Be the fountain!

Today in class my students learnt lots, but not just about my subject.

I started in my usual way, with a retrieval quiz. The quiz is always structured to include at least 5 questions from very recent learning, and 2 from months ago, with one from even longer ago. As I went through the answers for the first 5 questions on Lord of the Flies, I suddenly realised just how much knowledge was being imparted to a relatively weaker set of students. They were asked a question about Jack’s red black and white face mask, and recalled the previous lesson’s learning about the Nazi party, and its brief introduction to how it gained popularity, and then abused it, resulting in some of the most horrific consequences of all time; could students see a connection to the character of Jack? Was Hitler the worst? What about Napoleon? ‘Who, oh, that guy Blake talks about?’ A reminder was mentioned of the French Revolution, and consequently the Napoleonic wars – a quick mention of Admiral Nelson and the subsequent Nelson’s column – ‘Oh, that’s what that’s for.’ (The strategy here is to add a little bit more each time you revisit content – next time will be about Trafalgur Square and Wellington). This was then directly related to the study of London, by William Blake, which prompted a question about the industrial revolution, The Romantic poetry movement, and then to Dickens, as also a man trying to eradicate poverty and issues with society. This led to a quick recap on Thomas Malthus, an economist with a theory essentially based on eugenics, akin to Hitler. 

The final 3 questions in the quiz were based on past learning, from the previous year in fact with another teacher, on the poem Sonnet 43. Students were asked about Elizabeth’s ‘past griefs’, which meant talking about her arguments with her father over his Caribbean sugar plantation, made enormously profitable by the use of slaves, which meant asking if students knew what slaves were, why it was even a thing: British imperialism, and where the Caribbean was, which meant talking about North and South America: drawing a rough map – does anyone know why Brazil is the only country in South America that speaks Portuguese while the rest speak Spanish? Quick mention of the Treaty of Tordesillas. ‘Where’s New York, where’s LA? Where’s Hawaii – where’s Amsterdam, is that in America?’  ‘Where’s the UK is in relation to it all’ – ‘how long does it take to fly to New York?’  ‘Can you eat sugarcane?’ which led to a quick discussion of the refinery process, and that white sugar is the worst of all sugars to eat because of the chemical processing, a sugar that fills their soft drinks, and most of their foods. 

After the quiz we resumed reading Lord of the Flies, recapping wonderful vocabulary with Ralph being indignant (why is Scrooge indignant in the beginning of the novella?). Other words such as inscrutable, errant and contemptuously. Ralph accepting the meat, essentially condoning Jack’s behaviour (what does condone mean again? Can you use it in a sentence please ………), leads to him gnawing the meat like a wolf – an example of zoomorphism – write down the definition please.  

And that’s just a quarter of the way through the lesson.  

Going off-piste?

Teaching provides countless opportunities to discuss the world, facilitating an expansion of students’ background knowledge. But you have to take them there.

Because reading comprehension is heavily dependent on background knowledge and cultural capital, a notion beautifully articulated by John Tomsett here, making a point of going off-piste is practically an imperative.  I’ve also written about it here. What I’ve found is that the lower the set, the less general knowledge students have. It’s hardly a generalisation that students in these sets just don’t get access to conversations that can provide such information unless it’s in school, and from YOUR classroom.

Teaching general knowledge is often dismissed due to a lack of time, and the need to get through a curriculum. But great teaching will use effective questioning that is sharp, and well balanced in terms of open and closed questions, to deliver information continuously, in context, and linked in one way or another, all wonderfully woven into curriculum discussions and content.

Knowledge energises the classroom, riveting students with new facts, information that for many previously often seemed intangible, just out of reach, inaccessible, reserved for others. I love looking up and even seeing my most ‘indifferent’ student’s eyes peering my way. It always reminds me of why I love teaching so much.

It’s a sense of empowerment for students to finally get to know things, especially if they have tacitly, repeatedly understood via poor grades that learning is not for them, more the preserve of those in sets above them. But because you know lots and lot of stuff, you can easily change that for them.

So be their fountain of knowledge.

Let your students drink! Fill them up!

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, or follow this blog for more similar content about English teaching and education in general.

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