils have the best possible CA grade going into their exams.

The ‘guilt’ in the blogpost title is twofold. Firstly it refers to straddling this line, which effectively means cheating. How, for example, do I appropriately mark the work of a pupil with SpLD who, in her written exams, gets the appropriate extra time and a reader, but who in her typed CA essay can’t make the corrections that Word highlights for her because she doesn’t understand why her original writing is wrong? Or the EAL pupil who speaks only Cantonese at home and who doesn’t use the past tense in her written English work, because she has no comprehension of the concept? Both pupils have organised their work very well, used appropriate examples to support their claims, and ‘offered an informed personal response to the question’. Yet, because of the vast array of competing indicators on the mark scheme, both would suffer heavily if I applied it strictly.

I’ve followed all the exam board’s CA rules: separate planning diaries, time limits, no redrafts, no comments from me on any of their planning work. I’m the only teacher teaching this course, with no head of department or anyone else to moderate the work. So what is stopping me asking the pupils to “just look over your work again”? Professional integrity? What is doubly galling is that last year, all the sample CA that the board requested were returned, unwrapped, untouched and with no comments or feedback. This is a GCSE course with a very small cohort of candidates, taught in a small number of schools, so it’s understandable that they wouldn’t want to, shall we say, discourage pupils from doing well. 


I made my way back into the city, clad again in my gleaming armour, to live every encounter again, to retrace all my steps through Troy, to face every danger again. – Aeneas, Book Two


So back to school I go on Tuesday, that little memory stick with 15 essays on locked away in my desk drawer, waiting.

The ‘guilt’ also refers to my never-ending feeling of inadequacy in delivering this subject. I wasn’t trained as a Classicist (in fact I had to ask what it actually involved at my job interview) but I’ve been solely responsible for resourcing, planning, teaching and delivering this GCSE course since I was an NQT. Six years of forgetting the names of the Vias in Pompeii. Six years of embarrassing “why don’t you just read the chapter again” when asked what line of Book Five of The Odyssey has the best example of repetition. Six years of no thanks or recognition from the school in either points, pay or timetabling. But six years of bloody good results, and six years of fantastic, small groups of pupils who thrilled at the deeds of “lion-hearted Odysseus” and giggled at the statue of the dancing faun.

I’ll miss teaching this course, but I won’t miss everything.



Work-related stress

In a blogpost I wrote last summer, I joked about how, with the timetable and workload I had coming up in September, I had “pencilled in my breakdown for February”. It actually came a few days earlier, on Wednesday 27th January. Breakdown is too strong a word really; more like ‘tearful meltdown to my head of department and repeatedly claiming “I can’t do this”‘.

I went home that morning, didn’t go back in for that week and saw my GP who was very understanding, reassuring and sympathetic. He diagnosed work-related stress and signed me off for a fortnight, which has just ended. I’ll be going back to work after half term.

So, what was wrong? It’s important to note that it isn’t a particular pupil, class, colleague, SLT or school practice that has been causing me stress. It’s just my workload and my inability to handle it effectively: three subjects spread across 21 teaching hours a week, with only one of those hours being key stage 3. My subjects – history, classics and politics – are marking-intense and, frankly, difficult to teach well. This year has been particularly and uniquely intense: it’s my first and only year teaching all three subjects (classics has been wound down) and my first year teaching a new subject, politics, at both AS and A2 levels.

I spent the first couple of days away from school feeling immensely sad, embarassed and, most of all, guilty: you don’t WANT to be away from your classes and you feel like you’re letting them, and the colleagues and friends who have to cover for you, down. Then there’s the thought of what awaits you when you go back: have they done the work? What will you need to go over again? It’s partly this internalisation of workload and responsibility that has caused me so much stress, I think, and something I need help in dealing with if I’m going to avoid this happening again.

The school immediately arranged for me to see an occupational health doctor, which was also incredibly helpful. Like with my GP, telling someone who you don’t know how you feel, someone who isn’t a friend, colleague or loved one but who can see things entirely impartially, is a very relieving thing to do.

I’m not after sympathy here, or trying to make my own circumstances out as unique or special. To anyone reading this who feels that they can’t cope, that the workload is too much, I’d just like to say that stress IS real, it does affect how you think and behave and, if you can, speak to someone about it. All it took for me to collapse was for my head of department to notice I wasn’t my usual self and ask if I was ok. Turns out I wasn’t.

A plea for advice on managing workload

Teachers, I need your help. It’s not even Christmas yet and I’m going under.

First, some context. I’ve been teaching for just over five years. This year, I teach three subjects (history, politics and classics) with only one hour of my 21 teaching hours being KS3. All three subjects involve extended writing as a form of assessment.

It’s the first year that I’ve taught politics, at AS and A2, so the reading, planning etc for that is naturally taking up lots of time. I appreciate that this is normal when you begin teaching a new subject.

BUT… I can’t cope. I can’t cope with the planning, the marking, the parents evenings, the shitty, shitty paperwork I have to do as a Year 12 form tutor, or the pressure of doing all this in what the Telegraph recently branded the fifth most ‘socially exclusive’ school in the country.

I’ve had some success in time-saving by using David Didau’s idea of ‘marking for planning’, and building pupil reflection and improvement time into my lessons. But if anyone has ANY helpful, proven time-saving marking or planning tips I will gratefully look into them and try them out.


Annotating text with post-its for essay planning

Now then. Here’s another very quick post writing up a lesson I had today with my Year 11 Classics group. We’ve just started planning for the C*ntr*ll*d *ss*ssm*nt question (“Aeneas is too weak-willed to be a real hero”. How far do you agree with this statement?) and after reading through and discussing the role and character of Aeneas in Book One of The Aeneid, we needed to get our first impressions of him.

I asked the pupils to skim through the Book and stick a blank post-it wherever Aeneas appeared – if he was doing or saying something himself, or being spoken about by other characters. Next, I asked the pupils to briefly state on each post-it what is going on with Aeneas at that point: what is he doing, how is he described, what impression do you have of him? etc:

CA postit2

Then, I asked pupils to go over each of Aeneas’ appearances that they had summarised and decide if they felt it showed him to be ‘weak-willed’ or ‘heroic’, based on their own interpretations of these terms. (As I said, these are their first impressions of the character, so we haven’t yet fully established the working criteria of ‘weak-willed’ or ‘heroic’ for their full write-up.)

Once they’d assessed each of his appearances in the Book, I asked pupils to write a very brief, impressionistic answer to the question being investigated, based solely on their reading of the character in the first book:

CA postit3

These post-its will then be added to their Controlled Assessment research diaries, and can be used later on as we go through the text and begin to plan the essay in deeper detail.

This approach would be useful, I suspect, in annotating any text when looking for useful details for extended writing tasks. For the requirements of the Controlled Assessment specifically, it allows you to keep the text ‘clean’ for when the pupils begin the ‘controlled’ write-up part of the assessment whilst providing the same function as traditional margin notes or pencil annotation.

Quick lesson idea on extended writing, key stage 3 history

I have my year 9, mixed-but-mostly-low-ability class for one hour a week only, smack in the middle too, period 3 on Wednesday. I needed a lesson that would assess their extended writing skills before half-term, and would also require very little planning from me because I’m utterly knackered already.

This idea came to me after reading blogs on marking ideas by @learningspy, @lisajaneashes and @joe_kirby (no links here sorry but check them out on Twitter): I did a bit of backwards planning so that I could make my marking of this task quick, easy and effective. I wanted to be able to use the plus/minus/equals idea mentioned by Lisa (and used to great effect by a colleague of mine in the English department), incorporated into a ‘DIRT’ part of a future lesson (again, minimising my planning).

As I like to make each lesson title a question I decided to make the extended writing task a simple summary, or stock-take of what we had learned so far:


Pupils had to summarise each of the lessons we had done, in at least a paragraph, and aim to use the key words we had studied in their writing. Simple enough, so far. The work they needed was all in their books, which, as I had marked them all up to date, they could then highlight/annotate etc as required for this new task. The pupils were also given, on the reverse of their task sheet, a very simple, cobbled together in three minutes, level descriptor scheme*. I encouraged them to aim high, but to read the requirements for all three levels available so that they wouldn’t miss out on the basics:


Each level has three simple targets, based clearly on the content of the lessons they are summarising. If I’ve got this right, my marking next week will involve scanning their work for the ‘best fit’ of the levels and indicating on their mark scheme what they have achieved and what they need to do to improve. The early part of the following lesson can then be used by the pupils to make simple, clear improvements, with the green pen system we’ve been using regularly for corrections.

The writing part of the lesson itself today was great: every pupil on task and desperate to show/ask me if they’d achieved a high level after their first paragraph. Interestingly it was the very weakest pupils who were the most enthusiastic, though I can’t fully account for this just yet.

*I know, I know: levels are on the way out and rubbish anyway and all the rest. But as our department hasn’t yet fully decided what to replace them with, I stuck with them for this first task of the term. I toyed with using A, B, C or whatever. Further revision needed.