Whole-School Poetry at GYCA

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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.

Primary Literature: Telling Stories

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Boy Reading (1843) by Albert Tikos (1815-1845)

I’m currently working with primary teachers across the Inspiration Trust to develop a content-focused approach to literature. I spoke to the whole primary staff about this project back in October – you can read my talk here. In this post, I’ll be looking at why a content-focused approach is more accessible, more equitable, more effective, and more joyful.

But firstly, what do I mean by content-focused literature teaching? Very briefly, I mean teaching that has as its goal the retention in long term memory of the content of literature: its plots, characters and themes. This goal is distinct from the goal of practising decoding to fluency, which is of course a necessary part of primary education (and sometimes of secondary too). It is also distinct from the goal of practising generalised ‘comprehension skills’ such as inference and prediction. I’ll argue later that a focus on content actually enables better inference and prediction anyway.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is accessible

A strong focus on the plots, characters and themes of literature is more accessible because fundamentally, it is about knowing the story well. Everything flows from this. Stories are the most memorable and interesting thing, for everybody. As Daniel Willingham has pointed out (in Why Don’t Students Like School), the human brain seems to be set up specially for the retention of stories. They sink in and they stay in the mind more easily than anything else.

When the teacher is focused on the story as they teach literature, she is using the most powerful and the most accessible tool for transferring knowledge to their pupils, whatever their ability level. When the teacher reads the story out loud to the class and explains it to them, she opens up new worlds to pupils of all abilities and backgrounds.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is equitable

This follows naturally from accessibility. A teacher-led lesson focused on literary content allows the whole class to share in the story. The whole class is building cultural capital. The whole class is building shared meanings that will stand them in good stead as they mature and encounter more sophisticated texts. No one is left behind.

This is always the paradox: when we insist upon differentiation, we embed disadvantage and make our education system less equitable. When we insist that everyone in the class listens and learns the same material, we reduce the gap between the haves and the have nots.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is effective

When the focus is squarely on the content of literature, children’s knowledge and vocabulary will grow, and this is the primary means by which comprehension can be improved. While there is some benefit in general strategies for improving comprehension, they are, as Willingham points out here, easily learned and do not require much practice. The vast majority of our ability to comprehend is based upon what we have stored firmly in our long term memories. So focusing on this in our primary curriculum is the best way to ensure success in the short and the long term. It will lead to better SATs results, but more importantly, it will lay firm foundations for a lifetime of better understanding and ever increasing knowledge.

Our brains, tuned as they are to stories, naturally infer and predict, and their ability to do this accurately is primarily based on how much knowledge is stored in long term memory. The conclusion is obvious. If we want our pupils to be able to infer and predict effectively, we must give them more knowledge.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is joyful

If we want to inoculate our pupils against literature, the best way to do this is to turn every story into a vehicle for practising comprehension strategies or doing SATs test preparation. But when we forget all that dry, dull and empty formalism, we find that there is a wealth of fascinating stories that every pupil can enjoy. Content-focused primary literature teaching becomes a journey of discovery which includes everybody in the class, even the teacher. And you get better SATs results into the bargain.