On the back of reading Bob Pritchard’s blog about his own teaching faux pas in Science, it brought back some of my own teaching moments that I now look back on and cringe over! Unlike Bob, we weren’t setting fire to tampons in a Science lab, but over the past 10 years, Key Stage 3 English, has, in some areas, ended up as a bastardised version of English through the guise of ‘skills’. It became gospel that English was a skills based subject, not a knowledge based subject. I need to be clear here – I am not criticising anyone involved in the writing of curricula at the time. I have the absolute privilege to work with some of the most inspirational people going. But that merely serves to highlight, to me at least, that the bad ideas permeated far and wide.
Top of the Flops
Coming in at number 5 is an old favourite of many English teachers I’m sure – the Shakespeare soap saga drama! As was customary in the Dark Times, rather than actually teach students something about Shakespearean texts, instead, accepted wisdom was to develop their ‘skills’ through drama based approaches. A particular low moment for me, whilst teaching Romeo and Juliet, is getting students to re-create a scene between Juliet and her mother as a modern day Soap Opera perfect for the pre watershed slot on BBC1. Somehow, I ended up with a class of girls screaming ‘you’re not my muvva!’ with an equally ear drum bursting ‘YES I AAAAAM’. Whilst their drama skills were perfect for a Slateresque iconic moment, they had learnt precisely nothing about Shakespeare or Romeo and Juliet.
Taking the place at number 4 was an incredible, innovative unit that I decided to teach to a low prior ability SEN KS3 group. Rather than teach them to read or write functionally, in one of my most wild moments, I decided that a unit of ‘learning’ (and I use that term lightly) on designing their own Theme Park would be The Thing that developed their English skills. Obviously, it didn’t. They couldn’t read or write any more fluently than when the unit started, nor did they know anything more about English. But they had designed their own ‘Love rollercoasters’ and ‘Chocolate Rivers’. Life changing, it was not.
Rolling in at number 3 is the time I decided that turning my classroom into the Actual Harry Potter Experience would be the best thing ever for a low prior ability KS3 group. I went all out – I mean all out. On an NQT wage, I must have in excess of £50 on this one lesson. We had magic spells, we had potions, we made slime, I dress up as a witch – we had the best time! The lights were on low, the Harry Potter sound track playing in the background. The closest we got to learning anything was that spells aren’t real and play doh knackers the carpet when you mix it with slime and food colouring. As a wide eyed NQT+1, I even wrote about this inspirational lesson in a job application. In hindsight, having taught them something about English might have made me a better teacher to them.
Runner up for the Top Flop, coming a close second, number 2 is a project I creatively named Playdoh Esio. Clearly, having not learned my lesson from the Harry Potter scene of horrors, my 22 year old self felt that getting my class to create play doh versions of the characters from Esio Trot would be world class teaching and learning. At best, there was a tedious link between what they had read in the book and the way they made the characters. At worse, they were making 100 teeny tiny tortoises because that’s what the book says. Great. What was I going to do with those? They ended up living in my room for months – which, coincidentally, left a permanent, blistering reminder that they’d learnt nothing about English. But they could make some tortoises shaped blobs. Awesome.
Aaaaaand coming in at number 1 Top Flop* is an old favourite of mine – the ‘writing instructions clearly’ lesson. In the Dark Days of previous English GCSE specs, there were writing ‘triplets’ which, obviously, became bastardised into skills we had to teach all the time regardless of what knowledge they’d need to develop those skills. My answer to this was, of course, to teach them the skills of writing instructions accurately. The lesson started with a task ‘write a set of instructions on how to make a jam sandwich’. Then, with a desk coated in cut up black bin liners, I would whip out a loaf of bread, some butter, a knife, some jam and a plate. Students would then read out their instructions and I would follow them literally. ‘Put the butter on the bread’ became me shoving my hand into the butter, scooping it out and slopping it on some bread. ‘Use the knife to put the jam on the bread’ would be demonstrated by me ramming the knife into the jam, ensuring the whole thing was covered, and roll it around the bread. Eventually, the instructions would become more precise and I would be able to make a sandwich without getting elbow deep in some cheap butter. Happy days – outstanding learning. They had all made progress because they could write a set of instructions for making a jam sandwich by the end of the lesson. I remember delivering the lesson once and a group of visitors dropped by unannounced – they were all trainee teachers. I dread to think what impression I gave them of what they should be aspiring to as fully qualified teachers with jam smeared on my face and an errant crust stuck to my hair. Welcome to teaching.
Over the years, I have learnt just how little impact I had in the Dark Days on learning. In each of these examples, students learnt very little, if anything, about English. That honestly devastates me – English is such a rich, wonderful, diverse subject and there was I was dumbing it down to an Eastendersmoment. What I hadn’t realised then, a pretty fundamental thing, was that students learn about what they think about in lessons. If I’m making a tool of myself with a loaf of bread, they’re going to remember the time Miss made mad sandwiches. If they’re divving about pretending that Juliet and her Mother are on Jeremy Kyle, or an episode of Eastenders, they’re thinking about Jeremy Kyle or Eastenders, not about Shakespeare or the text that’s so beautiful that is deserves to be the sole focus of their learning. An inescapable fact that I can’t ignore in my Top Five horrific moments are that the classes quite often were SEN or low prior ability. At the time, I thought I was making English accessible to them – now, I realise I was crippling their education with low expectations. Our most disadvantaged students, and our lowest prior attainers, are the furthest behind. They should be doing the most work, the hardest work, the work that brings them up to speed with their peers. In mistaking engagement for learning, I made that impossible – my heart was in the right place, but my head wasn’t.
Thankfully, things are changing, and with curriculum focus taking priority from OFSTED, and an increasingly evidence informed profession, I really hope that this ill-advised practice begins to be weeded out of education. Our young people deserve better.
*Honourable mention to the following that didn’t quite make the cut: