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'Need something relatable? Talk about poo'

English lessons can be engaging and fun if you choose topics students can connect with, writes Andrew Otty

GCSE resit exams pedagogy FE colleges

English lessons can be engaging and fun if you choose topics students can connect with, writes Andrew Otty

“This is what English is all about,” I said earnestly, unintentionally drawing a laugh from my GCSE-resit students as I gestured toward a whiteboard filled with the dozens of synonyms for faeces and defecation they had offered up. The topic was helping me to illustrate that good language analysis explains specific word choices and their effects, in contrast to the generic and bland comments so ubiquitous that I wonder if there’s a cult of rogue English teachers out there, sabotaging the subject. “It draws the reader in...It makes the reader want to read on.” Plop. Plop.

There’s no missing that one person’s aggressive and offensive “shitting” carries a very different meaning to the proud and exhibitionist “masterful performance” of another. There’s even nuance in the poop emoji that might be used as shorthand for something rubbish, but whose cheeky smile and saucer eyes would prevent it from ever being used to communicate true tragedy.

We've moved onto non-fiction this term; the unwelcome but unavoidable turd of the English curriculum. Nobody was ever moved or inspired in a lesson about a banal beach-safety leaflet or the smug autobiography of some toff mountain climber. However, if we at least cover non-fiction in the GCSE, we can continue to fend off the functionalists who would reduce our subject to the composition of emails and instruction manuals. So this term I wanted to make the best of it and start off with something universally relatable: poo.

Looking for inspiration

My inspiration was the dumbfoundingly hilarious infomercial for the Squatty Potty, a stool that turns your toilet posture into a squat; aiding discharge. Apparently. The video features a super-cute unicorn pooping rainbow ice cream and uses this image as an unexpectedly-effective analogy to explain the product.

“Yep. It’s a real thing,” I repeatedly assured my students. Half asleep on the first day back after the holiday, some were staring wide-eyed and mouth agape, wondering what the shitake was going on. My classes on the second day were wide awake and it was an arsemageddon of puns and unappetising anecdotes. The key to success in resit-English is getting the learners’ attention, which the video achieved with honours, and it led perfectly into an extract from Alex Blasdel’s visceral and brilliant article on the Squatty Potty’s explosive commercial success, provoking some pretty sophisticated interpretation.

“It’s comparing it to birth,” said one student on Blasdel’s image of crapping as “delivering your creation into the world”. “Giving birth is seen as really positive, but pooing is normally taboo,” the student continued, picking up the vocabulary “taboo” from elsewhere in the article after I’d overheard his neighbour explain it to him. “No, it’s presenting it like a religious experience,” argued another.

Real or spoof

The piece models the article form with statistics, conventional phrases “according to one study”, and quotations from experts. In quoting the “professor of architectural humanities at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture” who happens to be “one of the preeminent scholars of the modern bathroom” on poo, it’s easy to forget whether you’re reading something real or an ingenious spoof. Its imagery ranges from the poetic (“faecal-borne disease knows no kings”) to squirmingly relatable and on the mark (“It’s like climbing into a wet sleeping bag”).

As the non-fiction paper of GCSE English includes two source texts and introduces comparison, it’s handy that there’s been a lot of crap in the news recently. JK Rowling’s digital division of the Harry Potter empire, Pottermore, caused a stink among the wizarding fandom last week by announcing that before they adopted modern plumbing from muggles, magical folk “simply relieved themselves wherever they stood and vanished the evidence”.

In November, Microsoft founder Bill Gates gave a speech at the Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing, standing next to a jar that might turn your stomach. “Human faeces.” He confirms this using an amusingly-abrupt short sentence for some of the same reasons Blasdel uses the technique in his piece, easing his audience into an uncomfortable subject. But Gates has a far more serious message.

Fun and engaging lessons

“In places without safe sanitation, there is much more than one small beaker’s worth in the environment. These and other pathogens cause diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, and typhoid that kill nearly 500,000 children under the age of five every year.” That’s a list of three, a statistic, and a pivot from unicorns and rainbow ice cream to an arresting moral message in less time than it takes your average mammal to pass a stool.

There’s an unfortunate trend in education discourse to pooh-pooh anyone suggesting that we should be designing lessons that are fun and engaging. I understand the origins of that resentment as a reaction against the legacy of Ed Balls and his doctrine that poor behaviour is the fault of teachers who aren’t fun. However, swinging to the other extreme too easily validates putting zero thought into the materials we use with our learners and simply reaching for a mind-numbing textbook or whatever dismal articles we can filch from the staffroom coffee table. It is part of our job to help students connect with our subject. For resit teachers, it’s the most important part. Non-fiction doesn’t have to be so shit.

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity Shine



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