Of spice and pens 

Summer seems to be CPD season and I’ve been fortunate enough to attend two conferences in one week, both of which had a distinctly linguistic flavour. I am of the post-parsing generation, the lot who spent the whole time on empathetic writing. We got to grips with imagining Scout’s thoughts on her first day at school and Macbeth’s feelings about sharp objects, though we barely knew what an adjective was, much less a premodifier, which still sounds to me like the thing the salon do before they touch your roots up. 

Having taught my way through the National Literacy Strategy in the early part of my career, I did get more skilled with when to use ‘less’ or ‘fewer’ and how to decide where the possessive apostrophe goes when there’s an S at the end. But as we drive standards further up, we need new avenues of subject knowledge and the current focus on grammar for writing seems to sit squarely between 1950s declension and 1980s touchy-feely, which makes for a decent mix.

It’s informed my development planning for next year, so for anyone else seeking after a 2015-16 direction that will work with the many changes happening in English, here’s where I think I’m taking my lot. 

1) Raising levels of challenge and rising to the challenge of higher benchmarks: our route here is a focus on academic writing, particularly at KS3. We need to import some of our A level approaches, in which we seek to equip students for undergraduate level argument and evaluation. We will try to stop PEEing on everything: for my views on this, see previous blog. We will also adjust our recipe for GCSE teaching too, using some of the engaging and creative KS3 stuff to inject some life into exam prep. Students are vocal about how much they miss that. There’s plenty of scope for gruesome escapades when we study Jekyll and Hyde for the new AQA GCSE and my team are also busy planning some sort of Regency ball for those getting to know Mr Darcy. It’s about getting the flavour of our lessons right; something that makes our approach distinctive. 

For our focus on academic writing, we will draw on resources like this one. And  this excellent one, a slide of which we have turned into a classroom poster. 

What interests me most about this focus is that the tools it provides are for the many, not just the articulate few. Friday’s conference, run by Mulberry School’s ‘Fetch me a pen’ team  (here) had its moral purpose in full view and rightly so: the four students who gave the closing address spoke powerfully and demonstrated how this power came from the academic voice they had acquired in the classroom. By then, of course, we were all carrying piles of workshop resources and happily sifting through our notes. This blog is my actually my attempt to process it all. To misquote Voltaire and the Mulberry team…fetch me an iPad, I need to think. 

2) My buzzword for the next year is almost certainly going to be MARGIN. What I mean by this is the strategic focus on creating some slack in the demands we place on ourselves. Richard A. Swenson defines it as “the space between our load and our limits”  This year has been -at times- genuinely detrimental to my team’s health and wellbeing. We cannot afford to do this again. I’m not naive enough to assume plain sailing but we do have the ability to make choices to protect ourselves and those for whom we are responsible. As we get our own houses in order, we will be better equipped to help our students manage their anxieties. Big ways to do this include having a department calendar on the staff room wall, with dates and deadlines as far in advance as we can get them. Smaller ways include using some of our meeting time to talk about one of the poems in the new AQA Anthology. We might get onto teaching strategies but that isn’t the point. The point is that we all signed up for this job because we love to read/write and talk about reading/writing so this becomes the deliberate margin on our agenda. 

I know the nitty gritty of my DDP will detail dealing with the new things: this year’s changes to all Key Stages at once seems like a crazy time to be adding extras like academic writing but if we are embarking on unfamiliar content or untested assessment criteria, why not shake up our old approaches too? It will give staff something familiar to get hold of, while we find out what the newness is all about. With any recipe, there’s a bit of trial and error but we are experienced bakers. See below for hard evidence: this year’s final of our Great English Department Bake Off. Baby-themed, for a colleague about to go on maternity leave. 



I’ll let you know how it all goes down.


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