Before training to become a teacher, many moons ago, I had gone through many different phases about what subject I wanted to teach. First, it was History. Then it was Art & Design – short-lived, as I soon realised I wasn’t good enough to be an Art teacher and didn’t have the patience for Art after my GCSE. Then, I flitted between English and History, until finally settling on History when I applied for university.
Never did I think I would be teaching a multitude of subjects so early into my career when I did eventually train to be a teacher. In the two years that I have been teaching, I have taught Philosophy and Ethics (my very first EVER lesson was a Philosophy and Ethics lesson on Whether the Media is Good or Bad … it panned, big style). Then this year, I was given the pleasure of sharing a Year 7 English class – which upon setting, became Set 5 i.e. bottom set. And boy was it a challenge.
The class was majority boys (most were weak or sadly disengaged with English), varying SEND and students with English as an Additional Language (EAL). Now, as a History teacher, I had always taught mixed classes and teaching a set class was a whole new ball park. Usually, I would have the benefit of Higher Prior Attaining students who would be able to model to Lower Prior Attaining students answers – however, whilst I would have that with some of the range of students in the bottom set class, it would be at a different level to what I had experienced before.
They were a small bunch – 14 students at most – and I adored them! We would have our lesson on a Wednesday afternoon. They’d be the only class who would line-up after lunch time in our Faculty area, and would do so away from all of the rest of Year 7 who would be doing English in another block. So, I always used to make a fuss of them. Boost their spirits and get them excited for their English lesson (whilst internally screaming about how I was going to teach them a subject outside of my specialism).
The main hurdle I faced with the class was the literacy levels and being able to understand the use of specific words. It would be a painstaking process at times. When we were reading through an extract of text, I asked why they think the author used the word ‘scrunched up into a ball’ rather than ‘curled up into a ball’.
I was met with blank faces.
So, I thought on my feet, saw a piece of scrap paper on a desk from the lesson prior and improvised. I asked them to look at the different ways I treated the piece of paper. First, I curled it up gently, unfurled it and then scrunched it up with force. I then asked them the same question, and to my luck, some were more confident in explaining why the other used the word ‘scrunched’ instead of ‘curled’. 1 – 0 to me!
However, that was only one word in a lengthier extract. How were they going to fair with a wider piece on their own? Especially when it would come to assessment drops and eventually, GCSEs (I know, I know, they’re only in Year 7) but I am one of those kinds of teachers who takes on those kinds of burdens, unnecessarily.
For a few weeks, I banged my head off the wall continuously. The usual blank expressions when going through an extract. What could I do to get through to them?!
I turned to one of my fellow NQTs in the English Department, and unloaded to her. What do I do? How do I help them? This is useless! I can’t teach English! were some of outbursts. She talked me down off my cliff edge and just said …
!! Quote Blasts !!
I looked at her – dumbfounded at 7.30 in the morning. Was that it? What did she mean? Am I going to explode quotes? That last one came out verbally and she nodded, ‘Yep! Exactly!’.
In our upcoming lesson we were looking at Langston Hughe’s Poem, ‘I, Too’. It was powerful, it was evocative and interlaced with beautiful imagery and allegory about racism and the American Dream. Teaching a bottom set English class in a inner-city London school, if there was one poem I couldn’t do a disservice to in teaching them, it was this one. So, I decided to use quote blasts but in the form of I do, We do, You do (Two helpful articles that explain more about this strategy can be read at Evidence Based Teaching.au and Teacher Toolkit as part of a wider article about Modelling Classroom Instruction).
My plan was to take two stanzas of the poem – I do the first stanza, we do one half of the second stanza and then they (you) do the rest of the second stanza – and to take. my. time.
The results below:
To give a little bit more context, the students were completing a sequence of lessons looking at courage in poetry to compliment their studies of courage in The Breadwinner.
In the I do phase of the analysis, I read the stanza to the students, I spoke my thoughts out loud so that they could hear my thinking, rather than me going straight into annotating. Giving them that complete picture of what I was doing was going to be beneficial to them to support their own development of this skill.
Then came the difficult part, the We do phase. As you can see from the annotations on my whiteboard, there were lots of thoughts but it took us a while to get to where I was wanting the students to go with this part of the second stanza …
table = society.
It was painstaking – theme here, I know – but I and they preserved. We made a game out of it by the end, where I would keep encouraging them and was letting them shout their thoughts out (absolutely anything that came into their heads). I wanted them to grapple with it, with as little guidance from me. I will give it to them that they kept referring back to our own class definition of courage which included the concept of hope in it. They’re a deceivingly good bunch when it comes down to it.
Then, I left them to do it on their own – the You do phase – with the last part of the poem. I, especially, encouraged them to think about the theme of the poem and to think about the Big Picture ideas they were being presented with by Hughes. Whilst there was some hesitation, the majority were quick to annotate the poem in their exercise book and came up with their own comprehension of why Hughes used the phrase ‘nobody”ll dare’ (NB: I did, when reading this section out to them, give it a little bit of sass and attitude to nudge them in the right direction).
Then after we had completed our annotations on the whiteboard to complete the learning altogether – and to ensure those who may have struggled with the independence, could still feel a sense of accomplishment – we then discussed the poem based off our annotations and the conversation was very fruitful, and they really kept driving home about courage. Whilst I could have got them writing, I thought wise not to due to the extensive thought processes they had just had to go through and because the gruelling episode took so long, I just didn’t have the time.
Yet, they left that classroom feeling a sense of accomplishment and achievement in English that they had not experienced before, but also I felt the same, too. I was so proud of the work we had all done together. It was a big achievement, and that’s why I have the photos and still can remember the lesson so vividly. It’s one of my standout lessons that I have ever taught and I think will be for a very long time.