Whole-School Poetry at GYCA

File:Charge of the Light Brigade.jpg

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. (1856-1927)

At Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, we always have a poem or a speech which all staff and pupils are working on learning together. This has so many academic and cultural benefits.

Firstly, there is the obvious benefit of cultural capital being acquired by both staff and pupils. Learning classic poems or speeches from Shakespeare builds an intimacy with the language and symbolism of great works of literature that enables genuine engagement with the best that has been thought and said. It sparks curiosity and a desire to know more about where these great words, beautiful cadences and inspiring ideas come from. The curiosity thus created extends beyond the literary into the historical and the philosophical. I had some enlightening discussions about the Crimean War with our head of history last half-term which would not have happened had we not all been memorising ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. This half-term, I’m curious to learn more about the Hundred Years War because we’re all learning the famous speech from Henry V that begins ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’.

Learning poetry and speeches is a shared, communal experiences at Charter. The poetry is heard in assemblies and during morning staff briefing. It is heard in the corridors and in the playgrounds. The walls of Charter echo with the sound of stirring words. When pupils are held up in their progress down the corridors, there is no need for this to be dead time. There are document holders scattered around the school containing the whole-school poetry, so even if staff haven’t quite finished memorising the poems yet, they can grab a booklet and lead some chanting while pupils are waiting to move forwards through the corridors. Moments which could have been filled with boredom, aggravation or just idle chatter are transformed into a joyful shared experience of great words and inspiring ideas.

The poetry which we learn together is chosen for moral as well as academic value. Classics such as ‘If-’ by Rudyard Kipling celebrate great human virtues such as fortitude: perseverance in the face of difficulties. These are the virtues which we want our pupils to acquire during their time at Charter, and the encouragement of the stirring words of great writers adds an extra dimension to the character building which we are doing at the school. When we talk to Y11s about their work ethic as exams approach, we can ask them if they are filling ‘the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run’. When we are encouraging pupils not to give up in the face of difficulties and challenges, we can cite the courage of the Light Brigade, who fought against impossible odds and won eternal glory.

Learning poetry together also teaches us all about the process of learning itself. Pupils see staff struggling to master the poetry. Staff ask pupils to test them on their poetry, giving them the booklet so they can follow and offer feedback. Pupils see that it takes effort and practice to master anything, however clever you are. They are encouraged and inspired by their teachers’ efforts to learn the poetry, even when it is difficult to do so. The experience influences the methods of teachers because they are continually being reminded of how much practice is needed before something really sticks, which leads them to reconsider how often they revisit key knowledge. Are they teaching so that pupils really know it, or only nearly know it? The experience of struggling to master the whole-school poetry is a salutary lesson for all staff on how easily we forget something that we have not truly mastered, which leads them to reconsider their planning and delivery in the classroom.

Last, but by no means least, learning poetry together builds relationships between staff and pupils. Struggling together to master the poetry builds camaraderie, so that pupils feel that we are all on the same team. At breaks and during lesson changeovers, the shared experience of learning whole-school poetry makes conversation easy. We don’t have to make small talk. We can talk about Tennyson or Shakespeare, and what we’ve noticed about the words and ideas which we are working every day to absorb into our long-term memories.

Whole-school poetry memorisation is one of the most distinctive and most joyful aspects of the culture of Charter. It’s one of the things which guests most often comment upon. It’s an experience that cheers one up immensely on a grey January afternoon. Filling your lungs, projecting your voice, and belting out some classic poetry brings life and colour even when the North Sea fog has blotted it out, and when the sun is shining, as it has been lately, poetry recitation only adds to the happiness of working in this very special place.

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Whole Class Feedback: Simple and Effective Recording

Last October, I blogged about our use of whole class feedback at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. It’s a simple and effective approach which maximises learning return on time invested. Teachers read books regularly; they reflect carefully on what they read; they revisit key concepts as necessary. We call this the cycle of the three Rs.

When I blogged about this last year, I received a few queries about the systems which we use at Charter for keeping track of feedback. We have a simple, consistent, whole-school approach to recording feedback, which allows for maximum visibility and collaboration with minimal effort. Every department has its own Google spreadsheet in which they record their feedback. I created all of the spreadsheets and organised them within the the SLT team drive, but departments are encouraged to adapt the format to suit their particular needs.

These shared spreadsheets have many benefits. Because everyone can see everyone else’s feedback, they can lead easily into departmental discussions about key misconceptions that need to be addressed, as well as deeper long-term thinking about the curriculum. They also make line management very easy and streamlined, as SLT have all the information at their fingertips when discussing pupil work and teacher feedback with heads of department.

To make this more concrete, I’ve made an example spreadsheet based on the one used by our English department. I hope it’s useful as a tool for enabling other schools to adopt whole-class feedback. It’s one of the most powerful and effective policies any school can have for increasing teacher effectiveness and improving work-life balance.

Celebrating Self-Discipline in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’

Robert_Louis_Stevenson_by_Henry_Walter_Barnett_bwThis evening, I read a thread on Twitter which presented an interpretation of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde which I fear is all too frequent. Utterson was seen as a repressed Victorian gentleman who would do well to admit honestly, as does his old friend Jekyll, that he has a darker side to his nature. According to this interpretation, we should see human nature as Jekyll does: ‘not truly one, but truly two’. In other words, we should be ready to give up hope of achieving any kind of integrity, any kind of self-discipline. Virtues such as temperance are to be scorned as mere hypocrisy. Embracing such a view of human nature means instructing our pupils in the impossibility of any kind of noble self-sacrifice for the sake of others. It is a counsel of despair. As an antidote to this gloomy outlook, I’m posting here an exemplar essay which we use at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, which offers a very different interpretation. It aligns with our belief that self-discipline is not only possible, but necessary. Instead of dismissing of the efforts of Utterson to mortify his selfish appetites, we celebrate them.

Read the following extract from Chapter 1 (‘Story of the Door’) and then answer the question that follows.

In this extract, which is the opening of the novel, Stevenson introduces the lawyer Gabriel Utterson to the reader.

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life. He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theatre, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years. But he had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds; and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove. “I incline to Cain’s heresy,” he used to say quaintly: “I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.” In this character, it was frequently his fortune to be the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of downgoing men. And to such as these, so long as they came about his chambers, he never marked a shade of change in his demeanour.

‘Gabriel Utterson is the real hero of the novel’.

Starting with this extract, explore how far you agree with this opinion.

Stevenson’s 1886 novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published the year before Sherlock Holmes appeared in print, but it shares many characteristics with Conan Doyle’s famous series of detective stories. Among these is the contrast between an ordinary, typical Victorian gentleman and an eccentric genius who does extraordinary things. Gabriel Utterson is rather like Dr Watson in many respects, because he represents normality in contrast to the outlandish exploits of Dr Jekyll. But a key difference is that unlike Dr Watson, it is Utterson rather than Jekyll who is doing the detective work. He is piecing the clues together through the first eight chapters of the novel, and the reader shares in his puzzlements, as they share in his final discovery of the key to the mystery in chapters nine and ten.

But is Utterson the hero of the novel? That depends upon what we mean by ‘hero’. If we mean someone who has many admirable characteristics, then Utterson suits this description better than Jekyll. Utterson proves himself to be a loyal, brave and self-disciplined gentleman: in many respects, one could argue that he is a model of Victorian morality, in contrast to Jekyll, whose rebellion against accepted moral standards leads to his destruction.

In this opening paragraph, Stevenson takes some care to characterise the man who will be keeping the reader company for much of the narrative. A key to his personality is his reserve. He speaks rarely and never smiles. His undemonstrative personality will be crucial to his role in the story as it unfolds. Utterson is a man who can be trusted with secrets, and his discreet attitude to any information that relates to his friends is symbolised by the safe in which he locks Jekyll’s will, and later the letter which purports to be from Hyde, but which he believes to have been forged on his behalf by Jekyll. Strictly speaking, this letter should have been handed to the police, as potential evidence in a murder case, but Utterson’s loyalty to his friends, even his friends who are ‘downgoing men’, means that he would rather lock their secrets away than reveal them to anyone.

Stevenson also emphasises Utterson’s self-discipline in the extract. He deliberately drinks gin (which was particularly cheap in 1886) and avoids fine wine in order to ‘mortify’ his appetites. This private act of self-restraint illustrates a larger point about his character: he will not follow selfish impulses, which once again makes him a contrast to Dr Jekyll, who pampers his selfish nature through his ‘adventures’ as Hyde, whose ‘every act and thought centred on self’. Later in the novel, we witness Utterson restraining his desires in a more serious matter, when he is tempted to open Lanyon’s narrative before the death of Jekyll, but he overcomes this temptation, and locks the narrative in his safe. In contrast to Jekyll, who seeks a ‘solution of the bonds of obligation’ by becoming Hyde, Utterson obeys the ‘stringent obligations’ of ‘professional honour and faith to his dead friend’.

Stevenson also makes clear in his opening that Utterson reserves judgement. He avoids passing judgement on ‘downgoing men’, and is ‘inclined to help rather than to reprove’. As a result, he manages to maintain friendly relations with them, and maintain the hope of being a ‘good influence’ upon them. As the narrative unfolds, we see this characteristic amply illustrated in his determination to maintain his friendship with Jekyll, whatever his reservations about the connection with Hyde, and despite the strange behaviour of his friend. His offers of help are rebuffed by Jekyll in Chapter Three, but he renews them in Chapter Five, after the murder of Carew, when he agrees to take the letter from Hyde. He even begins to see the link between Jekyll and Hyde in a better light when he reads the letter. He is eager to look for the best in others and avoid judging them unless he has conclusive evidence, a characteristic which is underlined by his profession as a lawyer.

Finally, Stevenson leaves the reader in no doubt of Utterson’s courage. This is most clearly illustrated in Chapter Eight, where Utterson must confront a man whom he believes to be a murderer, armed with only a poker. Even the reserved Utterson is described as ‘very pale’ after he hears the voice of Hyde coming from the cabinet, but he masters his emotions and agrees to break into the cabinet with Poole, then calmly goes about searching for evidence following their discovery of the body of Hyde.

In conclusion, it is certainly possible to see Utterson as the hero of the novel, due to his loyalty, generosity, courage and self-discipline. Perhaps we could see the novel as having two heroes. The doomed Jekyll is its tragic hero, destined as he is to be destroyed by his self-indulgence and his misuse of power. Just as in Shakespeare’s tragedies there are always characters who obey moral laws and restore order, so in Stevenson’s tragedy Utterson fulfils this role. But Utterson is considerably more interesting as a character than the typical Shakespearean restorer of order. Utterson may seem rather stiff to modern readers, yet he remains ‘somehow lovable’.

Remembrance Day at Charter

War MemorialRemembrance Day is one of those occasions when we are reminded of the public’s thirst for tradition and ceremony. The destruction of ceremony never has been a popular movement; it has always been imposed by a liberal elite. People find great satisfaction and great consolation in taking part in meaningful public ceremonies of a solemn nature. Sadly, there are few opportunities for them to do so, unless they happen to go to a major public school, where such things are preserved for the enjoyment of the economic and social elite.

But at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, we believe that everyone can access great traditions. Everyone can appreciate the value of honouring the sacrifice of their forefathers to preserve the freedom of the country where they live. It’s not a complicated or excessively intellectual thing to understand that many ordinary men laid down their lives for their country a century ago, and it’s not a complicated or difficult thing to honour that memory through ceremonies such as a two minute silence.

In fact, even in schools which are normally chaotic, I’ve found in the past that the two minute silence can be observed successfully. Even pupils who are normally rude and obnoxious can rise to the occasion when there is something happening which all recognise as serious and solemn. This shows the edifying and uplifting power of public ceremony and tradition, as it reaches even into the dark world of the bog standard comprehensive.

But at Charter, we can do much more than a two minute silence. We can take many opportunities to talk about the virtues displayed by the soldiers who laid down their lives. Over the last fifty years, there has been an educational fashion whereby the poetry of Wilfred Owen is seen as the ‘real’ version of World War One, while poems such as ‘In Flanders Fields’ are derided as mere propaganda. It’s worth asking ourselves which poet better represents the experience of the typical British (or Canadian) soldier. Owen sees the suffering of the soldiers as meaningless and futile, while John Macrae, the author of ‘In Flanders Fields’ demands that we honour the dead by continuing the fight which they began.

We may debate whether the First World War was necessary, or the tactics adopted by the military leaders, but surely we cannot doubt the commitment, courage and loyalty shown by the ordinary soldiers who laid down their lives? Focusing only on the misery of the soldiers and not their courage and perseverance turns them into mere victims, and dishonours their memory. You won’t be surprised that it is not ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ but ‘In Flanders Fields’ that we are memorising as a school in preparation for Remembrance Day:

‘In Flanders Fields’ (1915) by John McCrae (1872-1918)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Whole Class Feedback: A Winner All Round

Hoop jumpingWhole class feedback can be seen as a lazy option. Surely teachers are just avoiding the necessary work of giving individual feedback because they want to have more free time? But this view ignores the important point about opportunity cost, which must always be considered. Time spent on writing individual feedback in exercise books is time not spent on improving resources, or developing subject knowledge. Individualised feedback is enormously time-consuming and of doubtful benefit. In comparison, improving teaching materials will certainly benefit large numbers of pupils, and will continue to do so time and again, as the resources are used year after year.

This view also ignores the personal cost of excessively time-consuming practices which are of doubtful benefit. Teachers have families and friends. They cannot work every hour of the day and night; nor should they. If we want teaching to be a sustainable and an attractive profession, we must consider the work-life balance of staff.

At Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, we have introduced a school wide policy on whole-class feedback. As with everything at GYCA, we are aiming for consistency across the school, so that pupils know exactly what to expect. We are are also aiming, as always, for the maximum learning return on time invested.

As a school we require teachers to read all of their pupils’ books regularly and to make notes, for their own use, in a shared Google spreadsheet which can be accessed by their department and by the senior leadership team. The spreadsheet contains columns for notes which pertain to feedback to be given directly to the class as a result of reading the books, but the more important column is where teachers note feedback for themselves. What are they going to do differently based upon what they have seen in the books? What are they going to teach differently? What are they going to lay greater emphasis upon, or less? Which common misconceptions are they going to address, and how?

The most important feedback from reading pupil work is not to the pupil but to the teacher. The greatest impact will be had if the teacher reflects on how to improve their teaching based on what they have read. For example, when I read the year ten English literature exams at the end of last year, I noticed that the pupils did not have a clear enough concept of setting. Therefore I updated all of our GCSE literature study guides to include a setting section, to make this more explicit for them. I am also making a point of mentioning the term more often in my teaching of literature, and guiding pupils to write analysis based around aspects of setting in, for example, the Victorian London of Jekyll and Hyde.

At GYCA, teachers have the time and space to reflect on their teaching and respond to what they are seeing in the books. They’ll be doing this in class, as well, as they look over shoulders during writing tasks, which are always done in silence, but the regular look through the whole class sets of books gives a particularly powerful opportunity to reflect on their teaching and how to improve it.

Another huge benefit of our light-touch approach to feedback is that teachers no longer need to be afraid of pupils writing lots and lots and lots. I’m sure many teachers reading this have had a sinking feeling as they watched their classes of thirty-two filling up the pages, and they pictured the piles of books which they would have to fill with extensive, personalised, multicoloured feedback as a result. In contrast, teachers at GYCA are liberated to get pupils to do lots of writing, and they know that they will be able to read it and discuss it without the burden of time-consuming processes imposed on them from above.

It’s a winner all round: lots of writing in silence, lots of guidance before and during that writing, lots of time to produce ever-better resources, and a reasonable work-life balance. That’s why we’re committed to whole-class feedback at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy.

(Image from Wikimedia)

The Joy of Good Manners

When I was in my teens and twenties, I despised manners. Why would you say words to other people without really feeling them?. Why would you go through routines, using fixed words, instead of expressing the spontaneous emotion of the moment?

In this, as in so much else, I was influenced by the degraded Romanticism which pervades our culture, in which emotion is raised above reason, and the individual will must be at the centre of everything.

It didn’t do me any good, of course. I missed out on many cheerful words and many ceremonies which would have enriched my life. I graduated from university three times without once attending a graduation ceremony. I was often crippled by a lack of spontaneous words to utter, and would even avoid my friends at times when I felt uninspired. I remember crossing the road to avoid people I liked well, just because I couldn’t think of anything original or interesting to say to them.

Thank goodness, the burden of originality and spontaneity has been lifted. I’m sure it’s something to do with having been married for almost two decades. I’m not the slightest bit concerned that the words ‘I love you’ are unoriginal or lacking in the spark of divine genius, and I enjoy being married more and more as the years go on, and the words become more and more well-worn.

But lately, I’ve made yet another discovery about just how wrong and how miserable were the Romantically-inclined beliefs of my youth. I’ve started working at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, where the headmaster, Barry Smith, has been training all of the staff in manners. You might think we, as grown ups, didn’t need such training, but I can tell you that in my own case, it’s done me the world of good, because it has created a community in which there is a simple expectation: every time you walk past someone, you greet them. You never ignore them. You never keep your head down. You look towards them and bid them ‘good morning sir / miss’, or if there are many of them, ‘good morning ladies and gentlemen’.

Whether or not you’re feeling cheerful, you can be cheerful in this simple way, and it makes every day happier and brighter. It also means that pupils know that staff are around and paying attention to them. Staff are not invisible because they are audible. Staff can be heard greeting pupils cheerfully as you go around the school. No one is sulky or withdrawn, because that’s just rude. Teenagers do not retreat into themselves, as I often did when I was that age.

It’s a simple and beautiful thing, and it’s something everyone can do. It doesn’t depend upon the individual, but upon a communal expectation, and it becomes a habit after you’ve been doing it for a few days. Like all of the best things in life, it’s just normal, and it doesn’t gain me the slightest bit of glory. What a glorious relief for everyone!

Direct Instruction Principles for Guided Writing Practice

stower_titanic_colourizedI’ve been a fan of Expressive Writing for a number of years. It is exquisitely designed, and like all of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction programmes, the principles on which it is based can teach us much about how to teach effectively across the board. It is particularly relevant, though, to how we think about practising writing.

David Didau recently blogged about what can be practised in English lessons. He argued against practising writing essays or analytical paragraphs on literature, favouring instead the teaching of sentence construction, as sentences are the building blocks of good writing. He also argued that it would be a good idea to use plenty of oral practice of good sentences, as this would result in better retention of knowledge.

I agree that we need to practise the components of writing, and we need to use plenty of oral drill, but it doesn’t have to be either/or. In Expressive Writing, pupils go through a carefully designed, incremental sequence of practice exercises, moving from oral drill, to editing sentences, to writing sentences, to writing paragraphs, to writing multiple paragraphs. The ultimate goal of the oral drill and the written exercises is to enable pupils to produce extended narrative writing fluently and accurately. This has to be our goal with analytical writing as well, and we can use similar methods.

Guided writing practice involves a series of steps. Let’s take the example of writing about An Inspector Calls, J B Priestley’s perennially popular piece of socialist propaganda. Our ultimate goal is that pupils can produce extended analytical writing on a given theme or character in the play. They might have to answer a question like this:

‘How does Priestley use the character of Mr Birling to present ideas about capitalism?’

In a lesson where our goal was for pupils to write a paragraph on this topic, we would teach specific examples of how Birling shows a complacent attitude. We’d teach (or revise) the definition of ‘complacent’ of course – ‘smugly satisfied with your own achievements’. We’d have the class chant that definition, and ask multiple pupils to repeat it using cold-calling. We’d chant key quotations, such as ‘the Titanic […] unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’. We’d model how to analyse such quotations orally, having the whole class and individual pupils repeat sentences such as ‘Using this image, Priestley depicts capitalism as doomed to destruction’.

All of this oral drill would be done briskly, and no pupil would be able to hide, because they would all be expected to join in when the whole class chanted a particular word, phrase or sentence, and they would know that they could be cold-called at any time. Only after having been through this fast-paced, interactive whole class teaching would we ask any pupil to put pen to paper. And when they did put pen to paper, they would start by copying an opening sentence, to ensure that they began as we intended them to go on. The opening sentence could be something like this:

‘Priestley makes abundantly clear to the audience that Birling’s confidence is misplaced, particularly through Birling’s reference to the Titanic as being ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’.’

This sort of closely guided writing practice, preceded by fast-paced oral drill, means that writing is focused, and pupils are continually building knowledge and vocabulary as well as the ability to write analytically. It can be extended to essay length as time goes on, but always under the guidance of the teacher.

If we want our pupils to write well, they need to practise writing, but it doesn’t have to be mechanical Point-Evidence-Explanation; it doesn’t have to be a confusing and futile exercise in building a mythical generic skill of analysis; it doesn’t have to be a pretend mini-GCSE to generate junk data. It can be satisfying, interesting and effective, if we apply the principles of Direct Instruction.

Footnote:

British English:
verb – practise
noun/adjective – practice

American English:
verb and noun/adjective – practice

[Engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic]