Teaching tough texts in a world of “Twilight”

Last week, I outlined my experience at TLT and the fantastic sessions I attended. This week, I’ll outline my own session and some of the thoughts others shared.

I opened by exploring the idea of “rigour”: this seems to be one of a few educational buzz-words du jour. With the new “reformed” GCSEs in English, in particular, we are being forced to do away with such “non-rigorous” texts as Of Mice and Men (about which I have written before) in favour of more rigorous texts – which seem to be defined as nineteenth century, English composed ones. With tougher vocabulary. Along with this new rigour comes a new balance of language and literature; with progress 8 double-weighting the qualifications, no longer will schools prioritise language – a joy to English teachers everywhere.

At KS3, though, we might be mindful of balancing rigour with freedom and, dare I say, fun. Without ever losing sight of the qualifications we need to prepare students for, we also might wish to think about ways to engage and delight students in tough texts. I shared my own school’s current KS3 curriculum, with an unapologetic literary focus: we teach language through literature, and there are no “writing to inform” units or “media exploration” studies. Yet with such a tough curriculum comes a caveat: I don’t want my students to be passive recipients of literature, but rather literary critics.

Next, I shared one of my year 7’s paragraphs on poetry:

H lovely parag

Although this was meant to be an analytical essay, I couldn’t help but be proud of her. She really seemed to have engaged with the purpose and importance of poetry, even though this wasn’t something I’d ever explored with the class. Such engagement, I hope, will stand her in good stead for the tough qualifications she has ahead of her.

I didn’t want to denigrate Twilight, a book I actually really, really loved (and have written about it here), and used this as a springboard to explore personal reading. Noting the Matthew Effect (the word rich are often set to become word richer; the word poor poorer) I feel we, as English teachers, have an obligation to close the gap in our students’ experiences of literature. I cited the reading assemblies I have shared before on this blog as examples of my quest for students to take up the gauntlet of personal reading, and referred to Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and some of the ideas I’ve explored before here. While Miller’s entire curriculum revolves around personal reading, how much should we be taking from this idea? How central should personal reading be in our practice? This formed the start of our conversations in the session, and I was interested to hear the thoughts of the lovely attendees and their fabulous ideas.

One mentioned some students simply don’t know how to pick a book, and explained her students tended to look at the books without even handling them, and then said “I can’t find something” – she had to model flicking through and reading the blurb for them.

Chris Hildrew mentioned his school had set up a “media frenzy” around some high quality texts, leading to students picking these up, reading them and discussing them in the way they had The Fault in Our Stars in response to the worldwide media attention this book has drawn.

In order to create literary critics though, we need more than just readers. I explored what makes a text suitable to teach, and shared some strategies I’ve used in the past for making these texts accessible. I then asked attendees to think of a student they were struggling to engage with reading and/or literary criticism, and formulate a plan of action for engaging that student. Some excellent ideas arose from this, many of which I will be taking and trialling myself – so thank you!

Once again, I will say that I had a fantastic time at TLT. During this last week of term, I have been more full of hope and energy than ever before of that particular week, and it can only be as a result of that day of meeting, sharing, learning.

Teaching tough texts in a world of Twilight

More Reading Lists

Meeting my classes for this year for the first time, I was reminded more than ever of the great and pressing need for children to read.

I’m becoming more convinced of the power of sheer enthusiasm to move children to action. On giving the reading list below to my year 11, one student said: “Miss, can you read it out and talk about the books? It makes us want to read them more.” It was partly unfortunate, and partly brilliant, that their head of year walked in just as I was explaining Holly Golightly’s real job. A book containing taboos and crossed boundaries will be readily sought.

Year 10 needed little less convincing. They are a designated “extra English” group (they have more lessons of both Maths and English a week, having been chosen from their end of year 9 levels), and so are very small. They don’t feel “extra”; but they do feel urgent – yet they have started year 10 with the right mindset and I truly hope this continues. The very lesson after my book list talk, a third had not only taken their list books from the library, they were proudly putting them on their desks for the duration of the lesson lest the opportunity to read arose (they have not yet realised it rarely does).

Year 9 may prove more challenging. Again, an “extra English” group, there are far more of them; they are a “normal sized” class (if such a thing can be said to exist). At times, they felt like a mounting wave of apathy towards reading. Not particularly boisterous, they simply haven’t yet grasped the urgency of their need to read. Paragraphs are littered with “nice”, “ok,” and “gotta.” I’ve taken to packing them up five minutes before the end to read to them from a book I have loved, but so far they seem unmoved. I will wear them down.

A few people have mentioned that the lists are helpful, and in this continued hope to help I reproduce a couple here, in the wording exactly as has been given to the students.

*   *   *

Year 11: books you absolutely must read to take your mind off the impending doom of the hardest year of your academic lives

 

Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

In under 100 pages, this book explores the life of a New York woman who lives in an unpredictable way, and who expresses her dreams beautifully.

J.D. Salinger: Catcher in the Rye

Have you ever felt angry? Unhappy? Well, your suffering is nothing in comparison to Holden Caulfield, the angriest, unhappiest human in literature (probably).

William Golding: Lord of the Flies

A plane crash leaves a group of boys stranded on a desert island. In making their own “rules”, disastrous consequences ensue.

Henrik Ibsen: A Doll’s House

This is a play (so very, very short) about a woman trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, remembering she still has a mind.

Arthur Miller: The Crucible

Another play: this one explores a group of girls living in a stifling, controlling society. Once they realise how they can achieve power, all hell breaks loose… Literally.

Nick Hornby: About a Boy

A man invents a son, which brings him into a new circle of friends. Key themes include: falling in love, battling hardship, and a Christmas song that won’t die.

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath

If you enjoyed “Of Mice and Men” you will love this novel – longer, more painful, more tragic even than George and Lennie.

Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice

Whatever your preconceptions of Austen, this book is simply hilarious. A (romantic) comedy of manners, including the worst proposal of marriage you will ever read.

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina

I think you’re ready for the powerful and life-changing emotional charge of Tolstoy, and where better to start than a beautiful but troubled young lady?

Christopher Marlowe: Dr Faustus

Faustus wants to be more intelligent (don’t we all?) so he conjures the devil (as you do) and sells his soul for a few years of high-jinks. What could possibly go wrong?

Philip Roth: The Human Stain

Despite being completely hilarious, this book deals with (and challenges) the notion of “race” and our ideas about it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night

No book will ever match Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, but this novel follows a failing marriage and fascination with a young girl… And is scarily similar to Fitzgerald’s own life. (Read Gatsby first though. You won’t regret it.)

Raymond Carver: Will you please be quiet please?

Carver’s short stories, some fewer than ten pages long, paint interesting and troubling images, and show insight into our souls.

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front

A depiction of World War I told from the German perspective. Powerful and extraordinary.

Walt Whitman: Song of Myself

Why not, if you’re a great poet, write a poem all about YOU? Whitman did, and it is brilliant.

Alex Garland: The Beach

A group of tourists create the perfect world on a beach in Thailand. What could possibly go wrong? (Spoiler: everything. This book is horrifying.)

Graham Greene: The Quiet American

A journalist living overseas becomes entangled in a knot of love and politics.

Ian Fleming: Casino Royale

Like the Bond films? Read a Bond book.

Sebastian Faulks: Engleby

Welcome to the mind of an increasingly concerning individual. Enter, marvel, leave in horror.

Ian McEwan: Atonement

A well-told story, full of misunderstandings caused by children knowing too little.

Truman Capote: In Cold Blood

A book following murderers through their lives, and their experiences facing the death penalty. Based on a true story.

*   *   *

Year 13 reading list:

 

Useful for your exam:

Bram Stoker: Dracula

The original vampire novel. Think about how women are represented though, and what them becoming a vampire might be a metaphor for…

 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

A poem, but one which will darken your soul. Truly terrifying. And what does it mean? (Please tell me.)

Matthew Lewis: The Monk

This has been called an exaggeration of every Gothic trope imaginable. It is, but it is also very entertaining, and a little disgusting.

 

Edgar Allen Poe: “The Tell-Tale Heart”

A very, very, very short story but well worth reading. Dark and psychological gothic text.

Robert Lewis Stevenson: “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”

Most useful companion to Frankenstein, and less than 100 pages. Can you see the links?

Useful for your soul:

Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray

A man wishes to never be old and to always be beautiful. This wish is granted. What could possibly go wrong? (Hint: lots.)

 

Colum McCann: Let the Great World Spin

The intertwined stories of various New Yorkers, under the shadow of a man walking a tight-rope between two sky-scrapers.

 

David Lodge: The Art of Fiction

Great ideas on literature. When you finish, you can read one of Lodge’s (hilarious) novels to learn more about university life.

 

Donna Tartt: The Secret History

Don’t get your ideas about university life from this book, but this one will stay with you a long time.

 

Dave Eggers: The Circle

An oddly familiar internet company and its quest for making information freely available starts to feel a little like Orwell’s 1984.

 

Margaret Atwood: The Edible Woman

One woman’s quest to find herself. Amusing but important also.

 

Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Exploration of the impact on native inhabitants of Western “do-gooders.”

23 books which changed my life

The original title of this document was “10 books which changed my life.” It was rapidly clear that I would not be able to cut down my selection so easily.

 I made this list as a parting gift to my year 11 class. Having only taught them for one year, I am racked with the guilt of having done little more than push them through two courses, re-do coursework, and rehearse exam technique; throwing only a handful of reading lists at them along the way. Each student in my year 11 class deserves more from their education in English, and I will always regret this lack.

I have utterly loved teaching them: I’ve never bonded with a class so quickly, which is absolutely down to their warmth, energy and boundless personality. They accepted me, and trusted me; in return I put them in the best position I could to pick up a few GCSEs. I’ll also, strangely perhaps, miss their parents: the support and encouragement and gratitude I’ve heard down the phone on my Thursday evening quests for contact have made a huge difference in my students’ commitment and effort this year.

Huge regrets. If any of them go on to study English at A-level, which a surprising number have hinted they might, I hope they find more inspiration and love of literature there.

A number of students came to see me and have the list, but the year group was granted surprise study leave at the final hour, and so not obliged to come into school yesterday. In the unlikely event that one of my most dear children ever stumbles over this post, I’ve pasted the entire list below as I would have given it to them on Friday. Year 11: you are truly amazing humans. Here you go.

*  *  *

With very few exceptions, each of these was read between the age of 16 and 19. I think those three years are formative, and what you read then will leave an indelible mark on you. I encourage you to read, read, read now – as much as you can.

J.D Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye

This short novel seems to me to epitomize everything it means to be a teenager. It is the rallying cry of disaffected youth.

 Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray

This story is part horror, part humour; wholly Gothic in setting and yet eerily familiar. The ending will never leave you.

 J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter

This writer reminded me that the best books to read aren’t always the ones being taught at school or university. Pure pleasure reading!

 Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot

This play made me think more than any book I had ever read before. What is it all for? Why are we here? What are we waiting for?

 Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman

I’ve never cried so much before or since because of a book. This play explores a truly human tragedy; one we can all relate to.

 Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters

This was the first book of poems I had read cover to cover, and it seems to tell the story of a once bright love crumbling, leaving only remorse.

 Jane Austen: Emma

I dreaded studying Austen – I thought it would be hard, and boring. It is, in fact, hilarious and touching.

 Shakespeare: Othello

This is my favourite play. Not only one which explores ideas of prejudice, but also one which reveals how we tick, and how we can be ingeniously manipulated.

 John Steinbeck: East of Eden

More than Of Mice and Men, this epic tome brings the suffering and hope of the 1930s West Coast of America into sharp focus.

 F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

An epic tragedy. Love, regret, carelessness and humanity, along with some of the most gorgeously expressed prose imaginable. 

E.M. Forster: Maurice

My favourite book by one of my all-time favourite authors. A beautiful romance, told beautifully and feelingly.

George Eliot: Middlemarch

The whole of human life is contained in this novel: through the microcosm of a Victorian village, we see into the minds and souls of humans.

 Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure

This book was the first which brought home to me the tragic inequality of society. For all his sins, Jude is a man doomed from the outset by an accident of birth.

Vera Brittain: Testament of Youth

An autobiography of a nurse in the First World War; no war book I have read has come close to creating the emotions and experiences of that time.

 William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying

Experimental and modernist, this text is raw with suffering and emotion. Told by one family about a dead body being transported to her final resting place.

Virginia Woolf: Orlando

All of history and gendered experience told through a single character who seems to live every life.

 John Milton: Paradise Lost

A poem which retells the Old Testament. Especially powerful on the fall of Satan from Heaven, and luxuriously worded.

 Patrick Marber: Closer

A play which seemed to me to reveal what relationships were really all about. Also quite tragic.

 Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace

All of the characters are immaculately drawn individuals, believable and perfectly recognizable.

 Nancy Mitford: The Blessing

Although pessimistic, I felt at the time of reading this novel that I understood what makes marriages work. I’m no longer sure of this assertion!

 Alex Garland: The Beach

The first book I loved. A group of individuals founds a “perfect” commune away from the “real” world. And yet, the real world cannot be escaped…

 Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca

The gift of this novel is the way the narrator hooks you in. It is only after you finish that you begin to wonder if there is an alternative version of reality hiding in the pages.

 Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood

Murakami makes real for me a country I have never been to, and in an other-worldly unfolding of events also reveals true, human emotion.

Too much fun

Perhaps it is the people whose work I encounter, but I feel recently as if, in general, the advice out there for teachers right now is: don’t have too much fun. It’s all about rigorous learning. And to a certain extent, I agree: children are in school to learn; we are educators, not entertainers, and if you plan a lesson to be “fun”, chances are students will leave having not learned much. I also know that each teacher is different, and has a different style, and that variety is part of the patternless pattern of all aspects of life.

But I also know I am guilty, deeply guilty, for having far too much fun. Clearing out my phone, I found a note written on 11th August 2013 called “new school year resolutions”. Many of these were regarding having an actual life beyond school, but the last reads: “improve rigour of learning – set the tone.”

Anyone who has met me will be aware that 1. I have zero capability of poker face and 2. I smile too much. Neither of these aspects bode well for a teacher. Somewhere along the line, I have learned to do an impression of an angry face, which is moderately effective. (Though quite a few of my students find this face hilarious, so I’m not sure it ever quite has the desired effect.)

You see, selfishly and stupidly, I still can’t quite get over my luck. Every single day I get to turn up to a place filled with wonderful colleagues, a desired level of challenge, a sense of academics, books, and children who really, really want to learn almost all the time. When I see students lining up for a lesson, even if I’ve had a terrible morning or a horrible meeting, I can’t help but grin. They’re so full of energy and hope, they give me energy and hope.

This might sound lovely to any non-teachers reading this, but too often this happiness bubbles over into fun. I’m not saying I plan lessons to entertain, I just get a little over-excited when teaching. I make only a few silly jokes and do a great impression of a teacher most of the time, but the tone of most of my lessons is a bit like a very controlled reading party.

Don’t get me wrong, I teach from the front for some time every lesson, and I make them write on their own for a quarter of the lesson. But in between that, my students can be trusted to discuss and try out and push limits and (crucially) stay on task. I still believe discussion is a necessary precursor to writing analytically. This discussion can be framed and guided; the activities around the texts can be varied and can occasionally involve a creative twist. These activities must be linked to the learning objective and the final desired outcome, but equally they must be engaging, or no-one will do them, and no-one will learn anything, and no good will come.

I have bad days and sad days, and days when it’s just not working, when I find myself giving too many warnings and even sending students out. I know I am the difference in the room, and with my usual approach that student would be sitting down doing the work. I know that extra effort on my part can make the difference, but it’s not easy to consistently manage behaviour in a completely positive way in 10 out of 10 lessons (though very many teachers do it), especially at the end of a term when you are tired and they are tired. After all, the stuff of learning is hard, and teachers and students alike both have bad, sad days.

So, where is this going? I’m not sure how much I agree with my August self. I have found that when I “set the tone” in this rigorous way, it tends to translate into overly didactic, overly controlled and overly sombre experience. I’m being someone else, and I’m not a good enough actor for my students to trust that person. I’ve always found that students respond to reality: they need to know the person you present to them is who you really are (not the same thing as knowing anything about your private, non-teacher life). And what I hesitate to add for fear of hubris is that my students do really well; often far beyond what is expected of them. If what I did wasn’t working, I would change it, immediately, despite my personal reservations and predilection for having a fun time.

Perhaps in the past too much emphasis has been placed on fun. But a lesson devoid of joy doesn’t work for me; it doesn’t make teaching a career I want to be in and it doesn’t make my students learn.

The power of poetry

I’ve mentioned it two or three thousand times before, but I’ll say it again: I love my year 7 class. I’ve had many year 7 classes before, and I’ve found them all to be cute, lovely and well-behaved, but this year my year 7s stand out in a completely different way.

Part of this, I think, is due to my time-table: in previous years, I’ve taught 3 KS3 classes and then one KS4, plus a KS5. This year, I teach all exam classes, except for my year 7: they are my one and only class I am not pushing through a GCSE. They are my one and only class who are truly mixed ability (as in: all classes are mixed to some degree; these guys aren’t set yet).

Never before have I so appreciated the freedom which comes with teaching a KS3 class. I feel relaxed around this class; I take them on wild tangents when the conversation turns. I am excited to teach them, because I’m never completely sure where a lesson will take us. I’m flexible with my planning, moving lessons and assessments around due to their emerging needs because I don’t have any hard deadlines for them, or firm content to cover.

Right now, I’m loving teaching them poetry. Some genius teacher in my department created a beautiful scheme of work on war poetry, and it has been utterly joyful to teach. We began with a lot of context, which with the topic in question is not only fun and meaningful, but also pretty easy to teach, as usually students have great prior knowledge from primary school or history classes.

We studied Wilfred Owen in so much depth, students were commenting on different poems long after we had “finished” them, in their spoken and written responses. We moved through to female poets and conscientious objectors, and finished with Japanese poets on the atomic bomb.

Throughout the year, I’ve tried to mention in every class that my aim is for them to come up with interpretations. I have shied away from doing this with previous year 7 classes, as I’d found that their interpretations were almost always insane and had nothing to do with the text. With this class I decided to take a risk.

I’m not sure what has happened, but these students are already genuinely capable of coming up with interpretations which are not only valid, but also imaginative. I do a lot more whole-class discussion with this group, partly because the room layout discourages group work and circulation (I physically cannot get to about 6 students crammed into tight rows in a tiny room) and I want to speak with every student; this might have helped them to finesse their arguments as I always want evidence from the text, something their co-students perhaps aren’t so pushed about.

The most joyous moment of the course is hard to pinpoint. I thought it was the student who was so low-achieving at primary school she came in without a level, putting up her hand and giving an interpretation that was actually amazing, which sparked an important class conversation which went on for many minutes. That same student wrote an essay a week later and neglected to use a single quote or write about a single word from a single solitary poem. I despaired.

Having just marked their final assessment on this unit, there are too many “moments” to list, but I’ll mention a few.

The student above actually put in a number of quotes in her essay and used enough technical language to wind up on the cusp of level 3, which put a massive smile on my face. One of my level 4/5 borderline students suddenly grasped how to analyse language, which pushed her over the border to the magic 5, which I know she’ll be thrilled about because she works so hard in every lesson. A number of students wrote about ideas in their final assessment which we had never covered in class; one example is at the bottom of this post, but there were many who tried something new out.

But what made me smile more than anything was the paragraph below, written by a student who also receives some intensive English catch-up.

H lovely paragWhat I loved about this was the joy in poetry that came from it. We’d not spoken specifically about the ideas she writes about, and given the parameters of the essay this came out of nowhere. But the genuine joy and love of poetry is so easy to see, and this is something which came through in so many students’ essays.

My year 7 love poetry, with the same fervour my year 11 hate poetry.

It’s easy to see why though: my year 11 study the AQA “Relationships Cluster” of poems which has some lovely poems in it, but some really, truly dull ones. I’m constantly banging on about AOs and how they need to evidence their thinking in their essays in order to hit those AOs consistently throughout. I’m also forcing them to compare poems, which is nowhere near as effective as them doing it themselves (“miss, isn’t this like…”) and feeling really smart for thinking to do it.

My new aim is to build on this love and enthusiasm; to cling to it. Is it the normal year 7 excitement which will fade by the summer term, when new priorities come into play for them? Or is there a way to continue to invest them in what we are doing?

And how do I make this happen with all my exam classes?

Interpretation parag

Why students must talk

I’ve often wondered to what extent a Headteacher sets the feeling of a school. In my first school, the Headteacher, aside from being the most inspiring woman I have ever met, driven by titanic strength, vision and conviction, was also a drama teacher.

Although our twice-weekly whole-school assembly was conducted in impressive silence, our children were, for want of a more nuanced word, loud. It was a loud school. Not in a threatening way though: these were children who bubbled over with the joy of being. They raced through corridors, laughing and “talking” with one another; yet their version of “talking” sounded very, very similar to shouting.

I think in three years I was there, there was one fight. I’m not even sure that was a fight, if I’m honest; I remember someone in the staff room saying there had been one. No-one seemed too worried, so the likelihood of its existence is to be questioned.

Now, I could write an encyclopedia about the other impacts of the ethos and leadership which made my first school a bastion of educational opportunity, but I’ll save those ramblings for another time. I only want to focus, today, on why students must talk.

Now, I never had a problem getting students at my first school to talk. In my first year, they would speak unprompted; as I grew in teaching capability, I knew they would talk about whatever I asked them to, whenever I asked. When I practiced “hands down” questioning, it was extremely rare that a student would not talk to me. At the time, I prided myself on having created a safe environment for students to speak. Now I know it’s not that simple.

Becoming articulate should be a central aim of a schooling system. Our world is built on communication; written, certainly, but the majority of our communication is spoken. I’ve never had a written job interview, for example. I can think of a paltry few professions which do not require some level of discourse with colleagues or the public. In English, writing down your ideas about a text is never as powerful as balancing these ideas with alternatives; alternatives locked in someone else’s head, accessible by talking.

On arriving at my new school on my interview day, the first thing I noticed was the lack of noise. These students were quiet. They were quiet in lessons, in corridors; even in the lunch hall. Again, I wondered if the demeanour of this school’s (again, exceptional, visionary, committed) Headteacher was partly the cause: where the first Headteacher had reveled in her exchanges with students, the second spent much of her time visibly calming students down; not threatening or shouting, but ensuring they were calm and collected around the building.

I was sold: this was a wonderful environment to work in; peaceful and calm and quiet. What a different life I would lead in this school, I thought. Except, again, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Getting students to talk has proved more problematic than I could have imagined. Although most will gamely go ahead, group discussion is often more like one individual speaking. Feedback can be especially painful, and I’ve had to tweak my “talking groups” to divert disasters of shyness leading to a stifled session.

Don’t get me wrong; these students can be loud – I’ve seen (or rather, heard) them at bus stops, on buses and around the area outside the school grounds. And of course, it is laudable that they are so calm and quiet in school.

Yet students must speak in lessons, and I have made it my duty to ensure, as far as possible, that every student I teach speaks in every lesson. Last week, two students refused to give feedback on the excellent work they had done. After some coaxing, and another student supporting them, one finally managed to come to the front and explain her work. My heart burst with pride. The other student?

I don’t want to force her. She’s in year 11, she finds public speaking incredibly tough, and she’s very far from guaranteed her targeted A grade at the end of the year. There’s a lot going on, and in the race to get her a GCSE she can do something with, I’ve made the choice to leave this battle, and keep her on side.

But I can’t help but think: we shouldn’t have students in year 11 who are afraid to speak their mind. We have to make our students speak, and speak loudly and with pride and confidence. Sure, it’s scary. Sure, it’s difficult. But not being able to articulate thoughts in public or even small groups will prevent these students from accessing the opportunities their grades should rightly open up to them.

Assessed or not, talk forms a vital part of the education we offer children. They all must talk.

Coursework

Having spent the past 4 Saturdays in school working on coursework, you would think I’d want to spend my first Saturday “off” not thinking about it.

I’ll admit, I didn’t think I would get along with coursework. I began teaching as coursework ended; I’d been trained in Controlled Assessment and as far as I was concern, it was a great grade-getter. It also gave me several hours at the end of each term of catch-up marking during precious lesson time while the little chickens wrote for their lives, which in the early years of teaching was a vote-winner for me. Controlled Assessment was controlled; entirely in my power. They did it, handed it in at the end, I marked it; nothing went wrong, I didn’t have to chase anyone.

Indeed, my first year teaching coursework was last year with an AS group. I found myself threatening students that I would be submitting a draft version, or not marking a draft, because they had missed the various deadlines by so long. I found myself caving to my own threats as I recalled that their grades were my performance management; life lesson for them spared. As I spent so much time calling home and calling students and tracking them down, I was moved even more to appreciate the wonders of Controlled Assessment.

Moving to my next school, then, I was a little nervous to be told that we taught the iGCSE for English Language, which requires no Controlled Assessment, but instead three pieces of coursework, each totaling 500-800 words. Particularly picking up a year 11 class, I did not fancy my prospects for an easy life.

Yet I have grown, very quickly, to love coursework, and, in particular, to despair at its eradication from the English curriculum.

Coursework has at its heart re-drafting. Until this year, I had never taught that skill. It changed the way I taught almost immediately. The focus on dialogue marking had never seemed so relevant: we want students to learn how to improve and then be given the opportunity to do it! Unlike Controlled Assessment, where an errant C from an A-targeted student would lead to many hours of re-teaching, re-taking and re-testing, instead I could cover a page with questions (“how could you make this simile more interesting?” “can you think of a better word?” “CONNECTIVES?!?”) and supervise them as they made the small tweaks which would make all the difference.

In year 10, we were free to teach a rich and varied curriculum; assessment no longer punctuated the teaching or became the end; instead it was a short diversion – “Write the narrative of the Lady of Shalott” for Assignment 2, and then in a few more weeks we’ll start comparing that with Shakespeare and Jane Eyre, and so your knowledge of literature will blossom. (But of course, I will go on to kill your joy with an incredibly challenging piece of Literature Controlled Assessment which requires you to not only write well about one challenging text, but to also compare it with another challenging text in an interesting way, while situating both texts firmly in their (relevant) context. This is a task which half of you will grasp perfectly and the other half fail miserably, thus consigning your year 11 to long sojourns after school as I re-teach you a different question – but that’s another story.)

In year 11, we learned the texts for the Literature exam, and spent some time tweaking the three best pieces of coursework, marking and re-marking; never correcting, but always guiding. It felt holistic. It felt right. It felt like I could teach a child, rather than an assessment.

Then there were the tiny handful of children who had not achieved a C in their coursework. Their current marks often indicated several missing pieces. I decided I would give them four Saturday mornings as a small class to work on their coursework.

As soon as I met the children (though crucially, not all the children – getting some of these particular lovelies to turn up on a Saturday was no picnic) it became immediately apparent that all should have no cognitive trouble achieving at least a C. Many of them made the necessary changes in record time. It was what they did when they weren’t working which held them back.

These were students who had been held back by their own approach to learning; some became easily distracted and a few were prone to grumbling. Most were incredibly frustrated when I continued to demand more of them – more changes, more improvements. Their natural inclination was to give up when it felt hard.

We persevered, and encouraged, and praised, and rewarded these students. Looking through most of their folders last Saturday, I could not believe how far they had come, and with really very little guidance above what I gave my own students, most of whom were firmly in C territory and aiming higher. They were nudged in the right direction, kept on the straight and narrow, and produced some really great pieces of work. They also showed me that they were able to work in a focused and positive way for a sustained period of time.

Something I’ve always believed is that every student can at least achieve a C in English. I have yet to meet a student who disproves this for me. My caveat is as to how long it takes them. So, for a student who has only just come to the country and speaks limited English, maybe no C for you this time. But with unlimited time and unlimited resources, every student can at least make this benchmark.

What coursework gives us is less limited time. The harder to reach students, with poorer attendance and a history of poor behaviour in school, leading to missed lessons and exclusion, can be caught by coursework in a way they can’t by Controlled Assessment, or an exam. Success in coursework can also show these students what they are capable of, building their self-esteem and honing their writing skills. It is more like Austin’s butterfly than a high-stakes C-making factory.

My concern with a 100% exam system is that we lose students. There are students who are desperately at risk in our school system, and as children this risk is rarely of their own making. A system which allows students to bank nothing will undeniably lead to some bright spark missing out, and I fear that they will look all too familiar to me. Students need a win; they need to see where they are; they also need to see what they can achieve if they put in the time and the effort. I want to spend less time assessing students, not more. I want to spend more time helping them to make their work as perfect as they can, and I worry that a system which does not value or prioritise redrafting cannot do that. When schools’ reputations and funding are on the line, who doesn’t teach to the test? We have the possibility, though, of a test which is as non-intrusive as possible, allowing for creativity, for making mistakes and for lapses in judgement.

This does not just impact on our hardest to reach students, but also our high fliers, who may in the far-flung future turn up at university having never learned the skill of improvement, but only learned how to write the perfect essay in an hour, without a sense of how much more developed it can be with time, effort and research. My year 12 essays this year were a pleasure to mark; students had visited the library (or possibly Google Books) and found critical theory I’d never encountered; their pieces were scholarly and assured. That cannot happen under exam conditions; they must have room to discover and research for themselves by A-level.

The argument will be made that it is down to teachers to ensure these skills are still embedded, even while they are not tested. But there is always the looming thought that the best way I can serve my students is to get them the best possible marks. It shouldn’t be like this.

I loved my Saturdays with these students. I felt genuinely sad that our time together was coming to an end. Those days, watching students write pieces that they or I had never thought them capable of, and getting to know these wonderful young people in slightly more laid-back settings, made me remember why this truly can be the best job in the world.