Curriculum

On weaving an English Curriculum

I’ve always marvelled at the dexterity and skill of those able to weave hair into elaborate braids (French, Dutch, Fishtail) – how they can keep the structure of the braid in tact whilst weaving in new strands. There’s something hypnotic about the process; those that can do it really well make it look incredibly easy.

Teaching and learning a subject discipline is an act of weaving. We want students to pick up a strand and then pick up another and another. We want them to keep hold of each strand and weave it around the others to make something strong and long-lasting because those strands that don’t get pulled into the braid get lost and break away. Our job, as teachers, is to guide this learning: which strands to pick up, modelling how to pull it into their prior knowledge, to see the connections and to keep hold of what they’ve already got wrapped through their fingers.

Last year, we introduced our new KS3 curriculum: a redesign I worked on during my maternity leave (2018-19). The main Literature texts are chronologically sequenced over the three years and interwoven with other key English strands:

  • A variety of fiction and non-fiction extracts. Where appropriate, these will be thematically linked to the main Lit texts but at other times we pick up on contemporary issues (in lockdown, for example, we analysed Marcus Rashford’s brilliant open letter to the Government urging them to extend free school meal provision). We work hard to ensure that we study fiction and non-fiction from a wide variety of time periods, writers and places – we want all of our students to see themselves reflected somewhere in the curriculum.
  • Short poetry units. We used to have 3 units a year and one of these was poetry but we made the collective decision to move to 3 shorter poetry units to allow us to keep revisiting poetry analysis across the year. Every year group does a collection of war poetry after October half term and then there’s two other poetry units which often support the study of the core Literature text e.g. thematically linked or poetry from the same period.
  • Writing for different purposes and audiences: narrative writing, descriptive writing and opinion writing.

The chronological sequencing of the main Lit texts was something I wanted to introduce in 2019-20 because I think it helps students to see how Literature is a response not only to the time in which an author is writing but also to what’s come before – building on it or challenging it. Even something which appears completely new has its roots in our long history of story-telling. I think there’s also a good argument for chronological sequencing because it supports students’ understanding of the socio-historical context of texts.

Curriculum vs Assessment

This new KS3 curriculum is, in part, a product of working in a school that does not have ridiculous KS3 assessment and tracking systems. My curriculum doesn’t need to bend to the will of six data drops a year. There’s no flightpaths or grades. In short, I work in a school that understands that the curriculum is the progression model. Our KS3 assessment model in English is predominantly formative: what can students do or not do?

Consequently, I don’t need to take a single strand of our beautiful and complex subject and roll it out in six weeks. Sure, if I focus on persuasive writing for six weeks then there’s more than a good chance my students will write a pretty impressive piece of persuasive writing at the end of that massed practice and I could input some data that reflects that. But at what cost? What haven’t I been teaching in that time? How secure is that persuasive writing knowledge? When will I return to that strand again?

An approach in which you’re interweaving many strands is necessarily slower in terms of progress. At the end of a given term in which we’ve studied the core text, some linked fiction and non-fiction, a few poems and written for a variety of purposes and audiences, my students’ persuasive writing will likely not be as impressive as their massed practice counterparts in a parallel cohort. However, I wager that at the end of the three years my students will have a much more secure understanding of what makes good persuasive writing and will be able to write more effective persuasive writing because they’ll have kept coming back to it.

I’m not fixated on visible progress – I’m interested in changes to long-term memory. I want my students to learn something in English and not forget about it. I want their knowledge to be durable and flexible. It’s why I’ve designed the curriculum in the way that I have.

Planning Backwards

I started the redesign by planning backwards from our KS4 texts and key English Language skills (I’m using ‘skill’ here as a shorthand because I think all English teachers will understand what I mean by that term but you could easily replace it with procedural or disciplinary knowledge). For each text or skill (e.g. writing an effective opinion article) I mapped out the strands of knowledge (substantive and disciplinary) that contributed to a really good understanding. For example, what would my students need to know to engage successfully with ‘Macbeth’?

I bought a big A3 Art book for the purpose and I’ve included a couple of images below as examples. These are not exhaustive (I clearly didn’t finish the ‘Macbeth’ one when I did this last year) but I think they demonstrate the process of throwing down on paper what you need to know to have a good understanding of a text or to be able to produce a great piece of writing or to be able to analyse a text effectively.

NB: This was the first time and last time I’ve ever tried to do beautify my writing. I think I was a bit giddy about being able to do something not baby related…

If you’ve never done this before, I’d recommend it as an incredibly valuable exercise. I think it would be a great thing to do in department time to illuminate the rich web of knowledge required to engage successfully with different aspects of English.

The next step in the redesign was to plan how those KS4 strands could we woven throughout KS3 so that students have a secure conceptual understanding when they meet the idea again in year 10 and 11. Where and when, for example, would my students be introduced to the concept of the hero? When would they revisit it? How could I ensure they had a flexible understanding of this concept by introducing them to a variety of literary heroes?

In short, working back from what we want students to know for the long-term: when are concepts being introduced? When are they being revisited? When are students being supported to generalise those concepts?

What I thought I’d do now, is explore a couple of the strands of our curriculum and how they’re weaved throughout KS3 – how we pick them up, how we revisit them and how we build on them.

Strand: The Hero

In year 7, students are introduced to the concept through their study of ‘The Odyssey’ and its eponymous epic hero. We explore Odysseus’ incredible capabilities, including his cunning, as well as his legendary reputation. We also consider his flaws, of which there are many. Alongside this, we look at other Greek heroes including Achilles, Hercules and Perseus to build up an understanding of what made a hero in Ancient Greece.

Later in year 7, students are introduced to the perfect example of the tragic hero: Oedipus. They learn about Aristotle’s tragic hero; about hamartia and hubris. When, in year 8, they study ‘Romeo and Juliet’, they are able to explore in what ways Romeo does and doesn’t fit the concept of a tragic hero.

Later in year 8, students are introduced to the romantic hero, Victor Frankenstein. We explore how he’s a less conventional hero than others they’ve already met so far. When we move on to study ‘Dracula’ in year 9, we can debate who the heroes in the text are – is Jonathan Harker? Is Van Helsing? Mina?

So, by the time we reach GCSE and study ‘Macbeth’, students come to it with a good understanding of the literary hero. They also know some key linked concepts e.g. hamartia and hubris. It’s a great foundation for then exploring the character of Macbeth and how he fits or challenges the concept of hero.

Strand: Analysis

I was inspired by Tom Needham’s brilliant blog posts on analysis (here), as well as seeing him present at ResearchED Blackpool 2019, to move away from expecting students in the earlier years of KS3 to produce full analytical essays. Instead, we ensure that each step of analysis is successfully embedded with a high success rate before building up to the next stage.

In year 7, students focus on being able to say something about a text (WHAT), support it with a quotation (WHERE) and explain how the quotation supports their point (BECAUSE). I’d recommend reading Sarah Barker’s brilliant blog on Because-Specifically-Almost as though (here) because it has been a game changer for us. The ‘Because’ often seems irrelevant to students because they think it’s obvious how their quotation supports their point but this encourages them to be explicit. The ‘Specifically’ encourages them to comment on detail and ‘Almost as though’ has freed students up to say some really interesting things about impact.

In year 7, we also introduce students to our sentence stem sheets inspired by the brilliant Lyndsey Caldwell (@mscaldwell1). Myself and two of my team saw her present on ‘Extreme Modelling’ at ResearchED Surrey and we were inspired by the structured and supportive approach to building up students’ ability to analyse a text. We begin by introducing the question stem sheet and modelling how to build up an analytical response using it. Then, whenever students are doing analytical writing, we’ll pick apart model responses that utilise the sentence stem sheet and then they’ll have a go at writing their own.

Where appropriate, some students will move beyond the steps that we’re focusing on in each year which is easily accommodated by the sentence stem sheets because they include all of the necessary sentence stems. So, for example, some of our most confident students in year 7 will move on to write about the methods used by the writer in the quotation they’ve selected because they have the sentence stem sheet therer to support them in extending their analysis.

In year 8, we revisit What-Where-Because and build on it with a focus on analysing the methods the writer has used to have an impact on the reader (HOW). That’s not to say we don’t discuss writers’ methods in year 7 – of course we do – but we explicitly teach how to write it into our analysis in year 8. I don’t think the discussions we have in lessons about method and impact need always be evidenced in writing and I think that we’ve probably all been guilty of thinking that if students don’t write it in to their analysis, they haven’t learnt it.

We want all students to be able to say something about the decisions the writer has made to have an impact on the reader. So, our year 8s should be able to successfully make a statement, support it with a quotation, explain how it supports their point and also say something about the methods used by the writer to have an impact on the reader.

In year 9, we revisit What-Where-Because-How and build on it with a focus on authorial intent (WHY). Again, that’s not to say that we don’t discuss writers’ intentions in year 7 and 8 – of course we do – but we explicitly teach how to write it into our analysis in year 9.

So, by the time we get to KS4, students know how to comment on texts, how to support these points with evidence, how to explain their ideas, how to comment on the methods the writer has used for impact and also make comments about authorial intent. They’re also familiar with how to use a question stem sheet (they’ll be given one for each of the KS4 Literature texts) and have seen a wide range of model analytical responses.

Our KS3 Curriculum Map

Last year, we were only able to introduce our new year 7 curriculum. Our plan was to introduce the year 8 curriculum this year and by 2021-22 we’ve be delivering year 7-9 of the new curriculum. However, one of the good things that has come out of the lockdown is that we’ve had some time to develop our resources to enable us to roll out both year 8 and year 9 this coming year.

We’re rethinking our year 7 poetry units hence TBC.

If you’ve made it this far – thanks! I’d love to know what you think and would be happy to answer any questions. Find me on Twitter @TLPMrsL.

5 comments

  1. This is brilliant! I definitely will take this to our first Teaching and Learning CPD in September. Thank you for sharing!

    Like

  2. Looking forward to trying this. Thanks for your help. Sorry if I have missed it, but where can I download the above images please? Best wishes.

    Like

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