Sunday, 12 June 2022

Who do you love? Linking effect to authorial intent

 I have noticed a topic of conversation flare up again: the old PEE debate. A debate that annually pops its head up to enrage people and ensure that people start sharpening their pitchforks. Like some Hydra, as soon as one acronym is chopped to bits and so another one appears. I, personally, have no problem with students having an aide-mémoire in exams. By the time of the final exams, they need quick, short reminders of what to do. The teenage brain panics and forgets some pretty basic things when faced with an exam question. We’ve all seen a student trying to write about Macbeth when the teacher has spent the last two years teaching Romeo and Juliet. It happens. 

The exam boards moan about PEE and other structures. And, to be honest, they have to moan about it because we pay them a lot of money for the exams. They need to give us something for our money.  Plus, if PEE was so damaging, then wouldn’t you think that the Literature exam mark scheme would be written in such a way to combat its use? Band 1 - address the question - point. Band 2 - evidence from the text (a technique). Band 3 - explained response. Change the markscheme and you might have fewer students and schools relying on it?   

The problem with PEE and any other acronym is how it controls thinking, teaching and writing. I think it should be used as a ticklist and not a tool for teaching or structuring writing. Have you made a point? Have you supported your point with evidence? Have you explained your point? Therefore, the acronym should be an aide-mémoire for the thinking. After writing, they should check they have the key threads. What people often forget is that students are not just doing English that week, or even day. The student is probably doing a number of exams. Each exam dedicates its structures and ways to answer the question. Students have to code switch between exams. It is not as simple as writing the same style for every question. It just doesn’t work like that. Plus, the use of acronyms helps free up memory for students. The knowledge we want them to work on and show in the exams. 

Teaching with PEE is the main issue. Having PEE at the heart of how you approach analysis is the real problem. If students are practising writing a PEE paragraph, then when are students exploring the thinking that goes behind these letters? The reductive rather than clarifying drive behind PEE is the crux. Teaching English is wibbly wobbly. It isn’t neat and tidy. Teaching with PEE assumes that it is neat. It forgets how to form an argument. It forgets how structure links to meaning. It forgets the impact of societal rules on people. Instead it simplifies and neatens the thinking. I’d say that instead of worrying about its use in essays, we concentrate on teaching the aspects under those tent poles. Behind a point there is so much to work on. Behind any evidence there is so much to pick out. Behind an explanation there is so much for us to say. If we only focus on the tent poles, we miss out on the rest that is underneath. Teach Literature better and you don’t need to worry, or even care too much about acronyms. Your students will know what to do and the acronym will be a quick reminder to do it. 

With that all in mind, let’s have a look at what is under one of those tent poles. Effect. Largely, students struggle with effect and I have been spending the last year exploring it with classes. A great question to ask students is: Who do you love? Or: who do you hate? This provokes such an interesting response. I tend to get students to write a sentence: 

The audience loves … 

With Romeo and Juliet, I tend to get them loving Juliet, Mercutio, Romeo, Nurse and hating Tybalt, Capulet and Lady Capulet. 

I then ask students to give me a reason for their loving or hating the character. We simply add the word because to the sentence. 

The audience loves Mercutio because 

For this, they usually suggest his bawdy jokes or how he lightens the mood or doesn’t take things seriously. Then, we explore the turning point. What is the reason behind loving the character? What does Shakespeare agree with this character on? 

Shakespeare possibly agrees with Mercutio’s attitude towards life as …

We then look at the wider picture. What is it that Shakespeare is promoting in society with this character? Alternatively, we’d be talking about attacking if it was a character we hate. 

Through Mercutio, Shakespeare promotes how being young should be a time of fun, laughter and experimentation. 

We then look at the opposite of this. Who represents the opposite or anthithesis of this idea?

The audience dislikes Tybalt because he represents the opposite of Mercutio. A man trapped by society’s expectations of him. 

With this, students can go on to explore what Shakespeare is attacking with this character. 

The exploration of ideas is at the heart of teaching Literature and we need to investigate ways to do this more. PEE doesn’t investigate ideas. We need to work on developing structures to help students explore. For me, exploring the audience’s love or hate for characters is a gold mine for thinking. Shakespeare making us love or hate a character shows us what he agrees with and what he disagrees with. Sometimes, it isn’t love or hate in some of his plays. Sometimes, it is about caring for certain characters - especially tragedies. 

I would argue that character is often the single biggest thing in a text which shows us where a writer’s sympathies lie. The characters he/she cares for are the type of people he/she likes. And, those people represent the type of thinking and the type of ideas the writer likes also. A character isn't directly thinking what the writer thinks, but they do show a warmth to that perspective or outlook.

Who do you love? 

Thanks for reading, 


P.S. If you need an acronym. I will give you this one for it. LBRSROR. I think it is catchy.

Sunday, 22 May 2022

Course correction in curriculums - iceberg ahead, Captain!

 There seems to be a lot of chat about curriculum content and very discussion about the impact of a curriculum on students. We seem to be obsessed with the what more than the how. Look at my lovely scheme of work. It contains ‘Waiting for Godot’. Those Year 7s will love it and I think it really fits in with our overarching theme of growing up in Year 7.  Plus, it bleeds into Year 8s theme around the futility of life, and Year 9s theme of waiting for the inevitable. 

As a subject lead, I feel that the big ingredient missing from a lot of these discussions on curriculum is the students. Now, I don’t mean ‘what about the ‘likkle’ children, bless their hearts’, but I mean ‘what is unique about your Year 7s?’. A curriculum should be a wibbly wobbly thing. I think the curriculum changes depending on the needs of the year group, yet I don’t see much discussion on that. In truth, we don’t specify what the problems are with year groups. We don’t work on a collective picture of a year group. The only picture we have of year groups is the one about behaviour. The tough Year 8s nobody wants to teach period 5 on Friday. The really quiet Year 7s that don’t speak at all even when they are told what to say. A year group identity is rarely a thing of discussion. 

The problem with teaching is most things are linked to feelings, opinions and anecdotes. Put a group of teachers in a classroom and they can endlessly moan about how Year 7s don’t use up all the available space on a page. We are good and endlessly talking about the problems, yet that discussion is rarely turned into something that a department can act on. It becomes ‘letting off steam’ or ‘venting’ and, largely, a wasted opportunity. What happens instead, is that teachers go away and attempt to deal with the problems individually. Not collectively. 

And, that is largely the problem with our curriculums - they are collectively made, but individually administered, individually adapted, individually received and individually learnt. We need departments and schools to work collectively and not individually on addressing issues. You can see this in how we use pronouns. We talk about ‘my’ class and ‘my students’ but we rarely go ‘our’ classes or ‘our’ Year 7s. The notion of collective responsibility is important when dealing with curriculums. It should be the driving force in a department. Working together and solving together - that’s my unwritten rule as a head of department. I don’t have the answers and meetings are often us working to solve problems. The trick is to know what those problems are. That means collectively you need to know what the year group looks like. 

What is the year group's subject identity? 

Do you, or your departments,  know what your Year 7s can and cannot do? 

  • What is that year group’s identity? 

  • What are their strengths? 

  • What are their weaknesses? 

  • What lack of knowledge is holding them back? 

  • What about their approach is holding them back? 

  • What would make them better?  

It is interesting that this kind of thinking only happens in Year 10 and 11, but it should be a common part of what we do. The whole year group is identity. For my department, this is how it looks at the moment on a macro level. Of course, it is constantly changing and evolving, because things change all the time. 

We also do this on a fairly micro level by looking at tests. 

We have regular tests on spelling, vocabulary, core knowledge, topic knowledge (sticky), unseen reading and writing. From those tests, we identify the average percentage score. This is a really handy piece of information from an English point of view as the subject is largely subjective and this allows us to have a piece of data we can use with students. Where are they in relation to the average score? We share the student’s score and the year average with parents so that they can see where the student needs to focus their efforts on or how they are doing in relation with others. 

The micro data also gives us a picture of what we need to address in the curriculums. You can see that core knowledge is relatively low and the reading needs addressing. That informs them feeds into our curriculum. We need to build in more opportunities to address core knowledge and we need to address reading skills. 

The picture is so important to the team as we now have a collective responsibility to address these things. We know the what and now we need to look at the how. 

What is the process? 

The process for adapting curriculums is important. You don’t want knee jerk reactions but also you don’t want to have to suddenly stop because there is an iceberg up ahead, which you could have spotted years ago.

Data is only a small part. For me, there’s a ‘reflect and ‘inform’ part of the process. I build in a lot of opportunities for staff to read, mark and view work across a year group. Most assessments, I ask staff to feedback their findings or we take time to discuss things. We are building that collective identity, They are our Year 7s and not their Year 7s. If we can improve the majority, then we know that there is an impact. As a curriculum leader, I listen and note down and build the picture for staff. We then review it and work on how that will inform what we do. Reflecting is a key part of meetings, but the informing stage is narrowing things down and prioritising. 

Change or improvements don’t have to be massive and big. They just need to be meaningful and effective. And, they need to be done collectively. 

The last reading assessment highlighted that students were not automatically annotating the extract when preparing for the reading questions. Collectively, we are going to model that and build it regularly into the teaching. That’s what we are going to check with the next reading task and assessment. 

There may be discussions at a department level where we decide the order of units. If there is a problem with reading, do we need to move the reading unit next so we can work on that further? The idea is that the curriculum works and models itself to fit, suit and benefit the students.

This process will continue throughout the year as we work on course correction. Long gone are the days when you teach the same thing each year in exactly the same way and in the same style. Curriculums should be reactive and proactive rather than concrete and fixed. 

And next year… 

I think the journey taken in one year should inform the next. The summer term should be an opportunity for departments to look at the order of the next year’s unit and see how it supports or hinders the specific year group. 

If you know writing is a weakness for Year 8, then your curriculum next year should reflect that in Year 9. Moving things about. Changing things. Adding things. 

Next year isn’t a fresh start and a clean slate. It should be building on and supporting improvement. That has largely been a problem with our curriculums. They are fixed on the idea that each new year is a fresh start and new beginning. Those problems in Year 7, 8 and 9 don’t magically heal themselves over the summer. They need picking up again in Term 1 and not after two terms when the teacher spots them.  

My curriculum plan is on one sheet and it is messy. It will always be messy. I’d love to have it beautiful with little pictures, but it needs to change to fit the needs of a year group. That will involve changes all the time. The more you teach a group, the more you understand. 

The Borg in Star Trek are a good model for this. They are constantly evolving and adding and adapting. They search for perfection and that means constantly changing. Yet, they do it together. The problem is that schools place all the emphasis on individual teachers to make big improvements and changes and that is neither fair or easy when you have thirty students and a busy timetable. Problems in schools are collective problems and not individual problems. If spelling is an issue in Year 7, it isn’t one teacher’s job to fix it on their own. The Department should be working on fixing it and not you with a 45 lesson timetable over two weeks. It is the Department’s job to fix it and help.

For too long teaching has placed the emphasis on the teacher to fix and solve. It is their class. It is their problem. Why is it the one teacher’s responsibility when it is a problem across the whole department? 

A problem shared is a problem halved in life. A problem shared is a problem addressed in schools. Be more Borg. Spot, reflect and fix together. Collectively. 

I am Xris; I am Borg.