As Anthony said to Cleopatra as he opened a crate of ale …

So I haven’t blogged in a while and after the launch of the TLT14 website where I referenced the thing I thought I better get some words done. I’ve been away for a bit for a number of things, predominantly school related with getting stuck into the ‘interesting’ period of the year when the comings and goings and staffing fluctuations start as well as keeping things going at The Crossover and the day to day stuff we all know far too well.

One other thing that has taken my attention off sharing my waffling words with the word has been the need for me to take on some Year 11 English teaching for the first time in a long time. I was reminded by a colleague that I tend to go by the adage that a good teacher can teach pretty much anything (just don’t give me chemicals or the complexities of foreign languages) so shouldn’t be overly anxious or panicked. However, not knowing much about the groups aside from the fact that they have had a variety of teachers in front of them and had around 24 school days before their first exam I may have to admit to the odd flutter. I’m sure the numbers up in the English corridor were there to encourage focus from the students but they certainly sharpened the mind of this one time English teacher as I walked down to the classroom for the first time.

These guys were pretty close to finishing. They’d covered all of the texts, poems, practice papers and so on and having a glance down their grades on go4schools were all doing well. What could I offer other than perhaps getting confused by the structure of the exams having changed even in the last couple of years when I did some support for an NQT once a week? English is English but the tinkering is incredible and, without wanting to sound like the SoS, I’m not sure if breaking down unseen poetry into two questions as opposed to a) and b) isn’t a little unnecessary – the students can cope with identifying the themes and the language used to illustrate it.

So. What did I bring to the party? I’ve talked before here and in school about student aspiration and the crucial role of teacher expectation in creating and supporting it. I often feel that the worst effect of constant changes to curriculum and bad press for schools and our result driven system is that it creates classrooms with a focus on covering content and working to target grades to the extent that teachers’ anxieties become the students’. We need our teachers to be a bit more cocky and confident and infect the students with this so they strive for more – and this self confidence (hopefully not drifting into arrogance) is clearly an area where I have something to offer 😉

Now, in an eduworld where we need to have some research to offer and equally where the FFT data that provides the Minimum Expected Grades as well as the chance graphs that illustrate that our students can do more is often debated where did I get the sense that these students with a raft of B and A grades between then should be pushed to do more? 

Well it started with the B and A grades that were spread across the Go4Schools page I looked at (as much for the pictures to work out who everyone was as the grades.) These were the grades given to the students in the last reporting cycle so some time around November/December and, even given the fact that recent experience might suggest these grades would be adjusted to end up being worth less than that in the final reckoning, there’s no way any feet were going to be put up. 

More of a factor than this though was the experience I’d had working with Year 7 since September. We have a Competency Based Curriculum (great way to approach learning awful name) in Year 7 and part of Year 8 and I’ve been delivering some of the more literacy focused elements of the work to a class. We started off with some poetry and the most recent unit is titled Influence and Argument – English teachers prepping for Section B of the Language paper know where this will end up but let me get there in my own time!

I sometimes wondered if I was pitching this work right for 11 year old kids. Up until 2011 my main teaching commitment had been with Year 11 or sixth form students and then I was solely working with Years 7 and 8. Kind of like the situation this term has brought but in reverse. But I carried on. I discarded some of the writing frames for extended questions that seemed to me to reduce some work to a cloze exercise and we all started with the most advanced planning techniques. I was providing the bridging work to span the zone of proximal development (see I can do research and that) but I was working on the assumption that it would be crossed rather than handing out crutches. So we answered questions about how ‘Blake expresses his views on creation and the nature of mankind’ in The Tyger; we focused on reducing quotations down to key, individual words and embeddng them into our own writing so the whole piece flowed rather than crowbarring a line in followed by, ‘which means’; we structured essays using a wide range of connectives for different purposes – some of which were presented as part of this work in terms I’d not come across for a long time – and completed pieces of persuasive writing which (told you I’d get there English Teachers) I would be looking at my newly studied grading criteria and putting easily at the top end of Band 3.

This shouldn’t be a surprise though. The CBC (I’ve mentioned the name already – we’ll change it but are busy, you know, teaching) team is made up predominantly of staff that were previously middle school teachers. I was working with people for whom Year 8 had until recently been the top end of the school so of course they were going to push, and challenge, and demand from these students. When I was training I worked with a fantastic English teacher and the conversations we had around literature with the Year 11 were of the kind that had featured in sixth form lessons in my other placement school and yet when there wasn’t an older year to save the ‘best stuff’ up for and no sense of a certain age or year group being ‘ready’ for a certain text or interpretation everyone had the doors to everything flung open and were invited inside. I’m not sure I would want to be discussing Oedipal complex in Hamlet with my Year 7 but would balk against Helen Mirren’s suggestion that students should wait until they’re older than the protagonists in Romeo and Juliet to be able to read it.

So what have we learned Jerry? Well I often find myself challenging comments like ‘that’s all very well in Key Stage 3 but we have the exams to think about’ when advocating the use of more creative and adventurous approaches to learning across all year groups during TEEP training and I think there’s something in what I’ve been experiencing this year to offer there and to all teachers. About eight years ago I presented TEEP to a group of teachers made up of primary and secondary and a friend there who was primary trained asked me if all this was ‘new to you lot.’ The notion that the approaches to learning that are used in primary had a lot to offer to secondary has stuck with me since then. I found an ethos and philosophy of child before subject that is the norm in earlier phases and, in my opinion, sadly lost as we get nearer to examinations that chimed with my own beliefs and one that was firmly reinforced as I got to know the soldiers at Cramlington and other places. 

But now there’s more. It’s not just about pedagogy it’s about the recognition that these students know and can do so much more than we realise and the pretty dim course of action we choose to take if we don’t recognise this and use it to our – and far more importantly their – advantage. It’s something that was rammed home to me during a previous inspection when a comment was made about a cover lesson for year nine. While we were told that the cover supervisor was doing a cracking job, the work was ‘something they could probably have done in Year 5 or 6 and most of them had. I asked them,’ and was also behind an HMI exercise that saw the chap take some work from a Year 8 top set and give it to a Year 7 middle-ish kid and see if they could do it. They could, so inevitably the question there is about challenge and we get back to the starting point of expectancy.

Our English department has recognised this and having seen what’s going on in CBC and how advanced the students can be when they come through to ‘proper’ English lessons are now working to develop what happens next so that students’ real skillsets and abilities are recognised, utilised and developed even further. Moving on from that the next step is to replicate what is happening here across all areas and get over the arrogant standpoint that we (established secondary teachers) are the ones that really know what it’s all about and these grades must be inflated so let’s reteach it all again just to be sure. What a monumental waste of the time we say we need so much of to cover all of that important content. Who knows, if we actually acknowledge what they can do by the time they get to us we could even have the confidence to explore some of those creative approaches we’d ‘love to use if there was time’ to the benefit of everyone.

As for me I’m off to see if I can get the Book of Thel included in the new AQA spec!

Lots of Love 

Colin

 

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