Stepping stones to GCSE: using King’s ‘I have a dream.’

05 Apr 2017


“Let’s enjoy it while we can (let’s enjoy it while we can)
Won’t you help me share my load (help me share my load)
From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road.”

Van Morrison ‘Bright Side of the Road’.

I’m happy to publicly admit it: I am going through a full Van Morrison obsession. It is insatiable, he is leaving all other musical alternatives behind in the dust. Even the Boss himself is cowering in the corner at the moment. This week ‘Bright Side of the Road’ has been blaring out of the car on the journey to work. As this term reaches its conclusion the song has got me rather cheesily pondering: how could more of teaching be spent on the bright side of the road? Stress, fretting and even panic are ubiquitous at this time of year: mostly circulating around an earnest desire to ensure that all of the students entrusted into our (shaking) hands achieve marvellous exam results. Even (insert relevant lazy Year 11 boy name), who is more interested in ensuring that each follicle of his hair is appropriately styled than meeting his outrageous target grade of a twelve. Limping towards the break feels like arriving at at point of exhaustion, nourished by the endless worries about what needs done over the holidays and when to run revision sessions.

So, as Van would say (we are intimate enough to be on first name terms by now), what can we do to “share the load?” Here’s a thought: what about some genuine, well intentioned, positive reflection? How many of us end the term by investing some time time in thinking about the things that have gone well over the past few months? How many of us look back to those moments in the term in which we have finished a lesson and thought: “Yes, this is exactly why I do this job.” Or have those moments quite naturally vanished, instantly replaced by the narrative of the negative, the narrative of worry?

In this context I came across this fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review this week, which outlines the vital importance of self-reflection:

“Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions.”

I am interested in this idea of meaningful reflection which positively impacts the future, and the value of self reflection in informing  how we feel about our work. So I did some more hunting and read this: ‘The Science of Positive Thinking.’  In very short: when you reflect positively on your experiences you are more open to joy, contentment and future positivity. Seems obvious enough but how much time to we invest in positive self-reflection? I’m guessing we do lots of corrective self-reflection, agonising on how things could be improved and what could be done better. All important stuff and important in generating improvements, but lets be honest: not the most soul nurturing. I then looked back at Mary Myatt’s wonderful ‘Hopeful Schools’ and nodded sagely at this section:

“‘If we think about all the things that are wrong with our lives, our work and the people we plough alongside, then what follows is that we attuned to see more of the same”.

So, to combine all three – there is huge value at the end of a term in pausing to take stock in evaluating our professional lives. Now, naturally it would be ludicrous and naive to suggest this should only encompass positivity. Yet to bypass the positivity and manically dissect all that is not going according to plan will lead to utter misery and a loss of motivation. It will also not result in an improved self-awareness. So, here is my proposal: think back on the lesson this term that both you and your students got a huge amount out of. One where things clicked into place and you could smell the joy and excitement of learning. It will be there, deep in the dusty corner of your mind: a lesson that sparkled. Then write about it – reflect on the nuances of the interaction, the detail of the planning, the elements that worked. Capturing this will mean that it is something you can replicate in the future, something that won’t be left behind. It will also be rather enjoyable!

So in order to leave myself narcissistically glowing at the end of the term with joy, and in the spirit of sharing, mine is with my Year 9 band three group. A tight band of fifteen students who I have been working with to prepare for GCSE next year. This term they have been working on different writing styles. I wrote earlier this term on their lively article antics, informed by Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison’s ‘Making Every Lesson Count.’ This particular lesson was their introduction to speech writing, combining our focus this term on reading as much as possible, looking to prepare for their English Language exams alongside this.

The students strolled into the lesson to the sounds of Van Morrison. No they didn’t: students strolled into the lesson to this Worlde.


I am a big fan of these, predominately for use when introducing poems to build up the mystery of content and get students considering the impact of language. You can make you own at This was combined with ‘I have a Dream’ written on the board. I checked first to see which students knew the speech (four) and then they acted as my prediction quality measurers. Students made some predictions about the speech and we talked about the impact of words. Straight away students were beginning to dissect language and engaging with some of the central concepts of the speech. I then gave them some background on the context of the speech.

Before we watched the speech we looked at this line together: “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair I say to you my friends.” They come up with some initial ideas then I modelled this section to them:

“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friend”

1. Use of pronouns “us, my, you” to include audience and inspire a sense of community.

2. The noun “wallow” implies they are lost in a lack of hope.

3. “valley of despair” metaphor hinting at the fact that they are without hope for the future.

4. “I say to you” gives King importance and his speech vital energy, generates contrast.

5. “My friends” hints at unity again, inspires a collective group.

The idea was to encourage them to look in detail at language in the rest of the section of the speech we would be considering together. We then watched the four minute section of the speech:

Students had their copies of the speech  Martin Luther King infront of them, with the following at the bottom to support with understanding.

Difficult definitions: Wallow (noun): to stay in an emotion of depression. Creed (noun): a set of beliefs or aims. Self-evident (adjective): obvious and clear. Oppression (noun): cruel and unjust treatment. Interposition (noun): the act of intervening in something. Nullificaiton (noun): the act of cancelling something.

They made some points on the sheet as they watched it. Having just done persuasive lively articles the students could identity some of the features used and could highlight some ways in which King seeks to win over his audience. Having modelled more detailed annotations of the opening lines I wanted to prompt them to some deeper reflections. I prepared some prompt questions and set them off in pairs for a few minutes. The first three minute section involved them considering:

  • Why does King mention “difficulties” in paragraph two? What is he aiming to do?
  • What does he mean by “rooted”?
  • What do you think the American Dream is? How does he think this could be achieved?
  • What does he mean by the “Table of Brotherhood?”

This encouraged them to reflect carefully on word choice and structure. We then built on this as a class, sharing ideas and dialogue. Students added to their points as we went along, with lots of reminders and lots of holding up of their annotations in the air to share as a group (useful way to ensure everyone is keeping up with notes and to praise effort). They then recorded a one paragraph summary of the speech, using the key words we had built up together as a group from the annotations. This is the start of  one student’s:


Once we had shared this they then came up with what they felt was the key criteria for a speech and we recorded this in their books:

  • 1. Using pronouns to appeal to audience.
  • 2. Clear message
  • 3. Use of techniques: repetition, list of three, emotive language,
  • 4. Use of a range of interesting and engaging vocabulary.
  • 5. Use of appealing to the emotion of the audience.
  • 6. Passionate delivery.

Now was the fun part. Students were told they had to write the opening to a speech that outlines their vision of a perfect world. To model this they obviously had King’s speech and I showed them my own prepared example. This is one of the ‘Take on Thom’ tasks that I have been building into lessons this term: can you come up with a better example and can you explain why your response is better than mine? Nothing like a bit of healthy competition to push things forward (also a splendid way to get them to consider my model in detail and the strengths of their own). The example is shown with A-ha’s ‘Take on Me’ humming in the background:

“My perfect world. My vision of freedom. My vision of opportunity. It is a privilege to be here and able share these reflections with you today.

I stand in front of you as a class and my main theme is equality. The time has come for us all to have the same opportunity, the same start in life that is not dictated by birth…”

Martin Luther Who? We discussed what I was trying (badly!) to achieve and off they went for ten minutes. I then picked two examples to perform at the front and the class voted on the winner, and then voted it better than mine (again!) The winning entry:

I have a dream

Now by no means am I presenting this lesson as some “vision” of perfection. It wasn’t and it never is. For me it encapsulated lots of elements that I have been reflecting on in my practice this term: challenging content; the opportunity for structured and scaffolded paired work; exploration of language and writer’s techniques; modelling of writing and time for silent writing. Importantly the group also seemed to enjoy it and reflect on the issues raised. This is also a lesson that I can pick up and reuse any time, I have already used it with Year 11 as a revision lesson on writing speeches and English Language questions.

Perhaps in between the fretting and planning over Easter, that thirty minutes to reflect, write and think about the lesson that shone for you will go some way in motivating and nurturing tired spirits. Very simply: it will also make us feel better about the work we do with young people and allow us to replicate more of our strengths in the future.  Thank you for reading, have a lovely break. As Van would say, I hope it is spent on “the bright side of the street!”


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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