Most of my blog posts are about leadership or curriculum. Some are trips down pedagogical roads of yore, for a bit of a laugh really. Some are personal. This one is about my first love: teaching English. Thank you to Sarah Barker for giving me a prod to share more Englishy things after she came to see me teach my year 11 group at researchED Birmingham. It was a live lesson, taught at the conference. The group were all my group. They weren’t especially ‘selected’ for the day. They weren’t prepped beforehand. We didn’t do anything special. We just did what we normally do. So this blog post builds upon that really, and some of the things my colleague, Rekha Dhinsa, and I, shared.
I am interested in perspectives. I am interested how things are seen. I teach in a school that has a high percentage of Pupil Premium pupils, and a number of newly-arrived pupils, so realistically our Pupil Premium percentage would be much greater than it is. In one year group, 92% of the cohort are Pupil Premium. We have many refugees who have left the ravaged streets of war-torn countries all over the globe. Our school is in the top ten percent of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country.
And yet our school doesn’t need to be ‘seen’ as challenging, although our community does have challenges. Our school is wonderfully, beautifully diverse. On the playground you hear many exquisite languages spoken. There are magnificent names of pupils, of all which I learn to pronounce correctly, because your name is important – it’s part of your identity. Our pupils enrich our school. If our young people growing up in challenging areas, as I did, are patronised, or thought less of, or are expected less of, then this is something I feel utterly compelled to challenge, and to change. Because going to school in a challenging area simply should not mean that you can’t access a great education. As I have said before, a great education is a right, not a privilege.
So, as you can see, I am interested in perspectives, and this helped to frame some ideas I have explored with my year 11 group. We have considered the power of the gaze in the Power and Conflict poetry, and I’m going to share some of these ideas with you in this blog post and in a subsequent blog post. I am also going to share with you some of the ways in which I organise and structure our lessons. Ultimately, the poetry part of this blog post is about searching for the unknowable, and clearing away the baggage the poems have acquired over the years to try and see them differently. We can’t really know how Browning wanted the Duke to be seen, or what Shelley really meant by painting Ozymandias with words in the way he did, but that’s the liberating thing about our subject: perspectives and interpretations.
I am interested in exploring the poems as points of sight for us as teachers and readers, too. The poems themselves have become objects of interest, but may not have been when they were written. They are ‘framed’ by our own interpretations and perspectives, possibly by the interpretations and readings of an epoch, and by our pupils’ interpretations and perspectives too, but they are, simply, made of words. Some are consciously crafted as a ‘performance’ (e.g. ‘My Last Duchess’), and these performances are deliberately non-naturalistic. We are very aware that our reality of these poems, our ‘sight’ of these poems, are made of words. They are not a reality. So people that could be under extreme stress, like the Duke, do not usually spout eloquent dramatic monologues in iambic pentameter! What we see are performances of words.
It’s important for me to explain here about how my lessons are structured to enable my pupils’ attention to be completely and utterly focused, particularly when exploring schemas about ‘the gaze’ – quite an abstract concept. My school has a pedagogical approach that is, essentially, hung on Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’. (If you haven’t read the whole paper, then you must. I did a few years ago and never looked back. Tom Sherrington is great on Rosenshine). What I’m keen to avoid though, both as a deputy head teacher and as a teacher of English, is the initial alluring magic bulletism that a framework like ‘Principles of Instruction’ can provide, if you’re not careful. Whilst a whole-school approach using, for example, Rosenshine, is often done with the best of intentions, we must be mindful of slipping into genericism, and the subtleties and nuances of the discipline being lost. I am passionate about retaining the integrity of our subjects, and our subjects determining the way in which they are taught, rather than the other way around. Let’s prioritise the ‘what’ before we get to the ‘how’. I am told that the lesson I taught at researchED Birmingham was great for showcasing questioning. I had no idea; this was not something I was consciously doing. It’s just what I do as a teacher of English. But the questions I asked were very, very specific, and also particularly pertinent to poetry, so there are differences within disciplines themselves: my questions about plays and novels and novellas and speeches would be differently crafted and focused.
Perspectives, about everything, are important. It is important that our pupils understand that our perspectives and expectations of them are sky high. And so attention has to be focused on the right things for this to happen. The start of all my lessons has the same, practised routine:
1. Pupils line up outside and take off coats and bags.
2. They enter the classroom in silence, in single file. The Do Now is given to them by me as they enter, or it’s on their desk ready.
3. They stand behind their chairs and put all their equipment on their desks, including their books (they always take books home), very precisely. I ensure that everything is placed with precision on their desks and there is no mess or fuss.
4. Coats are put on the backs of chairs. Bags are tucked under chairs or desks.
5. I say good morning or good afternoon and give them permission to sit down. They begin their Do Now right away, in silence.
This routine is the same, every lesson. I often remind them: there will be no surprises, nothing different, nothing to worry about. The pupils tell me that they really like this, because everything is the same, and safe. It’s practised, it’s in place, it’s predictable. I am consciously reducing the impact on their working memory and reducing extraneous cognitive load by doing this. I don’t want them to think about anything else other than what we are learning about. We remember what we pay attention to. As Christodoulou says, “Our attention determines our memories.” – this is exactly why I am so explicit and precise about how things are done, so the pupils’ attention is focused on the right things.
We have done a lot of work at my school over this academic year on using Do Nows to check the retention of knowledge. In my subject, we often use them to check the retention of knowledge, and also the application of knowledge. I am able to elicit, as I am walking around, which questions the pupils are struggling with, and which ideas or concepts I may need to re-teach. Do Nows will often be peppered with questions about previous topics, so when teaching the Power and Conflict poetry the pupils may find some questions on Macbeth, for example, in their Do Nows. They know this will happen. Retrieval practice is promoted by frequent low-stakes or no-stakes quizzes. When I first started this back in September, my group worried: if I got something wrong, would it mean I would be moved down a set? This was something I had to constantly revisit to allay fears. Again, if they were worrying about this when completing their Do Now, their attention wouldn’t be focused on what I needed it to be focused on. They needed predictability, routine, and they needed to feel good about themselves. So that is what they got.
When I start a new topic, the pupils are novices. So when I started the Power and Conflict poetry, the Do Nows were only on that poetry to ensure new knowledge was retained. It was only after a few weeks that I reintroduced past knowledge about previous topics. I also often include multiple choice questions, but I make sure the options provided are plausible. For example, a question on ‘The Prelude’ in a Do Now was:
Circle the two words used by the poet that create a sense of beauty and the sublime in the poem: shining/sparkling/glittering/streaming.
An interesting discussion could then be had about why Wordsworth chose those specific words to describe the light, and why. Another interesting exploration of the deliberate use of language might be why Browning consciously chose the noun “wall” for the Duke to say, and what that might suggest about the power, or lack of power, of the gaze.
When teaching about ways of looking and the gaze in the poems, I also helped pupils by giving them concrete, visual examples as well as verbal examples, encouraging them to develop their understanding through elaboration. We usually do this as a group. This elaborative interrogation is great to help develop understanding, but I did not use it when the pupils had just started learning the poetry: they didn’t yet know enough. This elaboration is a form of deliberate practice in a way – the pupils have to process information in working memory to access and strengthen schemas in long term memory.
I do a lot of chunking of thinking with the pupils, directing their thinking and helping to specifically organise their thinking. This also reduces cognitive load by breaking down the application of their learning into small segments. Again, anything extraneous should be removed so the pupils are paying absolute attention to what they are thinking about. Often this might be a mind map or visual organiser that I have constructed, and I talk them through why I have created it in that way, or they might fill in some of the gaps. I will then get them to practise creating and re-creating this many times. I learnt this from Oliver Caviglioli, who talked about the importance of the expert structuring the thinking. Often when we ask pupils to create a mind map, it’s a randomly organised group of thoughts and concepts. We, the experts, need to organise thinking for novices.
I tend to think about my pupils as poetry scholars when I am teaching them poetry, and ‘Shakespeare scholars’, ‘Victorianists’ etc when I’m teaching them other aspects of my subject discipline. There are many aspects that overlap, but some that are different. In general, I think about and approach this in three phases. Here they are, but I will think very carefully about the aspects of my discipline that I am teaching to add to this (e.g. poetry will be different to teaching Beckett, which will be different to teaching Shakespeare etc.).
1. Novice Literature Scholars
– I focus their attention on what they need to think about
– I demonstrate my thinking and analysis
– I provide explicit models and application with very specific steps, so the abstract becomes concrete
– Pupils learn vocabulary alongside this – I show them how to apply it explicitly, both verbally and in writing.
2. Developing Literature Scholars
– I still focus their attention on what they need to think about
– I still demonstrate but ask for pupil assistance with analysing and writing together
– We practise steps in ‘chunks’
– Pupils learn more vocabulary and practise the application of it every lesson
3. More Expert Literature Scholars
– I still focus pupils’ attention on what they need to think about, but they can add to and challenge
– They explain to me and each other what their attention is focused on and why
– They attempt questions independently because their schemas are more developed
– They move from ‘manual’ to ‘automatic’
Tom Needham has done far more developed work than I on this, blending both Rosenshine and CLT to our subject discipline. He is an excellent example of someone navigating the usefulness of Rosenshine but combining this with careful, considered thinking about retaining the truth and integrity of the subject discipline.
In my next blog post, I will explore the specifics of ‘the gaze’ that I have taught my pupils, looking in particular at ‘My Last Duchess’, ‘Ozymandias’, ‘Exposure’, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, and ‘War Photographer’.