Carly Vanden Heuvel
EAST Student Teaching Seminar
04 June 2015
Blog Post 3
Something that I was interested in knowing more about before arriving at Hymers College was the curriculum used by the English department here, especially as it compares to the curriculum used in my previous student teaching placement and field experiences. Long before I left the states for England, the head of Hymers’ English department sent me several resources, one of which listed plays and novels that are taught for various year groups. What struck me immediately was the emphasis on classic literature. Personally, I have gone back and forth on my stance on the use of classic literature in the ELA classroom. I see great value in the classics, and the joy I found in reading them as a student is one of the factors that led to my choice of becoming an English teacher. Still, I understand that classic literature may not be the most suitable choice for many students. Unfamiliar vernacular like Old English makes classic literature feel inaccessible to students, which is a major problem for struggling readers. Further, reluctant readers are unlikely to commit to reading the classics as compared to literature that they can more clearly relate to. It’s better for a student to read lower-quality literature than nothing at all, right? For these reasons, schools in the US seem to be moving toward the use of more contemporary literature and Young Adult Literature. Being here, I am able to see how novels, plays, and authors that I did not encounter until high school AP classes are taught to middle-level students.
Students’ knowledge of the classics first became apparent to me when one of my cooperating teachers projected a quote and asked who it was written by, followed by a chorus of twelve and thirteen-year-olds yelling, “Wordsworth!” This is one of the many writers that are taught early on at Hymers. Here in the land of Shakespeare, students read at least one of Shakespeare’s works every term starting in Year 7, and I have been able to do some work on Romeo and Juliet with my Year 8 class. Although this is quite young to understand some of Shakespeare’s choice themes and innuendos, I have seen first-hand the progression of understanding and the value of reading Shakespeare early and frequently. I have used Romeo and Juliet to introduce some of the writing techniques that are used in more contemporary literature. For instance, my students had to write a hyperbolic poem after reading Romeo’s melodramatic address to Rosaline. Furthermore, I used Romeo and Juliet to introduce the topic of theme. I would normally think that it makes more sense to begin with accessible literature and scaffold up to Shakespeare. With this group, however, I had no choice but to start with Shakespeare. By learning some of the terms and skill work with Romeo and Juliet, my students were very comfortable using what we had practiced later on when we read Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful, and we could then focus on analysis.
I have observed one of my fellow teachers whose Year 10 group read Much Ado About Nothing, and I was extremely impressed by the maturity and fluency with which they could discuss Shakespeare. They were able to discuss themes that would have made me blush as a high school student with as much poise and passion as a college-level Shakespeare course. I credit this to the continued exposure to Shakespeare that they have received. They have developed a knack for dissecting the language and are well-aware of Shakespearean tropes. All of the Year 7 classes are going to see a production of Henry V in two weeks. The EAST student that I live with teaches history to the same Year 7 group as I do, and we have created a unit in which she is providing a historical context of the play while I focus on the literature.
I have mentioned in previous blogs that the English standards used here at Hymers are quite comparable to those outlined by the Common Core. The standards are identically categorized into Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Literature. The way that these standards are measured is centered on testing, and the implementation of the standards is closely monitored. As an English department, we have actually practiced scoring student work using mark schemes that were designed in accordance with the standards. We have read through essay responses and watched videos of speeches done by anonymous students before deliberating over the mark schemes and discussing what scores we would award these students. We are then given the scores that, according to the government, these students should have earned. It’s important that all teachers are scoring closely to how they should be in accordance with the mark schemes because a moderator comes into the school annually to measure the teachers’ use of the standards and award a score.
As in any school, there is certainly a variety of pedagogical approaches and management styles within Hymers College. There does seem to be a higher regard for the teacher as the authoritative figure in the room, which is likely a result of the traditional practices the school still follows. For instance, my students would never enter my classroom until I open the door and tell them they may come in. They then stand next to their desks waiting for their peers to arrive and sit when I say they can be seated. This is just one example of the traditional mannerisms through which students show respect for teachers at Hymers. I have found that lessons where I need to create a more democratic classroom environment have made my students a bit uneasy at first, but they have enjoyed it greatly. Right now, I am doing a debate unit with my Year 8 students, and it is taking a lot of scaffolding to get them to the point where I feel they will be able to debate without me being involved. In observations that I have done earlier in my placement, I was able to see older teachers that conducted their classrooms in a way that is more indicative of the traditional English private school way of life as I have come to understand it. They lectured while students listened, and distractions were completely unacceptable. Younger teachers, I have observed, use a lot more collaboration. I am sure this is true of any school, to a degree, but the high standard to which these students are held seems to widen the discrepancy, as teachers can use almost any pedagogical strategy that they would like to with zero to minimal behavior issues. However, that does not mean that all strategies are conducive to student learning.
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