How do I revise English?

Around this time of year, “how do I revise for English?” becomes the clarion call of many a desperate student. It seems that no matter how many times I talk through precisely this question on a powerpoint slide in a lesson (from which students dutifully scribe notes), I still receive feedback from various tutors, mentors, parents and other interested parties who tell me: “she has no idea how to revise English.”

It struck me all too recently that perhaps the answer is to begin to “do” the revision in lesson time. It took me a long time to realize that much of teaching was a gradual recognition of things students did not know which I had assumed they did (my year 10, for example, who dropped the bombshell of not knowing what the word “vocabulary” meant, thus rendering half a year’s worth of feedback essentially meaningless (“is it ‘connectives’?”)). In the same way that I would not now set an essay for homework for any class that is not sixth form (as I did for the first homework for the first year 10 set 5 class I taught), I would not now send children into the wilderness to flail about with highlighters. We need to begin this in class.

Starting with year 13, I decided to show them the evidence. Last year, I read Make it Stick, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. One of the central messages in this text is that students learn by retrieving from their memories. So, as so many others have written at length about, not by re-reading, underlining and highlighting.

No: we need to learn by testing ourselves. This seems more straightforward when your subject is orientated around “facts.” Making a test on how many nitrates make up a – sorry, I don’t think I can finish the sentence without completely embarrassing myself. But you get the idea. English is a skill-based subject, right? How could you possibly quiz yourself?

Except when I think back on how I revised, I start to see a way this might work. I recall for GCSE English Language learning around forty-five key technical terms (oh, what I would give to retrieve that scrap of revision paper) using an alphabet-based mnemonic. Before even opening the paper, I wrote each word on the question paper. I then ticked off each term as I used it, thus, in my own mind, securing my top grade.

But it wasn’t until University that I really became self-test-super. By my final year, I had perfected the technique of mind-mapping everything I needed to know about a text (key quotes, critical quotes, key ideas, main concepts), hiding the mind-map, writing it again, checking back with the mind-map to see what I’d missed, adding the ones I’d missed in a different colour, and beginning again.

This seemed like a sensible way forward for my year 13s in preparation for their AQA Lit B “Texts and Genres” exam. Following our weekly “quote quiz” (in which I blank out some key words to test they have learned some quotes from one of the three texts, then go through each quote, writing in the words and reviewing the comments we might be able to make about them), I shared some of the wisdom from Make it Stick:

•       “Learning is deeper and more enduring if it is effortful.”

•       “The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future”

•       “Retrieval practice—recalling facts or concepts or events from memory—is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading. Flashcards are a simple example. Retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting. A single, simple quiz after reading a text or hearing a lecture produces better learning and remembering than rereading the text or reviewing lecture notes.”

In order to begin, students would create a ten-question quiz on each text. I could then collate all of these into a handy “quiz-pack” for each student to assist in their revision. I advised students to use the quotes, but also the key critical ideas we were engaging with, and shared with them the mind-map idea.

This is all a work in progress, and not something I’ve previously done with classes. I do think it is worth considering, and I will report back on how year 13 find it. I’m planning to share the same concepts and ideas with year 11 later on in the year. I’ve posted the slides below exactly as I taught them to year 13.

Lesson 9 critical views Frankenstein 4.2.15

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.

The problem with progress

I feel like I’m hearing a lot about progress recently, and not just from “Progress 8.” More and more, our dialogue about education seems infused with progress – first there was “progress within a lesson,” now, progress over time. And what’s not to like? Clearly, the children in our care should be moving on, and improving day to day, year upon year.

And once I think I would have welcomed this: our focus on the C/D borderline, driven by league tables and a desperate need to stay afloat with budgets tied to student numbers, seemed to ignore both the top and the lowest achievers.

Or did it? In the fortunate position of working in small schools, in my experience we’ve always focused on pushing every child, even the lowest achievers, over the C-threshhold that will undeniably open more doors to them. I’ve written about how in my school 95% of students walked away with a C or above in English Language – and that my biggest regret is the 5% we didn’t get, when I knew it was possible. In my previous school, that figure was 98% last year – I wish someone would write more about that! (Caroline, Lizzie… I’m looking at you!) Moreover, the top were not left to languish; in my new school’s last year 11 cohort 35% achieved A or A* grades.

My problem with progress is not concerned with the top achievers. Any measure forcing schools to also stretch those with high prior attainment seems sensible. My problem with progress is when turning an F into an E carries the same incentives as turning it into a higher benchmark.

Cognitively speaking, I can’t find evidence that any child is not capable of achieving a C in English; all I can find evidence of is that they’re not capable yet. Some students need more time; through a variety of factors, whether that be poor attendance (so often linked to other social issues) or being in the early stages of learning English, or else labeling with any of the various acronyms denoting their ‘difficulties’ with learning. All this tells me is that they need more time, more attention, more intervention. And we need higher expectations.

Too often, students coming into secondary school with low prior attainment are victims of a social system which engrains disadvantage and ensures a cycle of poverty, and of an educational system not yet advanced enough to work through those gaps in their learning. The problem with progress, for me, is the potential there is to further engrain this problem, so that we end up fulfilling the low expectations society has had for certain children from birth.

I’m not sure I can ascribe to a system where an equivalent D represents a good thing. I’m tired of people telling me “that’s a huge achievement for that student,” because it might be, but we can do better; they can do better. We need to have bigger ambitions of our own ability to transform the life chances of every single child; not just the borderline children, of all children. In the new 9 to 1 system, I need to know what represents the ticket to the future, so I can ensure all students achieve it.

We don’t have to look far to see schools which are coming close to ensuring that all their students have access to any life they could desire; King Solomon Academy in London has used high expectations and epic amounts of work to secure useful outcomes for almost every student in their care. Then, of course, there are America’s high performing Charter Schools which send every child to university.

The problem with progress is when it comes with a lack of an end game. It is the kind of word which makes it acceptable for professionals to say: “we can’t change society/the welfare system/the class system/the parents” – when in fact we can change the outcome, and overturn the whole.

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.”

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/

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.

If you recommend one book

I am in the habit of giving vastly long reading lists, which I do believe are extremely helpful to students who already tend to read. Where this process falls sharply down is when students are not tending to read. I gave a reading list to a new group I was teaching in September, and their groans killed me. These aren’t low ability kids, although they were definitely under-achieving. I was delighted that despite the groans I saw a solitary child with one of the books from the list weeks later, but I’ve been thinking that my plan of attack for creating little readers needs to be more multi-pronged.

Then, my mentor and inspiration (Ms Moran), told me about an amazing thing she had been doing with her classes to foster a reading culture. She would stop the lesson five minutes before the end, and talk about the book she was reading. What genius. She’d put the front cover up on a slide, or read aloud to the students from the first page. The effect was unbelievable – students were clambering to read the books she was talking about.

I’m not saying I’ve never talked about what I’m reading with students. But it has usually tended to be spurred by them asking, or me carelessly leaving a reading book on my desk. I haven’t pre-planned these chats, and with sixth form, I have often had to castigate myself for “wasting their learning time” with the lengthy chats about books. The conversations are definitely worthwhile, but I do think a planned approach is safer.

With this in mind, I’m going to outline three great books I have read in the past year, which are my number one recommends for the three secondary key stages right now.

 

KS3 (year 7 or 8): A Monster Calls

a monster callsI’m beginning with the book which began Ms Moran’s new policy. As she says, “no-one writes an opening like Ness.” I’ve recommended The Knife of Never Letting Go to high ability students in year 8, but even truly reluctant readers in year 9 are drawn in by the style and content of the opening.

A Monster Calls is a little over 200 pages, and looks manageable for, I would say, all but beginning readers. Ness’s characters in this book have the slightly other-worldly feel of David Almond’s; they speak to each other and it sounds plausible, but not familiar. That aside, the content and style are what sell this book.

The basic plot-line is that a tree-monster wakes a child up and scares him lots, but also teaches him lots, especially about the very difficult trials he is going through with an extremely ill mother. This isn’t a book about death though, or really even suffering. It’s a book about resilience and faith against the odds.

KS4: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

At open evening in my new school, I got chatting with a parent about books and she recommended that I read this one. (Parent, please send your child to my school!) This booka tree grows in brooklyn has already rocketed into my all-time top ten.

The story follows Francie, who grows up in the 1900s in a Brooklyn slum. But the nuances are miraculous – so much is withheld; we see through Francie’s eyes, and if the blurb hadn’t given the setting away, we might have little idea she is living in poverty until some time into the book.

The novel is full of anecdotes; rivers of stories which make up the sea of human experience. It feels timeless and massive. I’m not too sure about reading the opening of this to hook students, but I would recommend a paragraph 14 pages in, where the main character observes an old man. Smith writes:

“He is old. He must be past seventy. He was born about the time Abraham Lincoln was living and getting himself ready to be president. Williamsburg must have been a little country place then and maybe Indians were still living in Flatbush. That was so long ago.” She kept staring at his feet. “He was a baby once. He must have been sweet and clean and his mother kissed his little pink toes. Maybe when it thundered at night she came to his crib and fixed his blanket better and whispered that he mustn’t be afraid, that mother was there. Then she picked him up and put her cheek on his head and said that he was her own sweet baby. He might have been a boy like my brother, running in and out of the house and slamming the door. And while his mother scolded him she was thinking that maybe he’ll be president some day. Then he was a young man, strong and happy. When he walked down the street, the girls smiled and turned to watch him. He smiled back and maybe he winked at the prettiest one. I guess he must have married and had children and they thought he was the most wonderful papa in the world the way he worked hard and bought them toys for Christmas. Now his children are getting old too, like him, and they have children and nobody wants the old man any more and they are waiting for him to die. But he doesn’t want to die. He wants to keep on living even though he’s so old and there’s nothing to be happy about anymore.”

 

KS5: Bright Shiny Morning

bright-shiny-morning “Welcome to LA. City of contradictions” reads the blurb of James Frey’s masterpiece. This book is a gem for the sixth form: modern and realistic in its scope, but also creatively told with modernist sensibilities – dialogue without punctuation, and the stories interwoven with paragraph-long excerpts of the history of the city.

There are elements of comedy and tragedy in this epic tome, but there is also truth and hope. The characters are sketched but somehow they live more truly for that sketch-quality. Their stories are built up slowly, and this draws you in the more fully. They don’t all interlink, because that isn’t true to life. We have the homeless man, the child inter-state migrants, the rich and famous. We have all of human life at its extremes and in its non-extreme normality made beautiful.