'It's the lull before the end of term – the perfect time to show passion in the classroom'

How can we keep the pupils engaged when the summer holidays are within touching distance? Well, one English teacher argues that staff should use this opportunity to unleash the part of their subject that they are most passionate about – they'll find their enthusiasm is infectious

Phil Brown

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The end of the summer term.

Six words which encapsulate an emotional bouquet which spreads its fragrance across the entire academic year. But for all the emancipating thrill of the final school bell, it is a dangerous game for teachers to psychologically clock out before the time is ripe.

Reach for the DVDs and word-searches too early and you will find yourself in front of the most restless, disaffected students you have ever had to face down.

There are two strategies that I like to employ at the end of the year in order to keep some sense of focus and pace, and distract from how desperately we all just need a break.

This year, one of my most enjoyable mini-units to teach has been based on the idea of pooling together the six half-terms' worth of projects my key stage 3 students have been working on. The purpose of this is to find opportunities for students to make links between disparate bodies of knowledge and encourage them to apply them in unexpected ways.

I ran a lesson in which my students recapped our key texts and topics for the year; An Inspector Calls, Animal Farm, Serial Podcast, Hamilton The Musical, the life and works of Shakespeare and the poetry of William Blake. We spent a lesson considering ways in which all of these topics can in some way be seen as relating to one another, and ways in which they contrasted with each other.

We then picked a contemporary issue (in this case it was the tragedy of Grenfell Tower) and the students created a project in which they considered how each of the writers/artists we have covered would respond to this issue.

This strategy has often produced some of the finest learning moments I have had the pleasure of being part of. Not only does it often lead to creative, lateral approaches to a task, but it also helps to cultivate the idea that our lessons help to create a cumulative body of knowledge rather than a simple series of units to be consumed and forgotten just as quickly.

I once worked for a great head of department who got us all doing this at the end of the academic year, and it has stuck with me ever since. All of us (or most of us) have a niche aspect of our subject that we simply love and could talk about for days. The problem is, curriculums being what they are, we very rarely get the chance to share this with the kids, so it just stays holstered for those utopian fantasies where we get to found our own schools and teach whatever we want.

Inject some excitement

Well, why not take this strange amorphous patch of the academic year and give yourself a two-week stretch to introduce kids to that part of your subject that gets you, yes specifically you, excited about your subject?

The first time I did this I spent the fortnight introducing students to my favourite Richard Yates short stories, and in the years since I’ve taken the opportunity to make small sequences of lessons about Kafka, the Oulipo and epistolary storytelling.

The final weeks of term are the perfect time to deploy this type of unit when, as teachers, our backs are against the ropes and our students just want to zone out. This is the exact time to consume that can of spinach and give ourselves the luxury of sharing the slice of our subject that made us love it in the first place.

In my experience, the joy you get from this will be infectious and go some way to combating the end-of-year apathy which sets in around mid-May.

The summer is just around the corner – and boy will you deserve it. But for now, it’s time to take stock and remind those kids and yourself why you keep coming back every year for what still is, despite everything, the best job in the world.

Phil Brown is a writer and English teacher from South London

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Phil Brown

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