“Stretch them and they will Soar:” the bright future of English teaching.

“Stretch them and they will Soar:” the bright future of English teaching.

I’m really excited about the new KS3 English Curriculum. As far as I can see, there’s a lot to like. And I’m also in the very lucky position of moving into a role where it’ll be up to me to design and implement it. My interpretation of how to apply it is very simple: the students in my school will enjoy reading and writing high quality texts with ease and fluency. They will develop a cultural capital the majority have never had at that age through studying great literature, and they will understand and be able to articulate why and how language works and changes in the ways it does. And they will be confident speakers who can use and shape our marvellous language for a myriad of purposes and situations. All this will be framed by an intimate knowledge and understanding of the history of English Literature.

Ever since I began teaching, KS3 has consisted of texts like Hatchet, Stone Cold, Skellig and the others. These are all good stories that kids should be reading, but they should be reading them in their own time. If a child only gets 3 or 4 hours per week in English in secondary school, then that three or four hours really has to be spent in studying great literature with the help of someone who knows the subject. For so many years, we’ve shied away from actually challenging our students by studying texts that they we know will be easily accessible. But what a waste of time that is. Surely if we make the hard stuff accessible then the other stuff becomes easy reading for their leisure time? There has been a history of us as English teachers implicitly telling our students that they can’t study “hard” texts and great literature. They’re just not up to the job. This is clearly rubbish. And it’s also no wonder KS4 is such a shock when they actually have to look at some literature.

Last year I was having a conversation with somebody on Twitter about redesigning the year 9 curriculum. Her curriculum consisted of a rich diet of great work from “The Canon”. When I pointed out that it may be a bit much for my students, she replied with a lovely phrase that I have never forgotten: “stretch them and they will soar.” This has become almost a mantra for me since then, and it really is true. It’s a beautiful phrase that cleverly sums up and encapsulates the way teaching is going; one might say it’s the spirit of the Growth Mindset in a nutshell.

Let me give you an example. I teach a set 5 year 9 group. This in a vertical setting system and so consists of students who are considered to be the weakest in their band (teaching these types of groups over the last few years has made me become a strong advocate of genuinely mixed groupings, something I intend to write about soon). What I’ve noticed this year with these students is that they really believe that they are rubbish. They are convinced that they simply can’t read, write or speak well. And who can blame them? They’re into their 9th school year of people telling them that they can’t do things, and of support departments giving them labels and little stickers that they can show teachers saying “don’t ask me to read aloud” and the like. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!

This half term we’ve been studying the poetry unit. This is an absolute pet hate of mine – how crazy to do one unit a year on poetry in English. Poetry is the absolute epitome of linguistic achievement and the most fun (our new curriculum will have a rich diet of poetry all year round). In recent years I’d have read a few poems with them, drawn a few pictures relating to the imagery, created some storyboards etc. etc. And don’t get me wrong, we’re still doing a bit of this. But what we’re now doing in addition is some proper study of the language and how it works to create meaning; really getting to the nitty-gritty of the interaction between sound and sense and how the two work in a symbiotic relationship to create a beautiful whole.

So we read and compared three poems together: Leisure by WH Davies, Human Interest by Carol Ann Duffy and Hawk Roosting by Ted Hughes. Our focus was on the meaning of the poems and how these related to the sound of the words as the poems are read aloud. These kids, who think they can’t do things very well and have the paperwork to prove it, were identifying and discussing tetrameter and pentameter. They were identifying feet and iambs and trochees and telling me where the stress was in the lines and how this forced the reader to read it in a certain way. They were explaining how the clanging and clashing of harsh consonant sounds in Human Interest reflects the narrator’s confused and desperate state of mind, and how the careful rhythmical control in Hawk Roosting demonstrates the power and majesty of the bird, and how Davies’s use of iambic pentameter structured into rhyming couplets ties in with the sense of ordered beauty he is describing (a  few weeks earlier they also produced some very articulate and enthusiastic persuasive speeches on their pet hates, which they really shouldn’t be doing according to the little stickers in their planners).

These are kids who can’t do things and have the paperwork to prove it. What rubbish. They’ve just been allowed to fall into the trap of believing they can’t do it thanks to the adults that have made them that way. Talk about manufacturing a dependent and underachieving underclass of the future. The biggest struggle to my mind is to ensure that all staff in our schools are prepared to push and challenge these types of students so that they consistently produce good quality work that is worthy of the genuine praise it receives. It’s a steep hill to climb, but we’ve got to try.

“Stretch them and they will soar.” They sure will.

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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

4 responses to ““Stretch them and they will Soar:” the bright future of English teaching.”

  1. Chris Curtis says :

    Great blog, Andy. A lot of things here ring true for me. ; )

  2. Fran says :

    Fantastic blog!! It was so encouraging to hear about students engaging with poetry in this way. I’m on a similar journey with my Year 11s, and I now feel inspired to film them discussing iambic pentameter in ‘Hitcher’ and other poems, as they did on Friday 🙂

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