Sunday, 29 June 2014

Juggling the curriculum – Part 2 (now with extra poems)

Juggling the curriculum – Part 2 (now with extra poems)

This is the second of my blogs exploring some of the choices we are making with our new English curriculum. Like last week, this isn’t a showy blog about what we are doing, but more about the decision processes made or being made. I think I am on draft 45 now.  

What choices of texts are you using with the new curriculum?

I have watched for months now people experimenting with their choices of books for the new curriculum. I have been amazed by the selection of books. Impressed by the diversity and complexity. In the past, I have publicly stated that I think the class novel is an endangered species.  But, recently, under the guise of ‘cultural capital’ some people have off-loaded their undergraduate texts and squeezed them into the curriculum. The choice of a text is a complex thing. On one hand it is often led by a personal attachment to a text. What teacher is going to teach a text they hate out of choice? On the other hand, the choice is made by what seems to be clever.

Before people start suggesting that I am some kind of yokel that wants reading standards to decrease (I don’t), think about this: does removing a book from an A-Level syllabus and putting it in Year 8 show progress? Or, does it show the semblance of progress? You could give students the same poem in Year 7,8,9,10,11,12 and 13 and get different responses. Partly, this is due to the emotional maturity of the students. Plus, life experience changes our understanding of texts. Reading any Dickens novel as a parent is so different to how I used to read it. I get the social injustice. I get the mawkish portrayal of childhood. What was once silly, is now an important part of the understanding of what Charles Dickens was doing.

To misquote the Doctor, I am many people in my lifetime.  Each person I am (or was) reads the text differently. The assumption that a Year 8 will have the maturity to ‘get’ a text that has challenged people at university or at A-Level is problematic. 

I am all for raising the standard of texts. Give students good quality texts and raise the bar by all means, but ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, for example, needs the emotional understanding to appreciate the writing and story-telling. Plus, why are we raiding the back catalogue of A-Level and university texts to push and develop reading? There are hundreds of books published each year and we trot out the same few. 

The recent draft GCSE specs surprised a lot of people with some of the ‘safe’ choices made. But, I kind of agree with the choices. ( I didn’t at the time). They are texts that surpass the ages. They are good texts. Good stories. They work on a number of different levels. They are engaging. They are complex and yet simple at the same time. They are not purposefully obscure or subtle. In fact, they are very concrete with their ideas and writing.

Decision 1:  Select texts appropriate to the students and balance modern and pre-1914 texts.

We are going to teach the following texts over the years:

Year 7  - Jane Eyre

Year 8 – Great Expectations

Year 9 – Gothic text ( pre-1914)  or Dystopian fiction

In addition to these texts, we are going to teach another modern novel. One from the cupboard. The reasoning behind this is that we want to have a balance of reading. My interpretation of the new curriculum is that the breadth of texts needs to be there, but there also needs to be the enjoyment of texts. Now, I am not a rose-tinted English teacher. Not all students will be enthused by a pre- 1914 text so we are creating a balance between the two. We are not ditching all the usually class readers, but we might change some. However, the class readers are going to be chosen for enjoyment and pace, rather than suitability to write an essay on.

It is clear that the new curriculum focuses on reading for enjoyment. It mentions it a bit so we are looking at ways to develop that pleasure. If every text they read in the classroom is a literary gem and produced by someone from the canon, then students will be left with a misguided understanding of reading. Reading is great no matter what you read. Therefore, rather than have some form of elitism in reading – those that moan about Of Mice and Men’s disappearance on exams lists often decry the concept of having wall to wall Victorian novels. 

The class readers are to promote reading and develop some skills such as reading strategies and structuring. Their pace and simplicity dictates that they can be moved through quickly. Plus, they allow for one of the author studies to take place. The other will be the Victorian novel.

Take Year 7:

We are going to use the following three topics closely together.

Heroes and villains                              Jane Eyre                                                         Modern novel

The first topic for Year 7s will help them develop their analysis of extracts and solidify their understanding of a hero and a villain. Then, Jane Eyre will be an opportunity for students to see how a writer presents a hero and villain in a text. Finally, in their reading of the modern novel students will be able to see how writers today use heroes and villains in the story telling.

The connection of ideas and development of understanding is important, but throughout the whole thing student will be making constant references to previous texts to develop their understanding.

What about other types of text such as non-fiction and poetry?

I have been concerned about the way we teach non-fiction for a long time. Often, it is reduced to the triplets. We are writing to persuade this term, for example. The use of themes has helped some other departments to organise their curriculums. For us, we are having distinct areas of non-fiction writing, but these will focus on the effect of writing. Rather than see writing as clear components, we are looking at it from the different effects. So, for example, students might look at writing to shock or amuse. Through those effects students will look at a range of texts some fiction and some non-fiction. The idea being that students can compare approaches rather than reduce everything to a set list of things. Students will be able to see that choices can be made and that there are so many choices to be made as writers. 

Decision 2: Create a poetry anthology for each year group.

Poetry is one of those subjective things that often people can never agree with. One of the great (I say that with tongue firmly in check) things about the exam system is the poetry anthology. A collection of eclectic poems for teachers to use. This time, I am going to create an anthology for each year group focusing on a particular aspects and, therefore, develop students understanding of thematic approaches from the start. Of course, the poems will be from a wide range of poets.

Year 7 – Events

Year 8 – Settings

Year – 9  Voices from past and present 

There will only be a few poems in the anthology, but all students will have a similar experience and that this shared experience will help teachers the following year. Remember the poem X. Here it is again. Now, what do you think of it?

How are dealing with the author study aspect of the curriculum?

One of the challenging things for any department is the stopping of students pigeonholing aspects. Things tend to get clumped together as units. We are doing the novel. We are doing poetry. In an attempt to do away with this, we are going to use short stories from an author.

Across the year, students are going to study a collection of short stories by an author. The hope is that students will study an author for a longer period and spend time revisiting their work over the year. Putting all the short stories together in one term would be fine, but it wouldn’t allow for reflection and revisiting the stories again and again. Hopefully, at the end of a term a teacher will explore a short story and students will build connections to a story that they read in a previous term. Or, reread the previous story and evaluate it in relation to a new short story.

Year 8: Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl

Year 9: Ray Bradbury short stories

Decision 3: Use short stories as an extra way to get an author study in.

Alongside a modern and a pre-1914 text, students will experience another author through the year.

By this time next week, I am sure I will have changed everything again. Oh well. I have until September to get things sorted.

Thanks for reading,

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Juggling the Curriculum - Part 1

For the past few months I have been thinking about the curriculum. The new curriculum for English. I have been pondering, thinking, procrastinating and, finally, I have started to solidify my thoughts and ideas. I commend all my colleagues and friends who have their curriculum planned, typed and photocopied for next year. I am impressed. But, for me, I haven’t been able to make my thoughts concrete, because so much has changed since September. At the moment, I am on draft four. I am happy with it and its shape. It does, however, look a little bit different to other things I have seen.  Now, there’s more than one way to crack a nut, but this blog is going to talk about some of the things my department’s new curriculum includes and how it differs to other departments. Rather than do a lovely ‘tah dah!’ I will just walk you through some of the things we are intending to do. Warning: some things might disappear completely by the time I get to draft fifteen.

How does our curriculum link to the work done in primary school?

One of the main problems I think with curriculums in Key Stage 3 is that they duplicate work done in primary schools. I am surprised at how much things have changed in primary schools and how English skills are changed. It used to be a gentle grumble about how they have stolen ‘Holes’ or ‘Skellig’ from us by teaching it to classes, but I realise that fundamentally what they teach is a mirror image of what we do. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. English is recursive. You do the same things again and again. However, there’s no step up in terms of work. We expect the same things and there’s no ‘step up’ and challenge. The writing triplets (I hate them), I would say, are common place in the primary school.  Writing in the style of a particular text is a common process.

Stepping back from things, there’s no wonder that schools have problems with Year 8s. By the end of Year 7, students have twigged that it is Groundhog Day for them. The promise that secondary school was going to be a rite of passage for them turns into a lie. It is all the same thing – just with different teachers.

Decision 1: Start with the topic of essay writing.

In the past we have done ‘nice’ activities with the purpose of engaging students. Sadly, the sole purpose was engaging them. One example of this was when I got students to write their first day in secondary school as an entry to ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’. We looked at Americanisms and the style of the writing, but sadly the thinking was to engage and get a benchmark piece of writing from them, and not about development.  

We are now going to step up the writing. Working with the Geography department, we intend to set the framework for writing essays. We are going to start by explicitly teaching the essay. Set our expectations from the start and then build up the skill of writing an essay over the year, and years. Obviously, we will try to engage students and develop enthusiasm for the subject, but we want to set the message to students: English is needed for other subjects and it is challenging.

How does our curriculum develop the work done at primary school?

Primary schools are grammar hothouses now. You can’t move without bumping into a grammar aspect in the corridor. Yet, at secondary school we often teach it when it crops up, or when we feel it is relevant. Or, if it has been enforced on us.

I have noticed a big different in students’ use of the grammar metalanguage in lessons. I can freely mention an adverb without being greeted with a sea of blank faces, resulting in me spending ten minutes explaining again what an adverb is. Students are prepared to explore language, but are we hindering this in secondary schools? What is going to happen to all the grammar concepts and grammar terms? Are we hoping that they will appear by magic in a lesson? Or are we going to plan lessons in mind?

Decision 2: Have a grammar test at the end of Years 7, 8, 9 and possibly 10.

What are we doing with the knowledge learnt at primary school? We are not explicitly embedding the knowledge successfully. We are just hoping it all works together. The core knowledge is there for most students, but we are not embedding it.

We are going to have the grammar test as an end point. Staff will revisit key grammar terms and revise concepts throughout the year with idea that students will be tested on this at the end of the year. We are going to model the test on the KS2 grammar paper and use that as the basis of teaching. Boo hiss, Chris! You are teaching to a test. Yes – I am, but the purpose of the test is to revisit core knowledge to embed and secure that knowledge. Whether you agree with it or a not: it will be helpful if a student can name an adverb or adjective by the time they get to GCSE. Yet, the current ‘rainbow’ principle doesn’t help to embed and secure things.  [The rainbow principle: abstract noun – you never see a rainbow every time it rains – only occasionally and for no rhyme or reason in my book].   

We want there to be some consistency in how grammar is taught and students’ relationship with grammar. The test results will be shared with the parents and key areas for improvement will be identified. The problem we have is that grammar is a big ball of timey-wimey stuff. It is HUGE! Too often things are reduced and simplified or rounded-up. Hopefully, this approach will give us a clear direction to the way the grammar is used. If we use the KS2 grammar test as the benchmark of consistency, we can ensure and maintain levels of knowledge, or we can develop it.

How are we ensuring progression of skills over the key stage?

The good, old National Curriculum had a set of progressive skills across the different years. They were great but they were often very vague or too proscriptive (starting to sound like Goldilocks).  In a nutshell, things boiled down to harder texts over the years. The development of skills often happened through some kind of English teacher sixth sense. I taught them this and that in Year 8 so they need to know this and that for Year 9.

We all developed the students, but did we develop them in the same way or in the same direction? One teacher might take one angle, while another takes the opposite.

Decision 3: Track the progression of skills across the years.

I have broken down English, crudely, into several key strands: Shakespeare, the novel (pre and post 1914), poetry, plays, non-fiction, writing and speaking and listening. As a department, we have discussed what a student should be able to do by the time they reach Year 11. We tracked back those skills over the years and made clear points as to what should be developed at a particular time. The complexity of English is that you could do all skills in one lesson or unit of work, but we felt that if these skills were explicitly developed at one particular time, then our vision of the progress is clear, the students’ vision of the progression is clear and we can make links and promote links across the years. Hopefully we will avoid that awful conversation: Remember you did Shakespeare in Year 7? The time when you acted it out? The lesson when Tom fell of the chair? Right, well in Year 7 you did a bit of Shakespeare.


Now, our list of skills isn’t finalised and they are open to debate.


Year 7
Year 8
Year 9
Year 10
Year 11
·         Context of Shakespeare’s world
·         Opening scene
·         Staging a scene
·         Shakespeare’s language
·         Anatomy of a scene
·         Characterisation through language
·         Audience’s reaction to a scene
·         Comparing two scenes
·         The structure of a whole play
·         Development of a character over the play
·         Role of characters
·         Characterisation
·         Different perspectives



Novel (pre 1914 and 1914) 
·         Presentation of a character
·         Heroes and villains
·         Victorian life /education  
·         Presentation of a setting
·         Genre
·         Tension
·         Victorian law and rules
·         Presentation of a theme
·         Structure of the novel
·         Narrative voice
·         Use of dialogue
·         Linking the writing to the context
·         Making connections across a text
·         Revision of basic terms (metaphor, simile, personification, etc)
·         Exploring word choices
·         Explaining how the reader feels
·         Deeper meaning
·         Learn the various forms of poetry
·         Use of imagery in poetry
·         Mood / atmosphere
·         Tone
·         Writer’s opinion
·         Ambiguity
·         Punctuation use 
·         Structure
·         Enjambment/ caesura
·         Sound effects (syllables, consonance, assonance)
·         Patterns 
·         Comparing and connecting poems

I will continue this blog with a look at the texts studied, development of knowledge as well as skills,  covering the breadth of texts in a year and exploring how we plan to assess things.   

Thank you for reading,



Sunday, 15 June 2014

Blogsync: The Klingon Phonics Test

This is my response to this month’s blogsync:  

What is the best place for testing in schools?
Testing is a key aspect of formal education, but can this be taken too far? Are our current tests fit for purpose? Should progress testing alone be used to define school performance?

There are more responses to this topic here.

My daughters are in that lovely pre-test stage. They are awaiting to do their phonics test. The test that has fuelled several ASBOs on Twitter. Their school has sent home some flashcards of words to help them. So, most nights I come home and I work through the Klingon list of colours, I mean, these words that are absolute nonsense. My daughters are good, but I can’t see the point of it all. It is just a funny measuring stick to judge students.

In discussion with other primary teachers, they have told me that the testing and preparation for the phonics test doesn’t help able readers. In fact, according to them, it forces good readers to go backwards. My daughters generally sight read words, yet the phonics test is focused on blending sounds, which is something my daughters do if they don’t recognise a word. Whilst I have been reading most nights with my daughters and helping them increase their reading speed and word recognition, I find that now they are preparing for an assessment that is regressive. One teacher even said that the most able students do badly because of this sight reading and blended sound issue.

The problem I find with this testing is one that occurs across most schools. It is the form of testing that follows this mantra: We all know it’s silly, but we have to do as the government has told us to do it. I admit that I have said that to students, meetings and parents. The test process is not for the teacher’s benefit, but for a politician’s benefit to show improvement.

I love tests. I adore them. In fact, test me on tests – I’d love you to. I think testing is an important part of my life as a teacher. I test. I am tested. I comment on tests. I advise on tests. I predict tests. Everywhere I look, there are tests. Yet, what I don’t like is a test that has no value at all to the students or the process of learning.

Step forward the KS3 English test. Oh the joys of that test. There may be NQTs reading this thinking how lucky they are that they don’t even have to consider this assessment. But, it was a hilarious experience. Students were prepared for the test. They worked hard. They sweated within an inch of their life. They were told the assessment will really ‘help’ them in life. They then got the results in the next academic year, when they were using a new grading system and working on the GCSE. For them, the value of the SATs had disappeared overnight. It became meaningless. Why the KS3 SATs never started a riot I’ll never know. The realisation that the test was not for their benefit. They got nothing out of it.

It is only right that a maker of things should test the produce they make. A baker should taste or check his bread to see if it meets to a high standard. But, should a baker check the bounciness of his bread by throwing it on the floor? What value has this to the consumer? They never throw their bread around the room. It has no value to them at all. Yet, it is something that they must do, as their Head Office has instructed them to do it. But, at the same time, I baker will not take the bread out of the oven during the cooking stage. They might peak through the window, but they don’t cut a bit off and taste it. They wait for the bread to be ready.  

But, the testing that goes on in schools is dictated by a system outside of education: politics. I test students all the time. At the beginning. In the middle. At the end of learning. However, the testing structures we have are assessing at the end of the learning - KS2 and GCSE.  That timing warps learning and education. It is seen as a ‘do or die’ moment. Students, teachers and schools ramp up the pressure because everything rides on this. This one single measure. This one single test makes a school a good one or a bad one.

What if a school was allowed to enter a student when they wanted to for the KS2 test? What if our system for assessment and testing was based on the child? The child takes the test when they are ready. After all, when a child is ready they are ready. Politicians want to see progress, yet the systems hinder those making progress. What if a child is ready before Year 6? The same goes with GCSE. I am not talking about modular exams – yuk! I am talking about terminal examinations. If a student is ready, surely they should do the exam. Having students tread water is not a sign of an effective education system.

Visitor: So, what have you been doing in Year 11?

Student: Well, I have been doing stuff that I have been doing in Year 10 because some students didn’t get it, so we had to do it all again.

Visitor: Interesting, but you did get some revision out of it?

Student: Yes, I did, but it was pretty boring.

Because, we have years and years of data, using the current model of assessment, we are never going to change the exam structure. There will always be a KS2 test. But, what would be nice is if the child, rather than the government and the school, were factored into the process. A politician wants students to leave school with a certain level of proficiency. Let’s assess them when they are proficient and not when it convenient for a statistic. You take a driving test when your driving instructor thinks you are ready. Not, at the same day every year across the land.

Hopefully, a model like this would avoid the dreaded teaching to the exam that exists for several terms a year. Because, we all know it happens. Real teaching goes out the window and drilling the students for the exams take place.

Right, must dash, I have bread to test and some more Klingon words to go through. Splage. Crooge. Brack.

Thanks for reading,

P.S. This blog contains 40% fairy dust and it is purely a hypothetical exploration of something that will never happen.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Demystifying Shakespeare

One of the questions I use again and again (and again and again) in English lessons is: Why do you think the writer did that? The ‘that’ could be a technique, a plot point or some clever thing. But, we constantly ask students in lessons the question. We disguise it many different ways, but it is still the same question. The recent English GCSE exams showed the same question but disguised it in a number of different ways. Compare how the writers use language for effect. Explain how the picture is effective. They all, in a nutshell, ask the same thing. They just wrap it up in a nice little phrase that make students think before they answer the questions they always answer. But still, they are answer the questions:

What did the writer do?

Why did the writer do it?

Over the last year, I have experimented with this in a number of different ways, thinking how I could get students to answer these questions in an effective and interesting way.

I would be a rich man if I got a pound every time a student asked me: ‘Do you really think that the writer thought that when he was writing the text?’ A lot of what we do is guessing work. In fact, it is guessing work. Unless, I conveniently, by a massive stroke of luck, have the writer and the group of kids in the same room, we will never know the answer. Unless, I start conducting séances in the room. That would make a great lesson. Starter: get the Ouija board out. Main: Request a conversation with Charles Dickens in the spiritual world and ask him questions that students had already prepared. Plenary: Students write up the answers given. The more I think about it, the more that idea has legs (fairly translucent legs) – I joke, dear reader.

We all know the phrase: write like a reader and read like a writer. I have taken that phrase to heart and started working on making students read like writers. So, often, I give students a context for writing rather than dive straight in with the analysis.

How would you write a death scene of two lovers in a bedroom? The man thinks the woman is having an affair. However, he still loves her but feels driven to murder her.

Students then offer their suggestions. Strangle her. Poison her. Wait for her to sleep. They reason with their choices. Strangling is too aggressive maybe. Poisoning might not be dramatic enough. He might kill her when she is asleep, so she doesn’t know the ultimate betrayal. The discussion is great – loaded with ideas, thoughts and opinions. If I have time, I will get the class to write the script for it. If not, we then speed on to the scene.

We look at the specific scene and compare our ideas with the writer’s choices. Why did the writer do this? Why did the writer do that? This for me, is far better, than looking at the text and working it out that way. Use the imagination first. What would you do? Then link in the text. All too often, we expect the imagination to come second. Imagining what someone else is done is far harder than what we would do. I know what I would do; I don’t know what my mate Steve would do. I could guess, but you know I would have more to say about my ideas than someone else’s.

I give students a context for writing and they discuss what they would do in that situation. Then, we compare to what the writer would actually do. By doing this they go through the thought processes a writer would in this situation. They evaluate the possibilities, the inconsistencies, the flaws and other things.   

I have done with Years 7 to 11. Recently, I have done it with a Year 7 introduction to Shakespeare’s language. In the past, I have always done the decoding of Shakespeare’s language. Again, I have employed the imagination after the text. What do you think this means? What is he saying? This year I changed it:

At the start of the lesson, I showed students an extract from ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Students tried working it out. I told them that in a nutshell it said: ‘I think she is hot.’ Then, before we started analysing an extract from one of the plays, I got students to write like Shakespeare.

1: Each table was given a phrase to work on.

I love you.
They are dead.
I do not want to be your friend.
You are an idiot.
Will you marry me?

2: Students were told to improve the verbs used.

Example: I hate you.

I loath you.

I despise you.

3: Add an unusual simile.

I loathe you like an oil slick cannot be near water.

4: Add a list somewhere in the line.

Foul smelling, bad breathed idiot, I loathe you like an oil slick cannot be near water.

5: Add a metaphor linked to animals to the line.

Foul smelling, bad breathed idiot, I loathe you like an oil slick cannot be near water and my hatred is a dangerous wolf.

6: Add a connection to a well-known story.

Foul smelling, bad breathed idiot, I loathe you like an oil slick cannot be near water and my hatred is a dangerous wolf in Twilight.

7: Add some words of the time.

Foul smelling, bad breathed idiot, I loathe thee like an oil slick cannot be near water and my hatred is a dangerous wolf or werewolf. 

There were so many more things I could have added, such as repetition or a question. Here’s some that the students came up with:

Beautiful being, I adore thee like I adore the summer weather. My love for you is stronger than a monkey eating a banana. Even stronger than Shrek.

You beautiful, sweet smelling woman. Will thou be my wedded wife? Can you be the piece to my puzzle? One’s love for you is more powerful than thou’s love for chocolate or like Romeo’s love for Juliet.

The great thing about this was that students started to see what makes Shakespeare’s writing so good. The density of ideas and thoughts can hinder our understanding as novice readers but the more we unpick it the more we understand it. At the end of this lesson, students were able to see why and how it works – by doing it on their own! By understanding how it is written, students will hopefully feel more confident in their analysis.
Imagination first then analysis!

Thanks for reading,