One of the things I knew I wanted to do when I started my teacher training was to challenge myself and my students to learn in ways which are difficult, rigorous and rewarding. This undoubtedly stemmed both from my belief in teaching as an activity of challenge and my own experiences in secondary school a decade ago. It is a hard thing to try and become a teacher when you define your identity in a negative relation to those who taught you but I cannot deny the feeling that many of the lessons I had as a teenager were defined by pedagogical gimmicks and a shallow engagement with knowledge. I felt a transience and a disjointedness when skills, rather than knowledge, were the focus of lessons. I never truly felt that we had the time to grasp something before we moved on. The tasks du jour were completing worksheets and workbooks, copying paragraphs out of textbooks and 'applying' knowledge I had barely been given a chance to digest, let alone retain.
The fact is that reading and writing only became pleasures in my life after I finished my GCSEs. After my exams in 2007 my English teacher gave me a novel as a leaving gift, it was the first book I ever read cover-to-cover. Sitting in my garden and under the heat of the July sun was the first time I realised that reading could be an enjoyable end in itself rather than a tedious means to an end. Remembering this on a freezing February morning in my first year of teaching, I realise I am not teaching in the way I want to. Why have I never given my students the chance to read something in class? Where I use texts (usually textbooks) I have used them as a means to an end, something to be applied in order to gain or improve one skill or another. The way I currently plan lessons my use of textbooks is like this:
The purpose here is for the student to be able to demonstrate their knowledge by applying it in the short, written activities. How do I know that they have grasped the significance of Jesus ignoring the Sabbath rules? I know because they have written a sentence or two which describes the story and then a postcard-style paragraph where they tell an imagined friend how shocked they were to be witness to said story. It takes a lot of teacher talk and stilted class discussions to reinforce the 'point' I hope the text to infer and, at the end of the lessons, I collect in the text they have spent time reading and hope they will be able to reaffirm the knowledge they have from the answers to questions I have set. I do not think this is a fatally flawed way to teach, it can work well enough, but I do not feel like it is the pedagogy I am looking for. Instead I thought back to what reading looked like when I really enjoyed it, as an A Level and undergraduate student:
In this process the text stands on its own as something to be enjoyed and read for the sake of learning something. I am trying to move past the fragmented feeling I have in many of my lessons by creating a clear and coherent structure which makes sense, each part builds on the last without discarding it. Each part keeps the text central to the work. One of the most important differences is that the student annotates the text and has physical and intellectual ownership of it. They are able to return to it to reaffirm their knowledge and use it in lessons to come to add depth to their written work. Realistically you cannot give students copies of entire books, at least not regularly, but there is a difference between a worksheet and a photocopy from a book. One is a piece of work to be completed, one is a source of knowledge and understanding to be read and returned to.
With this in mind I set about planning a Year 8 lesson on Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Normally I would have found a video, come up with some paired or whole-class discussion, perhaps asked students to complete a worksheet or a match-up activity, maybe put forward a few questions or a short written task using the textbook. Instead I wanted to see if this group of 30 mixed-ability students could happily spend a lesson reading, annotating and then writing about their reading. I used a story from the Gospels and Nick Page's excellent The Bible Book and asked students to read and annotate both. They were able to use highlighters and coloured pens to make the photocopy their own and I also allowed students to use their phones to translate or look up difficult words. After being given around 20 minutes or so to read the text I then had a short class discussion and a short paired discussion followed by 30 minutes to complete some comprehension questions and a longer writing task which were on the reverse of the photocopy. The longer task had a number of options from something creative like writing a letter or a play scene to a more traditional essay / 12-mark style question.
I have to admit I was taken aback by how well they took to such simple, unglamorous, old-fashioned educational tasks. This is not a class where behaviour or differentiation are non-issues. The text was written for an adult audience so I wanted to make sure that the EAL and lower ability students in the class weren't left behind. The EAL students I spoke to were happy to use their phone to help with translation and all of them had shown that the reading was within their ability by annotating the text well and answering the questions. I spoke with three or four of the students who I would normally create differentiated resources for, they did find the reading challenging but, again, the ability to look up words on their phones helped and I encouraged them to seek out peer support from students sat next to them. Even a student who struggles to write more than a few lines read two full pages of text and told me that they would not have rather been reading something simpler.
My lesson objective was that the students would understand why Jesus's entry into Jerusalem caused a commotion amongst the political and religious leaders. I can absolutely tell you that every student knew that when they left the room. Furthermore they improved their literacy and confidence in reading and writing when they realised that they were capable of reading, digesting and recalling information from a book aimed at adults and a sacred text. This was a lesson I enjoyed teaching because I felt that I was teaching and not co-ordinating a series of disparate activities. I felt confident that when I held a short class discussion at the end of the lesson, all of the students were able to contribute because we all had the same reference points and, furthermore, that those reference points were still in front of students with their notes in the margin.
Perhaps this is all very straightforward and obvious and this is how everyone has been teaching all along. For me it was just the reassurance I needed that it is okay to spend a lesson reading and writing with students without having to include gimmicks or dress things up in a way that hides the true learning processes. I will not teach every lesson like this but I am inclined to try it with different groups, levels of ability and styles of text. I love reading, I love writing, they are two activities that have given me great joy and challenge so why should I deny that fact to my students? Reading is good.