Sunday, 22 October 2017

Once upon a time: starting at the beginning

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. First of all, I should start by saying that I’m certain that what I’m about to say is nothing revolutionary or new. In fact, I almost decided not to write about it because it seems so obvious. However, it wasn’t obvious to me before, so perhaps it will be of interest to someone.

Last year, we started Year 7 with a great reading scheme of work based on a fantastic book, “The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman. Similar to every other year of my teaching career, we got straight into reading the book, making inferences about the characters and considering the effects of language and structure. By this time last year, our pupils were able, with heavy modelling support and sentence starters, to write about these things. But, round about June, it occurred to me that we’d actually done them a disservice. In preparation for their end of year exams, we created a set of revision resources which really went back to basics, starting off with exercises focused on meaning, writers’ purpose and effects. As we did this, it occurred to me this is how we should have started at the beginning of Year 7: at the beginning.

This might be an issue that is quite specific to our school, but I have realised that the vast majority of our pupils just don’t understand stories. Many of them have not been brought up with stories, not had stories read to them as young children and don’t really understand the point of stories, which makes developing a genuine understanding of what people are trying to do when they write difficult. Pupils could diligently learn all the different language and structural features and sentence starters, and churn out versions of the model answers we’d worked through, but did not have a real feel for why any of it was important. As a result, there were often moments when I would ask, “Why has the writer done that? What effect does it have?”, and be faced with a room full of blank faces. As a result, I decided to completely change our scheme of work for Year 7 Term 1 and start with a very basic breakdown of what stories are, and what the point of it all is.

For no very good reason, other than me getting carried away with beginnings, I decided to avoid the pressure of trying to get through a whole novel, and chose to use a range of extracts, also starting at the beginning with Hesiod and Homer, moving through to Beowulf. The rationale for this was to try and plug some of the gaps in cultural capital which our pupils have, while trying to build an awareness of how and why the stories have been put together. The lessons involved a repeated focus on making sure the pupils understood the meaning of the texts, borrowing an idea I picked up from Chris Curtis about getting them to focus on what they don’t understand. We spent a lot of time insisting that pupils didn’t simply ignore difficult words, but used a range of techniques to decipher what such words mean. We also repeated ad naseum the idea that the texts did not appear by magic, but were constructed deliberately and methodically by the writers (one brilliant teacher in our department, who is an MFL specialist, had his classes choral chanting, “Because the writer chose it” in response to any questions about why anything happened in the stories). We spent time discussing writer’s purpose, explicit and implicit meaning and considering why the writers made the choices they did, as opposed to any of the multitude of other choices they could have made. And only towards the end of half term did we finally start to talk about what effect these choices had on readers, and what inferences we could make about the characters.

Being totally honest, it did feel at times like we were moving very slowly, and having to cover some quite basic concepts several times. In this regard, I was reassured by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby’s brilliant book Making Every Lesson Count that it was better to persevere with something worth learning until they’ve learnt it, rather than simply moving on because that is what my Medium Term Plan dictated. In the end, we’ve moved lessons looking at Chaucer and Milton and the use of language and structure into Half Term 2, rather than rushing through them. And I think it has been worth it. I teach two Set 3 classes, and I am confident that they are all now aware of what stories are and why they are written, which I believe puts them in a much stronger position for the rest of their study of literature. I’m also confident that they are now aware of at least two culturally significant Homers, which is, in itself, no small thing. The next step is to try and put this awareness to use: in Half Term 2 we are going to focus more on their own writing, using a similar range of “classic” extracts to inspire and inform what they write. I believe that, by going back to the beginning, we’ve given our pupils a better start to KS3 and, ultimately, a better chance of really engaging with their GCSE texts. Fingers crossed anyway.  

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