Now in my fourth year of teaching English, I like to play a game in which I take myself back to the first months of my PGCE and remember the things that struck me as odd about teaching and schools.
It is possible that my experience of British secondary schools was even more confusing than most PGCE trainees, as my own schooling was in France. Although I have Welsh parents, I attended a French international school from 5 to 18, and only came to the UK for my degree. I had an outsider’s perspective and the experience felt like an invaluable insight into how the students might be feeling in their lessons. I use the memory of it now to guide me when I’m not sure what and how I should be teaching.
Here are some of the things that stood out to me when I first observed lessons: so much information was delivered by Powerpoint but no other tech was used; hardly any full books were read and taught in English until GCS; and no contextual literary history was ever given for authors (Shakespeare before Dickens, Steinbeck during the Great Depression). Lessons usually included a "learning objective" but these never seemed to link to a practical use outside of school, for now or for the future, and there were rarely any discussions or debates (too difficult to manage, no time in the curriculum). The students could reel off Bloom’s hierarchy of skills but they didn’t know how those skills would benefit them as people. They knew the story of Scrooge but didn’t know if Dickens came before or after JK Rowling. Everything they learned was fragmented. And the relevance of what they learned stayed within school walls.
In my NQT year, I better understood the reasons behind most of the practices that I saw as problems: they were largely the result of Ofsted guidelines, PGCE training, exam requirements and simple lack of time. I saw that it was easy to get lost in the small picture of lesson plans and forget the bigger picture of connecting with students and, even more crucial, connecting what they were learning to their world. How could I retain this sense of relevance and connection for my students?
Giving texts historical context
To be realistic with my time, I focused on one year group: my boisterous and empathetic Y8 group. They all lacked confidence in English and thought of themselves as "bad readers", both because they seldom read and because they felt they couldn’t answer questions about their reading. I hoped that by introducing two new elements into my termly planning, I could show them that they understood more than they thought about texts and that reading opened up the space for them to share and discuss opinions. Ultimately, like every teacher, I hoped that they would gain confidence in their abilities inside and outside the classroom.
Firstly, I decided that providing more historical context for our reading would help the students to make connections between English lessons, history lessons and their reading (and lives!) outside school. Secondly, I planned to include one discussion every two weeks, so we could debate on a theme linked to the novel or an extract we were studying. I hoped this would show the students that they observed more than they thought in their reading and that the work we did in class linked with broader issues. I also hoped that more opportunities for discussion alongside writing activities would build their confidence and encourage their curiosity for different ideas and perspectives.
The historical context element was easy. I spent a few happy weekends making a list of authors we would encounter that year, reading about them, making Powerpoints and finding relevant YouTube videos (Martin Luther King’s "I have a dream" speech for Malorie Blackman and an extract from Noughts and Crosses). The students enjoyed being given more context and the videos brought it to life. The discussions were more difficult. I had no trouble finding topics that tied in with our reading; the difficulty came from trying to manage the discussion. I knew it would be a challenge. If ever I was in doubt that listening is a skill, trying to conduct 32 12-year-olds through a discussion on prejudice confirmed it for me. I ended up using a talking stick, which worked really well, especially as we used a stick that I painted bright colour.! I’d love to hear how other teachers manage classroom discussions.
I’m sure my students still often wonder, despite the learning objectives on the board, where we are going and how this is useful…but I can say that my Y8 class are more confident and enthusiastic. Some of them are reading more, which is the main learning objective I hope to leave them with.
Emma Jeffery teaches English in the South East of England