By Zoe Enser (@GreeboRunner)
Why English needs a cohesive whole school curriculum
As a teacher of English in a Secondary School, it had always been apparent that I would have to be a jack of all trades. On the most basic level I am teaching students to develop their reading skills through their ability to decode and comprehend, and sometimes to even start back at phonics level too. I also need to focus on their writing skills, forensically analysing what they do and don’t know and can and can’t do. Can they write in simple sentences? Compound? Complex? Do they understand the mechanics of these at the most fundamental level and how they might work in a range of texts? How do they punctuate these? Where do exclamatory sentences fit in? What about paragraphs?
This would be enough to keep me and my classes exceeding busy, but of course we also have to consider reading in a critical and analytical way, beyond simply comprehending. They also need to be able to write about a range of texts in an academic style. Then they need to be able to write engaging narratives and descriptions and articles and letters and leaflets and speeches. All within the required timescale once we arrive at GCSE; 45 minutes in order for the best to show they could ‘adopt a lively and individual voice, selecting an engagingly bold tone, often using humour, irony and hyperbole to good effect..’ (AQA examiner’s report, Summer 2019)
Then we come to Literature. In order for students to understand and engage with the texts I now find I am teaching history and geography and psychlogy and philosophy and politics and ecomonics and pretty much anything else those quality authors want to throw in the mix.
I’m not listing all of these things in order to make spurious claims about how much work I, and my students, have to do in English. It’s not a competition and I know we are often given additional time to compensate. But I’m listing these points to emphasise how much I need my colleagues from across the school to assemble and work together on building a curriculum to support this. Quite simply, I can’t do it alone.
In the examiner’s report for AQA published in summer 2019 they stated that:
What characterised the best of these responses was the ability to engage with the ‘big ideas’: politics, economics, gender, aesthetics, class, morality, psychology, even philosophy. Students who were confident and familiar with these ideas were able to frame their own perspectives in this larger context and thereby enhance the quality of their argument. These are the same big ideas that support responses to the reading questions, and it is clear that providing students with opportunities to encounter and explore these brings benefits across not just this paper but across the entire suite of English assessments.
As you can see this is huge. This wasn’t a surprise to the English team, it is, after all, what we have been trying to achieve in our curriculum for a number of years now. We have tried to build in opportunities to explore a wide range of topics, encountering ideas of poverty, power, love, morality, political systems, and contemporary issues as they present in the news. This is all before they even arrive anywhere close to their KS4 destination. I love the fact that we cover such a range of topics and authors, alongside teaching the fundamentals of literacy, but I’ve often had a nagging feeling that I am not necessarily always getting it right.
When I am teaching about industrialisation in relation to the Romantics am I really doing it justice? When I look at the biblical allusions with my classes, am I embedding any misconceptions as I hurry to the next and the next? When I look at the events surrounding McCarthyism in The Crucible, or the economic impact of the wall street crash coupled with the environmental factors specific in 1930s America for Of Mice and Men am I really the right person for the job?
In an ideal world I would turn to my history, geography and RS teams and draw on their expertise for my CPD. I have had some wonderful colleagues over the years who have helped to enrich my of the Russian Revolution by sharing a few resources. But time is all too often a compromising factor here and we rarely get the luxury of sitting down and discussing within our own teams, let alone going cross curricular.
In an even more ideal world, the majority of our students would be enountering these issues outside of school too, engaging with the news and stories and docmentaries and having rich discussions which merge them all together. We would be building on their existing core knowledge, met with sage like nods when we talk of ancient worlds and ‘well-known’ authors.
But an ideal world is not what we have. The world of my students is one where they are bombarded with information, yet they decide to stick with their favourite vlogger for their go to entertainment and a Macdonald’s with their mates replacing the family meal, where they rehash what has been happening to their favourite celebs amongst the fries and sauce sachets. My year 8 class had never heard of King Arthur, Saint George or Jay-Z for that matter. They often exist in a world with a very narrow focus.
Again, I can’t fix this alone.
So instead I look back to our whole school curriculum with hope. Listening to Mary Myatt and Christine Counsell talk of the curriculum narrative, where subjects are united by a desire to build powerful, and empowering, knowledge, inspires me. Inspires me to help develop a curriculum which builds and circles and crosses boundaries between topics and classrooms and stages. Inspires me to a curriculum where ideas are transferred and embedded and turned into vast schemas, ready to take on the next piece of information and create something new and exciting.
This isn’t though a curriculum map telling me that science are looking at Darwin and evolution in term 1, of Year 8 or that demoncracy is being covered in PSHE in November. It is about knowing that in our school’s curriculum core knowledge will be taught to all. Core knowledge that those subject specialists have identified as seminal. Threshold concepts which could transform students’ understanding of the world. Then, as I take them into Stevenson’s world of Jekyll and Hyde, I am able to begin with the confidence that there is some prior knowledge of evolution. When I teach students a John Agard poem, I know students will have some ideas about Piccaso ‘mixing red and green’, beyond the image my google search throws on the board, up because they have explored his images and ideas in art. Similarly they will have met Adam and Eve (believe me, many, many year 10s over the years have had no idea about their story when looking at Macbeth), the Greek Heroes, Beethovan, the Suffragettes, Isaac Newton, and will have an understanding of what makes a mountainous terrain different from a savanah and how people interact with these environments around them.
Of course there will be gaps, things which haven’t stuck, have been missed or have turned into a whole new misconceptions to be unpicked. But if we unite our curriculums to ensure that significant cultural knowledge is given to enable our students to have the ‘ability to engage with the ‘big ideas’, then we can work to fill those gaps. Our curriculum should assemble the best of what we want our students to know about the world.
Idealistic? Maybe. But I think the Avengers of teaching might just be able to do it.
Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: The Essential Guide to Effective and Efficient Teaching is available now.