But these new exams have so much content, I just don’t know how we’re going to get through it all.
This is something I haven’t moaned about in years, and it’s largely down to what I value and thus how I teach. When we’re not wasting time with gimmicks and generic, but funky, formative assessment frameworks, we can hopefully focus on the subject itself, but even then, due to our accumulated years of “Oh, but I already have a lesson on that”, we don’t always get to the heart of the issue. I wonder if that is partly the result of our sometimes poor subject knowledge (it has been for me in the past), as well as a lack of confidence in just talking to children. There’s also, often, a discomfort with the notion of repetition, as if that will be boring and, weirdly, repetitive; that keeping children engaged in the hour, those actual-sixty-minutes, rather than the subject is easier in the long run; that we must be ‘active‘.
For these reasons I wrote about how I was teaching both Y11 and Y9, with the focus on the benefits of simplicity: read, question, practice, quiz, repeat. Without getting into the current (valuable) debates regarding substantive and disciplinary knowledge in history teaching, what follows is a short summary of how I am teaching part of the Norman conquest of England to Y10.
- The spoiler.
As Anthony Radice rightly pointed out, spoilers are essential. And so, with that in mind, it’s essential to let pupils know what is coming up. My Y10s are currently looking at how William dealt with rebellions in the first few years of his reign. Therefore, rather than take each rebellion in turn, leaving pupils to guess at the outcome, I explicitly tell them, “William had enemies – we know this. Of course he did, we know who they were. And those enemies tried to kick the invading Normans out. None of this should be a surprise. And we also know he was successful, that he prevailed. Our question, therefore, is not ‘How successful was William?’, but ‘How did William approach the issue of rebellion?'” I then give them the spoilers with an overview which I have written. In this way Y10 know what is coming up, at least in skeletal form. They then are able to come up with tentative answers to the overarching question, but all the while knowing that these will likely change as they delve deeper into the history, considering various interpretations, contemporary or otherwise, along the way.
2. The reading.
There’s a worry, I think, or perhaps a lack of confidence, in reading aloud to the class among non-English teachers. This bemuses me a little, I confess, as our job is to talk to children, but it’s a hugely important part of what we do. I wrote here about reading to our tutor groups, but this works for any class and most pieces of text.
Once Y10 know the overview they are able to dive in. We read both the textbook and historians’ views, largely from Marc Morris’s The Norman Conquest. I pause every few lines to check and develop understanding, or to make a point about a particular event: “So Orderic Vitalis tells us William was ‘trembling head to foot’ – can we just pause there? He’s sat in Westminster Abbey being crowned, but most of the onlookers have fled, maybe he can see the lights of the flames from outside, perhaps he can hear the commotion – shouting, screaming, different languages. What might Vitalis be trying to tell us?”
3. The questions.
I then give simple comprehension questions. In my experience this has become rather unfashionable, as if actually understanding what you’ve just read is something to be scoffed at. Certainly, I had lesson observations when I was younger where that sort of thing – yes, comprehension – was frowned upon. Essentially, we read it through once, together, then read it again, but the next time looking for specific things: How might the coronation be described? What was Orderic Vitalis’s argument? How did William work to ‘calm the country and establish his authority’?
4. The quizzing.
After checking answers, by reading over pupils’ shoulders, whole-class questioning and correcting misconceptions, I quiz them. As we move through the content the quizzes become cumulative, so we’re both recapping last week as well as the past forty-minutes.
We do this pretty much every lesson, with the odd moment to focus on three different interpretations of the same event here, a bit of extended, timed writing there, and a pause to debate every now and then. But no more. In this way we’re not wasting time, but nor are we distracted from the story: there’s a routine which is both understood and cumulative. I don’t worry about covering more content because the simplicity of the structure allows us to cover a lot without either losing focus or forgetting the history.