Saturday, 9 November 2013

Gifted and talented at reading loads of books

I am asking the common question again: What can I do to push students? Like a pinball machine, a teacher’s head has lots of things and questions wheezing around in it and sometimes it hits something interesting and score points; other times the thoughts  go straight to the hole at the end of the game. Stretching the most able is something I feel strongly about. Pushing GCSE students isn’t just a case of giving them A-level texts. Pushing KS3 students isn’t just  about getting them to attempt GCSE questions. It is a fundamentally far bigger thing than give them work from the next stage up.

I have taught students fresh from the GCSEs and it has often saddened me that students who have chosen to do a subject lack drive, initiative, engagement and thought. But, I think the system we have does cause this. I often feel that I am cramming students with stuff all the time. I am preparing them for too much and it is all with the hope that some of it sticks. Take the literature exam for instance. In it, I have to teach a novel, a play, and several poems. It is like having a driving test and being tested on how you drive a car, a van, a lorry, a motor bike and a unicycle. All at the same time. Soon, we are going to be able to add Shakespeare to the list of things to teach them. Yay! The problem, I find, is that all this doesn’t encourage natural thought and ideas. Too much time is spent on ‘getting through the text’ and we often neglect that English is about ideas and how ideas are communicated. It is about thinking.

Isn’t that the point of the exams? To separate the wheat from the chaff? It may be. But, aren’t we limiting the thought processes at KS4 for which we endlessly moan about a lack of in KS5? I had a teacher at A-level who made me think.  Mr Powell was his name and I am sure he is Head of English in a school in Wales now. He taught me ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. I will admit that I didn’t see eye to eye with him. In fact, he was the complete antithesis of Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poet Society’ for me. Mr Powell was an excellent, young teacher. Most people, I know, have a teacher that inspired them to teach. I don’t. But, he is the teacher who made me think about texts that as a result now I haven’t looked back since. He made me think. He took ‘Hamlet’ and made me think about questions that there were no simple answers for. He’d use quotes from critical essays and asked us to write an essay exploring it in relation to the quote. He made me think about the play, life, the context, the language and so much more. Before I plodded through texts and afterwards I thought about them in detail.  Like Hamlet, I procrastinated too much. But, that is what makes a great student: someone who thinks.

Back to that question: What can I do to push students? The default answer tends to be: read more. Booklists are given out and students look at them forlorn, hoping that one of those books was written in the last decade, and interesting? For me, it is about that but it is more about thinking. Getting students to think in a deeper way is the answer. Thunks at the start or end of the less are great for some abstract thinking or making connections, but I think more is needed to develop genuine thought and ideas.  These are four things I am doing or have done in the past that work, or might work:
[1] Critical essays

Each text I study I photocopy pages from critical essays and give them to a few students as an extension task or homework. Students read it looking for ideas that they agree, disagree or can’t comment on. Oxfam bookshops are great for picking up these.

[2] The Big-Clever-Intelligent Reading Project

This I have started this term and it is working… so far. We have read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and I have asked students to find a book that explores racism or America from 1930-1960. They have come up with several books – ‘The Help’, ‘Great Gatsby’, ‘Noughts and Crosses’, ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘The Colour Purple’ (I know, I have warned them).

They are in the process of reading the book now and in December they are going to present a small talk on how their author presents racism or America. Furthermore, they are going to comment on how it contrasts with the presentation in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. How could they possibly comment effectively on the presentation of racism in a book if they have only looked at one book on the topic? By thinking about how another author presents an idea, they will understand the main text better.  

[3] Socratic Discussions

Enough said really. However, I do sit in the discussions occasionally.

[4] A love letter to the author.

Students are given a review of the text and explore if they can prove the ideas in it. Or, they look for flaws and inconsistencies in the arguments presented.  

Dear Harper Lee,

I think ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is the greatest novel known to man. It is the one book that every student should read for its nuanced exploration of racism in 1930s America. The novel teaches us morally, socially and spiritually what is good and bad, which is especially of note in these troubled and desperate times.

Firstly, through ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ we learn that history is sometimes given too much status in society. Nobody can escape the past. Each character in the book has a past and that past affects how they behave and, more importantly, how others judge each them. Several characters live off the history of other characters. Their social interactions are formed as a result of historical events. The town of Maycomb too has a history and that history linked to the civil war also causes prejudices in the novel.  You, Miss Lee, show us how that racism is a historical thing and that for us to combat it we need to change how we view each other. History should teach us the wrongs and rights, but each person is not reflection of their ancestors. The sins of the fathers should be remembered but they shouldn’t haunt the current and future generations.

I am now off to ponder, consider, procrastinate, cogitate and decide whether or not to grow a moustache for Movember.

To Movember or not Movember – that is the question!

Thanks for reading,


P.S. If you know of any English teachers in driving distance of Derby, please tell them about the English Teachmeet on the 16th November. The link is here.


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