I absolutely love the ideal of the English GCSE literature curriculum. The summative assessment at its conclusion is a wonderful way to assess the cumulative knowledge and skill of students. The happiest examiner is s/he who reads intelligent informed discussions on a range of possible perspectives of texts. The exams are indeed set with this as the expectation: students have a base level of knowledge about a text, and then are able to engage with various conversations that can arise from its understanding – these become the essay questions. And this is needed to be multiplied by at least 4 substantial texts plus multiple poems. So the paragon for teachers is to have students secure with the entirety of each text, its plot, its vocabulary, its context, its themes, its characters and their idiosyncrasies, the language techniques that enhance each of these aspects (including structure), the ability to synthesise and link various aspects of a text and sometimes with other texts based on all of the above, the skill of structuring a response incorporating the synthesis, whilst planning lessons, formatively assessing progress (possibly re-planning as a result), designing summative assessments, marking student summative work, teaching students how to revise, managing behaviour, motivating and encouraging and counselling, sometimes parents too, whilst maintaining an indefatigable image of professionalism, strength, and wisdom. Oh, I forgot to add dealing with the incredible pressure of time in achieving success in each of these components, the pressure of results, and the expectation to be continuously developing professionally.
If you’re anything like me, you want to spend time going through a text. I like to read the entire thing word for word with my class. I want to explore every nook and cranny, make connections with everything going on in the world, have debates, use themes as stimulus for creative writing, parse extracts like Sherlock Holmes, and have students write multiple essays on a variety of perspectives of the text. To achieve such utopia, the most important thing is to ensure that students have sufficient knowledge to be able to engage in discussions, both verbally and in writing. To facilitate this, I explicitly teach them the information. Then, religiously, I help support the recall of information through retrieval quizzes, a highly effective strategy.
But even with this ascendency, because of the constraints of time, the reality involves a compromise to the amount of knowledge some classes can absorb. In my experience, conceivably because of my lack of skill, the amount of time spent on recalling information is dependent on the ability of the students I inherit. The headache here is that the amount of time used to recall information can often take up time that should be otherwise spent on developing synthesis. Is this usurpation of time what potentially distinguishes the final grades of various classes?
Concomitantly with securing knowledge, students need to be shown how to write responses to questions based on the knowledge. Modelling tasks is imperative for successful uptake by students, and again, the time spent scaffolding seems to correlate with ability, resulting in a concession of synthesis time. The skilful English teacher, however, is able extract every drop out of the time available in the classroom by knowing, via strategic assessment design and specific feedback based on assessment, a discerning eye and skill in writing precise actionable feedback, what constitutes the appropriate level of modelling for the relevant class. The skilful teacher also understands that rushing through this stage is actually detrimental to saving time in the long run, as without the depth of understanding, students will always struggle to master the writing of such a response. S/he is able to see the woods for the trees, not panic with Time lurking, and the complaints of ‘bored’ students, and knowing that next door is already on chapter 5, and patiently continue on the mission of consolidation whilst new content is delivered.
Shakespeare the obscure?
Sometimes the skill level of the English teacher is particularly striking. Take as an example the teaching of Shakespeare. The first great skill is having a thorough knowledge of the play itself. Of course it is expected that a subject teacher is very knowledgeable about their subject, but Shakespeare is bloody hard*. It is incredibly complex almost exclusively, and being able to help students understand the text is an achievement in itself.
This is particularly the case for students who take longer to understand even modern texts written in far more recognisable language. The design of lessons to maintain student attention is imperative. You may disagree with this, and say the text is inherently interesting, but for some students, it is as difficult to understand as a foreign language. It would be like you and I sitting in front of a person talking to us in Russian, for 6-8 weeks. Intrinsic motivation levels to remain attentive would certainly wane (the analogy only works of course if you can’t speak Russian). Abridging the text whilst maintaining the integrity of it, yet ensuring adequate coverage to satisfy summative probabilities, is an art form.
Incorporating context demands that the teacher is conversant in quite a bit of history. The more skilful English teacher works hard to deliver the content in an entertaining way. A good storyteller will always succeed because it appears to be innate in us that we love a good story. It is for this reason that story telling assists the memory of key pieces of information: via elaborative retrieval. There are currently some very interesting ideas around that consider the practising of delivering such parts of a lesson, particularly by Ben Newmark: ‘Giving a well-crafted explanation is best viewed as a short theatrical performance‘ – (see principle 7). Whilst there could be some concern about the robotic nature of such rehearsed teaching, I actually think it becomes the opposite, with better delivery greatly assisting in maintaining student attention.
Finally, but by no means exhaustively, a good English teacher is like a rock. They are compassionate but assertive, caring but firm, honest and insightful, and patient. They deal with multiple personalities every day, sometimes put up with behaviours that aren’t conducive to a learning environment (I am becoming more and more interested in ideas presented by educators such as Ben Newmark who provide ideas about removing such situations), and sometimes become teacher to parents too. English teachers are in fact rather remarkable**. What other occupation has such a remit: managing time, people, and most importantly, futures. Of course there are some, but they are amazing too.
* There are some who naturally are very good at Shakespeare – they are incredible, which proves the article’s thesis.
** Of course this article applies to all teachers (except the Shakespeare bit).
I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger