A Project on Studying a Novel with Four Year 9 Classes
For 6 weeks, from September to the end of October 2018, an English department in outer London was involved in a Year 9 project for EMC’s group work research, ‘It’s Good To Talk.’ The project was designed by me and Lucy Hinchliffe, who works four days a week at the school and one day a week at EMC. The idea was to re-design a scheme of work on a Year 9 novel – Fabio Geda’s In the Sea There Are Crocodiles. It started with the department’s desire to build more group work and dialogic learning into their curriculum but soon became something much more all-encompassing. It led to a significant re-thinking in the department about what KS3 English should be offering to students and what kinds of experiences will best prepare them for GCSE without sacrificing a genuine and deep development of subject knowledge and capability.
The existing scheme of work
The department had already been teaching In the Sea There Are Crocodiles for four or five years and had an existing scheme of work that all the teachers followed, taught largely from PowerPoint presentations. Last year the scheme was adapted to explicitly focus on preparing the students for the demands of the new Language GCSE. (This is something that English departments are increasingly doing – slanting the experience of literary texts, both at KS3 and KS4, not only towards GCSE in general but more specifically towards addressing the specific requirements of the GCSE Language exam). The new scheme involved lots of work on close language analysis and paragraph writing, looking towards each of the sections of the Language exam and as preparation for the internal assessment that forms part of the whole school data and student performance tracking. As well as focusing heavily on the GCSE requirements, the scheme had a strong contextual element, with students doing their own research on the Hazaras and Pashtuns of Afghanistan and the political context which is the impetus for the events of the novel. The teachers provided lots of scaffolding in the form of PEETAL (Point, Evidence, Explanation, Technique, Analysis, Link) and other forms of detailed support for writing. Inference was taught explicitly, using images of Afghanistan and of migrant journeys. The general classroom pattern was varied, including reading, presentation and explanation from the front, with some open tasks and opportunities for talk. There was no creative/critical writing (such as ‘writing in the style of’) and it involved a significant amount of modelling of paragraph writing.
Introducing a new scheme of work, with group work… and much more
Of the 12 teachers teaching Year 9 to mixed ability classes, 6 continued to work on the novel in this way, using the existing scheme. The other 6 (4 groups with some shared teachers) agreed to change their scheme of work, to follow a completely different model. Though taken on by the teachers and developed by them in their own way, it came to be known by everyone as ‘the EMC way’. In the first instance, Lucy and I were hoping to build in group work, as a way of testing what difference it might make to the learning for the students. However, from very early on in the project it became quite clear that this focus on group work was bringing with it something much more than just a new classroom methodology; it was radically and dramatically changing the whole nature of the study of a class novel.
In trials of classroom pedagogy, there is often an attempt to isolate out one intervention to prove its efficacy. At EMC we have been sceptical about the viability of doing this in such context-bound, complex, organic places as classrooms, and in our work with these Year 9 classes, this very much proved to be the case. The shifts in thinking that occurred went way beyond just ‘teaching from the front versus group work’, as I hope this write-up will show. Equally, in classrooms, teachers gave the scheme their own inflection, classes responded differently, and some teachers retained some elements of previous practice, whilst others ‘went the whole hog’ with changing the approach. Despite these caveats, it seemed that for the teachers involved a whole new set of understandings emerged about what it means to teach a class novel. For the students, as their writing and their evaluative questionnaires at the end of the unit show, the scheme also involved a significant shift in thinking – in some cases, a revelatory one – about what studying texts in English might involve.
What were the key differences in ‘the EMC way’?
Here, in brief, are some aspects of what the new scheme of work did differently in comparison with the school’s original Scheme of Work. Links to fuller documentation are provided along the way, if you want to see more detail about this.
At an initial meeting in advance of starting the scheme, the teachers talked with me about what key literary and linguistic understandings and ideas were of central interest in this book. In other words, they identified significant aspects of the text. These included, among other things, its genre-mixing of fact and fiction, its structure as an ‘odyssey’, in which the trials and tribulations of the protagonist are described, its powerful impact on readers, its raising of many themes around migration, freedom and oppression, its rich use of a developing and changing symbolism. These were going to be at the forefront of the teachers’ minds while presenting the text in their lessons. They tried out a ‘taster’ of the first lessons that would be so vital in setting up a new way of working, to give them confidence in the approach and the kind of issues and ideas about the book that might emerge in the classroom. They ended this meeting with a shared understanding of key issues about the book itself.
- The scheme of work was flexible. Each lesson was mapped out in basic terms but teachers were asked to adapt, slow down and speed up, and make choices of activity according to what they saw happening in the classroom and how well their students were coping both with the book and with their new ways of working. In other words, the scheme was a responsive framework, not a rigid schedule. (LINK 1: the Scheme of work.)
- At the heart of the work was the idea of a developing, shared ‘agenda’ about the novel, that anchored all the work back to a sense of what we had agreed to be most interesting and significant about it – the characteristic features of this text. The agenda was not ‘presented’ to the class by the teacher but came out of the class work as a form of shared thinking, being adapted as it went. Students were encouraged to add their own items and think for themselves about what was important in the text. However there was also a strong underpinning in the work the teachers had done in the planning meeting to establish a shared sense of what the students should come away with as a result of reading this text, to take forward into all future work on novels. The teachers were encouraged to feed in ideas, encourage connections to be made and prompt thinking that would get to the heart of key elements in the novel.
- Here is the agenda I created to share with the English department – my own thinking about what I found most interesting about the text. (LINK 2: Barbara's 'agenda') Here too are the agendas that emerged in each of the different classes by the end of their first lesson on the book, as a result of group work exploring fragments from the text (mini-quotations), and making predictions about the nature of the book they would be reading. Each group’s agenda was extended and enriched across the course of the half term. (LINK 3: agendas for different groups)
- Group work formed a significant part of the work, but not necessarily in whole lessons, or all of the time – rather as a way of exploring ideas raised by the teacher, or raising new issues first in groups as a prelude to class discussion, or individual writing. Much of it happened in intense little bursts – ten or fifteen minutes with a requirement to choose something, decide something, agree something, argue through something. Some teachers did more extended group activities along the way and there was an opportunity to reflect afterwards on whether these longer activities, stretching over a whole lesson or even more than one lesson, were the most successful elements of group work or not.
- Though the teachers knew that the students would be assessed on the basis of a test that would mirror the GCSE Language paper, they agreed not to put any emphasis on this through the teaching, nor to specifically prepare the students for the demands of the assessment. There was no ‘now you’re studying this in order to be able to answer this question at GCSE, or in your assessment’. The reading of the book, the discussion and the writing about it were all for their own sake – a good enough reason to be working hard on the text. All of the teachers agreed that they would not teach PEETAL or focus written work on ‘paragraph writing’.
- When the students wrote more formally about extracts from the text – drawing on their understandings of the book as a whole – the titles they were given were broad and open, along the lines of ‘What, in this extract, is characteristic of the book as a whole?’, encouraging them to apply their knowledge of the writer’s style and the themes and experiences he is revealing to the reader. This was in stark contrast to the narrower, more specific questions that students in the ‘control’ group were asked to address (for example ‘Write a PEETAL paragraph about a sentence from the text’).
What happened? – The headlines
So much happened, of so much significance, that it is hard, in a blog, to do justice to everything. What follows is an attempt to draw out some of the most important findings.
1. The teachers’ reactions – positive impact
Within a week or two of teaching, several of the ‘EMC way’ teachers reported that they had decided to radically re-write their schemes of work for their KS4 and KS5 classes, to adopt the ‘agenda’ approach and a more open dialogic way of working in introducing the texts, An Inspector Calls at KS4 and Wuthering Heights at KS5. The reasons for this? Teachers reported a greater interest from students, a surprise at how much their students could contribute, and a sense that the teachers themselves were much clearer about the rationale for focusing on one thing rather than another in the study of a novel. The scene by scene, or chapter by chapter approach was not entirely dismissed but was overlaid with big picture ideas about the texts that were debated and discussed.
The teachers, in interim feedback and then in more detailed questionnaires at the end of the scheme and in a department meeting, were positive about the impact, both for them and their classes. Some key points that emerged were:
Some had feared that behaviour would be worse with more group work. None found this to be the case, though one teacher qualified this with concerns about behaviour in more extended discussion activities.
Teacher D, who was particularly nervous of the whole approach, reported that she was pleasantly surprised at how well the group work went and that the behaviour of students was in fact better than in previous work with the class:
I think the group work element worked well for this, as did the discussion work – less chaotic than I imagined! They were interested to hear each other’s ideas.
Some of the teachers who had changed the arrangement of tables and chairs in their classroom just for the half term working on this text decided to keep their classroom like this for subsequent lessons and in different classrooms.
b. Engagement and response to literary issues
The teachers reported noticing how much more engaged their students were and expressed some surprise at the level at which students were operating and how quickly they were becoming confident with concepts (and associated vocabulary) that were being lightly and easily introduced in the class, concepts like ‘narrative arc’, ‘voice’, ‘rites of passage novel’, ‘symbolism’ and so on.
c. Thinking about the text – and thinking beyond the classroom
Lucy noted, early in the project, how her students were taking their thinking out of the classroom after the lessons. One very quiet girl stopped to question her at the end of one lesson, raising an issue that hadn’t been dealt with to her satisfaction in class. Lucy made this question a feature of the start of the following lesson. Students seemed to be taking the book and the ideas to heart. Quiet students were coming out of their shells. I observed the lesson in which this particular student’s question was explored and saw her working in a group, initially tentatively but by the end of the group work, engaging in a focused and intense debate about an aspect of the book with another student, a boy, with whom she then went on to develop a friendship, seemingly as a result of talking together in class.
In the department meeting, Teacher A identified students having to ‘think’ as being the most significant shift in the new approach. Teacher B’s evaluation also highlighted that students were having the opportunity to ‘think about why a writer crafts their writing in the way that they do’.
d. The power of exploratory talk – and exploratory writing
Exploratory talk was coupled with exploratory writing. This was particularly evident in some of the classes. Students were encouraged to write down their thoughts, without pre-planning, sentence openers, formulae or any other explicit structure. The questions they were encouraged to think about were high level ones, by any standards – the kind of literary ideas that would not be out of place in A Level classrooms. So, for instance, in the early lesson I witnessed of Lucy’s she wanted to address the issue of the book being an amalgam of fact and fiction – a true story told as fiction by a journalist, who kept reminding us, at a metanarrative level, about the way the story was being told. She gave the students 8 -10 statements about fact and fiction. Having modelled it herself by showing them what she’d written about a different statement not included in their selection, she asked them to talk about which ones they agreed with and which they found most interesting. The statements were ones like ‘Non-fiction is not written to entertain. It is only written to tell.’, ‘Non-fiction can never be 100% fact. It’s always going to have elements of forgotten memories or exaggeration’ and ‘Children see things differently than adults. A child’s perspective can be captured in writing though’. Having talked in groups, individuals then wrote their thoughts about the statements, in an open way, followed by class discussion. (LINK 4: the statements, the teacher’s modelled writing and one student’s exploratory writing.)
The teacher evaluations identified opportunities to write ‘I think’ and ‘I like’ as particularly powerful and a ‘legitimate’ way of getting them to be analytical. Teacher C said, ‘It’s funny how removing the scaffolding of PEE actually seems to make it easier for some students to express themselves and build interesting arguments.’
e. The power of creative and creative/critical writing
The EMC classes all did some creative/critical writing – writing an extra chapter, or an episode from their own lives, in the style of the novel. This produced some excellent writing, that showed a depth of understanding of Geda’s style, particularly when it was set up with a clear set of ‘success criteria’ reminding students of key elements of the style of the original text, followed by peer assessment using this list of elements. (LINK 5: two examples of students’ creative/critical writing showing their understanding of the original text.) In their questionnaires, both teachers and pupils referred to this kind of activity as being particularly enjoyable and valuable. Teacher B talked about this ‘allowing the students to…think deeper into how and why writers make certain decisions.’
2. Student writing – in what ways did the writing reflect a change in pedagogy and practice?
I did a detailed analysis of the writing in four exercise books from two classes – one an EMC group, the other not. The two teachers of the four students were both very experienced practitioners whose classes were working diligently throughout the scheme. Two high ability boys and two high ability girls were chosen in each class, so that the work of students of a similar standard was being compared. My analysis included a statistical look at full paragraphs written and amount of sustained writing. It found some key differences in the writing, outlined briefly below.
I also gave the student writing to Anne Turvey, for many years a PGCE tutor at the Institute of Education, who has a special interest in writing. She did an independent write-up of her observations on the student writing in these same 4 exercise books, without reference to my analysis. Her write-up made many similar points to mine, observing significant differences in the nature of the writing.
The relevant pages in the 4 exercise books are available to look at here, along with my analysis of the writing and that of Anne Turvey. (Link 6: student writing & analysis.)
What follows is a brief summary of some of the most interesting aspects of the writing that we compared, and the teachers’ own thoughts about it.
a. At length and in depth
In classwork, but even more so in homework, the teachers in some of the EMC classes were surprised by how much students were writing, and by the care and thoughtfulness with which they approached their writing. Lucy identified writing in homework, in particular, as qualitatively and quantitatively better – a significant shift emerging from this way of working. The writing in the exercise books reflects this. Though the ‘non-EMC’ books show lots of work, much of it is in the form of short notes, responses to questions, filling in charts, exploding quotations and annotating. There is less sustained writing, constructing a line of thought or argument. My statistical analysis corroborates this.
b. Big picture thinking versus small detail
What the students chose to write about was as different from the ‘non-EMC’ groups’ writing as how they went about the process of writing, the quantity and nature of the writing. In terms of content, they were looking at big issues and large concepts about narrative, exploring their own responses and thinking more broadly about questions of reader response, focusing on whole text thematic and structural developments, overarching ideas about the impact of the writer’s choices and significant aspects of the writers’ style. They ranged across the text, as well as looking at specific details. This was in contrast to the ‘non-EMC’ group who did little of this kind of ‘big picture thinking’ about texts and were much more closely focused on smaller ‘devices’ and ‘techniques’.
c. Student confidence and independence – thinking about texts
It was interesting to observe how, in their exercise books, students in the EMC groups chose their own ground, identified their own examples and evidence, and were required to make judgements about what to focus on. By contrast, in the other groups, the students all tended to do work on exactly the same quotations. Much of the work therefore focused on just a handful of sentences that the students hadn’t selected for themselves – in one case, just three or four individual sentences across the whole novel. One can see the difference by looking at the annotations in Harram’s exercise book (EMC) on pages 8, 9 and 13 of her book – done entirely on her own – and contrasting this with the work Sophia (non- EMC) did on exploding quotations on page 4, 5 and 6 of her exercise book, or PEETAL paragraphs on pages 12 and 13 of her book. (Link 6: student writing & analysis.)
Teacher A, one of the ‘EMC’ teachers, observed in the final department meeting that the key difference was that the students were having to ‘think’ about the text. We agreed that this was a key change.
3. What students thought about the new way of working – enjoyment and learning
In their evaluations, the students were asked whether they had enjoyed the book more, the same or less than previous novels in Year 7- 9. They were also asked whether they had enjoyed the style of learning more, the same, or less, and a similar question was put to them about what they had learned. There was some variation in this but overall, we noted a positive response to the changed ways of working and an even more positive response about how they felt they had learned. Some students clearly felt that the removal of procedural tasks like ‘PEETAL’ paragraphs was harder, perhaps less contained and therefore more anxiety-provoking. However this was a minority view. The majority commented explicitly on how much they enjoyed not doing PEETAL. Some students weren’t very aware of the change in approach, while others could articulate what was different in ways that corresponded closely with our own thinking about the significant changes from previous work on a novel.
What was interesting was not only the positive scores on the style of learning but also what they chose to write about on the questionnaires by way of explanation. In the most enthusiastic class, where 87% enjoyed it more, 13% about the same and 0% less, in expanding on their answers what they said itself reflected how much deep thinking they had done about the text itself. This went well beyond routine replies. For instance, many students referred to ‘Geda’s writing style’, or identified specific (and recognisable) elements in the text that they had enjoyed learning about. (Link 7: selection of student comments from the questionnaires.)
Of course, for some students a sudden shift to asking them to make judgements, debate ideas and think for themselves was not always easy. Interestingly, some of the few students who said they’d enjoyed the way of working less identified their reason as being associated with the group work, but then also thought that they had learned more than in previous work at KS3. Thinking is perhaps harder than following a set formula or procedure, with everything spelled out for you.
4. Boys doing better?
An unexpected outcome of the work came in the form of some of the teachers noticing a marked shift in the work of boys. The school has identified boys’ achievement as a concern, so it was particularly interesting to them to discover that the boys, especially those who should be high achievers, were responding with special commitment and energy to this new way of working. This ran counter to some of the prevailing thinking in the school, that boys needed extra structure, being kept tightly on task, and given limited activities in order to pin them down. There was also a feeling that boys’ behaviour and approach might cause problems in relation to the group work. What emerged was quite the opposite. In the meeting, some of the teachers commented on particularly difficult boys who had begun to engage more with the work. The boys who were capable of high achievement were most marked in their changed response. Comparing students’ writing in the ‘EMC’ groups with the ‘Non-EMC’ groups highlighted this in concrete terms. In fact, when I went in to read across exercise books with Lucy, I often mistook boys’ writing for that of girls, because of my own false stereotypes and preconceptions that only girls write with such expansiveness, and care. My frequent question to Lucy, ‘Is this a girl?’ was met with the response, ‘No, a boy!’ and a shared cry of delight. The boys, when given more open tasks involving explaining their ideas, or developing responses, seemed to relish the opportunity to control the process for themselves more than was usually the case.
In past research studies on boys and achievement there have been many mixed messages and contradictory ideas about boys benefitting from structure but equally being frustrated by too much rigidity, lack of choice and the loss of opportunities to put their own stamp on the work. Caroline Daly’s ‘Literature search on improving boys’ writing’ of 2002 remains a useful overview of these and other issues. Our project seems to offer some small-scale evidence of what can happen when the balance tips more towards ownership of ideas and away from tight control.
5. What’s in it for students and teachers? Lucy’s Top Ten Takeaways
At the end of the project, Lucy wrote a short summary of the 10 most significant things that she thought she had discovered during the project – her top 10 takeaways. This provides a succinct summary of some of insights that she, and the department, will be taking away from the project and will perhaps allow others to consider what this approach can offer. (LINK 8: Lucy's Top Ten Takeaways)
We are happy for this report to be shared widely. We would be very interested in any responses.
With thanks to all of the teachers, the head of department and members of the school leadership team who made this project possible.