I teach, therefore I am.
In the last five years, this concern has gathered more voice and in the wake of educational nightmares, such as the AQA English GCSE scandal, seems more pressing. Equally – despite this pressure – teachers have been working hard to fight the ‘stress’ and to adopt a model of education, as articulated by John Hattie, where teachers lead students to:
‘see the world from the viewpoint of others, to understand human weakness and injustices, and to work towards developing cooperation and working with others. […] to develop […] a genuine concern for self and others, to teach the importance of evidence to counter stereotypes and closed thinking, to promote accountability of the person as responsible agent, and to vigorously promote critical thinking and the importance of dissenting voices.’ (Hattie, 2012)
How we go about doing this is another challenge and I turn again to Hattie; ‘All of this [the above] depends on subject matter knowledge, because enquiry and critical evaluation is not divorced from knowing something.’ (Hattie, 2012)
Reflecting on this today, I thought how it linked to the letter posted by @debrakidd – where teachers have expressed their belief in contextualised knowledge and explicit teaching of critical thinking skills. Currently we do have room to teach like this and I hope – new curriculum aside – we will continue to pursue this model of teaching. Yet the challenges of school and external pressures means that we don’t always make the most of our ability to bring academic and “real life” skills together. In fact the very separation of the academic and the “real” is problematic in itself; as if school life is but a Neverland . When we start to think about real world context, we automatically think about taking the learning outside into the wider world. This is despite the fact that research has proven that student engagement in their learning soars when taken out of the classroom, but that if this is not supported with in-class work; the impact on achievement is not equal. Why? I believe it is to do with a love of categorising, which is apparent when considering an average school day; students travel from lesson to lesson, revision club to sports club and between respective homework assignments without any clear link between what they are doing. We actually go so far as to create an idea that subjects are distinct and isolated, even competitive, despite the fact that we know from our own lives that is not true. Indeed, the greatest point in my learning so far (which didn’t happen until university!) has been understanding how much interchange there is between the subjects; that IT IS ALL linked up.
With these ideas in mind, I have been exploring some ways to bring context to the work in my classroom both in my role as English Teacher and as a Form Tutor. I share these as evidence of how I believe thinking about context can have a positive impact on students and (as I am constantly gleaning ideas from other blogs) also as a selection of ideas that may prove useful to other teachers.
I get 15 precious minutes (3 or 4 times a week) with my lovely Year 9 form and am constantly working to make this both meaningful and enjoyable. Being a lover of (terrible) word play, this has come under the guise of ‘Newsday Tuesday’, ‘Wildcard Wednesday’ and ‘Thursday Tunes’.
Newsday Tuesday is a session where each week two members of the form present a summary of the week’s news stories. This means that students are getting used to thinking about and reviewing the news whilst also having to entertain and inform their form group. It’s been a success but is definitely a work in progress. Some students have flown with it, taking ownership of the stories and presenting them with journalistic panache. Conversely there are those who have not prepared and end up reluctantly reading from a last minute selection of newspapers. Lessons have been learnt from this – by both myself and the students – mostly about the skills of preparation and planning. However these failings have been as useful as the successes and I have particularly found that it has developed an interesting culture in the form room; the students are vocal in their support of those who put in the time to create something (which is not always those they are in classes/friendship groups with) and good-humouredly chastise their less organised peers.
Wildcard Wednesday (sometime we’re in class, sometimes we have an additional assembly) now includes a debate chosen either by me or by the form class. It’s organised randomness. Sometimes I throw a topic out there, or I get a student to suggest something or I collect questions/ideas on paper from the whole class. The result is that I get to hear from my form on issues that matter to them and I challenge them to think about ideas/concepts beyond their everyday studies. Topics have ranged from the PSHE type (friendships, relationships, sex) through to the topical (the horse meat scandal, football, the Page 3 debate). It’s not revolutionary but it is a good way to work on “the development of the whole child” and has worked best when it’s been tied into something they are currently studying or a topic mentioned in their KS3 assembly.
Thursday Tunes is more whimsical; a student picks a song that they like and plays it to the form, with an explanation as to why they’ve chosen it. It’s about creating a positive atmosphere and also honouring the lives the students lead. Music is such a personal reflection of ourselves and I like that this allows students a moment to express themselves as individuals when, as EE Cummings says,
“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing the best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”
As an English teacher, I find that Year 11 is the year group with whom the struggle to balance the clash between academic pressures and whole child development is as its most intense. Having completed their English Language Controlled Assessments in Year 10, I was left with the daunting task of teaching the Shakespeare and English Literary Heritage assessment. This has historically been a bit of a challenge, mostly because students seem to come with a set mentality about Shakespeare. One of my students – in a survey I did at the end of Year 10 – commented that Shakespeare was his least favourite part of the course; we hadn’t studied any that year.
I decided to take a step away from my normal route – ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Frankenstein’ – and had a metaphorical riffle through the Shakespearean catalogue. I decided on ‘The Taming of the Shrew’; it was a play that I had never taught and I thought that it would pose some interesting questions about gender for my all male class. Looking at the list of English Heritage authors I found that, for some happy but confusing reason, Sylvia Plath was considered an English heritage author. Armed with a copy of ‘Ariel’, I created a scheme of work which compared Plath’s poems with ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ under the umbrella of feminism. This involved us discussing what feminism meant, looking at examples of how women are treated across society and engaging with current debates such as the Julia Gillard speech. The work produced was the best, the richest and the most independent that I have ever seen plus it was a pleasure to teach. It helped that I found the topic exciting, but it also made sense for the students as it routed Shakespeare into a contemporary context. This was further developed when we discussed the work of Dr Emma Smith (I was lucky enough to hear her talk twice last year; as as a Keynote speaker at the BFI/LATE conference and at the English and Media Centre Sixth Form Conference) who explores how Shakespeare’s comedies are comparable to the film rom-coms of today and therefore not to be seen as a direct representation of life at the time. Therefore not a representation of how women were treated at the time. The sophistication of thinking required to consider this resulted in sophisticated and nuanced work from my students.
On the subject of sophisticated thinking; we’re now preparing for the horror show that is the Non-Fiction exam, so instead of pouring over past papers we’ve been studying satire from a grammar focus. This sounds bizarre but came about after creating a KS3 ‘Grammar for Writing’ scheme of work as part of the research on teaching grammar in context that Debra Myhill and her team have been doing at the University of Exeter. It’s a KS$ development, which hopes to tackle the non-fiction reading and writing skills in an original way. Satire proved to be a great way to do this, as we discovered when looking at an article by Charlie Brooker on Justin Bieber:
Much of the humour comes in the way Brooker plays with sentence types and structures. The use of a subordinate clause how now become in my mind the “bad-um-tish” moment. I’ll be publishing the scheme and its results later this year, but I’m hopeful it will be a success.
Mostly what I’ve been trying to do is explicitly think about context and wider concepts when I develop my learning programmes. I’ve found philosophical ideas to be particularly useful; debate and inquiry have always been central to my teaching but now I am explicitly tying philosophical debates and questions into the schemes of work. Year 12 work on ‘The Road’ and Year 11 creative responses to ‘Touching the Void’ have both recently been enhanced by discussion on the following quotations from Nietzsche on suffering.
I have also used ideas from Plato to think about play in the classroom (watch out for this in upcoming blog) when designing lessons and Freud’s theories – despite their failings – seem to link to pretty much everything. By focusing on wider questions and concepts when designing programmed of learning allows the texts I teach to have meaning and hopefully develop students who will be critical, inquisitive, sensitive and engaged citizens of the world. For as one of my Year 8 students wisely reflected:
‘[the best] thing about school is learning things and finding out different ways of life and how to handle it.’