Sunday, 29 July 2012

Travels with Hamlet, in Coventry

The academic year of 2011 and 2012 presented many challenges, as they always do, but my newest, biggest, potentially most daunting was to be teaching an A level English course for the first time. I was to teach AQA Language and Literarture (Spec B) to year 13, yup, you read that correctly, I was placed straight onto the A2 course. Gulp. 

As with most schools, you share the class with another teacher so we discussed our teaching preferences. I pitched for the exam element of the course, whilst my colleague handled the coursework. The exam is, 'Talk in Life and Literature' which encompasses the study of a drama text analysing how the playwright uses, rejects, employs, or ignores normal patterns of speech and why and then the analysis of two unseen extracts, one of which will be a transcript of unscripted speech and the other an extract from any genre of literary text. Much like the (bad old days) of SATS, the texts will be linked thematically.  I had a new text to learn as well as a revision of and learning of a raft of linguistic and conversational technical terms and theories. If 'Hamlet' is a lion, then I felt I was about to be consumed by the enormity of the text. 

So, what did we (the we including the pupils in the choice) end up choosing, well the clue is in the title of the blog my friend, hardly rocket science now is it?  I was both happy that the pupils had veered towards such a text as this - I had been fortunate enough to watch the Tennant 'Hamlet' in Stratford (the Shakespeare one, not the London one) and such was its energetic, perfectly pitched genius, I was enthused.  I thought, I pondered and recognised it was a literary mountain to climb, the Everest of Shakespeare plays but goodness me, the view when you get to the top is just MAGNIFICENT.  

I began the year with the class with a sense of trepidation. I like to think I gave the impression of the regal swan, gracefully moving through my lessons, while underneath the water I was paddling like [insert own expletive here]. Fortunately, the class of five were accepting of me, bright eyed, bushy tailed and eager to work hard. Some were exceptionally bright, sparky and so downright astute I was in awe of them. 

Soon enough, the Performance Management lesson observation came by and, still feeling deeply insecure about what I was doing, asked to be observed with this group, it could only help me, right? I wanted, needed to know if how I was teaching was at least good enough for these pupils; that as a novice - in this context - I wasn't putting them at a disadvantage. 

The lesson, which I will share with you went like a dream.  This was partly down to the planning, but very much down to the optimum resources used in the lesson, the pupils who were just plain brilliant.

Now, the intention of sharing the lesson is to do just that, just to share, for I remember often when hearing other teachers received Outstanding lesson observations wanting to know, 'But WHAT does it look like on paper?', 'How does it feel?' and never really getting those questions answered. When it comes to writing such lesson plans, I struggle to make explicit the things I need to make explicit, as so much of what I do (we do) is implicit, ergo much head scratching is done whilst writing them. 

Having spent the last few months learning about SOLO via the magic of Twitter, I can now see how progression for the pupils can be very explicit to the pupils, you and the observer.  The lesson is written using my school's proforma. 

I have no pretense of myself as some sort of super-teacher or teaching guru, my teeny, tiny ego would not allow such silly thoughts, however, my journey with 'Hamlet' in Coventry was an enjoyable one and enabled me, in many ways, to become a better teacher. 

In brackets is where I think the thinking is in terms of the SOLO taxonomy, which is as much to help me grasp it as anything else. 

Learning intention - where are we going? 
To discuss family relationships, status and interactions using knowledge of their (our) own families.
To explore Act 1 Sc 3 looking at Status, family interactions and how Shakespeare uses language to show this.
To Analyse Act 1 Sc 4 &5 looking at phatic conversations (casual/polite), and linguistic features of conversation (casual, polite) and defying status. 

Success criteria – how will we know when we've got there?
·   ALL – Have a clear understanding of the relationships between characters in Act 1 Sc 3, 4 and 5 and be able to identify and comment on the key features of constructed conversational language in these scenes. (Unistructural to Multi-structural)

·   MOST  Will also be able to analyse the purpose and effect of the conversational linguistic features be able to explain this to other members of the group.(Relational)

·   SOME  Will also be able to use higher level thinking skills to draw connections between the scenes analysed, other characters and relationships in Act 1. (Extended abstract)

Hook/Engagement: Family hierarchy card sort – mother, father, brother, sister on small cards and arrange in hierarchy according to own family, other fictional and finish with Hamlet’s.  Discuss each arrangement and how these hierachies are shown or revealed to the students and why. (Unistructural to multi-structural)

Setting the scene: Give brief definition of ‘phatic communication’ and pupils write examples of those used between family members e.g. ‘Nice day at work dear?’ Use mini-whiteboards to write down their ideas and responses. (unistructural to multi-structural)

Discuss examples and purpose of phatic communication and draw on examples from school, own friendship groups and family.

Key Q: Would Shakespeare also use phatic communication in his plays? Can they think of examples from texts already studied? Why would he do this? (moving to relational)

Activate (main learning activities):  
(For homework pupils have read the relevant scenes as well as finishing off preparations for display work about soliloquies)

  1. Watch scenes from David Tennant 'Hamlet', refer back to ‘hook’ of family hierarchies and phatic communication.  What did they notice about both language features and how characters used them? (multistructural)
  2. Assign scene(s) to small groups e.g. pair: Ac 1 Sc 3 and group of 3: Act 1, Sc 4 and 5.
  3. Hand out analysis questions and clarify how to use them, e.g. for annotations of scenes or other preferred from of written response or note taking. (relational)
  4. Each group works through questions annotating their scene and writing down key points on A3 to present to other half of the class. Move between groups to discuss their responses and ask higher level thinking Qs if and when needed.  (25mins to 30 approx). Give each group 5-10 mins to prepare their feedback.( countdown timer useful here). (relational moving to extended abstract)
Groups feedback/peer teach their scene and encourage them to: make notes/annotations on copies of scene and ask Qs for debate and clarification. They should note down Qs as other half speaking and save until the end. (Extended Abstract) 

(Now, I'd admit the lesson, as read isn't that 'sparkly' but it is this section that the pupils really flew. Their feedback and peer teaching was focused, insightful, reflective, analytical and abstract. I watched them teach each other, astonished at how much these pupils had learned and how well they could articulate it) 

Learning to learn opportunities: Peer learning and teaching – they work together to analyse the scenes as well as teach other what they have found out. Use of peer questioning for clarification and challenge.

Home learning: Write up analysis into essay format, max 4 sides of A4. The pupils in group of three can choose which scene to write up analysis for.
Q. Analyse the conversational and linguistic features used in your scene and explore what is reveals about the characterisation, their relationships and status. 

This is, to date my best lesson observation - with a course and a text I'd never taught before. However,  I can see that it would be even better if the SOLO taxonomy was used and shared explicitly in the lesson with the pupils.

So, there you have it and now I feel a little naked, a tad exposed to say the least,  but I prefer not to take Polonius's stance of 'neither a borrower, nor a lender be.'

What have I learned from a) this lesson and b) teaching Hamlet? 

I found the confidence to act as facilitator (apologies for the cliche), to unreservedly make them the 'stars' of the lesson; learned that they could find their own path up the Everest of Shakespeare texts whilst enabling them to raise their academic game to beyond what they thought they could achieve. 

I undertook a potentially risky strategy with following lessons, I did not enter the lessons with a heavily annotated scene or scenes we were dissecting, mine was as blank as the pupils. Don't get me wrong, I did to my homework reading and researching the scenes, but I did not want to dictate to them what they should be thinking about it. They were provided with the means to discuss, analyse, form analogies, translate, describe what they needed to but the outcomes of what the text was, could or should be revealing was open to them. Beware, another cliche approaches: the pupils took ownership of it, it became THEIR 'Hamlet'. 
The notion of a more democratic, rather than dictatorial approach trickled into other classes and lessons. Furthermore,  as discussions with @JamesTheo have revealed to me, this concept of classroom praxis (allowing for open ended and unexpected outcomes in lessons) is a liberating and empowering experience for the both teacher and the pupils in your charge. 

Later that year we had a Year 13 parent's evening. Even better than having such a positive lesson observation and feedback were the comments the pupils made about studying 'Hamlet'. One pupil I shall call 'M' (he'd like the media reference) was positively buzzing with enthusiasm for the play, he told me, despite being daunted by it, he 'Absolutely loved it.' What more could I ask or hope for?

Take a gamble, stride purposefully and with conviction to the 'undiscovered country' (Gene Roddenberry swiped it, so can I) when teaching a new course and text.  

Let 'the fear', which in many ways is healthy, fuel your drive for excellence. It need not be a kind of (professional) death that cripples you, ok me, at times, but instead take heed of Hamlet's advice to Horatio:

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
 Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." 

NB: Having shared this online for a few days and chatted with some notable tweachers: @lisajaneashes and @hgaldinoshea I lamented the way my lesson was more pedestrian than Robin Williams in 'Dead Poets Society'.  The lesson plan does not take into account or make obvious some important things:

a) Your relationship with your class
b) You delivery of the lesson
c) Improvised elements - we all do it, don't pretend other wise - that enhance the lesson on the day. 

In short - it was and felt so much better than it reads!

There are, of course, things I'd like to do better - most notably using and applying the SOLO taxonomy with the pupils which would enable AFL and even better 'joined up thinkning.'  When it comes to teaching Miller's 'The Crucible' I shall flutter my fledgling SOLO wings and see where the flight path takes me. 


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