Women through the ages

A few months ago, I enthusiastically tweeted:

twitter women through ages

I was increasingly excited about the prospect of teaching some of my favourite texts to my year 10 class. I’ve written about year 10 before, but in a nutshell they are an intervention group whose literacy could be better than it currently is. My main aim for the scheme of work was to build their vocabulary and improve their creative, informative and persuasive writing skills through exposure to some of the best examples I could find.

Oh, and I wanted to make them feminists.

I teach in an all-girls’ school, and so this kind of aim pretty much suffuses our curriculum, not to mention the SMSC and other varied acronyms. I’ve written before about feminism’s place in the classroom, so perhaps this scheme of work was partly my way of making such arguments heard and understood.

Because I don’t think we can take it for granted that our students are cognisant of the challenges that might face them because they are girls. Despite continually out-performing their male counterparts in the education stakes, girls continue to enter a world in which women, to paraphrase Sheryl Sandberg, are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. Women continue to do the vast majority of housework and child rearing, and they continue to earn far less than men over their careers. More terrifyingly, our children are growing up, as the film Miss Representation makes clear, surrounded by media which dictates that girls looking attractive to men is what matters.

Yet the message of feminism is by no means undisputed. Sandberg has been critiqued for exploring only a very tiny subsection of society in her analysis; Roxanne Gay has pointed out that women of colour are experiencing gender inequality in different ways which must also be heard; Caitlin Moran has been called “dismissive” for her comments on the hijab and why women ought not to be wearing it. This is a complex discourse, and one I very much would like my students to be able to enter into.

I’ve pasted the lesson powerpoints below, but will be making some key changes in preparing a similar scheme of work for the new Key Stage 4 curriculum. The revised scheme will be longer – six weeks instead of three. It will span a greater length of time, and take account of these alternative feminisms. It will be focused on key questions to interrogate, rather than key texts to read. I’ve posted a week-by-week below in case this is of interest.

I’ve also omitted textual exploration of masculinity, although we did watch the trailer for The Mask You Live In and go on to explore depictions of masculinity in adverts. This kind of scheme taught in a mixed school would definitely benefit from more gender balance, perhaps including the “He for She” campaign and exploring the challenges boys and men face in today’s society.

If we need to teach non-fiction, I do think there are some key messages we can use those schemes of work to put across to young people. There are too many inequalities in our society; I want my students to be empowered and inspired by knowledge and understanding of these inequalities to put them right.

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Revised SoW: Week by week outline

Week 1:

  • Coverage:  Modern femininity
  • Key question: how are women seen in today’s society?
  • (Everyday Sexism; MissRepresentation; feminism today)
  • (Opposing branches of feminism (Wolf/Benn/Gay/Moran))

Week 2:

  • Coverage: Women under oppression (Malala; Wadjda; Reading Lolita in Tehran)
  • Key question: do women everywhere experience the same freedoms and constraints?

Week 3:

  • Coverage: Historical female oppression (Suffragettes)
  • Key question: how has the female experience changed?

Week 4:

  • Coverage: Female communication: journalism
  • Key question: Is there a female voice?
  • (Lean In excerpts; Lena Dunham (write to entertain), India Knight (write to shock)

Week 5:

  • Coverage: Female communication: political
  • Key question: how successfully do women convey messages in a political setting?
  • Speechwriting (Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Harriet Harman/Theresa May?)

Week 6:

  • Coverage: Roles and perceptions of women
  • Key question: how are women seen, and how do they see themselves?
  • Hillary Bill Clinton; Eleanor Roosevelt; Sandberg commencement speech; Fey Bossypants

Year 10 feminism SoW

All change: new KS5 specifications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Year 12: Love Through the Ages

Studying:

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

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

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

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

Year 13: Texts in Shared Contexts

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

Studying:

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

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

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

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

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

All change: new KS4 specifications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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