Keep it simple

It’s really difficult to boil down the most important messages from my short time visiting Michaela Community School. In discussing with people afterwards, I kept hearing myself say: ‘the really key thing is’, ‘the most important aspect’, ‘the best thing’ until I realized the futility of trying to rank each an every special aspect I was seeing.

A week later, I think I’ve got it: keep it simple.

The things that struck me are no different to those that have struck other visitors: silent corridors, with students moving purposefully between lessons; silent classrooms, broken only by the sounds of teachers teaching with joy and passion, students asking questions about the learning out of curiosity, and students turning to one another to whisper their ideas to reinforce their learning; exceptional politeness from every single student in every single interaction; extraordinary quality of student work. I could go on enumerating each tiny miracle I saw.

But I think it boils down to simplicity. Michaela have stripped away every educational gimmick and are just teaching very well. Their behaviour system is simple: merits for hard work or kindness, demerits for getting the details wrong (including failing to track the teacher adequately), meaning pretty much impeccable behavior because the standards are so high (and I believe three demerits escalates to being removed from the classroom). (A useless aside: everything is logged on iPad or iPhone apps, which took me a while to get used to as in assembly when registers were being taken it sort of looked like everyone was texting.)

Lessons are the simplest I have ever seen, and without doubt the most effective. Teachers read with their classes, stopping frequently to check understanding or to add detail and engage their classes with expert ideas or embellishments (or, in one instance, one-man drama performances to illustrate a point). Then students write silently about what they have read, while teachers and teacher fellows (like uber-TAs) circulate, checking for understanding and helping out. Then teachers go over the writing as a whole class, spending more time on the questions they noticed students struggled with while the children self or peer-assess in green pen. And sometimes, the whole sequence isn’t finished, and the lesson just ends, and that seems to be ok. No-one dies because there wasn’t a plenary or card sort or group work or shouting. Lessons at the tail end of the year were tailored in an incredibly specific way; watching a teacher go over and over and over one single concept, with constant questioning, I was interested to be told as she circulated ‘only 19% of the class got this one right,’ thus clearly explaining the focus taken from the needs of the class.

So the assessment is also simple: heaps of multiple choice questions, which are tracked meticulously by teachers so they can re-teach concepts more of the class are struggling with. These quizzes are done electronically and students receive immediate feedback.

The curriculum is also refreshingly simple. Students study English, Maths, French, Science, Humanities (History, Geography, ‘Religion’ [they ‘hate acronyms’), ‘Sport’ and Art. The curriculum is radically skewed towards teaching reading, writing and Maths, with extra time for English and Maths, but without teaching reading as a generic skill – instead, the curriculum planners understand that reading is also about your general knowledge (schools withdrawing students from humanities to teach reading: be warned).

The curriculum is based on something called ‘Knowledge,’ which the Michaela teachers like a lot, and so do their students. Their students chirpily explain to any visitor that they will ‘remember what they learn’ forever; as they explain sincerely and clearly: learning is not just about passing exams, but rather about having knowledge stored in their long-term memory, making them ever smarter.

The normal frills of schools are there in a way – termly trips, a reward event on the last day. But no parents’ evenings draining teachers’ energy; no endless marking of every exercise book; no half termly assessments to grade and complete data entry for.

So, does it work? This radically simple alternative to education? I was convinced in the Autumn term, when Katie Ashford shared paragraphs of year 7 students from the lowest ‘stream’ and they were of astonishing quality. And now there is ‘evidence’ for the data-minded among us: students are making startling progress on the GL assessment tests in reading, writing and Maths. 100% of students made expected or greater than expected progress, and average progress in levels was between 4 and 5 sublevels. Students’ reading ages have soared over the course of the year, with pupils making an average of 20 months progress in 10 months.

But all the Michaela crew will say is ‘time will tell.’ They are humble: the school is new, with only one year group. That too is part of its enviable simplicity. If the school can keep its focus on these simple things as it grows, it will be the making of a revolution in education.

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Just one book: curriculum

There are countless books on education. Some will entirely change your outlook and thinking, revolutionising what happens in your classroom and in our schools. Some will be a complete and utter waste of your time.

It is with this in mind that I propose to put forward just one book for some of what I see as the key aspects of education. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be exploring one book for each of the following aspects: curriculum, assessment, teaching, school leadership and school ethos.

It has been easy to pick just one book for some of these categories, and devilishly difficult for others. Of course, my choice will be a personal one, informed by my own personal view of education, and I accept that it may not be a view all share. Hopefully, those who disagree with my choices will put forward alternative single wondrous tomes. We are, I think, always honing, always refining our thinking.

I’m beginning with curriculum. I take curriculum to mean the stuff a school teaches its children. Taking the “what” before the “how” is incredibly important to me, and is one of the defining aspects of the writer I have chosen.

E.D. Hirsch: Cultural Literacy

hirsch

 I’ve always had a longing to teach children challenging texts in English, but I have often shied away from articulating a curriculum-wide position. I’ve come to believe, now, that we must unapologetically teach the best stuff to all our children; but especially to the children who are least likely to encounter it outside of school, as Hirsch explains:

“Middle class children acquire mainstream literate culture by daily encounters with other literate persons. But less privileged children are denied consistent interchanges with literate persons and fail to receive this information in school. The most straightforward antidote to their deprivation is to make the essential information more readily available inside the schools.”

To be culturally literate, according to Hirsch, is “to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” In our everyday interchanges, even in reading a daily newspaper, our comprehension and therefore ability to interact with, question and enact change relies on our background knowledge. The broader our background knowledge, and the more honed to the important “stuff” of the world, the more effective we will be at understanding and communicating.

Contrary to some dissenters, Hirsch reminds us, this “literate” culture “is not the property of any group or class.” I saw this on a small scale when visiting the first school I worked in, in South East London. There, at a fabulous concert in aid of a school trip to Malawi, I saw the children I used to teach uproarious in their enjoyment of classical music, hip-hop and spiritual songs, among others. Just as these children could enjoy every type of music without seeming aware of its cultural baggage, so we can anticipate children will enjoy and be interested in all different strands of literature, history, art, politics.

The key to my agreement with Hirsch is in his drive for social justice: we have a moral imperative to teach the good stuff: “illiterate and semiliterate Americans are condemned not only to poverty, but also to the powerlessness of incomprehension.”

A strong curriculum builds up this crucial, important knowledge piece by piece. We may begin by knowing only a small amount about a wide range of individual topics or people, but that little allows us a place to hang our later acquired knowledge and understanding on. At one point, Hirsch lists off several names, some of which I’ve only heard of, but can at least locate in a time period, discipline or ideology due to this background knowledge I have somehow absorbed (names like James Fennimore Cooper, Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Ulysses S. Grant) and notes: “most of us know rather little about these people, but that little is of crucial importance, because it enables writers and speakers to assume a starting point from which they can treat in detail what they wish to focus on.” Simply put, “The more you know, the more you can learn.”

Hirsch’s message in this book is a hopeful one: all students can be “highly literate” if they are “presented with the right sort of curriculum.” This curriculum should be organized, according to Hirsch, as a vivid system of shared associations.” He does not advocate arbitrary prescription of the stuff children should know, commenting almost flippantly: “almost any battle will do to gain a coherent idea of battles. Any Shakespeare play will do to gain a schematic conception of Shakespeare.”

But clearly, analysing Shakespeare play is always better than analysing an advert. His comment “in each classroom somebody always does decide what material our children will be storing in their minds in the name of skills acquisition. All too often it is content for which our children will have no use in the future” rang true to me. I have spent too many lessons analysing language in simple advertisements and leaflets with 16 year olds in the run up to an English Language exam that did not teach a thing. This is time wasted, and for the children I teach this is an atrocity. The new, strengthened curricula in English at KS4 at least provide an impetus to teach far, far beyond such trivialities.

Finally, Hirsch makes the point that: “it isn’t facts that deaden the minds of young children… It is incoherence – our failure to ensure that a pattern of shared, vividly taught, and socially enabling knowledge will emerge from our instruction.”

So, a strong curriculum for me has the following components:

  • Selection: of core knowledge: what are the ideas, concepts and facts students need to know in each subject in order to be able to access higher order ideas in that subject?
  • Sequence: your curriculum sequence must build on prior learning; knowledge builds on knowledge.
  • Revisiting: within this curriculum, there is space to revisit content and concepts, to strengthen them and aid learning.
  • Coherence: a strong curriculum dovetails with other subjects where suitable, so that the overarching schema over the course of a year coheres.
  • Challenge: the curriculum contains high quality, challenging stuff that is interesting and worth learning for all young people.

It is nearly impossible to write about curriculum alone; any construction of a curriculum requires simultaneous consideration of how we assess what has been learned, understood and retained. My next post will be exploring just one book on assessment.

The American Greats

It was with a heavy heart that I saw exam boards wave goodbye to American literature last week. Oh, I know, it’s “literature from other cultures,” but, to be frank, I’ve only ever taught the American contingent of that qualifier, and oh – how great it was.

The government has strenuously denied having “banned” American favourites, such as Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, from our teaching; yet it cannot be escaped that the new categories for study required from students do not admit for these great texts to be taught. For all the hand-wringing and outcry at exam boards, wondering why they hadn’t been included in surplus, we must also consider: the exams will be harder. They will require different skills, such as navigating in a closed-text scenario. The exam board to direct teachers to teach more texts would not be one chosen by schools with one eye on their standing in the new, and again more rigorous, league tables.

So here we are. And as all the beautiful blogs I have read on this topic have expressed the views I would tend to share in (see below for links), I’ve decided to simply give the American Greats the airing they deserve, never to be taught in an American Literature GCSE coming to no school near you.

Arthur Miller

Is Miller the American genius? This was the question running through my mind as I watched the Young Vic’s astonishing interpretation of A View from the Bridge last Saturday. For a play described by many as “Greek” in its core themes, it resonated effortlessly. Only an American playwright, though, could so skillfully tap into ideas of identity and acceptance in the era of mass emigration; the wistfulness and disgust at the homeland; the rational and irrational behind romantic love. Miller’s Greek can be seen from his exploration of such taboos as incest and rape. And what of The Crucible? A play so crowded with lust and hysteria, it seems to pelt at the pace of Shakespeare’s best comedies, whilst including high drama, human sacrifice and, indeed, deepest, most touching tragedy.

J.D. Salinger

The first time I read Catcher in the Rye was also the first time I heard an authentic voice in a novel I could really relate to. Holden Caulfield expressed everything I felt, and it is with sadness that I can no longer find that teenage connection when I re-read this slim tome of surprise suffering. Franny and Zooey, on the other hand, continues to endure for me; existential questions, literary questions, psychological and religious questions abound, and all drawn with a realist’s best hand.

Sylvia Plath

Does a young nation inspire youthful literature which attracts young readers? Plath’s obsession with her father and her inner, troubled psychosis are eminently relatable for many a young person. Reading poems such as “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy”, one can hardly doubt her poetic genius, her ability to clinch an argument on a half-rhyme, and to surprise and delight while disgusting her reader.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The original party-boy writer, whose life-long personal struggles precluded a Hemingway-sized output, but whose approach to writing could never have yielded results if dealt with in so mercenary a fashion. Fitzgerald’s ability to draw what he saw renders his prose so current it can’t ever quite feel historical to me. The 1920s are now; his characters are timeless; his prose like water – flowing, fluid; endlessly quotable.

Philip Roth

If ever an author took up every key theme in American literature and made it his business to beat them all into word-shapes, it is the masterly Roth. Each book heaves with the weight of a displaced people, with families torn apart, with humour and despair. His characters dance, and groan as they dance, and yet are never as memorable as the themes.

William Faulkner

I have often wondered if I would be more amenable to Faulkner were he a poet. His works require intense concentration and repetitious reading, but that effort can be paid off for the reader. His experimental style can occasionally obscure his message; at times style triumphs over all. And yet… The pathos evoked by Jewel and his horse in As I Lay Dying is, for me, unparalleled in any other novel.

I could go on, of course; and of course most of these authors were never likely to make it onto any syllabus, let alone within the strict confines now laid out by central government. I have already blogged on Of Mice and Men here, and how this text can provide a ready gateway for high achieving students. Looking at my year 12 class’s understanding of Gatsby, I do wonder if they would have had a similar reaction without any grounding in the literature of the USA. After all, this nation pervades our own; it takes over much of the television watched (both by teachers and the young people we educate), and its history draws on our own in very many ways. Our scholars do need to understand the literature of other cultures, and what more fertile ground for understanding than America? So like, and so unlike us; the literature of America can take on melodrama, history, taboo, suffering and humour… And win us to reading.

You should definitely look at these views on the new English curricula:

http://learningfrommymistakesenglish.blogspot.co.uk/

http://blog.geoffbarton.co.uk/site/Blog/Entries/2014/5/25_Get_him%2C_Lennie.html

http://www.networkedblogs.com/XcCRe

http://www.huntingenglish.com/2014/05/27/whose-canon-anyway/

Rigorous reading

ripley smallI’ve just finished reading this amazing book, and I’d like to talk about it.

Now, I will say that the title of this book is misleading. Ripley’s front cover picture of a consortium of flags suggests a more omni-country approach than we actually find. I for one would be happier with a title which is explicit in noting that this book explores the education systems of only three countries.

But what countries they are: Finland, South Korea and Poland. With heavy emphasis on the first two. In fact, having finished this book 5 days ago I’m struggling to remember what Ripley says about Poland, though what she says about the other two is emblazoned on my brain. Perhaps this is understanding bias, however; I’ve heard a lot about Finland and South Korea, and naturally my non-rigorous reading will more easily process this.

I believe my response is the one Ripley was hoping to draw out: the sections on Finland make me want to tear up the UK’s education system and just do what they do, and the sections on South Korea make me want to tear my own eyes out.

Most teacher readers will be au fait with Finland, and if you’re interested Lucy Crehan’s blog (here) explores more key ideas than I had found compiled in one area before. The most salient points about their system include: starting school age 7, mixed ability classes, incredibly highly trained teachers brought in by a very selective system, almost no homework, almost no state exams; some of the highest achieving students in the world, according to PISA, which lots of people nit-pick, but which Ripley assures us is okay.

South Korea is a system highly praised by many, and rightly so – for its results. In this book, however, a different story is told. School begins early (8am) and continues late – study at school can go on until 7 or 8 in the evening. Students have special pillows they attach to their arms so they can nap during classes. A 12 hour day may seem familiar to most teachers, but I’d hazard none of us would want to deal with students subjected to this. But wait – there’s more! The hagwons, which are intense tutorials, take students all the way up until 10pm (legally) and beyond that time (illegally) – every day, after school.

Now, I am a fan of KIPP’s “Work hard, be nice” motto, with firm emphasis on hard work. I truly believe that anyone can accomplish anything with hard work. But this narrative of South Korea pushed me to the limit of my belief. I categorically do not want kids that have to work that hard to achieve exam results and success in life.

The main learning point I gleaned from this engagingly written book was about rigour. The essential ingredient in all these successful systems was rigour. Students couldn’t pass easily, they couldn’t achieve high grades easily. The same went for the would-be teachers.

This made me reflect on the rigour in my own classroom. I’m lucky that my predecessor instituted an incredibly rigorous KS3 curriculum, about which I have written (here), using only weighty tomes to shape our little minds. Yet there are times when I feel like the weight of this KS3 curriculum is let down by the exam-board–instituted, undeniably less rigorous, KS4 curriculum. This KS4 curriculum churns out children who, when faced with KS5 English, often take more than a year to get to grips with this new rigour.

The bottom line is: we should not apologise for asking more of our students, and pushing them harder. After all, we only have them for a (relatively) short period of time during the day. The stakes at KS3 aren’t so high that we should pressure students, but we definitely shouldn’t apologise for teaching them hard stuff and making them learn it.

As for the KS4 curriculum… I have no answers, and as yet no positive contribution to make to the conversation. I can only hope the new curriculum will push students to achieve more, because they can – albeit with hard work.

More Texts or More Depth?

I have been recently challenged to consider what the role of an English teacher is. This usually happens when I meet people whose views I disagree with, which is one of my favourite things to do. I love re-considering what I had initially assumed to be true. More often than not, I end up doing some serious mind-changing; partly because I have never had debating skills, or possibly I am deeply impressionable. I am hoping it is mostly because other people are right, and I am wrong, and I make the right choice.

So, I had always thought, inspired by the Teach for America chieftains and Rafe Esquith, the job of an English teacher was mostly to expose and lead students through as much literature as was humanly possible, preferably, inspired by Joe Kirby’s impressive curriculum here, also showing them the evolution of language, style and content through a beautifully arranged compendium of the whole of literature ever.

It began with library lessons, which I have always maintained are wonderful and valuable. An esteemed colleague put the argument that “students can read in their own time – and I am aware that some don’t” – but is that a problem that their English teacher in their English lesson should be solving? He argued that we have limited time to lead our students, and rather than that being a race through all the literature, we should be going for deep knowledge and embedded skills.

This alternative universe is a new one to me, but it’s one I am willing to explore. Though there are already some parallels: often, when taking out the Shakespeare play we will be studying in year 7, 8 or 9, a handful of children will exclaim: “but I already did that play! In primary school!” Yet those same children seem, at best, to have a shaky grasp on the plot of the play, let alone the nuances of theme and character I would like them to explore. Indeed, my year 11 revisited a play many of them had studied in year 8, and all had an undeniably different experience of reading the play anew and older.

Like all schools, we revisit Shakespeare every year, and I think most teachers would argue very strongly that the repetition of this particular author builds up our students’ understanding and enjoyment. But perhaps how long we spend on Shakespeare needs to be explored. Usually, I give over the entire two half terms after Easter for Shakespeare at KS3. With few exceptions, we study the whole play, minus the truly terrible scenes, and there is a lot of acting, creative re-interpretation and philosophy circles along the way – rest assured, it is not mere ploughing through the text.

Yet I wouldn’t spend a full term on, for example, poetry. I seem quite happy to teach poetry for five or six weeks a year and be done with it until the following year. Other than practicing their understanding, inference and analysis, how much do students really get out of such a short unit? If we are thinking about how we sequence and deliver content and skills, perhaps there needs to be more time spent on deep learning and multiple examples.

This race through the curriculum is especially exacerbated at KS4, when many English teachers feel they are “teaching to the test” with Controlled Assessment after Controlled Assessment, and little time for real, deep learning to occur. (There were times with my last year 11 when I thought in despair: “I haven’t actually taught them anything since year 9. They’ve just been practicing doing it.”)

That said, it may also be argued that familiarity breeds enthusiasm. In my last English department, we were hopeful that the students who end up in year 13 will not look with trepidation on the Wife of Bath’s Tale, but instead associate that text with familiarity and fun they had with Chaucer in year 7.

For a “depth not breadth” approach to truly work, I would argue that a school needs a robust policy of reading for pleasure, which is enforced. Students can read at home, but do they read at home? There is ample “down time” in many school timetables for reading for ten minutes or twenty, for example during form-time, but it needs to be enforced throughout the school.

At this point in time, I’m undecided: I genuinely don’t know what the best balance between quality and quantity is in the curriculum I would offer to students. But I’m going to explore a “depth” curriculum this year and find out.

Why students should read Homer

Recently, David Didau’s post here on a new curriculum for KS3 has got me thinking. I’m lucky to work in a school which gives me pretty much free reign on what I choose to teach, yet I have always artificially constrained myself: what texts are readily available in the cupboard? What texts have I studied before, and therefore know really well?

The more pressing question, which I’ve woken up to deplorably late, is what should students read in the course of their study of English?

At a wonderful weekend watching two plays at the Globe theatre, it occurred to me that although I felt my students were getting a lot out of studying Shakespeare, there were references in there that they didn’t get. Not only did they not get them, I wasn’t even planning on providing the core literary knowledge for them to ever get them.

With that in mind, I got to work writing, with my exceptional colleague, very many schemes of work of texts we think students should be know something about, particularly at KS3. One of the ones I’m especially excited about is The Odyssey, which I’m planning to teach year 9 next year.

The thing about classical literature is that students in some schools in the country are exposed to it from a young age as a matter of course. I don’t want to sound like a throwback, but while I do acknowledge that there are certainly more relevant courses for students’ development into outstanding citizens for our modern society, there is certainly a merit to studying ancient literature.

I was privileged enough to study Latin in school, and loved almost all of it (not grammar. I could never get my head around grammar. To this day I can’t decline nouns – sorry Miss Coote). The broad knowledge of both Greek and Latin literature explored in my seven years of Latin have left me fairly capable of understanding many references, particularly in Renaissance literature. Why not let students access this?

The first big barrier for me was deciding what text to focus on. We are creating an “ancient stories” scheme for year 7, to give students a broad grounding of different myths, but I wanted a deep exploration of a single ancient text at KS3. My initial choice was The Aeneid, which I studied for A2 very many years ago. Yet there is something about Homer which feels more original, I suppose because he was. Although The Aeneid combines the best parts of both “arms and the man”, the character exploration of The Odyssey mixed with the battles of The Iliad, I wasn’t sure whether this was the most important text for my students to read.

I opted for The Odyssey, therefore, as there’s too much listing in The Iliad. (I realise this sounds quite flippant, but I’d had a free period, and there’s only so much thinking you can do before the teaching and reacting to everyday crises needs to be done).

I’m pleased I did, actually, because The Odyssey touches on what are, for me, the key ideas in Greek literature that I wanted my students to explore: the Gods, the Trojan War, the myths. Pretty much every Greek myth is either found in or alluded to in The Odyssey. Scylla and Charibdis, the Sirens, Hades, the Cyclops; even Prometheus finds a fleeting mention.

Our students deserve an enriched and varied curriculum, and one which allows their depth of understanding to increase. Most books of substance, when critically explored, are inherently intertextual: The Odyssey is one small step to allowing students to access this.

odyssey