All change: new KS5 specifications

I’ve never been entirely at ease teaching A-level. I’ve often joked I won’t consider myself a “real” teacher until I’ve taught Othello, and to some extent this is due to my own experience of English at KS5, which was, in a word, transformative. I’m not convinced that I’ve ever taught a year 12 or 13 class in that transformative manner, and this is partly (I think) down to the curriculum on offer.

I’ve taught Gatsby, but only in the tight confines of a coursework unit; I’ve taught Much Ado About Nothing and Waiting for Godot through the restrictive lens of comedy; I’ve taught Macbeth, Doctor Faustus and Frankenstein, mainly as a vehicle for understanding “the Gothic.” I don’t feel I’ve ever just taught a text.

For me, this is what English in the sixth form needs to be about: exploring a number of excellent texts in more depth than you ever thought possible. The issues I’ve had with the two specifications I have taught, WJEC and AQA Literature B, is that they want the focus to be ever narrower (the latter significantly more so that the former).

So it was with these issues to the forefront of my mind that I delved through the new KS5 specifications, looking for a bit of breadth.

Being part of a sixth form consortium, though, I was somewhat limited in the choices I would make. The consortium had taken the decision to enter 100% of students at the end of year 12 for the A/S qualification, meaning that any specification I chose had to be deeply co-teachable. Although every exam board claims its spec is co-teachable, in reality the difference in papers at A/S and A2 reveals this as a fallacy. If you need to re-teach the whole of year 12 to different assessment objectives or exam layout in year 13, you could be seriously disadvantaging those students.

(An aside: in my ideal world of never, we teach the A-level over two years, spending the first half of year 12 reading widely texts which are nowhere near the specification, just because; because it’s edifying to read a lot, and know different things about different texts, and to read without being relentlessly tested – but I digress.)

Aside from co-teachability, I wanted a spec which contained texts which I knew I could teach myself or oversee others teaching, but, more importantly, texts which had the potential to change students’ perceptions of literature and English and language and life, love, the world.

I’m excited about the two year overview. I’ve chosen AQA Literature A, and the only irritation is the requirement to study a post-2000 text. The simplicity of the specification is its real selling point; the exams are sensible and allow for wide reading and focus on the key issues and themes in the texts. Plus, it allows me to finally become a real English teacher – by teaching Othello, at last.

Year 12: Love Through the Ages


Othello: greatest Shakespeare play of all time (I acknowledge my own bias here)

The Great Gatsby: because if you don’t read about true, painful love when you’re seventeen, it will never feel as visceral in later years

Wuthering Heights: see above. (Also, “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”)

Poetry pre-1900: as I find the poems slightly more beautiful and therefore teachable than post-1900.

Year 13: Texts in Shared Contexts

I’ve gone for 1945 to the present day, as I felt this would open itself to more varied readings than those in the immediate aftermath of WWI.


A Streetcar Named Desire: the production in the Young Vic last year is without doubt the most incredible piece of theatre I have ever seen, and I’m hopeful there is a way to bring the year 13s to see a screening of it. Also, it’s a great play and one through which so many great American themes can be elicited.

Revolutionary Road: I love the idea of teaching this. I’m concerned the students will find the central concepts hard to relate to, but hopeful that they will respond to the inner turmoil and flawed characters.

Duffy: Feminine Gospels: Because they have to study something post-2000, and you can’t go far wrong with a poet who draws so richly on literary history.

Coursework unit: This will be determined by students’ personal choices and guided by the teacher who takes this unit.

Above is what we will teach: what of the how? I’ll come on to that over the coming weeks.

All change: new KS4 specifications

English subject leaders around the country have undoubtedly been on the same emotional journey as me regarding the introduction of new specifications for KS4 and 5 simultaneously (not to mention the recent KS3 changes and removal of KS3 levels). For a time, I complained it was too much. How could we possibly be expected to take on such an inordinate amount of wheel reinvention? Not to mention the purchasing of new texts from already overstretched budgets.

Then, in a moment of calm over Christmas, I turned off all technology, sat with the specification, and planned. I looked at the assessment, the time, the units, the assessment objectives. And after a while it ceased to be scary.

I’d made my peace with Literature before Christmas. Having chosen to go with AQA (albeit with reluctance), I wanted to stick with as much of the same content as I could. We currently teach both Macbeth and An Inspector Calls, and though neither would be my first choice of text, I’d rather send English teachers into classrooms armed with at least some prior experience of teaching at least some of the texts.

For the nineteenth century novel, I won’t lie: my first impulse was to go for the shortest available. We teach Jekyll and Hyde in year 9, so it would have to be The Sign of the Four (a short story that begins with the injection of illegal drugs? Sounds eminently teachable to me). We want to teach every child the same curriculum in English, and if the exam is closed text, surely the shorter the text, the more manageable?

Luckily, I was dissuaded of my instinct to game by two people: my glorious line manager (deputy headteacher; fountain of wisdom, knowledge and general calmness) and my superstar NQT (so good at what she does already, I am improving my own practice with every observation). Both looked at the text choices afresh, having not been in the room when I was descanting on the virtues of a short, easy novella. Both said “Jane Eyre.

Of course. We teach in a girls’ school, for one thing, and what female (human?) has not felt left out, isolated, unfairly treated? And, of all the texts on the list, which would I most want the children leaving us to have read? It had to be Jane Eyre. Plus, we have time – despite the weight of many exams, the course content is comfortingly manageable. Four texts in two years is no great feat.

That settled, my new worry was the Language specification. Teaching fiction would be straightforward – I stuck the word “seminal” in front of the unit title, and thought we would pretty much teach any “great” literature, thus exposing students to excerpts from the best that has been thought and/or said. The non-fiction reading/transactional writing had the greatest potential to devolve into the current, mostly meaningless skill-drilling of the current AQA language paper (my least favourite exam ever).

Instead of teaching skills, therefore, I thought about what else I most wanted our girls to leave us with. I want them to be confident young women, who are armed with knowledge of the inequalities of our world that might face them, and angered enough to challenge these. I wanted them to be inspired by female role models, and seek to achieve more as a result. I wanted them to understand the journey that women as a sex have been on, and how far we have come. It was thus that the idea of “Women Through the Ages” came about: a scheme of work that would explore female journalism and feminist polemics in the context of works such as Everyday Sexism. The unit is under construction now, and I will write more about it in due course, but I am terribly, terribly excited.

But with eleven schemes of work to write over two key stages (and that’s just for us to be 2015-16 ready), how could I convince a small team to pitch in? I agonized over the department meeting, and spent a good deal of time talking with close colleagues and loved ones about how I would go about dumping a massive amount of work at English teachers’ feet; English teachers who I already have to chase out of the office nearing 6pm on a Friday, where they trudge, still laden with exercise books, home to half eat, half watch television and half communicate with their families while marking.

Under excellent advice, I simplified my initial explanatory teaching grid (it underwent many guises, including one especially confusing multi-coloured moment), and talked teachers through it. I’d spoken to the whole department about the new specs informally leading up to this moment, and I think our conversations were invaluable to trail this meeting. We went through each paper and the mark scheme, but not in a great deal of detail. I then shared a timeline for how and when these schemes would be completed: each teacher was in a team with either myself or the 2 i/c, and each teacher had a deadline for the medium term plan, first week of lessons, second week and so on.

I could not believe the response from the team. They nodded along during the meeting, chipping in helpfully, and making positive and enthusiastic comments. When I broached the making of SoWs, no-one flinched. When I asked them to go and have a think about any they might be happy taking on and let me know by the next week, one burst out with: “can I do Jane Eyre?” I wanted to explode with gratitude.

The following week, I approached my team to see if they wanted to sit down and clarify their schemes prior to beginning the medium term plans. Each member surprised me by showing me nearly fully finished plans, three weeks prior to the deadline. There was no fear, no concern; just seeming excitement and graft at the task in hand.

I could not be more grateful to the team of amazing teachers I am privileged to manage. I was expecting resistance, struggle and unhappiness; instead, the department feels invigorated, stoic and almost merry. Long may it last.

How I plan lessons

This half term, the scheme of work for my ever delightful year 10 class is organised to produce a few pieces of coursework. The general idea is that they are exposed to a number of texts – poems, stories, news articles – and along the way they practice the key skills needed to complete the coursework. They produce so many pieces for no reason apart from variety – it lets them stretch their imagination.

This worked beautifully with year 10 last year, but I’ve noted before that my new year 10 class are in need of more. They need more exposure to the very greatest texts, with more challenge and more support at the very same time. Over Christmas, I decided that the only way I could make them write more eloquently was to make them read more eloquent writing. Poems and articles had to go – we were going to go all in for the short story.

What did they need from this term? The most glaring omission was vocabulary – they needed to know many, many, many more words. The texts I would choose would have to be complex. They needed to describe in more detail, and use more unusual images in their writing – I would tear my hair out if I had to read about one more “clear blue sky” or anything that was “shining like diamonds.”

The result is a lengthy scheme of work, which includes a few lessons excerpted below on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “The Rich Boy.” Last week, I sent the lessons to our resident NQT (who also happens to be one of the most accomplished teachers I’ve yet encountered – I feel like with every observation, she’s giving me CPD) who commented: “these are amazing.” (They’re not; she’s very generous.) “Did they take you ages to make?”

And honestly? They really didn’t. I think once I’d cracked the “planning formula”, every lesson became simple to plan. My wonderful first and second year mentor (who has taught me everything I know – I should definitely rename this blog: “What Carly told me about teaching”) told me the key steps to planning a lesson, and the order you do them in. I share this wisdom now.

1. Plan the learning objective

What do you want students to learn in this lesson? No, what exactly? Think about what they can realistically either learn, practice or revise in the time given.

 2. Plan the key task

And in English, this should, with very few exceptions, be an extended paragraph. The question should invite them to show you what they have learned. For a long time, I pasted my objective onto this slide to remind me of this.

3. Plan the plenary

How will you check immediately, there and then, that they have understood? How will you address misconceptions? How will you extend the top end? How will you invite questions on the learning? How will you make students project their thoughts forward to the next lesson? A plenary should probably address one of these questions, depending on the specific context of your lesson in the scheme of work.

4. Plan the starter

This should be something every single student in the room can do immediately. It needs to be open enough to allow students to extend their ideas (there is no point in being halfway through the register and having seven students thumb-twiddling). Ideally, it should engage students’ thoughts. The harder the class, the more important this latter point becomes.

5. Plan everything else

What is the “stuff” that students will do between the start and end of the lesson to enable them to accomplish their writing task to a high level of competency? In the lessons below, this is reduced to: read. Learn the new words. Discuss the key questions. Review the key skills. More accomplished teachers than I will insert their exciting, bell/whistle moments here. I’ve never been good at this creative ilk of teaching, and almost all of my lessons are identical. (I tell myself this is good for students in a different way; the rhythm of my lesson will always be the same, giving them security and certainty. I acknowledge I should try to mix it up more.)

I’ve shared the series of lessons below. I’m not especially proud of them; they’re not my “best work.” But these are lessons that work, teach students new things, and did not take me any time at all to make. And, for an NQT in particular, that is vital.

The Rich Boy lessons

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:

Beyond the curriculum: my lovely week

I’m not going to lie; I’ve had a lovely week.

It’s cathartic to moan, and I do a lot of that, and I’m also aware that the mega-enthusiasm I bring to many a table can be unbearable, particularly when my conversees have not had such a happy time.

Still, it has been a lovely week.

Aside from meeting up with my favourite teacher friends, teaching my regularly amazing and gorgeous classes and having a super invigorating department meeting with some of the other amazing teachers I am privileged to work with, a couple of lovely things happened in the English department.

First was that we began the peer mentoring programme with a trial group of 22 year 11 students. I’m going to write about this later in the process, but suffice it to say we had some lower achieving students paired with some higher achieving students, and the enthusiasm, earnestness and synergy happening in the room gave me goose-bumps. It was probably the most rewarding moment of my teaching career to date, but I’d rather not jinx its success by writing too soon.

My second treat was to teach an A-level “taster” lesson. We’ve got an incredible year 11 cohort, and would very much like them to take up English next year, preferably with ourselves. I won’t claim credit for the lesson content – that was down to my (oft-mentioned and amazing) line manager. I did stand up and deliver the thing, which is perhaps less important but means I got a lot of the credit.

The concept was a journey through literature. We began with some knowledge-mining – how much do students know about when things were written? The spectrum is astonishing; some students knew the exact year of publication of their favourite books, others thought Shakespeare wrote in the nineteenth century. We cleared up some misconceptions and started to introduce students to various periods, beginning with Old English, skipping through Chaucer, onto Spenser, Dryden, Wordsworth, Browning, T.S. Eliot and finishing with Bukowski. All short poems, or short excerpts of poems.

The students had to assign each text to a period, having first explored the key features of texts in those periods. They then did some grid work, analyzing the poems and beginning to interpret them.

I was frankly amazed at how enthusiastically the students powered through, and how focused they remained. There was a lot to take in; my trusted mentor warned me beforehand: “be careful – you want to excite them about English, not drown them.” It truly could have gone either way, and was perhaps a risky tactic to recruit students. Particularly as during their A-level course, they won’t be traversing every time period in literature, or reading every play or every seminal poem ever written, however much we would like them to.

Still, it was such fun. Without a set of Assessment Objectives, or mark schemes; without writing quotas or behaviour management (I took a “softly softly” approach, because they’d chosen to do an extra two lessons at the end of a long week, and let’s face it: they’d chosen to be there, so didn’t particularly need that much “managing”) I felt uplifted, in the way that sometimes happens when I go off on a tangent but they happen to learn something from that tangent.

It was empowering for the students, who have more of an outline of context than they had before. It was empowering for me, to look at difficult texts and posit interpretations; stretching and shrinking activities as their interest and mine dictated.

All in all, it was truly lovely, and I very much wish that all teaching of all lessons of all days of all children could be like this.

Endnote: I over-use the word lovely. My first year 8 class never let me forget it. I stand by my word choice.

What I want from an education in English

I write to think. It has always been this way.

It’s coming to the end of what most teachers would say is the longest term; certainly any NQTs and Teach Firsters out there will find this term longer than any other. Students are tired. Staff are tired. Things that would leave you unruffled in September, and even November, now cause undue stress and anxiety. You can’t smooth over disagreements with cheeriness. There is no cheer left.

These are the dark days of teaching, both literally and metaphorically. We wake up in the dark, get into school in the dark, leave school when it is dark, walk down dark roads to dark homes. I have a tendency toward very painful headaches at this point in term, normally on Monday and Friday evenings, so there are several times when I sit in the dark. It’s a gloomy old time.

I’ve found myself this week feeling like I don’t have a vision. I don’t know where I’m going, or why. I am a product of Teach First and Teach for All’s sessions, which have shaped me, and I truly feel that without a vision I am purposeless; anchorless.

You can’t go into school every day just to pick up a paycheck. Teaching is too hard for that, too demanding, too exhausting. I’m finding I seem to know more and more people who are leaving the exhausting and frustrating world of state education for what seem to be Elysian fields of private schools: a curriculum they have control over, a trust concerning their professionalism, shorter school years and higher pay.

I’m writing to think today, and I’m trying to think out this “vision” business.

I can start with my students, because when all else fails they are my bright shiny beacon of hope. I’ll start with the students who miss a lesson and track me down to pick up the work. They brighten my day endlessly.

Because I want my students to be independent. I’ve loved Lucy Crehan’s post on Canadian schools here: our students should be encouraged and led towards this level of independence and motivation. At the moment, there are 35 students in Year 11 who are on a D or below in English. All of them could be on a C. What is missing is not intelligence, but motivation.

And then there are the students, and I usually find this out when I call home or meet parents at parents evening, who “are always talking about English.” They love it. They enjoy it.

I want my students to have joy in reading, and joy in exploring texts. Of course I want them to achieve high levels and high grades, but I definitely don’t want to drag them across the level 4 threshhold or D/C borderline kicking and screaming. I want them to drift there naturally, as the cumulative result of reading and enjoying their learning; wanting to do more and go further.

The students who bring a book to detention, and it is one I have recommended. The students I see reading while queuing outside their next lesson. Even the students who I catch reading when they should be doing their task.

If my students don’t love reading when they leave me, I will have failed. And I’ll admit that every year I fail many, many, all too many, students in this respect. It is something I need to work harder and smarter at, because too many students leave secondary school and never pick up a novel again.

What does that mean?

  • Students who are self-motivated and want to succeed.
  • A love of learning.
  • Education not as a means to an end, but a joyous end in itself.

There is another aspect of this vision business, which I alluded to earlier. It is contentious among my friends and colleagues. All children, they contend, deserve an amazing education. I have to agree.

But I also have to work with students who might not have the advantages that others grow up with. Because it is a cruel and unusual thing that students will go further the better off their parents are. It is undeniably wrong that the achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots is refusing to close. I adored Stuart Lock’s post about why he wants to be a head; I would echo all his sentiments, which are too eloquently put to summarise here.

Education needs to become the equalizer. For all the talk about what a teacher is not, and the reasonable expectations of a human doing a job and having some kind of life, I accept that there are times when teachers have to play the social worker, the state, the parent even. We have to pick up the responsibility, even if it is not our responsibility, because it is the right thing to do.

There are children who will leave school without qualifications, who have despised their education, who will never fulfill their potential. And I will work every day to make sure that that doesn’t happen for one less child.

It’s definitely not a vision yet, what I have written above. I write to think, and I am grateful you have read.

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.