If you don’t plan lessons, what do you do during your planning and preparation time?
In the first of this series of blog posts, I explained that I rarely employ the use of written lesson plans or presentation software to guide the direction of my lessons. I also asserted that it’s my use of planning and preparation (P+P) time that allows me to work this way.
The short answer to the question that opens this post is: I read. My reading can be split into two sorts: Pedagogical reading and subject reading. Because I spend as much as my P+P time reading, I believe I am a better teacher. I’d even go as far to say that if I spent my time endlessly creating Lesson Plans or PowerPoint presentations during my P+P time, instead of reading, I (emphasis on ‘I’) would be a worse teacher because of it. For me, every slide created is a page not read.
I tend to read with a coffee in one hand, a book in the other, and both feet up, either on a chair or a desk. This makes me comfortable and makes the reading experience more enjoyable. Most of the time, it doesn’t feel like work. I highly recommend others teachers spend their P+P time this way.
But be careful.
In spending your time this way, you open yourself up to suspicion and criticism from colleagues. After all, in this time of austerity and accountability and data and data and data, it takes a brave soul to dare to lounge around with a book, especially when SLT are on the prowl and other teachers are hunched over computer screens organising slide transitions.
Daring to read a book is further perilous because the development of one’s subject knowledge is so often assumed to be something that one does ‘after school’, an assumption which fails to recognise that most teachers are actually humans for whom the prospect of eating and drinking whilst watching a celebrity eat a bollock is far more exciting, after a long day’s work, than reading anything more intellectually stimulating than [insert name of leading British tabloid here].
As I’ve already said, my reading is either pedagogy based, or subject based. Which is lucky, because Robert Coe et al found that ‘the most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning.’ I’d like to discuss each of these types of reading, briefly, and in turn.
I spend lots of time reading about teaching and learning. This reading material is found either in the form of blogs or books. I’ve read lots, but the reading on teaching, how to teach, learning, and how to learn, that really stands out, without looking at my book shelf, was found in these places:
•What if Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? David Didau
•Making Good Progress? Daisy Christodoulou
•Why Don’t Students Like School? Daniel Willingham
• Andy Tharby’s blog post on The Memory Platform
• Carl Hendrick’s blog on The Semmelweiss Reflex
• James Theo’s ‘The Knowledge’ blog
Spending time, in the school day, to read these has changed the way I will teach forever. That is to say, many of these books or blog posts has improved every lesson I will ever teach forever. Where they haven’t improved my lessons, they have definitely improved me as a teacher, more generally. I don’t think I can say either of these things about any time I’ve spent creating a Lesson Plan or PowerPoint presentation. I want to try and be specific. Allow me to explain:
-What if everything you knew about education was wrong?
Most significantly, this book made me realise the benefits of the testing effect. Because of this book, I test my students every lesson.
-Making Good Progress?
As a teacher, Daisy’s book helped me to design intelligent multiple choice questions that challenge children, whilst reducing my workload.
As a Head of Department, it was this book that helped me to help others in my school get us to a point where we assess summatively just twice across the whole year.
-Why Don’t Students Like School?
Willingham’s model of the memory means that I am always aware of the limits of the working memory, and also the ways that I, as a teacher, can reduce extraneous load to ensure student learning is enhanced.
-Andy Tharby’s blog on the Memory Platform
If Didau’s book taught me everything I needed to know about interleaving, it was Tharby’s memory platform that helped me to incorporate it regularly (twice a week minimum) and easily into all my lessons.
-Carl Hendrick’s blog on The Semmelweiss Reflex
For years people rolled their eyes at me as I cited research at them. This blog made me realise why. And as a result, I’m a little more patient and a little less of an arsehole.
-James Theo’s ‘The Knowledge’ blog
Because of James, now, when I want kids to know stuff, I tell them what I want to know, rather than asking stupid questions or engaging them in silly tasks in the hope that they’ll guess what’s already in my head.
I’ve been to some good CPD. But nothing I’ve ever had spoken to me, spoke to me like the stuff in these books. And unlike speakers, I can whack books on a shelf and open them again and again and again. A PowerPoint slide lasts as long as the memory stick takes to get lost. The stuff in these books stays, even if the books themselves are lost.
Part of the reason I became a teacher was to indulge my passion for English, so an hour of reading a book around my subject is absolute joy. And it’s a joy that benefits my pupils. Reading around my subject, for me anyway, is not about reading a revision guide or revision website on the text I’m currently teaching. That’s just reading someone else’s reading about the reading. That’s not to say I never do this (of course I do – I teach Emily Dickinson), but what I prefer to do is read the following:
• Literary theory
• Critical essays
• Fiction written by contemporaries of authors we’re reading in class
• Other works of fiction written by the author of the text we’re studying in class
• Non-fiction texts written by the author of the text we’re studying in class
It is this sort of reading that makes me, occasionally, a great teacher.
It is this type of reading that allows me explain to kids, during a lesson looking at Mr Birling, ‘ George Orwell was writing about Mr Birling before Mr Birling was even a thing’, as I whack the following extract from The Road to Wigan Pier under the visualiser:
It is this type of reading that allows me to tell classes, year after year, as we read Act 1 Scene 7 of Macbeth, that the sibilant sounds that permeate the Macbeths’ speech make it sound like they’re whispering. That in fact, what the Macbeth’s are engaging in are the ‘conspiratorial whisperings’ outlined by Kermode in his book, Shakespeare’s Language.
It is this type of reading that allows me show kids extracts from The Grapes of Wrath in preparation for teaching Of Mice and Men.
This is the type of reading that warms.
The information gleaned from this sort of reading kindles fires that are always there, smouldering, just waiting to be ignited by the touch paper of a question from a student or something falling into place where it didn’t before.
Here’s a list of the fires, quietly burning, some for a while now, some begun only recently, just waiting to burst into flames as I teach Macbeth:
• Ellen Terry’s assertion that ‘It is strange that Lady Macbeth should be seen ‘as a sort of monster’, read in an article on the British Library website. (https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/unsex-me-here-lady-macbeths-hell-broth )
• A.C. Bradley’s statement that, ‘Macbeth gives the impression of a black night broken by flashes of light and colour…and the colour is the colour of blood’, taken from A.C. Bradley’s famous Shakespearean Tragedy
• ‘The clown acts as a bridge between the stage and the audience’, taken from The Cambridge introduction to Shakespearean Comedy
•‘Conspiratorial Whisperings’, a phrase taken from Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language, which has also influenced my own phrase, ‘mono-syllabic splutterings’ to refer to Lady Macbeth’s final angst-ridden prose.
• The knowledge that actually, in asking ‘unsex me here’, Lady Macbeth is not asking to be stripped of her femininity, but rather she is asking almost the opposite: to be the most womanish of women; that is, an old woman. Taken from another article from the British Library (https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/witches-in-macbeth)
These nuggets of information, found in books, will reveal themselves, shining, to form the basis of whole lessons, even a series of lessons which opens kids’ minds to perspectives rarely explored in revision guides or websites. As I said in the previous blog post in the series, this is the reading that provides me with the analogies, allusions, explanations, examples, non-examples, and counterpoints needed to ensure kids learn well.
In the next, and final, series of this blog series on Messy Planning, I’ll explain what all this looks like in the lesson.