New year’s resolutions: 2015-2016

I’ve mentioned previously that I like to start the new school year with my resolutions. This year is not only a new year for me, but a new school and a new role as well. I’m extremely excited to be moving back to Southwark, the borough where I first trained, and to an academy and mixed school for the first time. I remember all too keenly the trials of starting afresh: the students don’t know you, so you must build up trust and predictability of follow-through; teachers don’t know you and don’t know how committed you will turn out to be; not to mentioned the umpteen-thousand-million names to learn.

So, this year, I need to simplify my aims and keep it simple. My two resolutions for this year focus on behaviour and curriculum.

Behaviour

Good behaviour underpins a school’s every success. Without excellent behaviour, even the very best teaching is significantly diminished in its impact. Beginning a new school as a more seasoned teacher and with responsibility, I will still prioritise ensuring the behaviour in my own classroom is exemplary. I’ll be re-visiting Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion chapter on the least invasive intervention, and constantly explaining why I’m enforcing the rules, bringing everything back to the students’ learning.

I’ve made several visits to my new school, and have been very impressed with behaviour on the corridors. But I know this is the result of tireless efforts from the teachers to constantly enforce their expectations, always with a smile, ensuring a calm environment. I need to be vigilant to ensure I am a part of that team of continual reinforcement. There can be no priority more fundamental than 100% of students complying with 100% of the instructions of 100% of staff 100% of the time.

And of course, that goes for the classrooms of others. As a senior leader, I pledge to be visible and supportive in ensuring behaviour is excellent. I won’t be taking children back to teachers who have sent them out. I won’t be walking past a chaotic classroom with a struggling supply teacher because a meeting or pile of work awaits me. And, most vitally, I won’t be blaming the supply teacher, NQT or any teacher for the behaviour of their students.

Curriculum

My role at will be to oversee Curriculum Design, so I’ll be drawing on my ideas from E.D. Hirsch, as well as other school examples, for guidance on what makes an excellent curriculum.

My aim for the curriculum is two-fold. Firstly, I would like to see a coherent curriculum, where students’ learning is systematically sequenced, and then revisited. I’d like to see a curriculum where all students are studying high-quality subjects in a clear and coherent way, and intervention for the lowest attainers on entry still ensures students are receiving a coherent curriculum that will enable them to have choices in later life.

Secondly, I would like to see a rigorous curriculum, where every subject is teaching high-quality content in an academic manner. This will also encompass rigorous testing of the curriculum, to ensure students are remembering what they have learned.

It may sound like an immense challenge, but I’ve been privileged to meet heads of faculty and senior leaders at the school who have already worked hard to put many of the structures in place that will ensure the above is a reasonable expectation. The principal has assembled a team of highly committed, impressive individuals and I will have to work hard to prove my worth and live up to their proven excellence.

Finally, I’d like to maintain a healthy work-life balance. I absolutely love what I do, and the temptation is always to plough into work and forget everything else. I’d like to work sensible hours, see friends and family, and read plenty of books.

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Teaching tough texts in a world of “Twilight”

Last week, I outlined my experience at TLT and the fantastic sessions I attended. This week, I’ll outline my own session and some of the thoughts others shared.

I opened by exploring the idea of “rigour”: this seems to be one of a few educational buzz-words du jour. With the new “reformed” GCSEs in English, in particular, we are being forced to do away with such “non-rigorous” texts as Of Mice and Men (about which I have written before) in favour of more rigorous texts – which seem to be defined as nineteenth century, English composed ones. With tougher vocabulary. Along with this new rigour comes a new balance of language and literature; with progress 8 double-weighting the qualifications, no longer will schools prioritise language – a joy to English teachers everywhere.

At KS3, though, we might be mindful of balancing rigour with freedom and, dare I say, fun. Without ever losing sight of the qualifications we need to prepare students for, we also might wish to think about ways to engage and delight students in tough texts. I shared my own school’s current KS3 curriculum, with an unapologetic literary focus: we teach language through literature, and there are no “writing to inform” units or “media exploration” studies. Yet with such a tough curriculum comes a caveat: I don’t want my students to be passive recipients of literature, but rather literary critics.

Next, I shared one of my year 7’s paragraphs on poetry:

H lovely parag

Although this was meant to be an analytical essay, I couldn’t help but be proud of her. She really seemed to have engaged with the purpose and importance of poetry, even though this wasn’t something I’d ever explored with the class. Such engagement, I hope, will stand her in good stead for the tough qualifications she has ahead of her.

I didn’t want to denigrate Twilight, a book I actually really, really loved (and have written about it here), and used this as a springboard to explore personal reading. Noting the Matthew Effect (the word rich are often set to become word richer; the word poor poorer) I feel we, as English teachers, have an obligation to close the gap in our students’ experiences of literature. I cited the reading assemblies I have shared before on this blog as examples of my quest for students to take up the gauntlet of personal reading, and referred to Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and some of the ideas I’ve explored before here. While Miller’s entire curriculum revolves around personal reading, how much should we be taking from this idea? How central should personal reading be in our practice? This formed the start of our conversations in the session, and I was interested to hear the thoughts of the lovely attendees and their fabulous ideas.

One mentioned some students simply don’t know how to pick a book, and explained her students tended to look at the books without even handling them, and then said “I can’t find something” – she had to model flicking through and reading the blurb for them.

Chris Hildrew mentioned his school had set up a “media frenzy” around some high quality texts, leading to students picking these up, reading them and discussing them in the way they had The Fault in Our Stars in response to the worldwide media attention this book has drawn.

In order to create literary critics though, we need more than just readers. I explored what makes a text suitable to teach, and shared some strategies I’ve used in the past for making these texts accessible. I then asked attendees to think of a student they were struggling to engage with reading and/or literary criticism, and formulate a plan of action for engaging that student. Some excellent ideas arose from this, many of which I will be taking and trialling myself – so thank you!

Once again, I will say that I had a fantastic time at TLT. During this last week of term, I have been more full of hope and energy than ever before of that particular week, and it can only be as a result of that day of meeting, sharing, learning.

Teaching tough texts in a world of Twilight