Are teachers destined to spend their lives repeating themselves?

8th June 2001 at 01:00
Am I going to be teaching paragraphs via the internet in 25 years' time?

Paragraphs. I'm just sharing with you what I've spent the past hour inscribing on the top of some Year 9 essays. I wouldn't mind so much if we hadn't spent two double lessons exploring the art of the paragraph. I have approached the paragraph from all angles. I've ICT'd it. We've cut up text, we've rearranged text, we've done a paragraph quiz, we've discussed other people's use of paragraphs. I've appealed to so many different intelligences that I'm beginning to think that I'm losing my own. The only thing I haven't done is write a story about a day in the life of Mr Paragraph, who's so sick and bloody tired of being ignored, passed over and missed out that he's going to take a carving knife and kill anyone who doesn't use him - and quickly. That's a pretty extreme option but it's growing in appeal.

I had high hopes after we'd written a mnemonic using all the letters in the word "paragraph", but it's all been dashed after another encounter with Year 9's Macbeth diary. Strangely enough, "paragraph" doesn't contain an "i" for "ignore", but it might as well.

Are teachers destined to spend their lives repeating themselves? Am I going to be teaching paragraphs via the internet in 25 years' time, when I'm approaching retirement and schools are considered obsolete? Will my virtual inheritors still be writing "where are your paragraphs?" all over Year 9 essays? If so, the future seems bleak. All other professions seem to be changing, developing, advancing new skills, and I'm stuck in the slow lane, still teaching paragraphs and realising that it doesn't make any difference if you teach it on a computer, on a slate, as part of the literacy strategy or part of the national curriculum; however you package it, they just won't use them. And they probably won't until Year 12.

I have tried many means of persuasion, apart from my various interactive lessons. I've written long comments at the end of pieces of work explaining why the writing would be much improved with a few paragraphs to allow the reader to draw a breath. I've written the authoritative PARAGRAPHS the pleading PARAGRAPHS???, the trying-to-make-light-of-it PARAGRAPHS!!!, or a mixture, PARAGRAPHS!?!?. That one can be roughly translated as "it's 10pm, and I've still got Year 7 'Where did Skellig really come from?' stories to mark, why can't you make me feel I've accomplished something today and indent a bit, you little git". In the end, I wonder if it's a reflection of my teaching skills that I can't make paragraphs attractive enough to merit use. Or maybe they're out of fashion.

Perhaps it's part of the teaching game, that kids don't want to learn what their teachers want to teach them. Maybe they see my insistence on correct punctuation as another way in which school represses their natural creativity. Maybe if I said that paragraphs were banned from now on they'd start using them religiously.

Have teachers throughout time had this problem with punctuation? Are we teaching children things that they aren't developmentally able to cope with and, while they can physically paragraph, their brains can't comprehend the importance? It's a fascinating debate to be having with yourself at 11pm as you wearily write PARAGRAPHS - PLEASE! over the top of another piece of work. You wonder if courtesy should be the new approach - maybe Year 9 think I'm being too demanding.

I know that repetition is an inherent part of learning. I think it's called "frequency" now, to rid it of all those outdated "learning by rote" concepts that we pretend don't exist when our kids are cramming for the GCSEs. I always thought it was the kids who needed to repeat things, not the teachers. I remember my teacher standing at the front of the class asking, "how many times do I have to repeat myself?" and thinking, "quite a lot, mate, because no one's listening to you".

In the meantime, I'm going to buy a rubber-stamp that says PARAGRAPHS that I can use without having to give myself repetitive strain injury by writing it on 30 pieces of work. I'm going to find out about modelling the word in chocolate next year and see if that does anything.

Gemma Warren teaches at the Latymer school, Edmonton, north LondonEmail:

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