The power of poetry

I’ve mentioned it two or three thousand times before, but I’ll say it again: I love my year 7 class. I’ve had many year 7 classes before, and I’ve found them all to be cute, lovely and well-behaved, but this year my year 7s stand out in a completely different way.

Part of this, I think, is due to my time-table: in previous years, I’ve taught 3 KS3 classes and then one KS4, plus a KS5. This year, I teach all exam classes, except for my year 7: they are my one and only class I am not pushing through a GCSE. They are my one and only class who are truly mixed ability (as in: all classes are mixed to some degree; these guys aren’t set yet).

Never before have I so appreciated the freedom which comes with teaching a KS3 class. I feel relaxed around this class; I take them on wild tangents when the conversation turns. I am excited to teach them, because I’m never completely sure where a lesson will take us. I’m flexible with my planning, moving lessons and assessments around due to their emerging needs because I don’t have any hard deadlines for them, or firm content to cover.

Right now, I’m loving teaching them poetry. Some genius teacher in my department created a beautiful scheme of work on war poetry, and it has been utterly joyful to teach. We began with a lot of context, which with the topic in question is not only fun and meaningful, but also pretty easy to teach, as usually students have great prior knowledge from primary school or history classes.

We studied Wilfred Owen in so much depth, students were commenting on different poems long after we had “finished” them, in their spoken and written responses. We moved through to female poets and conscientious objectors, and finished with Japanese poets on the atomic bomb.

Throughout the year, I’ve tried to mention in every class that my aim is for them to come up with interpretations. I have shied away from doing this with previous year 7 classes, as I’d found that their interpretations were almost always insane and had nothing to do with the text. With this class I decided to take a risk.

I’m not sure what has happened, but these students are already genuinely capable of coming up with interpretations which are not only valid, but also imaginative. I do a lot more whole-class discussion with this group, partly because the room layout discourages group work and circulation (I physically cannot get to about 6 students crammed into tight rows in a tiny room) and I want to speak with every student; this might have helped them to finesse their arguments as I always want evidence from the text, something their co-students perhaps aren’t so pushed about.

The most joyous moment of the course is hard to pinpoint. I thought it was the student who was so low-achieving at primary school she came in without a level, putting up her hand and giving an interpretation that was actually amazing, which sparked an important class conversation which went on for many minutes. That same student wrote an essay a week later and neglected to use a single quote or write about a single word from a single solitary poem. I despaired.

Having just marked their final assessment on this unit, there are too many “moments” to list, but I’ll mention a few.

The student above actually put in a number of quotes in her essay and used enough technical language to wind up on the cusp of level 3, which put a massive smile on my face. One of my level 4/5 borderline students suddenly grasped how to analyse language, which pushed her over the border to the magic 5, which I know she’ll be thrilled about because she works so hard in every lesson. A number of students wrote about ideas in their final assessment which we had never covered in class; one example is at the bottom of this post, but there were many who tried something new out.

But what made me smile more than anything was the paragraph below, written by a student who also receives some intensive English catch-up.

H lovely paragWhat I loved about this was the joy in poetry that came from it. We’d not spoken specifically about the ideas she writes about, and given the parameters of the essay this came out of nowhere. But the genuine joy and love of poetry is so easy to see, and this is something which came through in so many students’ essays.

My year 7 love poetry, with the same fervour my year 11 hate poetry.

It’s easy to see why though: my year 11 study the AQA “Relationships Cluster” of poems which has some lovely poems in it, but some really, truly dull ones. I’m constantly banging on about AOs and how they need to evidence their thinking in their essays in order to hit those AOs consistently throughout. I’m also forcing them to compare poems, which is nowhere near as effective as them doing it themselves (“miss, isn’t this like…”) and feeling really smart for thinking to do it.

My new aim is to build on this love and enthusiasm; to cling to it. Is it the normal year 7 excitement which will fade by the summer term, when new priorities come into play for them? Or is there a way to continue to invest them in what we are doing?

And how do I make this happen with all my exam classes?

Interpretation parag

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Books for the more little ones

I remember during teacher training I was told that one of the greatest challenges most English teachers face is knowing which books to recommend to years 7 and 8. As grown-ups, the vast majority of us don’t read kids’ books (I have a few friends who consciously do, despite not being teachers, but I’d put down mostly to personal peculiarities).

I pursued this angle fairly half-heartedly at first, surveying the oft-taught Skellig and Holes, and finding neither riveting enough to teach. I read mainly to look for teaching books that summer.

And then I met my year 7 and 8 students. I was struck by how eager they were to read, and by how clueless I was to guide them. We would stand for ages in the library, a student asking plaintively for a “good book” and I would find myself flailing – the only books I could recommend were trapped on the forbidden “senior fiction” shelves.

Fairly quickly, I tried to remedy this, and I still make a “children’s” book part of my trio of reading: I read in turn a book on education (or for my teaching practice – I cheat lots here), a piece of fiction for grown-ups (I never cheat here), a piece of fiction for children.

Here are a few books I have recommended that students read with fair levels of success.

Patrick Ness: The Knife of Never Letting Go

knife of never letting goAn esteemed colleague of mine believes that this man’s openings are among the best in fiction: she read the opening of another of his books to her class and reluctant readers physically fought over the library’s copies.

One major drawback with this novel is its length: I have had very many students begin it, and very few finish it. Those that did seemed to greatly enjoy it, and many read the next in the series.

Ness has a phenomenal imagination and a great sense of the absurd: this book begins with the killer line: “the first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t go nothing much to say. About anything.” Any language purists will find the informal style grating, but this is a super read for any advanced year 7 or 8 readers.

Jamila Gavin: Coram Boycoram boy

I am a huge fan of Jamila Gavin, whose books are engaging and entertaining, as well as beautifully written in a style stretching for most year 7 and 8 readers. The historical aspects of the story are dealt with clearly, meaning students can grasp the full nature of the story without needing any elucidation. Making use of the trope of intertwining stories of characters from dissimilar walks of life allows for a satisfying ending.

Helen Grant: The Vanishing of Katharina Linden

vanishing of k lThis is one of the many books I have bought on Kindle and regretted – my students are always looking for copies of it. As the title implies, this story has an other-worldly element, yet its tone is entirely realistic. There are plenty of suspenseful moments as you journey with the central character to find answers as the book goes on. 

Morris Gleitzman: Once

A year 7 student recommended this book to me early on in my teaching career, and I made oncethe mistake of reading it on a Friday evening after a long week. I cried lots, and went on to make several other children cry through this novel’s recommendation. It is a much simpler and shorter account of the horrors of the holocaust that several I have encountered, but this makes this text all the more perfect for reluctant young readers.

I’m still improving my knowledge of books suitable for little ones, so I’d be very grateful for any recommendations from lovely readers!

The Book Whisperer

Before I took on the post of Head of English at my school, I knew that the main thing I needed to do was get children reading for pleasure. Six weeks in, when mock Ofsted came into our department, that was one of very few recommendations made for our improvement: get children reading for pleasure.

So, why haven’t I?

Partly it is because starting at a new school, in particular in a new role, is so exhaustingly difficult it’s hard to move beyond fire-fighting. And partly because every mistake I have made so far (and believe me, there have been many) has been linked to my tendency to make decisions too quickly. This is something I want to get right. I am taking my time.

Actually, I felt as if I’d almost cracked it when I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer about a week ago, and then I had to do some more thinking. The subtitle is “Awakening the inner reader in every child”, so I knew before I opened it that I would love it.

It is, without a doubt, inspiring, in the vein of Rafe Esquith and KIPP stories from the US. Teachers going above and beyond, but also around and in a peculiar swirly motion we’re not sure will work – but, yes, it does.

Miller’s initial prompting to decide her students should read forty books in an academic year is not grounded in evidence based research, but rather a moral certitude that this stuff if good for them. She glosses over some radically improved test results, but doesn’t make a song and dance about the improvement in the data – that’s not what this is about. Miller wants her children to be readers. And I would guess around 100% of English teachers want the same for their students; not to mention parents.

The problem is: how do we get there? It’s fair to say that the curriculum in the UK, while far from perfect, is a very far cry from the mish-mash of methods going on in American classrooms, where many teachers (if you go by the popular education literature) seem to be able to not only set what they are teaching but also decide how it is assessed. There are few schools I have visited that would allow teachers to go ahead and do what they like in the sanctuary of their classrooms.

Miller lets her students start from where they are, reading what they like. Through careful use of feedback, including surveys, she nudges them towards ever harder and more challenging tomes which will suit their interests. She doesn’t seem to ask them to write analytical essays on these texts, however, it is all about the mighty book review.

This is fine, perhaps, at KS2; I am finding it hard to see how such an approach would work, or is in fact right, at KS3 and beyond. Yes, I want my children to be readers, but more than that they need to be literary critics. Engaging with literature critically is a great joy, and no amount of reading can shake my belief in that.

That said, Miller has given me so much food for thought I cannot but recommend this book for English teachers.

Among ideas she has prompted are:

  • How much class time should I set aside for personal reading?
  • How should this change between years?
  • How far should I try to influence or control student choice of reading material?
  • Should I see reading a class text as something different from private reading?

I’ve written before about teaching Dickens to Year 7 (here). That first term was blissful, but we didn’t study full texts. This term, “A Christmas Carol” is markedly harder. The students are enjoying it, but if I’m honest mine aren’t really getting it. I mean, they understand the words, but there isn’t the time for that understanding and that critical evaluation, unless I want us to use the entire academic year to read the thing properly. Year 7 read slowly. Therein lies the rub.

A fabulous colleague of mine has come up with a lovely compromise, and I’d appreciate any thoughts English teachers have: give them the text, give them two or three weeks. During those lessons they read. During their homework for those weeks, they read. They read the entire text. We perhaps do some kind of writing or literacy activity one in every four lessons, to catch those who really do need to spend time on writing skills. But then, after they have read, we go back and select passages, and teach the critical and analytical skills then.

I feel like in not allowing students to just read, I’m pretty much wasting their time in a novel-teaching unit. But I’d be delighted to hear what other schools do.

To conclude, The Book Whisperer is inspiring and thought provoking, and not completely right. Well worth a read.

book whisperer

Autumn 1: Literature Central

I’m writing a retrospective on Autumn 1, and I’ll open by saying it has been a surprisingly good term. I’ll resist the temptation to elaborate, lest the ones who have held me up for 7 weeks and listened to my many woes read such a reflection and have to have words with me. Starting a new school, especially in a new role, was always going to be a challenge. Luckily, I am in the enviable position of my predecessor not only supporting me as line manager, with all the inside knowledge that can be offered from such a vantage, but also having set up an incredible curriculum – which is the subject of this blog.

I will admit, the prospect of Dickens for an entire term was enough to make me run flailing the other way in June. However, I found my own personal joy in Dickens (explored here and here) over the summer, which helped a little.

The other thing that has helped is my year 7 class. One of the “make-or-break” aspects of accepting a Head of Department role, for me, was teaching every key stage – at least in my first year. I wanted to have first-hand experience of the curriculum offer, and also to see what mixed ability teaching looks like in the department (we, like the vast majority, set at KS4) and to be assured it was working well for the students.

Year 7 has always been a mixed experience for me. They are undeniably adorable little humans, so full of excitement and energy. They can also be exhausting, with all the unformed emotional intelligence and neediness that comes of the giant leap from primary to secondary. I have found much more of the former and much less of the latter (in fact, almost none) in my current year 7 class. I do believe a strong head of year has helped them to settle quickly into the school. But I also believe they are tiny geniuses in the making, at least in English.

The scheme for this term has taken students on a Dickens journey, exploring excerpts from his poetry as well as novels such as: Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. I had my reservations about beginning the year by not teaching full texts, however I can’t deny the positive impact this scheme has had on my little ones. (And rest assured: we are doing full texts for the rest of the year.) What this scheme is, in effect, is a run through the key reading and writing skills students need, but using Dickens as a prompt. So, students explored writing a compelling opening using antithesis inspired by “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times” (and the rest).

There have been too many highlights of teaching this particular year 7 class to explore them all, but seeing students of a very wide range of ability access Dickens, empathise with his characters, and enjoy his writing has really changed my mind on the idea of a “depth” curriculum. I will also add that three students have professed to be reading Great Expectations; one even showed me the sweetest page of notes she had taken on the book. Absolutely no-one has said “we’re still doing Dickens?” at any point this term. When I told them we were studying “A Christmas Carol” after half term, the only emotion shown was elation. When students read the description of Miss Havisham and were instructed to highlight anything they found effective, one student piped up: “can’t I just highlight it all?”

The year 10 curriculum has been similarly literary. In fact, in ample time for the new KS3/4 curriculums, my line manager put in place some extremely inspiring schemes of work to prepare students for the rigours of a literature-heavy GCSE, and of couse A-level – our end-goal.

The iGCSE has its drawbacks, however for the scope of the coursework it is a winner for me. This term has been focused on iGCSE coursework tasks, which are in turn descriptive, argumentative and reading-based; however, in contrast to AQA’s “write about something which makes you angry” and other such generia, we have been teaching students about women in nineteenth century literature, and using this as a springboard for their creative and critical writing.

The scheme began with Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”, which my students were undeniably fazed by. It is a tough text, worthy of longer study. Yet their understanding of the implicit ideas in the poem has rendered some powerful pieces of description, as they wrote about the journey she took.

We moved onto Jane Eyre, worthy of a term itself. Students have the book and are, I hope against hope, ploughing through it still as I write. We explored key chapters together and wrote a number of pieces inspired by Bronte’s characters and settings.

Then onto Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which was a true joy to teach. I will never forget the faces of the students when they reached the end of the story – not quite wanting to believe what they were reading, and knowing something had happened which challenged their ideas of what the nineteenth century female writer might be exploring. Another descriptive piece followed.

Finally, we explored the idea of women’s suffrage, linking up with their study of it in year 9 History, and wrote speeches arguing against articles and letters from the time.

What students have gained, I feel, is a healthy overview of some great writing and some central concerns of the nineteenth century. The coursework did not take over, and we did not teach to the task. The coursework was almost incidental. As you can redraft it as many times as needed, there wasn’t the pressure to drill it in and get it perfect. I just wanted my students to be creative and to understand the wider concepts of the time period.

All of which sets them up nicely for their Literature Controlled Assessment next term – although I’m not sure how they or I are going to cope with a more task-driven term.

I can’t by any stretch of the imagination take any modicum of credit for what these children are studying; I can only advocate this approach. Our visiting “mock-Ofsted” inspector described the curriculum throughout KS3 and KS4 as “inspiring.” I have certainly found it to be so as a teacher.

More than ever, I feel like I am certain of what I want my students to have when they leave me, and the only way I am sure they can attain this is through study of challenging and literary texts. I am delighted to be in an environment which has fostered this.

In praise of Dickens

I recently wrote about my surprisingly wondrous experience with “David Copperfield” (book, not person) here, and this prompted me to write a longer post about Dickens.

I alluded to my chequered history with Dickens in the above post. We didn’t get on at all. My expectations were overly high, I think, after watching the movie musical “Oliver!” a hundred and twenty four times, and on reading “Oliver Twist” I was scared by its complexity, desparately searching for characters who were the spit of the film. I was also, clearly, missing the singing and dancing.

The Artful Dodger of the musical is unrecognisable in the book. In the musical, he is affable, exciting and cute – but most of all he is not at all threatening. In the book, he is like a grotesque of a street child – terrifyingly wise beyond his years, an adult in an adult world, despite his childish appearance. In my younger years, I was unable to reconcile this difference. Similarly, the underworld of Victorian London, when not singing and dancing in unison, seemed remarkably unattractive.

Shortly after “Oliver Twist” came “A Christmas Carol.” This was a book I could get along with. A lovely clear moral, nothing overly nasty to deal with, and much simpler language. This was until the story was forever ruined by a subversive lecturer in university, who described the story as an advertisement for capitalist Britain (“Scrooge atones for his wrongs by buying his way into the favour of others”).

I trekked my way without joy through “Bleak House,” only to discover the BBC series (one of the best things I have ever, ever seen) and wish I had spent more effort in the reading. This lack of joy was topped by “Dombey and Son”, which I believed at the time of reading was one of the very worst books ever written.

Yet my recent breakthrough with “David Copperfield” has convinced me that my original beliefs were entirely misguided. Having previously warmed to “Great Expectations” and “The Old Curiosity Shop” (which went to convince me that the problem was not the text, but me – Dickens is Dickens, but in the midst of a crowded University or school term I race through and miss the point), it made me think again about the value of teaching Dickens.

I am beginning year 7 this year with an in-depth unit on Dickens, created before my arrival in my new school. Until this point, my teaching of Dickens was confined to a mere one lesson; one of writing descriptions for year 7, using the opening of “Bleak House” and focusing on the fog. My year 7 found the passage tough, but that only enhanced their enjoyment of it. The major outcome of this lesson related to vocabulary – there were many tricky words in the passage that I glossed for students. I might have even suggested they aim to include some of these words in their own description. Whatever I did, the thing I remember is that they went on using these words, even a week and a month later. For the children I was teaching, vocabulary was power. They loved it.

Every year, we teach a Shakespeare play, and we never think about arguing against this. Shakespeare is, after all, the greatest creator and user of language in the history of the world – undisputed. But why do we – or rather, to make it personal, why did I – think it was acceptable to say “I hate Dickens” for so long? Dickens is clearly the master of the novel; his work endures; its humour endures, its message endures. This reminded me of the David Lodge book where the characters, all university professors, play a game of saying books they haven’t read (it’s like a “never have I ever” for nerds). (There is shock a horror when one admits to having never read “Hamlet”, I recall.) I wonder how many of us are walking around, having never read a Dickens novel, without shame?

My year 7 are not tackling a lengthy Dickens novel. They are reading extensive passages from a variety of works, before moving onto a new scheme of work purely focused on “A Christmas Carol” after half term. I’m not sure what I make of this, but I wonder if it might be worth revisiting Dickens in year 8 or 9. In fact, I wonder about the value of studying only very short excerpts of a novel, and this is something I will quiz my students on.

Enjoying Dickens is so easy. Read it aloud, then read it slowly. Look up the words which are unfamiliar (this goes for me as well as my students). Every student should be taught to enjoy Dickens, lest they end up like me circa eight weeks ago.

Teaching Chaucer to Year 7

There are many things I did not think possible when I began teaching. The above didn’t even cross my mind. I studied The General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales when I was in year 12, and the wonderful Mrs Grinham made us love it (it was hard to dislike anything she taught; she sat at her desk, book in hand, and seemed to simply chat to us in the lightest, richest voice I ever have heard, interspersing literary gems with nuggets about knitting, baking and her grandchildren. I think it was looking at Mrs Grinham in her perfectly tailored clothes and perfectly shaped bob that made me think “I’d like to be like that one day”).

But teaching Chaucer to year 7? How we had struggled with the language and spent the first three weeks entirely blank-faced, as Mrs Grinham patiently explained the intricate meanings of each Middle English word.

So when my colleague, Ms Moran, told us last year she was teaching Chaucer to year 7, I personally thought she was having a laugh.

A word about Ms Moran: you know how people say watching a great teacher is like watching an artist? Ms Moran is probably the Monet of teachers. I have literally never seen a better teacher in my life. Oh, and you know people say: “but no-one is outstanding in every lesson.” Well, she is. I’ve sat next to her in the English office for nearly three years and 100% of her lessons are pure pedagogical genius.

She’s rolled out her scheme of work to the rest of the department for this year and we’re all giving it a go. As I’ve said previously, our department rarely works in tandem with each other. We’re encouraged to teach what we love, so our classes are usually experiencing very different topics at different times in different ways. Yet every year the whole of year 7 have a trip to Canterbury Cathedral, from our school in Southwark. Sound familiar? Almost irresistible for us English teachers. The RS department was keen to enlist English in making year 7 feel like modern-day pilgrims, and give the trip that cross-curricular dimension.

Obviously, the language is hard for them. The first lesson begins with a fifteenth century text of “The Prodigal Son”, a text our Church of England girls (the very vast majority) are familiar with. This eases them into Middle English, of which they explored only odd lines. The first lesson was a run-through of the pilgrims, with some lines from the opening, which they were scared of. Yet the challenge of those words really excited the students; with enough group work, one child suddenly “getting it” rippled through the class.

By the third lesson (after, I will mention, some extremely thoughtful chunking by Ms Moran of the lesson content), my students were quoting from the original text of the Portrait of the Miller to support their points about him. They were even able to explain the ideas behind some of the words. It was a complete joy to hear one student saying “this one’s my favourite line!” and explaining why.

Our pilgrimage to Canterbury was sadly less Chaucerian than we might have hoped. There were three modern coaches, for example; no horses; and a number of electronic pacifiers to ensure we teachers weren’t unduly subjected to mass-singing (though some did break out on the way back).

Of course, many did talk to each other. I wonder if any told stories? When our all-girls school coach was passed by a coach containing members of a male cricket team, there was immense excitement of some would-be wives of Bath.

At the Cathedral, our tour guide (a volunteer, and allegedly nearing 80, though looking and sounding far younger) took a small group of us around the Cathedral, using stories to engage his group. The students were especially excited by the “ghost of Thomas Becket” seen from a certain angle. In the afternoon, they settled onto the grass around the Cathedral to begin to plan their own pilgrimage story, complete with moral aspect.

So far, so good. This experience has taught me that there isn’t really a limit on difficulty of text. Properly supported, students will enjoy and learn with any text. Why not make it a great one?

Although my aim of teaching Beowulf in its original Old English may be a step to far…