I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about unfettered teaching.
As I approach three decades in the profession, teaching English still thrills me.
When I began teaching at Eastbourne Sixth Form College back in 1988 I taught five A level literature classes in my NQT year. It was blissful. I coaxed the students into becoming active readers of texts and spent the rest of my time modelling how to write literary criticism.
When I moved to an 11-18 school in Hove and began teaching lower school classes I could not understand why we waited until the sixth form before we taught students how to write analysis of literary texts. To me, the skill of making a point, backing up your point with evidence from the text and then explaining what effect upon the reader the author intended when choosing one or two individual words or images, seemed teachable to any student of any age.
Over the years, as I was promoted and found myself teaching different subjects and fewer lessons, I ended up no longer teaching lower school English. This year, however, whilst the bulk of my timetable is Economics A level, I have an hour, first thing on a Friday morning, when I teach a Year 7 class of 30 students. It is my favourite hour of the entire week, bar none.
I enjoy teaching this one hour of Year 7 English for a number of reasons. Our Year 7 scheme of learning is more challenging than it has ever been and I am teaching Macbeth, the first taste of Shakespeare for every single student. We have stopped assessing using National Curriculum levels; instead we are using our professional judgement as to what standard of work we expect of students by the end of Year 7 considering their starting points.
Whilst it is a group of students with mixed KS2 starting points, I have ignored any inherited assessment data about the students and instead I have taught relentlessly to the very top, expecting that everyone in the class can write literary analysis of the Scottish Play. It has been liberating.
Another couple of things. We begin most lessons by reciting aloud the first scene of Macbeth by heart, which is great fun. And occasionally I share extracts from my next book which has encouraged half a dozen students to share their own writing with me; we are close to launching our own writers’ blog.
Macbeth as a text helps. It’s so great. When I asked Olly to come up to the front of the class and, with an imaginary sword, unseamed him from the nave to th‘ chops, the whole class was groaning in fascinated revulsion. The Fair is foul and foul is fair metaphor is woven so deeply through the text that the students were highlighting examples I had never noticed. It is fair to say that every single one of us has had great fun for that hour every Friday morning since September.
At the heart of my teaching has been the insistent modelling of the Point-Evidence-Analysis (PEA) paragraph. I have taught the PEA paragraph structure explicitly, made good use of formative assessment as the students have tried, failed and tried again to shape effective paragraphs, and convinced the whole class that they can write GCSE quality essays.
These slides are typical of how I have modelled PEA paragraphs, transforming the students’ relatively shapeless efforts to ones which are sharply analytical:
This slide could be the guidance slide for A level literature students:
My expectations of what the students can do have been higher than ever before. In essence, my single expectation has been that the Year 7s will be able to write analytical essays if I teach them well.
Here are some examples of what the students have written. In this first one, James makes an astute point about Lady Macbeth:
Writing is a real challenge for James, yet the shape of the PEA paragraph is intact and the comparison of Lady Macbeth with the devil is all his. James, it turned out, is a secret writer at home. He is working on a short story which he wants, eventually, to publish on our class blog.
This next paragraph sees Anna, who is one of the class’s highest starters, relish the writing of literary criticism:
What we must not do is rob Anna of her distinctive style as she moves through the school by dictating exactly how to write PEA paragraphs. She has understood my basic model and yet retained her tangible enjoyment of the writing process.
Sometimes, irrespective of the PEA model, students write something which surprises. William drew this perceptive general conclusion about the play:
William’s intense engagement with Shakespeare’s language has required every ounce of his concentration. His resulting essay was a highlight of my teaching year.
One of the things I explained to the whole class is that there is no point me setting them work they find easy. I have to challenge them with activities beyond their current capacity, teach them well and believe, without a shred of doubt, that they can meet the challenge.
I love teaching unfettered by expectations. Ignoring students’ minimum expected grades is a subversive joy. At the recent Year 7 Parents’ Evening, parent after parent reported that their child loved the Shakespeare lessons; apparently, one or two have been reciting random extracts from the play at home. I stunned the parents by reading some of the critical analysis written by their sons and daughters. It is no exaggeration to say that it was the most enjoyable Parents’ Evening of my career.
Only one parent enquired about the grade her son’s essay would have been awarded. I told her it didn’t matter. I explained how she had been comforted by her son’s SATs level in primary school without ever knowing what it meant. What I told her was more important – that her son was making above expected progress. What I want her son to do, I told her gently, is to come home and tell her what he has learnt in English today and what he needs to do to improve his writing skills.
Dismantling students’ own modest perceptions of what they can attain seems to me to be one of the most important priorities for classroom teachers. If we can set the level of challenge at a high level early in our students’ secondary career, the better equipped they will be to tackle the increasing demands of GCSE and A level.
Those of us who learn at Huntington School do so in a culture of the possible. We do not believe that anyone can achieve anything; rather, we believe that with dedication, industry and know-how individuals can make progress beyond what anyone, including themselves, could have imagined.
What dismays me slightly is that it has taken me the best part of thirty years to teach how to write literary criticism to Year 7 students. My only comfort is that my job continues to surprise me and I am still learning.
This article was first published in the Summer 2016 edition of The Use of English magazine.