On Poetry II – Poetry and the poetic

bob-dylan-not-a-poet-casey-jamesLast year Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature for ‘creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ Whilst I can appreciate the splendor and immediacy of his lyrics, and the gruff poetic beauty of his rolling voice, I don’ think he is a poet and or that his songs should be considered poetry, at least not in terms of poetry written for the page and for private contemplation.

This probably sounds a bit dismissive of Dylan’s craft and shows a lack of respect and appreciation for all he has done for music over the past few decades. I can already hear the knives sharpening from those who believe that Dylan is a poet, which would only intensify were I to question the credentials of artists like Morrissey, Nick Cave or Jarvis Cocker who are also commonly referred to as poets.

The art of these writers is without question; their contribution to culture undeniable. To say the likes of Bob Dylan are not poets is not, though, to denigrate their achievements or to call into question their artistry, but to recognise the difference between song lyrics and poetry. Many of their lyrics are clearly poetic, but they are not really poetry.

Poet Glenn Maxwell has a simple exercise to make it clear how poetry is fundamentally different to song lyrics. It involves writing out the lyrics of your most cherished song and then reading them bare – just the words on the page. In every instance the effect is striking. As Maxwell observes, ‘if you strip the music off it it dies in the whiteness, can’t breathe there. Without the music there is nothing to mark time, to act for time.’ Great songs need music; great poems do not – they generate their own.

You that build all the bombs

You that hide behind walls

You that hide behind desks

I just want you to know

I can see through your masks

‘Masters Of War’ – Bob Dylan (1963)

 

Yes, I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

You’d know what a drag it is to see you

‘Positively 4th Street’ – Bob Dylan (1965)

This matters to how we approach the teaching of poetry. I’ve often seen students led into poetry through the medium of song. The implication is that poetry cannot be enjoyed on its own terms, only by being brought into the orbit of something more familiar. Nothing wrong with making things relevant, I hear you cry. Well, yes, sometimes. The problem here is the message it sends out about the status of poetry – that it’s just like songs – and the misconceptions about meter it creates further down the line.

Chief among these approaches is the use of rap music. Many a lesson I’ve witnessed with Eminem or Dre used to inspire students to study poetry. Aside from the perennial danger of trying to be down with the kids – it never works – there is the danger of misleading students about the nature of poetry, and setting up problems when we want to turn to the technical nitty-gritty of rhythm and rhyme.

If song lyrics get lost in the white wilderness , then rap lyrics disappear altogether – all the energy, anger and delight of the rhythm and rhyme vanishes. Without the beat, there is nothing. The lyrics look daft; they are not strong enough to withstand the encroaching whiteness. Song lyrics, however slight, need some accompaniment, whether a guitar, a beat, or even the voice itself recast as instrument. Poems generate their own music, but songs need rhythms from elsewhere and the presence of the performer.

Look, if you had, one shot, or one opportunity

To seize everything you ever wanted. In one moment

Would you capture it, or just let it slip?

Yo

‘Lose Yourself’ – Eminem (2002

Robert Frost understood this difference between poetry and the poetic. In 1913 when he first met Edward Thomas in Harold Monro’s Poetry bookshop,  he knew he’d come across a genuine poet, even though Thomas had yet to write any verse. Thomas read and wrote prodigiously. By the time the pair met, he had already published some two dozen books and written almost 2,000 commissioned pieces, including a great deal of nature writing.

The next day was the missel-thrush’s and the north-west wind’s. The missel-thrush sat well up in a beech at the wood edge and hailed the rain with his rolling, brief song: so rapidly and oft was it repeated that it was almost one long, continuous song. But as the wind snatched away the notes again and again, or the bird changed his perch, or another answered him or took his place, the music was roving like a hunter’s.

 from In Pursuit of Spring – Edward Thomas (1914)

Thomas wrote poetically, but he didn’t write poems. In his nature writing, Frost saw the potential for Thomas to turn his poetic prose cadences into the music of poetry. He badgered Thomas to take his eye and ear for nature and turn it into verse. The poems came thick and fast, with some 70 or so written in the first six months of 1914. Often Thomas returned to the notebooks he kept from his long walks in the Gloucestershire countryside, or to the published prose pieces that they begat. The result was something fundamentally different. Poetry.

What did the thrushes know? Rain, snow, sleet, hail,

Had kept them quiet as the primroses.

They had but an hour to sing. On boughs they sang,

On gates, on ground; they sang while they changed perches

And while they fought, if they remembered to fight:

So earnest were they to pack into that hour

Their unwilling hoard of song before the moon

Grew brighter than the clouds.

From ‘March’ – Edward Thomas

The poems that Edward Thomas produced before his tragic death from a shell blast on the first day of the battle at Arras are, in my opinion, both beautiful and brilliant. That is not to say that they are necessarily any more beautiful or brilliant than anything penned by Eminem or Dylan, but simply to recognise that they are different in what they achieve and how they go about achieving it. If we fail to acknowledge this distinction and rely instead on seguing from song lyrics to poetry, we are effectively undermining the orientations of both forms.

So let’s not try to call everything that is poetic poetry, or we end up diminishing the rich tapestry of aesthetic expression, whilst devaluing the skill of the poet – the skill to move through word and sound with nothing more than inky black marks on white open space.

Much is poetic; precious little is poetry.

On Poetry I: What is this thing we call a poem?

It was a typical day at university for Professor Stanley Fish. He had just finished teaching his linguistics class. Some of the names of linguists he had discussing with his students were still on the board when his next class started to arrive for their literature seminar. Fish decided to make one small change between classes. He drew a box round the assignment details and wrote p43 at the top.
The list now looked something like this:

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Fish’s next move was simple but significant. He told his literature students that there was a religious poem on the board, similar to the ones they had been studying the past few weeks, and he then invited them to interpret its meaning. The students duly obliged and it wasn’t long before they were offering all kinds of interpretations, from initial readings of the poem as a hieroglyph to highly convincing interpretations of the symbolism of the Hebrew names Jacob, Rosenbaum, and Levin.

What Stanley Fish had stumbled on, and what he found on every occasion he repeated the trick, was the reality of how readers tackle the act of interpretation. His little teaching sleight of hand had revealed that readers do not approach literary works as isolated individuals but rather as part of a community of readers. As he writes in Is There a Text in the Class?, ‘it is interpretive communities, rather than either the text or reader, that produce meanings.’

In essence, Fish’s literature students did what literature students do in a classroom situation: they interpret the text put in front of them by looking for allusions and patterns of meaning, regardless of whether they are even there. The more the students interpreted specific parts of the poem, the more they convinced themselves that they had built a coherent sense of its overall meaning. The only problem, of course, was that it was all nonsense. There was no poem and therefore no meaning!

At no point did any of Fish’s students question the validity of the text itself, or whether what they were interpreting was even a poem. Because they were working in the context of a literature class, in the presence of a professor of literature and confronted with what looked like a poem, they assumed it was a poem and without thinking they adopted the rules for interpreting obscure religious verse they had learned – rules they had clearly internalised from years of making inferences about literary texts.

Now, we could lament the way that a bunch of hitherto bright students could be so uncritical in their approach to reading. We could even despair at how cultural relativism has reached such a nadir that a simple list of linguists could be mistaken for a profound religious poem. I think, however, this misses the point. As Fish notes, this is ultimately how we approach reading all texts, literary or not – as a community. Even to interpret a list of linguists as a list requires a shared understanding of the concepts of seriality, hierarchy and subordination. This is the nature of interpreting meaning from text.

I think there are some lessons to draw from Fish’s work in relation to teaching and, more specifically, to curriculum design. The first is to recognise the responsibility we have in selecting the texts we teach. We should make sure that what students will be interpreting has substance, both in terms of its intrinsic value and its utility. Mark Roberts has written about the failure of poems like ‘Tissue’ to do either of these things well. I’ve never taught ‘Tissue’, but as long as I can remember there has always been quite a bit of guff like that in the GCSE anthology, most of it sadly of the contemporary variety.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against modern verse per se, and I am certainly not suggesting we should avoid all forms of contemporary literature. That said, I don’t think GCSE students should be wasting their time interpreting poems like ‘Tissue’. The funny thing is that most of the students I have taught seem to share a similar view. I always think classes will respond much better to poems like ‘Brendon Gallacher’, ‘Blessing’ and ‘Kid’ but actually when they write about ‘My Last Duchess’ or a Shakespeare sonnet they have much more to say and they say it with much greater conviction.

The second important lesson we can we learn from Stanley Fish’s work on interpretative communities relates to the order in which we teach students the poems that we select. I’m guessing that one of the main reasons that Fish’s students so readily interpreted a list of linguists as a religious poem was because they were used to seeing poems that looked like that, namely without a clear form or discernible structure – they understood the free verse style that characterises much of the poetry of the last century, and which has dominated the contents of many an anthology since.

Whilst Fish’s students may have mistakenly treated his list of names as a poem, they would have probably have understood why a poem that doesn’t rhyme or contain any clear poetic structure could be considered a poem. They would be familiar with poets who broke with formal conventions, like e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath and William Carlos Williams, and learnt the reasons for these literary developments. In short, they would have in mind some kind of literary chronology, which is perhaps something that we should bear in mind when we are designing the spread of a five-year curriculum.

Perhaps most importantly, I think Fish’s example highlights a need for us to consider how we approach teaching poetry, particularly in a clear and systematic way that builds upon the work of KS2 teachers. I wonder if one of the reasons why Fish’s students were misled by a mere list, is that they had never really been encouraged to take a step back whenever they approach a new text – to appreciate its overall beauty; to consider it at a conceptual or formal level before diving straight in to try and account for it and locate its meaning. Maybe whenever they were ever presented with a poem at school, they were immediately asked to interpret or provide some kind of emotional response.

This is all well and good, and I do this kind of thing regularly. This year, however, I have been teaching a year 7 class for the first time in ages, which has given me the opportunity to begin to think through how I might teach things like poetry a little differently, by which I mean to teach students a conceptual appreciation of poetry as well as an emotional and technical understanding. I want them to be able to infer meaning, but also to comment on different forms and how these might be linked to developments in artistic expression and philosophy. A more holistic approach to understanding.

This is obviously hard. It is so tempting to introduce a poem and start to elicit ideas about its meaning, but this might be putting the cart before the horse, particularly with poems where the structural and/or formal features are absolutely central to understanding what the poem is trying to achieve. I wonder that whilst many of us are reviewing our KS3 assessments, we should recognise that here we have a unique opportunity to influence the workings of literary interpretation from within that interpretative community. There are enough of us and we have sufficient time to significantly improve they way we teach our students to read and approach poetry, or indeed any text for that matter.

Who knows, if we got things right from the off, by the time they were in year 11, our students might even be able to understand the difference between a metaphor and a simile.

Anyway,

thanks

very much

for

reading….

Visual Learning: using graphics to teach complex literary terms

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I have always tried to pay attention to the way that I present material to my students. Don’t get me wrong, I am not interested in style over substance, and I certainly don’t spend hours labouring away over every resource that I use in class. If there is a quicker, equally effective way of teaching something, then I will take it. I’m not a masochist.

Most of my resources now are paper copy quizzes for retrieval practice and elaboration, many of which have proved very effective at A level. I try to use the board as much as possible, whether to post the all-important learning objective model writing, record the unfolding of the lesson to ease the pressure on working memories or as a means of explaining tricky ideas or concepts more fully, often with an accompanying visual.

The problem is that I am a terrible artist. Unlike the wonderfully talented Oliver Caviglioli, whose illustrations and generosity are first class, my drawings are sad and pathetic. I would love to be Rolf Harris a great illustrator, but I can barely write legibly, let alone draw anything beyond a stick man! I remember a couple of years ago I drew a picture of a horse for a year poetry lesson, and the final product looked more like a pregnant camel with IBS than the thoroughbred I’d intended.

Fortunately, in the age of the Internet and Powerpoint (sorry, Jo), I have some pretty decent tools at my disposal to help me to make up for my artistic deficiency. As I have become increasingly aware of the power of combing words and images in boosting student learning, I have spent more of my time thinking about how images, in particular graphical representations, can be used to help with my teaching, such as in my explanations of complex literary concepts.

One of these troublesome concepts that seems to crop up whenever I teach Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ is allegory. ‘Goblin Market’ is a narrative poem with a familiar story: a young girl tempted into sin; her subsequence loss of innocence before salvation through sacrifice. Most people reading will get the allegory to the story of the Fall of Man. There are one or two differences in the poem – there is no Adam, only horny and grotesque Goblin men, and the saviour is a woman, not the Son of God – but the overarching parallels are pretty clear.

The problem is when it comes to explaining the concept of allegory in and of itself to students – in other words outside the context of the specific example – students really struggle. No matter how hard I try to explain allegory clearly, with examples and analogies aplenty, students just don’t seem to fully get it. Now, you might be tempted to say that I should look to hone my explanation. Trust me on this one: I have honed it to within an inch of its life. There is simply no room for any more honing.

So, this year I thought I’d take a different tact and invest a bit of time producing a graphical representation to sit alongside my verbal explanation. I don’t have any hard evidence to show that I what have done has been any more successful than usual. It seems to have made a difference, with more students being able to explain the concept than before, but then again this may well be a case of confirmation bias. Or brighter students. Or chance.

As you can see from below, the slide I have used in the past to explain allegory is pretty contemptuous – an overreaching definition which I expand and exemplify, with a bulleted breakdown of the two main types, political and the allegory of ideas. There are even a couple of token images thrown in, which I am not really convinced add any real value.

Screenshot 2017-04-22 08.32.40

My next effort is, I think, a real improvement. The graphical representations make the points of comparison between in an allegory between Text A (‘Goblin Market’) and Text B (The story of the Fall of Man) much clearer, and they have the added advantage of being able to highlight where the biblical comparison breaks down, in that some pretty big parts of the Bible story are missing in Rossetti’s poem, such as the presence of God.

Screenshot 2017-04-22 08.32.48

I then attempted to flesh out this initial explanation with an amended version of my original effort. This time I added a relational dimension to my diagram which enabled me to visualise the difference between allegory and other related literary concepts, such as fable and parable. The trouble was that whilst I had made some visual links between genres clear, I had lost the power of the previous graphic to embody the workings of allegory itself.

Screenshot 2017-04-22 08.32.56

My final version therefore combines the best elements of my previous attempts, including the graphical embodiment of the concept of allegory, the relational links to other genres and better images to exemplify examples of the different forms of allegory. The visual cues and graphical representations, along with my honed explanation, seem to have been much more successful in shifting my students’ understanding of allegory. At least, I hope that is the case.

Screenshot 2017-04-22 08.33.07Allegory is not the only literary concept I have attempted to represent graphically this way. I hope to blog about others in the future, so watch this space.

Thanks for reading.

What’s in a word?

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Ever picked up a class, in say year 10 or year 11, and been surprised that they don’t seem to know some pretty fundamental terms relating to your subject? For an English teacher, those words might include ‘metaphor’, ‘simile’, ‘juxtaposition’ or perhaps even ‘fronted adverbial’ – the kinds of subject specific terminology you would hope, nay expect, students to have pretty much nailed down by the time they are 14, 15 or 16 years old. I have experienced this many times in different schools.

This is most definitely not about bashing KS3 or KS2 colleagues. I’m fairly sure that when I taught more year 7 and year 8 classes, I encountered the same thing, and I’m guessing that a year 5 or year 6 teacher probably experiences something similar too. Likewise, it wouldn’t surprise me if the teachers who inherit my classes find themselves having to explain the same core terminology again that I thought I had successfully taught the previous year. It’s a seemingly endless cycle.

But why does this happen? Whilst the forgetting curve is inevitably partly to blame, I suspect a fuller explanation lies in the way most of us approach teaching vocabulary and some of the assumptions we routinely make about what our students know. This is possibly more prevalent in the secondary setting, where depending on the subject you teach, it can be very difficult to have an accurate grasp on your students’ vocabulary levels. Yet it is crucial that we do because it is those tier three words that carry the fundamental ideas and concepts upon which other knowledge and skills are then built.

It is not hard to understand why we often make assumptions about what students know in relation to vocabulary knowledge, or any other kind of knowledge for that matter. For a start, words like metaphor and simile are supposedly covered at KS1. My 7-year-old daughter, for instance, can provide an example of a simile and a rudimentary definition because she has recently been doing poetry in class. But I think there’s a big difference between covering a word in a unit that is then subsequently assessed, and really knowing that word more fully, including its intricate web of conceptual links and associations. Coverage is quite clearly very different from learning, but it can be too easily conflated.

The other probable reason why we teachers assume too much about our students’ knowledge base is because we are usually so reliant on very unreliable proxies to make our inferences. Too often, assessments of students’ linguistic fidelity are bound up in rubrics designed to assess more generic skills. As a result we can fall into the trap of assuming that a level 4 in this, or 85% in that, corresponds to a certain level of understanding of the subject more generally, including all its attendant terminology. The result is that we can end up building on sand if we assume that our students are secure with core subject concepts (and the words that encapsulate them) when they are not.

If a teacher realises that her class doesn’t really know what an image or imagery is – as I have found every year of teaching question two of the iGCSE! – she will decide to teach that concept and how to apply it correctly in context. The problem is that by the time the next year rolls around that understanding often disappears and a new teacher comes along and finds herself in the same position. What I think is needed is a clearly-defined vocabulary programme, detailing exactly what subject-specific terminology students are expected to have learnt and by what stage. Without such a system, and a reliable form of assessment to underpin it, we run the risk of continuing to make unfounded assumptions about what students know and therefore continually waste our time re-teaching the same thing.

As part of our school’s initial attempt to construct such a coherent, school-wide vocabulary sequence, I have been carrying out some exploratory work with our current year 7. I have designed some core knowledge quizzes aimed at getting a more accurate picture of what specifically our students do and do not know across a range of subjects, including history, art, geography, music and religion. A key component of these quizzes is vocabulary, so there are questions asking for definitions of foundational terms like ‘primary colour’ or ‘portrait’ in art, ‘monarch’ or ‘civilisation’ for history and ‘island’ and ‘hemisphere’ for geography.

It is early stages at the moment, and I may blog in more detail in the future, but for now I want to share with you one small insight gleaned from the process so far, which in many respects perfectly illustrates some of issues I have touched upon above. The definition in question is ‘island’, a word I’m sure most would expect the majority of 11 and 12 year olds to be able to define. Everyone knows what an island is, right? So you might think, yet the students’ responses seen to suggest otherwise. As you can see from the definitions supplied by one year 7 tutor group, we might need to seriously challenge our assumptions about our students and their levels of understanding, and think more carefully about what it means to truly know a word.

Correct responses:

  • ‘Land surrounded by water’
  • ‘Land that is surrounded by sea on all four sides’
  • ‘It is a bit of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘A bit of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘A piece of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘An area surrounded by a sea of ocean’
  • ‘A piece of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘A piece of land surrounded by water’

Mostly correct responses:

  • ‘A large or small part of land not connected to anything’
  • ‘A broken piece of land’
  • ‘A small place where, people or animals may live, but is surrounded by the ocean’
  • ‘A part of land away from a country’
  • ‘A big or small place covered with sand and surrounded by the ocean’

Not really correct responses:

  • ‘Land, flat land’
  • ‘An abandoned land’
  • ‘Some small land on the sea’
  • ‘A small place in the ocean’
  • ‘A piece of land covered by water’
  • ‘Is a place in a country near / on a beach’
  • ‘A tiny bit of land’
  • ‘Surface’
  • ‘An island is a cut off region of land that has little civilisation’
  • ‘A piece of land’
  • ‘A place’
  • ‘A big bit of rock formed after volcanic eruption under water’

For me, the crucial aspect of understanding an island is that it is a piece of land surrounded by water on all sides. Whilst we may quibble about other aspects of a successful definition, these strike me as being the defining features of what make an island an island, particularly for children at this age. Based on this admittedly loose definition, 9 students out of 30 got the correct answer, 5 get the benefit of the doubt, whilst 12 don’t really manage to define an island successfully. 4 students did not provide an answer at all. What this means is that, even if we say that 2 of the students who failed to answer could define the word island correctly if asked more directly, then there would still be around 50% of the class who either cannot articulate their understanding of what an island is, or that harbour some pretty serious misconceptions about it. Neither of these situations is desirable.

Now, you could argue that this doesn’t really matter, or that were I to probe the students more thoroughly with more specific questions than simply, ‘define the term island’, the results would be different. Maybe; maybe not. If, however, we park that for the moment and look at some of the student responses in more detail we begin to see a couple of important, and I would argue potentially damaging, misconceptions about the nature of islands. The first of these seems to be that islands are ‘abandoned’ places that are ‘cut off’ from civilisation. Perhaps adventure stories in films and books lead to this particular misunderstanding. Then there is the suggestion that islands are ‘tiny bits of land’ or ‘small places’. Again, popular depictions of island settings may create this association.

Whilst in many cases islands are indeed small and remote places cut off from people and more recognisable signs of society, there are also plenty of very good examples of islands that are not, such as the very place in which we live. If you stop and think about the implications of this for a minute, you realise they are potentially quite significant. For instance, if you don’t understand that islands are surrounded by water, you might not fully appreciate the challenges and opportunities this might pose for a group of people who live on one. Likewise, without a foundational grasp of the nature of islands, you may not fully understand the importance of Britain’s island status, in relation to both its history and its present, such as its ongoing relationship with the rest of the European continent.

It is for these reasons and those that I have written about before that I think the priority for developing student vocabulary, particularly in our school context, is improving the quality of teaching in relation to tier three, not tier two, words, at least in the initial stages of building a school-wide approach. When you consider what it really means to know a word you see how important it is to teach subject-specific vocabulary as well as you possibly can at the first time of asking, so as to try and avoid having to repeat the process every year ad nauseam. Obviously, improving students’ wider academic vocabularies is extremely important too, and it may well be possible to do this simultaneously given the time and support necessary to do it justice. Perhaps, though, it is better to leverage the effects of solid, consistent tier three terminology teaching first and then scale up to address the wider language gap later on.

After all, ‘no man is an island’.

Why I’m (mostly) enjoying teaching the new linear A level

I have taught an A level class of some kind every year since I was an NQT. I really enjoy the challenge of teaching the older students, and over the years I have been lucky enough to teach some incredible texts – Paradise Lost, Doctor Faustus and Larkin’s poetry are amongst my favourites. The background reading can be daunting, but I have always found that by improving my subject knowledge I have really helped my students to improve their learning.

A level English teaching is not easy, though. One of the main difficulties I’ve found teaching English in three different mixed comprehensives is that a great many students do not have the necessary grounding in literature and often their writing is not controlled enough to handle the demands of higher-level essay writing, even when grades achieved at GCSE would suggest otherwise. Whilst this may not be everyone’s experience, I have seen the result of curriculum narrowing and an imbalanced focus on English language at GCSE.

So, as much as I enjoy teaching A level, to a certain extent this enjoyment is tempered by the sometimes overwhelming demands of not only teaching the syllabus, but also in addressing the issues that remain as a consequence of a superficial emphasis on skill acquisition at GCSE. In my experience, these issues can get exacerbated, or rather perpetuated, by the AS and A2 examination format. Under this format, where year 12 students sit exams sometime in May, there is not really enough time to teach for learning rather than performance, with the result that nothing really changes.

Since September I have been teaching an AS class who are pursuing the linear course. I had arrived at the beginning of term expecting to teach a year 13 class the legacy specification with texts that I know well and have built up considerable resources and subject knowledge. For one reason or another, the class got cut and I found myself at the last minute faced with the prospect of teaching three texts I was not very familiar with and without time the time I would usually set aside to prepare. Despite feeling vulnerable about my lack of subject knowledge, I have greatly enjoyed teaching the new specification and feel liberated by the possibilities that the linear structure affords.

Time

Whilst I am sympathetic to concerns about linearity, more teaching time is available now the burden of preparing for exams in May has gone. Because the AS exams come so early, you are revising and preparing with past exam papers before you know it, sometimes before you have taught all the poems or finished reading the novel. Once you knock out study leave and the exams themselves, only a few weeks of learning remain when students return in June. In those remaining weeks of term, it doesn’t seem to matter how you try and structure the time to make it purposeful – and trust me I have tried everything from AS/A2 transition units to beginning coursework – it rarely seems to amount to much.

Spacing and interleaving

I think by now that most people, particularly those reading this post, know about the benefits of spacing and interleaving. Unfortunately, knowing and doing are often two completely different things, particularly when you don’t have the time or the opportunity to implement the structures you think will make a difference in the classroom. In my experience, putting spacing and interleaving into practice is hard: aside from practical internal and external constraints, as Robert Bjork himself acknowledges, ‘students don’t like it’.

For the last couple of years I have been trying to introduce these desirable difficulties into my classroom, but I think it has only really been since September and with my current year 12 class that I have got close to implementing them in a way that is reasonably true to the ideal. I spoke at a conference earlier in the year about interleaving and a delegate came up to me at the end and said she thought it sounded a good idea and would ‘try out some interleaving later in the week’. Either my explanation was terrible, which is quite possible, or there was a bit of misunderstanding on her part about what implementing interleaving actually entails.

The reason for this disconnect is, I think, quite simple: introducing desirable difficulty into the classroom is actually quite hard and, like all learning, requires a prolonged period of time to understand it conceptually and making it effective in its practical application. I think where I have been more successful with my attempts this year is because I have had the time and the freedom to do so: I have been able to weave between texts and to allow a decent amount of time for forgetting to take place. The table below provides a brief overview of how I have gone about this and divided up my teaching time between Hamlet and Rossetti over recent months.

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The testing effect

It is much easier to take advantage of the testing effect as a classroom teacher. Designing frequent low-level tests of quizzes is relatively straightforward and does not really require too much unnecessary time in design or execution. Starting a new syllabus from scratch allows the additional opportunity to build a coherent programme of quizzes and sequence them in such a way they are testing and encoding the learning in a planned and systematic way. With my A level class I am now ordering my quizzes, so that next year I can gather them together in a master resource for students, which will should make my teaching easier and allow students’ to become more independent in their own quizzing and self testing.

Assessment hour

At my school we have taken what I think is quite a bold decision by insisting that most students only take three A levels. This, in part, has allowed us to offer an additional hour’s teaching to all subjects. On top of this, and I realise that we are lucky here, we have created an additional assessment hour every cycle. This means that every two weeks, each student completes a one-hour assessment under supervision for each of his or her three subjects. The assessment can take whatever form the department thinks is appropriate, such as a quiz, a set of comprehension questions or an essay. This format was designed to provide departments with the opportunity to assess students’ learning (ok, performance) on a regular basis, but it is also proving to be a fantastic mechanism for regular low stakes assessment.

Building knowledge

For me, probably the greatest benefit of the new linear course – with fewer texts studied in greater depth, together with the specific structures put in place by my school – are that it has meant I can teach in such a way that build up my students’ knowledge and understanding of the texts, whilst also addressing their individual and collective weaknesses. With the need to prepare for an exam early next year removed, I now have more time and freedom to build up a web of knowledge around the text, to methodically introduce relevant contextual details, to tackle grammatical misunderstandings one by one and teach analytical skills through extensive modelling and practice. In short, to do things the right way.

End note

I don’t wish to paint my teaching as great or somehow perfect; it is far from it. I have not got everything right and some of my quizzes are more effective than others. Interleaving in the way that I have illustrated above has been a challenge: although I genuinely believe in the efficacy of distributing learning and weaving between units, it stills feels unnatural and requires a courage of conviction. So conditioned are we English teachers to the practice of teaching a text or unit in a term that to break up this dominant structural arrangement can feel weird and unnerving. I also don’t mind admitting that I am still struggling with my own knowledge of the texts. I hate being just one step ahead of the students, even though I know that this is not really anyone’s fault – it is just the way that things sometimes go in large schools with lots of variables. If anything, being not so well prepared has reminded just what it is like for less experienced teachers, where everything is new and every new text is a body of knowledge to learn!

Thanks for reading