Essential summer reads: ‘Making Every English Lesson Count’

22 Aug 2017

ladder-of-change

“It’s been a long, long time coming but I know a change is gotta come”

Otis Redding ‘A Change is Gonna Come’

This is always an edgy, nerve wracking week in education land. Wednesday night sees the inevitable fraught sleep, haunted by visions of a floating mass of grade ones and floods of adolescent tears drowning us. Just me?

Positive or negative, post results days and September often arrive with full Otis Redding style howling at the moon about the need for change that has “gotta come”. Some of it is self inflicted, as reflective professions we yearly set ourselves noble and new classroom targets: those underachieving boys will never again escape my clutches! Some of it is imposed by those “reviewed” management policies: “During the summer we reflected on our marking policy and we have concluded that we will now mark with our left hand in yellow for positive comments and our right foot in grey for negative comments. This must be implemented immediately.”

Yet in the sweat and panic of such immediacy the important discussions are often left tragically ignored: what will equip us with a better understanding of how to teach our subjects? What will provide us with renewed ideas to build on approaches to enable young people to do their best in our individual subjects?

Perhaps at this opportune moment a copy of Andy Tharby’s ‘Making Every English Lesson Count’ could magically float into English departments across the land, arriving with it a wealth of practical insight, deeply informed by experience and research.

A slight medical detour before we return to Andy Tharby. I initially started this blog after reading the neurosurgeon Oliver Sack’s ‘Gratitude’, a wonderful short memoir with profound meditations on a remarkable life. I was pottering around Sweden last week reading his excellent ‘Awakenings’. It is a book that recounts case studies of victims of the 1920’s ‘Sleeping disease’ epidemic which tragically cut short five million lives. It also left a unknown number of people in a prison of a perpetual sleep-like state, reduced to shells of their former selves. In the 1960s Sacks placed a number of these patients on a course of a new “miracle drug” L-DOPA. Immediately patients underwent remarkable “awakenings”, returning to demonstrate personalities that had been trapped for decades.

Have no fear, this is not a hyperbolic correlation between L-DOPA and Tharby’s capacity to change us as English teachers. One case study of a patient was particularly fascinating: Leonard L. In 1966 Leonard was “in his forty-sixth year, completely speechless and completely without voluntary motion except for minute movement of his right hand”. Before starting the drug the only way he could communicate was by spelling out messages on a small letter-board. What particularly struck me, however, was Sack’s description of him in this state:

“This was a man of most unusual intelligence, cultivation, and sophistication; a man who seemed to have almost total recall for whatever he had read, thought or experienced; and not least, a man with an introspective and investigative passion which exceeded that of almost any patient I had ever seen”.  Oliver Sacks, ‘Awakenings’ pg 188.

What wonderful qualities. It is this “introspective and investigative passion” that makes Sack’s own writing so remarkable: a deeply passionate commitment to developing wisdom in his profession, a humane intellectual and emotional investment that seeks to understand how to have the most impact in his role.

It would not be hyperbole to offer the same accolades to Tharby’s book. Very simply it is a medical level dissection of how to grow in our craft as English teachers. It is written in a style that is deeply exploratory, tentatively weighing up research and classroom practice to offer guidance about how to approach the rudiments of English teaching: reading and writing. As Tharby concludes: “I have written this book after a decade of English teaching and I still feel like an imposter. There is always so much to learn.” (pg 155)

A few hours of “introspective and investigative” reading will provide a number of strategies that can be instantly implemented in the classroom. More importantly, there is much insight to assist in deepening a long term understanding of how to approach teaching English and how to learn from dissecting great practice.

Having scribbled a huge amount of notes down during reading, there are too many points to do justice to in one post. To adapt Tharby’s sensible guidance to take a slow, incremental approach to introducing new ideas and developing as an English teacher, here are three takeaways I will be immediately focussing on in September:

Vocabulary rich teaching: I am always conscious of not doing enough to encourage intellectual engagement with words and deepening lasting vocabulary development. Or, rather, I am conscious of words flying around my lessons then vanishing into word purgatory: not translated into students’ writing. ‘Making Every English Lesson Count’ proves a range of ideas to encourage retention of vocabulary: teaching two or three new words per lesson; generating vocabulary lists; modelling through our own lexical enthusiasms; high expectations of verbal responses; the fun and playful banning of phrases. I am particularly keen to explore etymology more in lessons, to unpick and explore words more with students. Alex Quigley also highlighted the importance of this in his talk at  the Leeds Festival of Education, modelling how interesting and thought provoking this can be through the etymology of ghost.

Actively teaching annotations: Annotation forms a significant chunk of English lessons, yet it is often done remarkably badly – with students producing annotations that will not inform later revision or assist them in the process of writing. I have been reduced to despair by inarticulate annotations from students when the scaffolds have been removed. Tharby again provides a wealth of ideas to ensure this is maximised to its full potential:

“Modelling the annotation process with your classes allows you to demonstrate the practicalities of ‘marking up’ a text. It also provides a visual guide to your thought processes as a reader. Yet annotation is much more than simply writing notes on a projected text. It is a process that needs to be taught in a carefully staged way, allowing ample time to practice.”  ‘Making Every English Lesson Count’ pg 47

Making planning central: Tharby’s book gives a range of tricks for avoiding the streams of rushed and poorly constructed writing that makes up the frustrating diet of marking for English teachers. One of these is harnessing the power of meta-cognition and investing time in ensuring that young people develop as confident planners of writing. Our students love delving into pieces of writing, with the inevitable lack of paragraphing, spelling or coherence being the results. Importantly, this is not about teachers handing out streams of plans for students to follow blindly, rather: “the ultimate goal of all scaffolding tasks, therefore, is to hand planning duties over to the students over time” (pg 131).

Results days will come and they will go. We are likely to experience over forty in our teaching careers (what a delightfully cheery thought). Perspective on the day itself (as Chris Curtis writes brilliantly in this post) and during the flourish of speed induced changes that we may find ourselves presented with subsequently is vital. The change that we should perhaps herald is that intellectual engagement with our subjects, the individual ownership of an “introspective and investigative passion” that can incrementally build us as teachers in our subjects.  For English teachers, Andy Tharby’s book is a brilliant addition in this mission (although only when combined with the vocal talents of Otis Redding, obviously). Thanks for reading: “a change is gotta come..”

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Jamie Thom

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