In my early teaching career, in the now much maligned 2005-2010 era, I once delivered a lesson on writing about the senses for my little Year 7s. For smell, I put some fir combs and some flowers in a bag, and invited a student to take a whiff and describe what the smell conjured up to the class. They wrote down with interest what he announced: the woods and flowers. For hearing, I asked them to close their eyes and write down what they heard and felt, as I put some audio of a stormy night on. They added to their notes: wind, loneliness, rain against the windows. Finally, for sight, I asked one student to open the door (unbeknownst to them I had bribed at break time three Sixth Formers to burst in on cue with crazy masks and mock swords and jump on the tables.)
What did those students remember from that lesson? The madness of it all.
Did they remember any specific strategies for writing about the senses? Probably not in that particular lesson.
Did they write some of the most imaginative work that lesson, and the lesson after, I had seen that year? Yes they did.
Four years later, when I spoke to the lovely girl who I gave the chance to open the door, did her eyes light up at the memory of that lesson? Yes.
Seven years later, this was the moving message I received from that same girl via FB messenger randomly:
‘Just wanted to send a quick message to thank you for the genuinely incredible job you did teaching me in year 7. I’m in my last year of sixth form now and am going on to do art in college but I don’t think my love for English would have survived this long if you hadn’t made it as engaging as you did in those first years.’
Don’t get me wrong people, I’m a huge convert to traditionalism, but I’m not a 10/10 one. I have shaped my department’s vision towards embedding learning over time, use retrieval quizzes most lessons, have built in interleaved weeks, have knowledge organisers coming out of my ears, and ensure every student who comes into an English classroom is au fais with the Learning Scientists’ work about effective retention strategies. I know you actually can’t begin to be ‘creative’ without the pre-requisite knowledge in your locker. I’ve read ‘Make it Stick’, ‘Memorable Teaching’ , ‘Why don’t students like school?’ and all the seminal edu-works of recent years; they’ve blown me away. But, and it’s a big but, I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable lately with the mocking of the concept of fun and engagement; with the way many edu-tweeters dismiss many creative lesson efforts as ludicrous and an utter waste of time. Sure, I am in agreement with Rebecca that many of these ideas were indeed nuts – I despised Thinking Hats and Brain Gym with a passion.
However, as an aspiring senior leader, I can see many of the Arts HOFs glazing over when I talk passionately about the knowledge agenda. If we are to get some of these people to 3/10 Traditionalist, we need to not lose sight of their world.
There is absolutely a way knowledge and fun can co-exist in this brave pseudo Dickensian new world…
What is wrong with a crossword now and again for learning, or a mad, competitive game of articulate to review material?
Where’s the harm in asking your students to try and imagine themselves in a war zone for ten minutes? (Yes, Yes, I know, if they haven’t got adequate pre-requisite knowledge of a war zone, they’ll struggle, but still, let them have a go! Empathy is a core value we should seek to nurture every day.)
What’s the problem with taking 15 mins to insert your students’ names and their interests into a grammar activity to make it that little bit more ‘fun’?
To follow some silent poetry analysis skills practice, let’s give students the opportunity to create a poster that amalgamates some of the main images and key words from a poem together. Hey, that’s a schema right there, isn’t it?
Let’s continue to create our own amusing acrostics to help us remember persuasive techniques in the upcoming assessment. Here’s my favourite (S -Short sentences, F -Flattery, etc) :
Let’s dedicate some time to confident speaking in our Public Speaking Unit, and give students choice to talk about anything they want, even fun stuff like ‘Why Justin Bieber should not be allowed to sing on this planet’. I want our students to be able to write well, but I also want them to deliver with aplomb, and if that takes up a couple of weeks just focusing on hand gestures, eye contact, and dramatic pauses, so be it. I wish I could dedicate more time to catching up those Public Schools who do it so well.
Don’t be afraid to take 2 lessons out to get students acting out the plot of texts with some props. We’ve had a lot of fun with this over the years, and students always remember the lines they delivered in front of the class! Here’s the famous Marco scene from A View from the Bridge!
I love the way our Knowledge Organiser homework learning tasks are open to creative interpretation, and that students can do funny little artistic things with them to help them learn.
Our Knowledge Organizer starter recap quizzes actually get a cheer, as the students love the fun competitive element I have introduced. Those 5 or 6 students who achieve the highest scores each time earn rewards, and believe me, it’s not always the same people or the highest attainers who earn those rewards.
We give over 2 lessons at the end of a module to creating inventive board games to recap knowledge from the previous term. Students came in at break time to finish these -they were so keen to get them just right. The creative pride was tangible and the fun they had playing them was wonderful to see.
As I draw to a close, I think about my own children who are 4 and 6 respectively. Do I want some liberal provision where they get to choose whatever activity they think is the most fun? No, that’s utterly misguided in my view. I want them led to practice hard in all areas of the curriculum. But, do I want them now and again to come home with their eyes full of excitement regaling me with the Tudor battle they re-enacted, or the 3D model of Mars they’ve admirably created out of a plastic yoghurt cup? Do I want that buzz to continue into secondary school? Damn right I do.
*Not my kids, by the way!
10/10 Traditionalists forget we learn through emotion too… ‘Things that create an emotional reaction will be better remembered’ -Daniel T Willingham.
Jon Gustafson – a blogger I’ve followed recently mentioned the power of repeated practice when playing the piano. I fully agree. I’m a pianist too -however, growing up, the chance to be able to play Star Wars to impress my mates, rather than chromatic scales, was what drove me forward to WANT to learn.
To conclude then, of course we should get our students to engage in deliberate practice; we should ensure our lessons use all the evidence based components that point to progress: modelling, recapping, interleaving, silent reflection time, whole class instruction… but we sure as hell should ensure they smile now and again, and laugh now and again, and compete now and again, and be creative now and again, and say ‘Hey, that was pretty fun’ now and again, because if they don’t, I might as well be back in my bloody office job doing dull admin. every day.
The work below is from the girl who I spoke about at the start of the piece. Let’s not mock this, eh?
7/10 Traditionalists I salute you!
Dedicated to MK – we miss you mate!