An English (Department’s) Journey PART 2: Teaching Hard Stuff

In this blog post, another member of the Kings College (Guildford) English department explains one of the factors in this year’s amazing GCSE results. This time, we’re talking about teaching hard stuff.

Consistency and high expectations and two things that are consistently expected of just about anybody who works in a school. But is this necessarily true of the type of work we expect the kids to do? I’ve been teaching for 17 years with 4 of those in SLT and I’ll openly admit that it has been something that I am guilty of. A classic case of ‘Oh these kids won’t be able to do that, they’ll find it too hard and will give up!’ Thankfully over the past 2 and a half years, since stepping down from SLT and going back into the classroom, this egregious error has been well and truly removed from my practice.

I’ve only taught English for two years and this was due to my aforementioned move from SLT back to a classroom practitioner. I was asked to take on a ‘challenging’ group and try and get them to engage in English and achieve a modicum of ‘success’ (whatever that looks like!) – this was a group who were used to a low bar and consequently believed that this was all they could do.

As @Mulligan already highlighted in a previous blog the KS3 curriculum has been developed to push the students right from the word go. Focusing on learning key terminology and themes and mastering them before they get to Year 10. When discussing how a total English novice should approach his group, the same principle applied – consistently make it hard, consistently make it challenging and consistently expect the students to give their best. As someone who had used the ‘can’t do it’ excuse in the past in his own specialist subject I was bloody nervous. Turns out I shouldn’t have been.

By focusing on teaching hard concepts and content this ‘challenging’ group became more and more motivated. The focus on literacy and learning 4 words a week saw the students desperate to use a newly learnt word in their work. Students who previously would use the word ‘nice’ as their go to adjective used ‘diaphonous’ to describe a dress or ‘mellifluous’ to describe a sound. They wanted to know the difference between omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotence and they wanted to use them in their work.

This was also reflected in their approach to key texts. Yes, my group found Macbeth hard but they all wanted to produce great answers and had the vast majority knew the main plot points Act by Act. An Inspector Call was no different – the discussions we had based around class bias and has Britain really changed were amazing. A Christmas Carol saw us looking at the similarities between Scrooge and the Birlings.

By teaching ‘hard stuff’ and acknowledging it was hard the vast majority of students wanted to prove to everybody that they could do English. And do it well.

The result of pushing and teaching difficult stuff? 41% of the students gained a grade 4 or higher. From a group where 8% were predicted to achieve it (which shows the value of predicting anything!) And a teacher with radically changed perceptions on what can be achieved – if you make it hard enough!

– @edgarbrun