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

Advertisements

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

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.

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.

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.

The power of the theatre

An amazing thing happened a few weeks ago for one of my year 12 English Literature students. She visited the theatre for the first time.

Let’s take a moment to really think about this: a student goes nearly 17 years of her life loving English and excelling in it, acing her GCSE English exams and opting to take English A-level. And all without ever having sat in a plush red seat, experienced the lights dimming and watched real humans saying words written by playwrights to each other.

Clearly, something is going wrong here.

This student wasn’t the only one to benefit from this theatre experience, however. I had been frustrated at how difficult my year 12s were finding Much Ado About Nothing, a product I think of the GCSE Literature course: only one Shakespeare play, and if you opt to do this for the Controlled Assessment instead of the exam, well then you may not have studied any Shakespeare since year 10.

In hindsight, it was a mistake to begin with Shakespeare. But we plough on.

The production, at the Old Vic Theatre, was certainly not a “straight” production. Liberties had been taken with setting, costume and, most obviously, casting. Even better, in a way, for displaying how versatile Shakespeare’s works are, and how open to reinterpretation by successive generations of directors and actors.

Seeing the entire play all the way through is nowhere near as soporific as showing the (brilliantly uncut Globe version) DVD all the way through. There’s something different about seeing it in a theatre, without a desk and your notepad in front of you, and without the hard plastic chairs. (Adorably, almost all of my year 12s insisted on bringing their copies of the text to the theatre, and valiantly attempted to follow it through while watching.) Also, I’m not sure how Ofsted or any other inspector would feel about me showing a film for 2 hours.

Watching the play the whole way through has led to increased confidence, increased awareness and increased understanding of the text. It will undoubtedly improve the resulting coursework, and I am forever grateful that my school actually paid for every child’s ticket in full.

Yet the theatre is about more than coursework and understanding. It is a rich cultural experience that should not be withheld from any member of society. I would argue that it is our responsibility as English teachers to ensure that every child has seen a play the whole way through by the time they leave us. This is regardless of it fitting in with their course: any experience of theatre enriches a student’s understanding of the vast body of literature, and, moreover, the different realms of literature: for some students, we must concede, literature means novels and poetry. It means words on a page. We need to change this.

I was told by a colleague of a headteacher of an outstanding primary school who used their entire pupil premium for the year to take every child to a West End show. I know some critics might deride this as a casual waste of money. But I applaud the bravery of that headteacher. He recognized that there was something so worthwhile in the enterprise of theatre, something so empowering for students, that it was worth that money.

And when it comes down to money, which it does, it seems unfortunate. As a head of department, I consider the most vital resource to be books: there always should be money in the budget for books. Yet after that, we need to consider these ephemeral “books in action,” which give so much to our students.

As a result of our year 12 theatre trip, the English department will be taking selected students to a theatre show once a term. The numbers, for money and staffing, will have to be small; no more than 20 at a time. The students will need to be chosen carefully: we want to take students who deserve a treat, and students who will benefit from this cultural experience. Perhaps we can build this momentum to bring an entire year group every year. The play, of course, will also need to be chosen carefully: I don’t think I want to take year 7 to Chekhov. Rafe Esquith also notably emphasizes the importance of educating students about the play before the visit, so they can squeeze the most out of the experience.

The theatre should not be an optional extra. It should not be cast aside as too expensive, or a waste of valuable resources. And we should not have 17-year-old budding literary critics who have never been there.

Reading Lists

I thought I would share some of my favourite reading lists with any teacher readers before the onset of the summer holidays.

I wish I could say I had a firm system for these lists. I always try to do one before a long holiday, or even a short one, and definitely one at the start of the year. My students are amazing, though; a small number will start asking me for recommendations and that is how I know it is time to wheel out another one.

I liked the “20 books you should read” format because I thought it seemed manageable. The first was originally made for a very high-achieving year 10/11 class who needed to be stretched and prepared for the rigours of A-level. I also included any books I loved at their age, or that I remember my friends loving. The sixth form list goes further, and has non-fiction texts which are critical but I think accessible.

KS4: 20 books you should definitely read:

  1. Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus
  2. Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  3. Tracy Chevalier: The Girl with a Pearl Earring
  4. Stephen Kelman: Pigeon English
  5. George Grossmith: Diary of a Nobody
  6. Vladimir Nabakov: Laughter in the Dark
  7. Emma Donaghue, Room
  8. David Nicholls, One Day
  9. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
  10. Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns
  11. John Irving, The World According to Garp
  12. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
  13. Bill Bryson, Shakespeare
  14. Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel
  15. Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
  16. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
  17. Vikram Seth, An Equal Music
  18. Richard Llewellyn, How Green was my Valley
  19. Steve Tolz, A Fraction of the Whole
  20. Richard Russo, Empire Falls

Sixth form:

20 books you should definitely read:

  1. Sebastian Faulks: Faulks on Fiction: The History of the Novel in 28 Characters
  2. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
  3. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
  4. Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
  5. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
  6. Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
  7. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
  8. Bill Bryson, Shakespeare
  9. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
  10. Jay McInernay, Bright Lights, Big City
  11. Andrew Marr, A History of Modern Britain
  12. Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
  13. Strunk and White, The Elements of Style
  14. Jane Austen, Emma
  15. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
  16. Sebastian Faulks, Human Traces
  17. Sophocles, Antigone
  18. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
  19. Virginia Woolf, Orlando
  20. George Eliot, Middlemarch