Ten short stories to sooth and enlighten, by Elisabeth Bowling and Edward Hancox.

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Italo Calvino, Zadie Smith, Alexia Arthurs, Rudyard Kipling, Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro, William Faulkner

Before this year, I was never much of a fan of short stories. I found them unsatisfying, dense, too brief to provoke an emotional response or stay in my memory for any amount of time. But about six months ago, I started to find long fiction draining — no doubt in response to the looming uncertainty of unusual times. I found it impossible to focus on novels and lose myself in their twisting narratives and cast of characters. Suddenly, short stories seemed more palatable.

So in March, three friends and I resolved to read and discuss one short story per week. …

We all recognise that effective writing, reading and speaking skills are absolutely vital for the pupils we teach. So this blog, based on my talk at ResearchEd Norwich, focuses on that very complex but very important process of writing. I’ve written about it a little before when I discussed academic writing in English essays, but here I widen the scope to look at accurate and cohesive writing across school subjects.

The recorded version is available here.

The importance of writing

We know that clear and confident written expression is key to both academic success and success in later life. Jennifer Webb expresses it brilliantly when she says that “those that can successfully communicate have the power to change things and to show their worth”, and those that can’t are effectively disenfranchised from society (Teach Like a Writer: 2020). …

I was privileged to speak about middle leadership as part of this year’s ResearchEd Birmingham. It’s a topic close to my heart: with almost six years of being a middle leader across three different schools, I’m now preparing to step away from leading a department. I’m excited about new challenges in senior leadership, but the change in role is certainly bittersweet. I’ll miss the rigour and close-knit teamwork of being a middle leader.

This blog is a condensed version of my ResearchEd presentation, and it focuses on what I believe are the important aspects of middle leadership: leading from domain knowledge, teacher development and subject-specific CPD. …

An essential reading list

I’ve been teaching reading for going on six years. Because I’ve never fully understood how we actually learn to read, I’ve taught it through a hotchpotch of instinct, imitation and responding to the difficulties I’ve seen children experience. Has it worked? Sort of. Many children become better readers; most pass their exams. But I’ve never felt fully confident. I’ve never felt secure in knowing exactly what works when teaching reading.

So that’s why it’s been incredibly satisfying to spend or year or so reading up on reading.

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These books have taken me on a journey that I’ve found incredibly exciting. They’ve given me a series of lightbulb moments; it’s these that have drawn me to write up the essentials of what these writers have taught me. …

Far from being tedious, repetition can help students develop fluency, grow in confidence and enjoy learning.

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Photo by John T on Unsplash

Last year I had a challenging ‘borderline’ Year 11 class. They were amazing (fun, energetic, often hilarious), but still challenging. It was a large class, and they had a huge range of abilities and confidence levels in English. Their behaviour was patchy: not terrible, but often far from focused. At times, they had me pulling my hair out and feeling as if I was the worst teacher imaginable. But the great thing was that I had a decent amount of time with them each week — 8 hours of meaningful, structured practice of English. …

Designing and teaching a term of Oliver Twist.

In Part 1, I wrote about the different processes that go into making curriculum decisions collectively. This post will exemplify these processes in our development of a unit of work on Oliver Twist. I’ve put all the resources below: feel free to use.

This outlines the different steps that we took in creating this unit of work:

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The collective thinking that went into our teaching of Oliver Twist.

For more information on these steps, please have a look at part one of this blog series.

Oliver Twist is a rich and dense text that can be pushed in all sorts of directions. We decided that we wanted students to understand Dickens’ social agenda: his desire to use literature to comment upon and change the society around him. For this reason, the unit links back to Dickens’ intentions, his world, his belief in social reform. We also decided to focus on Nancy as our central character. She is, after all, both a heroic figure and a tragic one. We wanted our study of Dickens at KS3 to prepare students for the demands of GCSE Literature, yes, but it goes beyond this. We wanted students to understand the complexity and even bravery of what Dickens was doing through his writing. We wanted them to see him as a writer who responds to the world around him while instaneously influencing the world around him. …

Why making curriculum decisions collectively is vital (and one way of doing it).

This is part one of a blog series on collective curriculum design. For part two, which includes resources for a unit on Oliver Twist, take a look here.

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There’s a huge amount of discussion at the moment about the curriculum: what should be on it; what is excluded from it; what voices it represents; what bodies of power it transmits; whether it is imposed upon, or empowers children. There’s a lot of excitement as people turn to focus more on curriculum, but also some degree of anxiety. …

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It’s a deceptively simple question. Once we’ve established our intended curriculum, and thought carefully about why we want pupils to learn what we want them to learn, we then need to check if they’ve learned it at regular intervals. If they haven’t, or if they’ve forgotten, we need to take measures, re-teach, re-explain and check again. If the curriculum is the progression model, which it absolutely should be, then having a secure understanding of what students have learned, and how we know, is vital for all the children in our care.

Teachers: three strategies

As a class teacher, it should be relatively straight forward to know what the pupils know at any given time. …

Words that open doors to conceptual understanding

What are the words that are most useful in cracking open texts and understanding complex ideas?

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Vocabulary supports conceptual understanding and refines expression, and I think long and hard about the best words I want to foreground in my teaching. Clearly this is not done through endless wordlists, but by carefully selecting the powerful vocabulary most useful for developing understanding of the literature we’re studying. One of the first things I’m always keen to absorb from other English teachers is the words they’re choosing to teach explicitly.

For me, the teaching of words works in two ways: first, to plug the linguistic gap where conceptual understanding is there. It’s in those moments when a child is articulating something, searching for the langauge, not even sure if the word exists and then…. you hand them the word. A whole term that exists to make their articulation of an already-formed idea. …

Things to think about and things to (try to) avoid.

It’s that time of year when time speeds up, accelerating alarmingly towards exams. In previous years I’ve lost sleep, catastophised endlessly and made bizarre decisions about teaching on Saturday (never a good idea) or making panic-resources in a flurry of photocopying.

This year, I’m focusing on what I think matters the most.

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Photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash
  1. Look at the children

Are they happy? Are they confident? Can they tell you what they like (and don’t like) about their studies? Do they approach questions thoughtfully, drawing on their knowledge?

With exam groups, I like to walk around the classroom and give each student an individual verbal summary of where they are: “You’re excellent at…; you now need to think about…; today I want you to show me…”. The kids love it because they feel known. I love it because I realised how much I’ve learned about them over the year. It reminds me what a privilege this job is. …


Elisabeth Bowling: A Wild Surmise

Considering education, schools and books. Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English. I tweet at @elucymay.

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