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

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Cambridge, Kings and Changing my Teaching

“I enjoyed the trip very much and it made me sure of wanting to study English at university and that Cambridge would be an amazing place to do this.”

Year 12 student

My year 12 are undeniably a fantastic class. High achieving on entry, they have exceeded expectations this year in terms of the quality of their coursework. I’m certainly not discounting the mountain of work they still need to do to ace their exam in May, but each and every one of them has astonishing potential. And it is becoming more and more apparent that some would like to take English further, for which I am forever grateful. Much of this is down to two incredible universities who have opened their doors to us.

Back in September, in the early heady days of my new post , I contacted what seemed like every London university, explaining I wanted to build links between our sixth formers and a “local” university. Our year 12 are the first in our school to take English Literature A-level, so the time seemed ripe for new beginnings. Many did not respond. Those who did often offered specific days, often entirely unrelated to the course my year 12s are studying, and often at inconvenient times – as a consortium sixth form, it’s almost impossible to take students out of their other lessons (as perhaps it should be, always).

Conversely, two universities have offered numerous opportunities, but have also been open to helping us out in our particular circumstance. They have listened to what our students need and engaged with us on our terms. I am hopeful of a lasting relationship with each.

cambridge river

And the lecturers. Their astonishing knowledge, charisma and humility, as well as humour, was thoughtfully matched to sixth form students’ interests and levels. I was reminded of the very best of what I experienced at University, and found myself in the lovely position of learning alongside my lovely children.

On our trip to Cambridge University on 20th March, we learned how to make a successful application, and what subjects would be useful to do at A-level when applying to do an English degree. Also, we were taught what it would be like to do English at Cambridge. Finally, we were given an English lecture at University level focused on the philosophical question of: “How soon is now?” We looked at several different examples in poems, in the novel “To The Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf and in the play “That Time” by Samuel Beckett.

Year 12 student

The following Monday, an incredible and generous lecturer from King’s College London relieved me of my duties and came in to teach my year 12 double lesson. I had previously explained to her that the students had been doing coursework, and they were now moving onto the exam. Could she perhaps do a session on Gatsby and narrative?

No powerpoint, no card sorts, no drama; a lengthy handout and some bullet points on a piece of paper had the students entranced. The angle the lecturer took, her questioning and her planning made me feel these short hours had given my 21 students a massive advantage over anyone else taking the exam who was not in that session. Oh, to be such a teacher!

In the frantic movement of everyday life in school, it is hard to find the kind of peace and tranquility necessary to reflect and create. I know that if I slowed down my lessons would be more thoughtful; too often, these days, I cling to success criteria and exam specifications in order to ensure my students know what they “need” to know. This is not enough.

I am going to aim to bring in some University when I plan. To think beyond the rubric. Not just: what do my students need to know? But: what is the most intellectually interesting way we can explore this?

I’ve often maintained that we should all be always learning, but perhaps it is time for me to go back to school with English. It feels like it has been a long time since I have learned anything new about English, and I was reminded last week that the world of the academic moves, at times at least, in a surprisingly sprightly fashion. There are a raft of post-graduate and short course prospectuses piled up by the door, hastily ordered following my recent experiences, and perhaps one of these holds the key to a wiser teacher.

We can always improve, and it is foolish to imagine there could be such a thing as a zenith of teaching practice. These two weeks in particular I have come face to face with greatness, and I’m falling short. I need to know more, so I will read more; I need to do more and plan more and question more and become better at what I do so the children that learn with me can know more, and go further.

But in the meantime, if I can expose my students to these kinds of opportunities, and inspire them to aim for the best they can achieve, I can take some comfort at least.

cambridge logo

Why study A-level English? An(other) assembly

When the Head of Sixth Form asked me to deliver an assembly to year 11 on why they should study A-level English, my first thought was one giant, panicked, bold and underlined “why?”

Why indeed? I went away and spent a couple of weeks pondering, thought of a few lame lines, and came back to admit defeat. Somewhat unadvisedly, I explained that I “had never really thought about why myself”, having myself “not thought things through and just chosen what felt right – that’s how I work.” Given that this person line manages me, admitting to my haphazard decision-making skills was probably an error.

I’m nothing if not honest. I did English Literature A-level because I had to; I was compelled to read and question; it was the only thing I loved and was any good at. No thinking needed.

Fortunately, I have a great line manager, who expertly guided me towards the light. I shared my clumsy “course outline” and “what looks good on your UCAS form” and he shook his head, saying: “what they really need is inspiration.” He referred me to this ad, suggesting that literature is about life: not the biology or the mechanics, but the human, and the emotional.

The assembly begins with the following on the screen, for students to ponder (or ignore) as they await the start of the session:

so much depends

I then showed my initial (lame) reasons for studying English Literature: universities rate it, it is more rigorous than English language, and many future careers await you. I then proceeded to explain that none of these are good reasons to choose to study Literature, drawing on the wisdom of Laura McInerney’s research showing that the idea of “facilitating subjects” is often not backed up by evidence. Despite few firm conclusions, I’d rather persuade my students to do three subjects they love and can achieve decent grades in, over any particular combination of subjects.

So, my opener for “why really study English Literature” was a fabulous quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

 We’ve all had that moment when reading when we suddenly acknowledge that our feelings, emotions and thoughts are not isolated and freak-like; we are connected to others in a tissue of shared feelings.

I then used Roald Dahl’s Matilda as a conduit for my next point (which was fairly similar to the entire assembly I blogged about last week here):

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives… She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

I then returned to the initial poem, one of my favourites. I asked students whether they thought it was a poem; opinion seemed fairly split. This worked well for me. If this writing were on a toilet door, or in a fortune cookie, would they think it was a poem? Heads shook. Then I asked: what if it was in a poetry book? Confused faces.

William Carlos Williams calls this a poem. Some of you don’t call this a poem. Who matters more; the poet, or the reader? Or do neither of you matter? What about when the poem was written, or the cultural context? Was Williams trying to make a point about poetry? Or is the only aspect of importance the words themselves?

If you want answers, don’t study English Literature; there are no ticks and no crosses. But if you want to question and debate and argue and never be sure, you’re picking the right subject.

I closed the assembly by saying that if none of those arguments convinced them, I had one more: literature is beautiful. It makes you think things, and it makes you feel things. And I read Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” This is actually one of my year 11’s favourite poems (I expressed to year 11 that I was delighted that someone other than me has a favourite poem, only to have another come up to me afterwards and exclaim somewhat angrily: “Miss, I have a favourite poem too!”), which is partly why I chose it. It is also a wonderfully complex piece of word mastery that even the science teacher I practiced saying it to minutes before the assembly began could appreciate its clever intricacies (I’m not saying scientists aren’t capably of being poets. But it’s good to chase cross-curricular opinions and attitudes).

I then showed my initial (lame) reasons for studying English Literature: universities rate it, it is more rigorous than English language, and many future careers await you. I then proceeded to explain that none of these are good reasons to choose to study Literature, drawing on the wisdom of Laura McInerney’s research showing that the idea of “facilitating subjects” is often not backed up by evidence. Despite few firm conclusions, I’d rather persuade my students to do three subjects they love and can achieve decent grades in, over any particular combination of subjects.

So, my opener for “why really study English Literature” was a fabulous quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

 We’ve all had that moment when reading when we suddenly acknowledge that our feelings, emotions and thoughts are not isolated and freak-like; we are connected to others in a tissue of shared feelings.

I then used Roald Dahl’s Matilda as a conduit for my next point (which was fairly similar to the entire assembly I blogged about last week here):

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives… She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

I then returned to the initial poem, one of my favourites. I asked students whether they thought it was a poem; opinion seemed fairly split. This worked well for me. If this writing were on a toilet door, or in a fortune cookie, would they think it was a poem? Heads shook. Then I asked: what if it was in a poetry book? Confused faces.

William Carlos Williams calls this a poem. Some of you don’t call this a poem. Who matters more; the poet, or the reader? Or do neither of you matter? What about when the poem was written, or the cultural context? Was Williams trying to make a point about poetry? Or is the only aspect of importance the words themselves?

If you want answers, don’t study English Literature; there are no ticks and no crosses. But if you want to question and debate and argue and never be sure, you’re picking the right subject.

I closed the assembly by saying that if none of those arguments convinced them, I had one more: literature is beautiful. It makes you think things, and it makes you feel things. And I read Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” This is actually one of my year 11’s favourite poems (I expressed to year 11 that I was delighted that someone other than me has a favourite poem, only to have another come up to me afterwards and exclaim somewhat angrily: “Miss, I have a favourite poem too!”), which is partly why I chose it. It is also a wonderfully complex piece of word mastery that even the science teacher I practiced saying it to minutes before the assembly began could appreciate its clever intricacies (I’m not saying scientists aren’t capably of being poets. But it’s good to chase cross-curricular opinions and attitudes).

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

PP Arial Why Study English Literartue

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.

The hierarchy of literature

I’m at the start of a dawning realisation: that what I thought was my subject is not my subject; and where I thought my subject, which is not my subject, sat in the hierarchy of subjects is also incorrect.

This may sound garbled, but that’s because this realisation is only beginning to take shape in my misinformed mind.

As a teacher of English at GCSE, I have been complacently used to being at the top of the pecking order when it comes to subjects at GCSE: no, English boosters are that night – sorry other subjects, bow down to the mighty English. That enrichment activity supports English? Here are plentiful funds to ensure it takes place. Let’s give year 11 a massive weekend of revision, and let it be only English (and some Maths).

All of this assured me that children reading books was at the very heart of what our schools are all about (tied only with Maths).

But that’s not it at all.

Reading books, studying great literature, isn’t in fact anywhere on the pecking order. It’s a sideshow; an optional extra. We pretend English is at the core of the curriculum, but what we really mean is being able to read and write. These are the necessary gateway tools to accessing all written material ever – with the exception of troublesome novels, plays and poetry – and this basic literacy is of the utmost importance until students are 16.

It’s not that I disagree with the above at all. I just feel that the reading of fiction is the crucial way in which we make sense of the world, and that the above can in fact be taught most effectively with books, and not Guardian articles.

Speaking of which, my world came crushing down with this Orwellian vision of a literature-less future from Polly Toynbee here. With the new KS4 curriculum, about which I had been so optimistic, Toynbee points out that, as literature has been removed from the language component, while not being made a compulsory second GCSE, children all over the country will be deprived of reading great books.

In my own North London bubble, I know my children will always do literature. Our lucky year 10 and 11 students have 6 lessons of English a week, and are split into tiny classes (7 sets where there could easily be 5) specifically to enable them to study both GCSEs.

But what of those thousands of other children in other schools?

Similarly, having all my life assumed English Literature A-level is top dog in the A-level pecking order, in a natural inheritance from GCSE, my assumptions were cruelly crushed by an esteemed colleague (of Science background) who assured students that, in fact, the number one Arts subject they could study was History.

Where’s History coming from? Why all of a sudden does History get a look in? And if it is the most impressive Arts A-level and most respected by universities, why don’t all students have to take History GCSE with the same fervour we ascribe to English and Maths?

So I’m getting used to my new position in the world of education. Not as imparter of great literature, but as teacher of grammar and spelling, as well as decoding words to make sense of those words.

This new Literature GCSE, wide-spanning and demanding as it is, can and should be taught to all students. Yes, some will need more time and more resources to succeed. But would you send your child to a school that didn’t teach it?