I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of (nearly) 53, this much I know about how curriculum, assessment and teaching & learning are so inextricably linked.
If one of the purposes of education is to introduce our children to the best that has been thought and said, then I believe that all students should know and understand the dynamics of the sonnet as a poetic form and how the form has evolved over the centuries.
If I were to design a scheme for teaching the sonnet…

  • I would want students to know and understand the main sonnet forms – Petrarchan, Spenserian and Shakespearean – and how the sonnet has been developed beyond those definitive forms.
  • I would want the students to know the historical contexts within which the sonnet form developed.
  • I would want students to know and understand the following in order to appreciate the dynamics of the sonnet’s poetic form:
    • key vocabulary central to the sonnet form: octave, sestet, quatrain, rhyming couplet;
    • iambic pentameter;
    • the role of the volta;
    • the different rhyme schemes and how to notate rhyme;
    • why poets use rhyme and the impact of rhyme and its relationship to a poem’s meaning.
  • I would want students to be able to write a critical analysis of a sonnet, using a good range of literary criticism terms.
  • I would want the students to learn a sonnet by heart.
  • I would want students to write their own sonnets.

I would introduce a number of sonnets to the students:

  • Visions (Being at my window all alone) – Petrarch
  • Whoso list to hunt – Wyatt
  • On his blindness – Milton
  • What guile is this – Spenser
  • Sonnet 18 and Sonnet 130 – Shakespeare
  • Ozymandias – Shelley
  • How do I love thee – Browning
  • Anthem for Doomed Youth – Owen
  • Clearances III – Heaney
  • Tony Harrison – Long Distance II
  • Anne Hathaway – Duffy
  • Simon Armitage – I am very bothered

So, how are curriculum, assessment and teaching & learning so inextricably linked? Well, students need to be taught some core knowledge before they can understand the concept of a sonnet (curriculum content). I could, for instance, give students a deliberately chosen range of sonnets which exemplify the different forms within the form, and let students work in pairs to identify similarities and differences. They could classify the different sonnets and find there are three main forms with some oddities. I could then tell them directly what the three main forms are called, illustrate the forms with new examples and label for the students the elements of each form that make them distinctive. Or I could teach all that directly from the front (two different approaches to teaching). I could then check to see if the students had learnt how to identify the different forms by a whiteboard quiz – I show a sonnet on the board and they write down Petrarchan, Shakespearean or Spenserian or other –  an exercise which also reinforces corrrect spellings (checking learning through formative assessment). The mode of formative assessment depends upon the taught curriculum content I want to check has been learnt. What I teach next depends upon the outcome of my formative assessment; if the students have not learnt what I have taught them, I will have to go back and teach the content in a different way. In order to embed the learning, I could begin each lesson with a new sonnet, read the sonnet and challenge the students to identify to which of the main sonnet forms it belongs. And I will revisit this content anyway because, as Nuttall claims, 80% of students will have moved new knowledge and understanding from their short to long term memories if they have encountered that knowledge at least three times (my A level students know the Nuttall 3 times claim better than they know the economics theory I am supposed to have taught them…).
Weeks later, after I had taught and formatively assessed all the knowledge and understanding I have detailed above (as well as teaching the students the rigours of how to write a literary criticism essay), the summative assessment – the destination towards which we were always heading – would be something challenging like this:
“Read the following sonnets: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130; Spenser’s What guile is this…; Petrarch’s Visions; Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth and Heaney’s Clearances III. Choose two of the sonnets and compare and contrast how the poets use the sonnet form to communicate their ideas and feelings.”
This essay would summatively assess the extent to which the students know and understand the dynamics of the sonnet as a poetic form and how the form has evolved over the centuries. Over time, as different cohorts of students have been assessed, I would be able to modify the assessment according to its validity and reliability.
Without knowledge you cannot develop students’ analytical skills. How can they analyse sonnets, and write their own, without knowing about Petrarch, Spenser, Shakespeare, et al? Once you have all chosen the content of the curriculum, chunked that content up into learnable chunks so that students can cope with manageable cognitive loads, taught that content, assessed whether they have learnt that content, then they can analyse and evaluate, for instance, Tony Harrison’s Long Distance II, and debate whether it is a sonnet. Can it possibly be a sonnet with 16 lines?
Long Distance II
Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.
You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.
He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.
I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
and the disconnected number I still call.
So, you cannot decide how to teach until you know the curriculum content you are teaching and you cannot know whether your students have learnt the curriculum content you have taught them until you have assessed their learning…simply inextricable!

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