I teach, therefore I am.
In my last week at my previous school, I went to an outdoors activity centre with my form to celebrate their success in the inter-form merit system. The ‘Leap of Faith’ was one of the activities: it involved climbing a ‘tower’ (a tall thin piece of wood); clawing oneself onto a tiny wooden platform; raising yourself up with your arms to standing position and then jumping out into the air to catch onto a trapeze. Impressed by the efforts of my students to brave the task, and emboldened by their heartwarming encouragement I agreed to have a go. Clambering inelegantly up the shaking tower was somewhat scary but mostly just awkward; hauling myself up onto the wooden square and standing up was – however – truly terrifying. I could hear my disembodied voice repeating “I can’t do this” whilst my body pulsed with an utter shaking fear that suggested the same. With a momentum entirely powered by the shouts of support from my wonderful form, I eventually raised myself up to standing. Now ALL I had to do was jump. My legs convinced me that they did not know how – “we never learned, you’ll just have to fall” – but within me a steely, determined inner voice began to protest. Starting as a whisper, it built louder and louder clamouring to be heard and it told me that I had to jump, I had to catch that trapeze and I had to at least try because of – it paused and looked down onto the collection of grinning, brave, prize-winning, support network of students beneath me – them. I had no choice, I jumped. I jumped and I caught the trapeze.
Looking back at the first term at my new school, and in retrospect back to the moment of my appointment in March of this year, I realise that it has felt that I have been almost constantly at the point of that jump; at that heart-racing moment of adrenaline, fear and underlying determination. A place, might I add, where I have never felt more alive or exhilarated. The first time I felt this was at the very beginning when I was assigned the momentous and wondrous task of building our English curriculum. My job was to create a challenging, knowledge rich curriculum for our Year 7 cohort, alongside a 6 week Enrichment project with MFL based on using ‘London as our Classroom’ and to develop a whole school reading programme. Whist they all tie in together, I will leave the details of the Enrichment project and development of whole school reading (which I presented on at #TLT13) to separate blog posts to follow. This post is about the process of designing the core curriculum; about the journey from the moment I accepted the post in March of this year through to the end of this first term (almost 9 months, which seems fitting) where my curriculum and I made a leap from dream to reality.
Excitement, followed by sheer panic. I wasn’t sure where to start, so I went to my comfort zone; I read. Educational books, fiction books that I had read when I was a student; old course notes; notepads and paperwork from the beginning of my degree through to my current point. I immersed myself in what other schools and departments were doing, pouring through blogs and websites and I asked the Twitter community for their thoughts. It wasn’t that I wanted to just take on other people’s views or that I didn’t have an instinctual vision but I was so overwhelmed by the amount of ideas I had shooting around in my mind, that I had to step away from them – let them sit in the back of my mind waiting patiently like a Christmas cake which I was occasionally dousing in brandy.
I immediately received brilliant, inspiring support and advice from the teaching community. Freya Odell (@fod3) had recently started as a Head of Faculty and gave me a number of tips and guidance, as well as directing me to her faculty and department’s planning. She left me with two important questions which framed her thoughts when designing curriculum: ‘What do I have to get into my curriculum? What are the key issues for my school?’ I decided that based on my answers to these questions my ideal curriculum had to: challenge my students to make outstanding academic progress; provide them with a deep base of literary and linguistic knowledge (as well as teaching the necessary skills to engage with this); and fill them with a life-long [I said ideal!] love of all things literary.
I felt that in order to do this, I needed something to link the curriculum together. Debra Kidd (@debrakidd) had been really helpful and sent me schemes of work and curriculum ideas that she had used in her work with a number of different schools. I was particularly interested to see how she had worked to link English with other subjects across the school, specifically with philosophy. I had already begun to work with philosophy within my schemes of work at KS4 and KS5 and was interested in the idea of using this as a way to link units of work within a year. I liked the idea that it added a relevance and context to the learning – drawing students to consider important ethical and philosophical problems within the texts they were studying. In my previous school we had looked at our KS3 curriculum design; I was working with the brilliant and inspirational Chris Waugh (@Edutronic_Net) at the time and his idea to use themes across the year to link work together had been something I found extremely profitable. I wanted an approach that touched on this thematic vision but also incorporated philosophy. I therefore decided to create a question which would stand as our frame for the year: ‘How Should We Live?’ Our units of work would link back to this question, it would be made explicit throughout the year and students would build a knowledge of different answers to this question based on the texts we studied.
Having determined the shape of the year, I was concerned about the text choices. David Didau (@LearningSpy) had posted about the importance of studying texts with cultural capital in his blog post: Redesigning a Curriculum.
“I want our curriculum to enrich our students’ cultural capital; to give them access to a broad base of interesting and useful cultural concepts into which they will be able to contextualise new ideas and knowledge in a rich tapestry of learning. To this end, I want to try delivering English through a range of good quality texts that will increase students’ ability to make links and connections between their cultural heritage and the world in which they live.”
I found myself nodding in agreement with this and also considering how this text choice would be imperative to my ‘aiming higher’ vision for my students. I wanted my students to be exposed with ‘good quality texts’, which would represent the canon and beyond. I wanted them to be enriched with the knowledge of the canon and of the consequent influences of these texts upon our literary culture. However, I also felt – and still feel – passionate about the power of contemporary texts, as works of literature themselves but also as a way to enrich and illuminate the study of classic texts, rather than just seeing them as a consequence. A defining moment of my own career in English was a study of a contemporary fiction module in my fourth year of university – suddenly I woke up to why I was studying English and how it linked to the world around me. Text choice was also a discussion that I had with Joe Kirby (joe_kirby) after reading his fantastic blog on the importance of knowledge in the English curriculum: The Double Helix. I was debating which novel to study and was weighing up the benefits of studying a recent text versus studying a classic. He expressed an opinion that it was more worthwhile and challenging for students to study a text that had lasted the test of time. I agreed with him to some extent but later regretted not further explaining my own views about the enriching nature of studying contemporary texts. My mind was now clear that my curriculum had to include both; I liked the idea of teaching the chronology of literature and engaging with classic texts but this had to be alongside a study of linked contemporary texts and texts chosen by the students themselves. I wanted a curriculum that involved them as well as imparting information to them.
A similar tension arose when I thought about the teaching of grammar. In Didau’s post he advocates the explicit de-contextualised teaching of grammar. Meeting Caroline Cullen (@MsCCullen) who had just started as one of the HODs for English at the Greenwich Free School had been an invaluable experience in many ways but had also brought this idea of grammar teaching to the surface, with their school also dedicating lesson time to de-contextualised grammar teaching. My own work as part of a research project with Debra Myhill’s team at the University of Exeter, entitled ‘Grammar for Writing’, had made me realise the value of explicit teaching of grammar. However, I was still not convinced about teaching whole lessons devoted to it, I liked the way in which the project allowed us to design schemes of work which specifically taught features of grammar as part of the craft of being a writer. It certainly opened my eyes to the value of grammar and the value of teaching grammar. I therefore decided that one of my units of work would keep up this focus, with grammar otherwise being taught throughout the year in context of what we were learning.
At some point I stopped. I had read and thought enough, and it was time to raise myself up and get ready to jump. This process was difficult and involved many a false start, not least because curriculum is something which constantly adapts based on pupil needs, my own reflections and feedback from other teachers and interested parties. Leaving aside the whole school reading focus and the enrichment project for the moment (blog posts to follow) this is my curriculum outline at this point (I foresee continuing revisions as the year goes on).
Sharing this journey is a jump in itself but starting this year was the biggest leap and the outline of the curriculum cannot fully show the impact of our studies. It is in the lessons themselves where I have felt my hands come into contact with that trapeze; it has been seeing our question “How Should We Live?” emblazoned across the students’ books and getting them to turn back to it after acting out a gory scene from Beowulf; it has been debating whether Edward Snowden was heroic or villainous and considering what this made us think about Beowulf as a hero; it has been sharing memories of the first stories we were told and creating epic beginnings of our own; it was the moment when another teacher asked one of our EAL students, who can barely speak English, if he knew what evil was and he said: “Yes, Grendel!” It has also been about the conversations I’ve had with my students where they have admitted to finding the work challenging and the moments of pride as we work out ways to push beyond this fear of challenge and support them to make their own leaps forward. Of course there will always be times when I will feel like I’ve mis-jumped, that I haven’t quite caught the trapeze but now I have a towered structure and a platform to stand on, which have been built with the help of so many wonderful teachers and students who don’t all get a mention here, and to whom I am forever grateful. It’s a structure that will need re-visiting and adapting but right now it feels strong enough to let me jump.