In this post, my former colleague and present friend, Jasmine Mulligan, Head of English at King’s College Guildford,writes eloquently about how live modelling helped the department to achieve the best English results the school has ever seen.
The first time I came to Kings, Matt, who was Head of Department, at the time was at the front of his room trying to get a discount from a watch company. He was typing, narrating his process as he wrote, and kids were helping at intervals, with interjections like “why don’t you try…?” or “what about…?” pinging back and forth. Matt was responding accordingly. I later learned this was called live modelling.
In our department we work on the basis that ‘live modelling’ is always preferable to turning up with a pre-made model. Live modelling is about being vulnerable, placing value on the process of crafting, and making overt the mysterious beauty of writing.
On an everyday basis, live modelling means turning up to the blank page and narrating how you fill it. In a classroom, that’s you up front, writing or typing in full sight of everyone in the room, tackling whatever task in live-time. The aim is to crack open the processes we, as successful writers, go through every time we construct a piece so that students can see what the great quality work they hope to achieve looks like under construction.
The way you narrate this experience of writing is what makes the process so worthwhile for students. Outwardly sharing your thinking process by making comments like “I’m thinking about changing this word because…” or “I might change the first sentence because…” helps students understand the way a piece of writing comes together. The kids will offer you support, too, by offering suggestions or alternative vocabulary. They might even scold you for your “clunky” opening argument that just “doesn’t show you off to your best” (yep, direct quotation).
The key difference is you’re not banging out a pre-rehearsed slice of your best work so you feel good about yourself. You’re cracking yourself open and offering a bloody chunk of the inner workings of your mind so your kids know this stuff isn’t magic. It is craft. It is effort. It will take time to get right.
But this is not the only way we model. At Kings, we open ourselves to our students by modelling the value we place on learning, academic rigour and friendship, too.
In our department we have actively placed value and emphasis on the modelling of academic talk. It is well-known that Matt will pause lessons to discuss aspects of the text the class are reading with the other adults in the room, and we are all prone to poking our heads into one another’s rooms to chat about texts we love while students are present. Students learn the sound of an academic conversation and mimic that in their own contributions, meaning they can analyse and question more effectively. We parade academia in order to show students constantly that we – and others outside of the immediate department – love literature, and they begin to see that they could love it too.
Reading aloud is a way of modelling, too. Open the doors of our English classrooms and you will see that most of the reading comes from the teachers, rather than the students. This is perhaps controversial, but as teachers we read with confidence, clarity, cadence and nuance. Students cannot hear the beauty of language if they’re caught up in the five syllables of whatever word they’re trying to pull together. More importantly, they often can’t work out what’s actually going on. By modelling competent yet passionate reading, we help our students hear the beauty of the text they’re studying and improve their comprehension of the stories we hope to immerse them in.
Less tangibly measurable, but of great value, is the atmosphere of friendship and fun our English department has cultivated. We are notorious for debating too loudly, teasing, giggling in the corridors and guffawing in the staffroom. We are kind to each other too, so when of us feels a little off the kids see the others work harder for that person. Inevitably, these friendships spill out into the sphere of our students, and our little block at the back of the school has become a warm and loving place to be. Other departments this year have commented on the “buzz” around English. It is a buzz that comes from love, and it has made students enjoy being in our world. This, inevitably, leads to greater academic success.