Refreshing Revision: Topicality, Serendipity and Door Handle Planning

Before I turn into a one blog pony, I thought I’d better put fingers to keyboard. Time is, as ever, short.  The high quality, research-led, academic pedigree of the teacher bloggerati out there is, as ever, intimidating. But can they watch Hotel Transylvania, do an Angry Birds Spot the Difference, answer questions on Maths Town, play Star Wars top trumps and blog *at the same time*? Can they? Can they? Okay, they probably can do that as well, darn their Oxbridge Masters PhD Teach First Ambassador Research Ed brilliance… But hey, as Tony Soprano would say in these situations (not that he, admittedly, dealt with many teacher bloggers) ‘Whaddayagonnado?’ Just write the thing.

See? It is really distracting… Anyway, as I was saying…

This term, all my carefully planned revision lessons for Y11 were going according to, well, plan… We were cracking through, checking knowledge, writing essays, knowing mark schemes, tickety tock, tickety box. Yet looking at their earnest, hard-working faces, so keen to succeed, I felt a depressing, creeping certainty: this was BORING.  Teach-to-the-test,  seen-it-all-before, going-over-it-all-again BORING.

The first temptation was to go back to the planning, create some more dynamic and engaging activities: refresh lessons that way.  The jazz-hands of activity-based planning. Tempting and at times effective: I love a quiz, a bit of bingo, carousel, relay, cloze, card sort, revision dice, catch the elephant. But we had already done all that jazz *and* had time for slow writing, joint construction, modelling, extended writing time, marking exemplars … and it was feeling stale.  Now I don’t want to be too harsh on myself, it wasn’t reeking, rotting pig’s head, perhaps more next-day baguette.  But still. I had been mulling it over, feeling really stuck, frustrated, exam-bound and ‘where’s the joy of literature in all this’?

Then I had the ‘door handle planning’* moment.

Opening the door to my students, welcoming them cheerily to English as I do, a few things came together in my frazzled teacher brain at the same time:

  1. We had just moved from working on writing skills for the language exam to ‘An Inspector Calls’. I had been exhorting the students to read a wider range of journalism, sharing topical articles with them, debating current issues and generally trying to make the connection between the classroom and real life.
  2. I had just read the Doug Lemov post about reading fact and fiction in combination to improve understanding and memory of both (am planning our new KS3 curriculum accordingly)
  3. I had also read various ‘Make it Stick’ posts about retrieval practice, interleaving units, spacing and revisiting knowledge regularly
  4. My students all came into the lesson talking about #thedress and asking me whether I thought it was blue and black or white and gold (white and gold for the record)

Feeling the pressure of starting the lesson and the discomfort of the break in my usual lesson-starting routine, the temptation was to close down this highly animated discussion, but I was really enjoying having a genuine, spontaneous, engaged, lively, funny conversation with my students about something they had chosen to talk about.  I relaxed, we started having a class discussion and through questioning I brought it back round to the text, asking how the different ways we perceive the dress might link to the varied reactions of an audience watching a play, how the different ways the dress might be worn might relate to actors’ or directors’ choices of costume, props, lighting etc. Going with the topical flow, I moved on to the story of the Bethnal Green girls bound for Syria to join ISIS, simply posing the question: ‘Who was responsible for their actions?’ If you’ve taught ‘An Inspector Calls’ you’ll know where I was going with this! The result was a high level, animated and topical debate which linked to Priestley’s ideas, the play’s themes and a comparison of historical context.

The topical discussion had illuminated the ‘old’ material, making it feel contemporary, relevant and alive. Adding new knowledge and opinions had refreshed the old knowledge and made new connections. Simultaneously working for both Language and Literature exams. Boom!

With exams looming, it is the hardest thing to keep it ‘tight but loose’ and while I wish I had actually planned that lesson, sometimes the best teaching moments, the ones from which we learn,  are those serendipitous ones where our research and reading, reflective thinking, knowledge of our students and desire to connect learning and the real world all come together.

Even better, later in the week, on break duty, a student said to me, “I really enjoyed that lesson discussing the girls who ran off to join ISIS, Miss. I was wondering how you were going to link it in, then it all came back to responsibility.’

My new challenge to self, then, is to refresh the revision, not through more activities, but by linking in just enough new knowledge or topicality to engage, illuminate and embed.  And this time, I’ll plan for it.

*thanks Kate