Human Flourishing

Against an extended KS4 or shortened KS3

In 2013, Michael J Reiss and John White wrote a paper called An Aims-based Curriculum. They advocate that schools should be striving to achieve two simple goals: ‘to lead a life that is personally flourishing’ and ‘to help others do so, too.’ Whilst these statements may seem too broad and akin to motivational-poster-speak, there is a great deal in them that has been echoed through time – education and knowledge as an end unto itself. The document in full is well worth reading and breaks these two aims down into fine detail – addressing moral education, basic needs, human flourishing and rich background understanding.

Recently, there have been a number of Twitter polls asking questions about early entry for GCSE and/or shortened KS3/3yr KS4 with an end goal to improve Y11 results. In one, a staggering majority of respondents said they already did, or they planned to, or they were thinking about it. I can’t help but hear Amanda Spielman’s words ringing in my ears:

“Are we all clear about what is being lost from that missing year and are we happy to lose it?” (gov.uk, 2017)

There is more excellent, absorbing, life-changing and life-affirming literature in the world than we could possibly begin to cover. As English teachers we know we are only scratching the surface. We are constantly treading a fine line between those texts that are culturally important and open up the world to our students, and those texts, outside of cultural capital, that provide us with classroom moments where jaws drop and the power of words becomes real. Do we really want to lose this to working on Lang P2 Q4? I know that’s an oversimplification, but there is a point to be made. What are we really gaining through early entry or extended KS4?

To me it feels like a race to the bottom. Because one school is doing it, another feels they must in order to compete. But I think everyone loses.

Far from tackling the ‘Wasted Years’ of KS3 (here), and making them purposeful, there is a risk of devaluing them further. The idea of using KS3 to build firm foundations, over 3 years is lost.  This is where we have opportunities to nurture human flourishing – SoW on different voices, on gender, on race – on human experiences across time, as well as developing knowledge of discrete elements of writing, reading and speaking- tone, form, vocabulary, inference and so on. Martin Robinson in his post A Narrowing Curriculum states that ‘a good education doesn’t offer one lens through which to see the world, rather it offers a variety of lenses’ and that ‘reductive pressures’ should be resisted.

As well as losing valuable content, we deny students the right to mature. The writing of Y10 students across a cohort is very different to the writing of Y11. Even in this final few weeks there is evidence of pennies dropping & lightbulb moments. And anxiety, of the healthy & measured kind, is not only natural but also a great tool for bringing things into sharp focus.

Maybe rather than asking whether we should extend KS4 or opt for early entry, the questions we should ask are: What can we do to make our KS3 provision better? How can we ensure they are KS4 ready? What specific knowledge do they need to start Y10? Perhaps, most importantly, if we are aiming for principled curriculum design, how can we enable our students to flourish?

 

References:

Michael J Reiss and John White (2013):  An Aims-based Curriculum: The significance of human flourishing for schools 

Martin Robinson: martin robinson.wordpress.com

The Wasted Years: http://www.gov.uk

HMCI’s commentary: recent primary and secondary curriculum research: http://www.gov.uk

 

 

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No Bells, No Whistles.

This term I have opted for simple, routine and impactful tasks for Y11. Two weeks in and we are in the ebb and flow of recap, revisit, write. I was thoroughly inspired by Dawn Cox’s post ( here  ) and wanted to make sure students continued to work hard right up to the exam. In past I have certainly been guilty of being fooled by students’ overconfidence, so this year – repetition (do it again, and then again-but better) is key. I don’t think there is any substitute for reading exemplar responses and writing responses in the run up to exams. I know posters are beautiful, and I like a multi-coloured-pen poster as much as the next  person, but our time in class should be spent sweating the hard stuff – the quiet wrestle with remembering and putting thoughts into sentences.

Here is what we are doing (and again, I owe much to Dawn Cox for sharing her approach) :

Lesson 1

  1. Recap previous learning: Language P1 Section A
  2. Revisit content : An Inspector Calls. Focus on how to articulate your central argument/interpretation, ambitious vocabulary etc.
  3. Look at exemplar exam response model: Gerald as an untrustworthy character. Annotate for AOs

Lesson 2

  1. Recap previous learning: Content from AIC
  2. Give exam question: plan together. How does Priestley present the theme of guilt and remorse?
  3. Write response in timed conditions

Lesson 3

  1. Feedback on exam response – guilt and remorse.
  2. Revisit content : Macbeth. Focus on how to articulate your central interpretation, ambitious vocabulary etc.
  3. Look at exemplar exam response model: marriage of Mac & LM (Act 1 sc 7) Annotate for AOs

Lesson 4

  1. Recap on learning: Content from Macbeth
  2. Give exam question: plan together. Change in Macbeth (Act 5 Sc 5 ‘Tomorrow…’)
  3. Write response in timed conditions

and repeat ad infinitum, interleaving more content from language papers and other lit sections.

I worried at first students would find the whole process horrendous but it seems to have had a calming and reassuring effect on students, as well as bringing on board a few who have been battling me using their mind power for the past 18 months.

Here are some of the resources I’ve been using. I hope they are useful. The key with the ‘Final Revisit’ sheets and the model answers is that the emphasis is on reusing vocabulary to express the more complex ideas, as well as how to stay focused on a central, controlling idea in the texts. The vocabulary, we have been embedding throughout Y10 and 11 (more here) and the controlling idea or authorial intention, I have written about here.

Recap, revisit, write.

 

Sources:

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Jo Heathcote and Alexandra Melville, Collins (2018)

An Inspector Calls. Julia Burchill and Lindsay Skinner, Collins (2018)

@GCSE_Jekyll

@GCSE_Macbeth

@Aninspectortho2

 

 

Should we make a bigger deal of authorial intention?

Structure comments, analysis – make sure you zoom in now, methods, reference to themes. Ooh, and don’t forget context whatever you do.

Good writing comes from deep understanding and exposure to modelled responses, over and over again.  The more I write model answers for my students, especially under timed conditions, the more I realise how nuts some of my past advice has been – either confusing, counterproductive, or completely unattainable.

The challenge for English teachers is two fold, especially in mixed ability contexts. On the one hand, we need to get the broadest range of students over the baseline standard, as is the gift of accountability measures. On the other is the obligation to push students to reach for the stars. Sometimes these two things can feel at odds. Do they really need to know this? Will this confuse the issue? Is this too limiting an approach? If there is one thing teachers are outstanding at, it’s finding sticks to beat themselves with!

The AQA mark scheme for literature responses looks like this:

AQA lit markscheme

If we teach to the top, which I think we must, words like ‘critical’ and ‘exploratory’ require much more than formulaic responses. These essays long for a hint that the student can hold more than one line of argument and still steer their essay in a straight line, with a clear guiding thesis. Can we facilitate both the ‘consistent’ and ‘explained’ essays of level 3 and 4, as well as the higher level approaches, without making the whole house of cards fall?

Part of that juggling act, holding more than one line of argument, is the confidence to allow room for ambiguity, and complexity. Before we can expect students to write confidently about multiple possibilities, they must be encouraged to think about multiple possibilities, and teachers must be clear in how they want to teach multiple possibilities.

I think it is a fairly common human trait to reject ambiguity. Even as adults we do not cope well with unstable ground, and my feeling is that for teenagers this is even less so.  Definitive statements are far easier to deal with. This is also true of complexity. One reason seems so much more satisfying than 5 or 6, each with varying levels of impact. The problem with many of the GCSE Literature texts is that they are chosen precisely because of their ambiguity and complexity – their richness and opportunity for multiple interpretation. We are doing students a disservice and, perhaps restricting grades, if we don’t open up this ambiguity for them. This is perhaps one of the limiting factors of knowledge organisers. Whilst they serve a vitally important purpose (and I am a huge fan), reducing a text to a single A4 sheet leaves little room for knowledge that deals with ambiguity, subtlety, intricacy and interpretation of a GCSE literature text.

However, we can head this off at the pass and give students the knowledge and tools they need. Chris Curtis, here and Sana Master, here reflect on how to cope with ambiguity in texts and express it. Both are excellent posts in addressing this.

Here is what I am going to do when we return:

  1. Remind students explicitly of the complexity and ambiguity in their key texts. Use mindmaps to determine factors that detract from or support the central idea/thesis and ensure students are comfortable with these perspectives.
  2. Model paragraphs, that help students juggle 2 ideas together. Remind students of language scaffolds that help with evaluative statements to give a clear opinion: whereas, ultimately, whilst, primarily, fundamentally, critically,  peripheral, arguably  etc.
  3. Ask students to define authorial intentions, so that they are clear about what the writer was trying to do throughout the text. This can be the driver for strong opinion and unpicking effects analysis. A good way into unpicking authorial intention is to ask students questions about the characters if they existed in alternative realities: What would Macbeth do if there were no witches? What would  he do if his wife said ‘Yeah, you’re probably right. We should leave it’ ? What would Jekyll do if he couldn’t separate himself? What would happen to the couple in Winter Swans if they didn’t see the swans? Would they get back together? These questions can help students tease apart the details from the intention. Authorial intention for AQA texts may look something like this:

Jekyll and Hyde: To expose the hypocrisy of Victorian society

Macbeth: To reveal the nature of man (humankind)

An Inspector Calls: To warn of the immorality of a capitalist society

Winter Swans: To reveal the strength of a relationship even in conflict

Mother Any Distance: To explore how complex relationships become when you reach young adulthood

We can rarely say with absolute certainty what the author’s intention was, which is why there is a tendency in student responses to focus more on what the author does (the language, the imagery, the plot!) rather than starting with what they intended. However, this can lead to poorly constructed essays which read as either ‘what happened when’, or ‘a journey through the extract in a hundred methods’.

Once students have confidently embedded their understanding of the authorial intentions for the text, they can start to shape responses which use this as their driving thesis.

How does Shakespeare present the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?

The relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is important but certainly not the main cause of the tragedy in Macbeth. Though this extract suggests Lady Macbeth plays a more dominant role, this is peripheral to the main action of the play. 

To what extent is Sybil Birling responsible for the death of Eva Smith?

Sybil plays a critical role in An Inspector Calls. However, it is more what Sybil represents, along with other characters in the play, that is ultimately responsible for Eva’s death. 

How does Stevenson convey fear and terror in this extract and in the novel as a whole? 

Fear and terror are a key feature of this extract and Jekyll and Hyde. Stevenson used fear to comment on Victorian society and the dual nature of man. 

The benefit of starting with authorial intention is that it gives students a licence to write about two opposing points in their essay. The extract may not match up with the whole play, the statement may not reveal the whole truth. They do not feel their essay is confused because they have stated at the outset ‘it’s not quite that simple’.

 

Any comments would be most welcome.

 

 

 

Waving, not drowning

Excellent delivery of subject knowledge in English goes a very long way. But, like it or not at this time of year it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves that we are in the company of some quite  anxious young people. Some have glimpsed the ocean that lies beyond July and it’s not that welcoming – just a endless sea of nothing. Or so they think.

It is also useful to remember that English is a subject about ‘voice’ (creative, critical, persuasive) and an element of that is giving away something of themselves. With some of the students we know who really, really struggle, committing your voice to paper is a small act of courage and one we can easily overlook in the days to come.

What things can we say to our Y11 to help steady the ship at such an uncertain time?

  1. No one knows your target grade. I read this the other day on a blog (end of term brain – I cannot remember who, sorry!!) and I thought it was a fantastic reminder. Y11 need reassuring that the examiner has no expectations (positive or negative). They have everything to play for on the paper.
  2. Don’t stay stuck. Leave a few lines and get on with the next bit you can do. If a sentence won’t form in your head move on and come back to it.
  3. Have a mantra. Mine is How do they feel? How do you know? How do they feel? How do you know? Having prompt question mantras can help a derailed student get back on track when time management and pressure become a little overwhelming.
  4. Gaze at the paper – not the room, not the other students, not the clock. Read, re-read and re-read again. Everything they’re looking for (especially true of Language P1 and P2) is there.
  5. GCSE is a hoop, A level is interpretation. University is independence. Reassure students it is okay not to have independent views for J&H. It is ok to make the same point everyone else is making. Y11 are hopefully at the beginning of an exciting academic journey and demonstrating understanding and an overview are critical at this stage.
  6. Be your own critical best friend. Physically put your work next to a model answer and check whether your work looks and sounds the same. If not, be honest, what is missing and where should it go?
  7. I’m going to answer this in timed conditions with you! I’ve started doing this this year and was amazed at first at the hit my handwriting took. It opened up the realities of what they need to do in 10 minutes. We need to be ever mindful of over complicating tasks and our instructions. Sharing responses with the class is also a powerful exercise for building trust and self-confidence in students.
  8. You are brilliant. As HoDs and teachers, we carry our own burden of anxiety and it can be easy to pass this on – work harder, work faster, do more, do more. Telling a young person when they are wading through mud that they ARE edging forward is sometimes all that’s needed to keep them going.

Improving Close Language Analysis

Slide22

 

We are what we repeatedly do. At the moment, our students are repeatedly writing weak close language analysis.

In our AQA GCSE breakdown for language the average score for Q2 (P1) and Q3 (P2) was much lower than I had anticipated. This is a worry, mainly because the ability to write good close language analysis is the nuts and bolts of all four exams. Unless we get this single thing right, we are unlikely to make huge gains on other parts of the exam.

During our INSET department time, we agreed that we would make this, and only this, the focus of our starter activities all term for Y11.

Attached is a simple 28 slide PPT, with single quotes from both literature texts and unseen fiction (slides 1-5 Jekyll and Hyde, slides 6-10 Macbeth, slides 11-15 L&R poetry, slides 16-20 An Inspector Calls, slides 21-28  unseen fiction).

Every Y11 teacher will be using this for a variety of starter activities throughout term 3. These include:

  1. Identifying what language techniques are being used.
  2. Identifying which are the rich language words in the quote.
  3. Identifying the contextual importance of the quote (the point in the narrative, the themes it highlights, the character information revealed etc.)
  4. Analysing the effect of individual words, specifically answering the question of why this word? by considering synonyms and connotations
  5. Analysing the effect of the word or phrase in sentence and in context.
  6. Constructing short analysis paragraphs drawing together the above, using a variety of modelled frameworks which do not include ‘This shows that….’
  7. Magpie-ing (stealing) the good work of others to improve own work.
  8. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

 

Taking the quotes from literature texts means we will also be surreptitiously revising literature content. The little voice inside my head that reminds me of  the ‘need to interleave’ is calmed knowing that students will have to draw on their factual knowledge in order to write with fluency about each quote. The bottom line is also that – without the confidence to do this properly, all writing becomes reduced to thin, formulaic, descriptive, and often very short responses.

Please feel free to use and adapt the PPT here.

 

Ode to Subject Knowledge (& Keats)

I’m fairly sure I will remember this Christmas as the Keats Christmas. I spent much of the first week completely engrossed in his life and poetry, preparing to teach it for A Level. I have to confess I can bear more than a passing resemblance to a truculent teenager when it comes to reading greats and classics. I think we can all be guilty of the odd inner shoulder shrug and a ‘nah, not for me’ when it comes to acknowledging the deep significance of something we are, at that moment in time, completely ignorant of.
To put this into context, I went to a woefully inadequate school. My polytechnic-turned -university education almost completely ignored literature pre-20th Century (apart from John Donne bizarrely, who I still love to this day) as I sat in lecture after lecture on colonial and post-colonial literature and the literature of violence. I left with the impression that literature was a chaotic bundle of random authors, shouting into the wind. I’d had no opportunity to build schematic understanding of the chronology of literature, the literary movements or the links to history – other than the impact of colonialism, of course. As a result, I sure understood imposter syndrome when I first took on the role of Head of English.
The beauty of subject knowledge though, is how easily it can be fixed. The biggest hurdle is ourselves. I recognise my inner moody adolescent too well. The fear of the unknown still exists – accepting what we don’t know about our subject can be as daunting and terrifying, as it is thrilling, but I now jump in head first and know that I have nothing to lose.
Keats may not be to everyone’s tastes, but there is something about his approach that has struck a really deep chord. He was no academic scholar and derided by many of the establishment throughout his painfully short career. But he studied Shakespeare, Milton, Dante and others with obsessive intent. He excelled because of his habits and repeated actions, not because of his class, his schooling or his family. There is something really very admirable about this. Reading his poetry is like stepping into a kaleidoscope. There seems to be an infinite number of worlds (allusions, references, cultural nods) housed within each image. The more you know, the more you realise you have yet to learn.

This makes preparing to teach it slightly daunting. Reading Peps Mccrea’s Memorable Teaching reminded me of the catastrophic mind-mess that can be created when teachers present their material in a disorganised, overloaded, thoughtless way. I am most reminded of my mum asking my brother, now with a physics PhD, to help me with my maths homework when we were younger; an actual mind-mess for sure, and totally counterproductive. We are therefore going to start at the beginning, as Keats did:

  1. Introduction to classical myths & legends, especially those that feature prominently in Keats’ work.
  2. Look at how classical allusions have permeated into our culture and have shaped  much of our culture today – especially with reference to the work of Matt @Positivteacha and Doug @DoWise
  3. Use a history of literature timeline to root Keats in his era, but enable students to look back across time – connecting him to our work on Shakespeare, tragic conventions, and the romantic poets from the GCSE poetry anthology . This fantastic guide created by MissR @AlwaysLearnWeb here is an excellent summary.
  4. Prime students to look out for the key themes in Keats’ works in advance –  conflict that exists in beauty, gender, permanence & immortality, sensuality & the ‘lived life’, and his own identity as a poet.

I hope to share resources, if I put any together. But, I have a feeling that the work itself is as rich a resource as we will need – and will be more than enough to keep us busy.

If I get the opportunity again, to teach something I’ve never taught before, I will grab it! I  may not always love it; I may, in fact, really dislike it, but I think it’s important we’re taken out of our comfort zones and stretch ourselves from time to time. Really learning something new as a teacher is quite a humbling experience, and one I hope I can communicate to my students.

‘Had we but world enough, and time…’

The OverPromise

Debate Club. Reading Club. Parent meeting. Parent phone call. Mock exam small group support. Middle leader meeting. CPD training. Department meeting. Teach. Mark. Plan. A week like any other.

Perhaps one of the problems of the teaching profession is a tendency to over promise, for both others and ourselves. We want to do more than we are capable of. Teachers are usually, by their nature, committed to making a difference. Not super, not heroes, but pretty serious about the job they do.  The world of school can read like a series of Matrix codes floating above the heads of every individual. We know how to make a difference, we can crack the code, but we are always in conflict with reality – facing a lack of real time and human resources. Even that doesn’t stop our engrained desire to solve, fix and make good with the world.  And that is often where many problems begin.

We tell the anxious Y11 student we can mark that quickly. We tell ourselves that we can run off a scheme of work whilst sipping a latte and munching on a Danish pastry, and be done in time for lunch (actually, some of #teamenglish can). We tell ourselves we can do it all, but we can’t.

Sometimes, others over-promise for us, A fairly innocuous pledge to support a child, in a meeting between a leader and a parent, can equate to hours of work over time for the classroom teacher; time that unfortunately, does not exist.

Likewise, systems can over promise on what they can deliver. Designed to evidence what we do, they are invariably cumbersome and fraught with problems. Perhaps, when the focus is too firmly fixed on the promise of the solution, it is easy to lose sight of actual process teachers will have to go through to get there.  Evidence favours things that are swift, neat and linear. But as many English teachers would agree – swift, neat and linear are concepts that don’t always sit well with the progress of something like writing.

Expectations from institutions and the government continue to move steadily skywards, set against the backdrop of teacher shortages and a financial squeeze. Given that I’m more Mini-me than Morpheus, I have no power to challenge the over-promises made by governments on my behalf. However, I can keep my own in check:

No, I can’t run a third club this week, even though you are wonderful students and I’m sure it would be fun. Sorry.