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Chris Curtis

Chris Curtis is an English teacher and head of department with over a decade’s experience in education. Chris is forever reflecting on which aspects of his teaching work best for his students and, as an avid reader and blogger, is a big believer in sharing practical ways to tackle difficult problems in the classroom.

Chris Curtis has written a fantastic article for Creative Teaching and Learning magazine titled “From Superficiality to Well-Reasoned Arguments: Learning to Explain” you can read the full article here.


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Publications by Chris Curtis

How to Teach: English

Written by Chris Curtis, How to Teach: English: Novels, non-fiction…

Author Blog

The ‘Knowledge’ – changing knowledge organisers

September 20 2020

There seems to be two camps in relation to knowledge. On one side we have the garlic holding and wooden stake clutching brigade who want to penetrate the heart of any knowledge beast. Then, we have the knowledge fetishists on the other side. They’ll find that the is some hidden meaning behind Dickens’ perchance for having three spoons of sugar in his tea with how a character frowned in the third chapter of David Copperfield. Most of us have a healthy relationship with the imparting of knowledge to students. A healthy relationship of imparting knowledge whether it be planned and unplanned in a lesson.

Take one of my lessons this week. The class and I were looking at Romeo and Juliet Act 1 Scene 3. A scene that introduces the Nurse, Juliet and her mother. Part of the discussion led to the concept of a wet nurse. When the boys in the class looked a bit confused, I discussed with them some the origin of wet nurses, breastfeeding, colostrum, weaning, teething, baby formula and many things associated with wet nurses. These things helped with the understanding of the closeness between the Nurse and Juliet. A physical connection. A connection that’s made sadder by the fact that the Nurse lost her own husband and daughter. This combination of knowledge helped students to understand the relationship between the Nurse and Juliet and highlight the distance between the mother and daughter. Added to this we explored how the act of breastfeeding as a shorthand for  a strong maternal bond is inverted in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’: Lady Macbeth would happily pluck the child from her breast and dash it’s brains out.  

The garlic wielding brigade would have you think I had drilled this knowledge into the little cherub’s brains and then tested them week after week on this knowledge. I did not. But, this the thing about knowledge it doesn’t always fit structures and plans. There was a genuine misunderstanding about breastfeeding and so I addressed it. Had the students shown a genuine understanding I probably wouldn’t have imparted this knowledge or discussed how formula for premature babies is the work of devil, especially for changing nappies.

Knowledge is wibbly wobbly stuff. Pinning it down is hard and we are prone to mistakes. And, I will hold my hand up, but I have changed my complete view of knowledge organisers. I think as a tool they are useful, but we need to look at the content more rigorously. They need to be constantly reviewed and changed. Here’s what we have changed:

 

[1] Promotion of knowledge which can be only used in one narrow and limited context

Like most people, we created knowledge organisers for set texts. They included names of the characters, plot events and lots of spurious knowledge about the plot of the text. There was often knowledge with very little usefulness in the big picture of things. The sheet would have knowledge about a character which we were asking students to commit to memory. That knowledge has a limited use in the grand scheme unless. Knowing who Napoleon in ‘Animal Farm’ will have no real value when looking at ‘Romeo and Juliet’ years down the road.

That’s not to say there’s no value in building connections between texts. There is a lot of value in that, but I am saying that some knowledge doesn’t need structuring or support in lessons. If students don’t know the key names of characters or the plot of the story after teaching it, you are doing something wrong. The sheet of paper is papering over the cracks and not fixing the problem.

We stopped knowledge organisers featuring plot and character points. These are things that should be dealt with in the day to day to teaching.

 

[2] Reductive content

We use knowledge organisers for poems. Yep. We reduced and summarised the knowledge associated with a poem to one side of A4 paper. Collectively, teachers did that again and again for whole novels, play and poems. We overly simplified something in the interest of ease.

Poems are rich things and to summarise a poem and reduce it to a page neglects interpretations,  nuance and layers of meaning. There’s an over simplification of complexity. There has to be otherwise how do you fit everything on a page.  We did this again and again. We reduced the context to Shakespeare plays to five bullet points.

When you reduce texts like this, you limit the interconnectivity between texts. You show students that you can ‘do’ a poem. You can handle it easily and quickly. And, poetry isn’t like that.

 

[3] No connectivity between topics and areas

The knowledge organisers functioned largely on their own. Independent. They had no level of connection with one another. They only linked in the format and layout. Knowledge was, therefore, nebulous and largely unconnected. Staff had to force connections between topic areas.

 

[4] Neglecting concepts that underpin elements of literature

With the emphasis on knowledge of plot, context or themes, this left big ideas which underpin texts. Ideas like realism or blank verse we’re displaced because of the weighting on plot, context and themes. These ideas need heavy weighting and plot, context and themes need less weight in lessons. They are important but if a student can talk about blank verse in a play, then they can do that again. Knowing that there is a connection between James I and Guy Fawkes has limited longevity.


So, our school and Trust have employed the term ‘sticky knowledge’ to describe the knowledge we are working on. The emphasis on ensuring knowledge stays. However, we have focused more on long-term usage rather than short-term goals. There’s a through line with the knowledge used and explored. 

[1] We have knowledge that connects across the years. The knowledge learnt in Year 7 will be needed when studying a topic in Year 8. The start of the topic in Year 8 will involve a check on what was learnt in Year 7. What has stuck? What needs going over?

[2] Knowledge relates to ideas underpinning literature rather than text specific. That knowledge is important for giving students the tools to approach many texts rather than the single one.

[3] We test at three points during a topic. We test students at the start to see what their prior knowledge is. Then, we repeat that same test in the middle of the term so students can see that they have learnt something. Then, we test at the end, but give students a different set of questions.

[4]Staff monitor what knowledge is sticking and what knowledge is not sticking. This will form the planning for later that year or for the next academic year. We’d identify what are the problem areas and look at problem solving issues.

[5] Knowledge isn’t isolated to these sheets. There’s other things we do and these sheets are not the sum of all knowledge but they are a key part.

 

I’ve attached to show you how our knowledge organisers look now. They are following our Trusts preferred style, but they give you the sense of where we are going.


Year 7 

Year 8
Year 9


Of course, we are experimenting and exploring how to use the new sheets, but I feel that we have improved on the previous versions of knowledge organisers. Time will tell. Knowledge is wibbly wobbly so we will change and refine them again at some stage.

I am lucky to have read two excellent books over the summer related to knowledge. Be gone with your garlic and wooden stakes. David Didau's book explores the knowledge students need in English. Amy Staniforth's and Stuart Pryke's book explores the important knowledge needed for Macbeth. 

There is a balance to be had between knowledge and creativity. Most of us have that balance right. We shouldn't allow people to demonise 'knowledge' or 'creativity' which I feel some are. Newsflash - you can have both. You can impart knowledge and be creative in the same lesson. 

Garlic wielders on the left of me. Knowledge fetishists on the right of me. Here, I am stuck in the middle with you. 

Thanks for reading, 

Xris  

 

 

 


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Let’s all join the pity party!

September 06 2020

I have a theory: we spend more time and energy on teaching techniques and contextual information, because they mask and hide a student’s inability to engage emotionally with a text. We’d rather crowbar a fact about Shakespeare having a gammy toe during the writing of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ than place emphasis on how a student and audience engages with a text.

I am passionate about stories. I love them. I will tell students how I love characters and how I am rooting for them to succeed. I share my love of pre-conversion Scrooge. Or, how I love Mercutio’s attitude to life. Or, even how I identify with Capulet – I have daughters who don’t do as I ask them to.

I like, loathe, hate, despise, adore, idolise characters in stories.

I think the emotional connection isn’t one we seek or utilise in lessons. Let’s think how this has largely manifested in lessons: a tension graph. Yep, a graph. I don’t know about you but when I am watching a play I am not making a graph. A graph, sorry Maths, does not encompassing the gamut of emotions, thoughts and feelings I go through. I need an etcher sketch for that.  

We largely think students can articulate their feelings as a readers. We think that they can do this without much support. It is the other stuff that they need support on. Read students work and you’ll see they reaction to a text is reduced to words like ‘tension, ‘ shock’ and ‘sympathise’. I think writers are doing much more with texts than shocking, sympathising and making things ooo a bit tense! Yet, their discussion is reduced to stock phrases and occasionally might lead us to a discussion on the difference between empathy and sympathy. We need students to talk better about their relationship with the texts.

 So, what do I see are the problems with addressing this in lessons?

[1] Time needs to be dedicated to discuss reactions

A cursory question is not enough. Students need to explore what they feel and why they feel it.


[2] Over simplifying the reaction

Emojis might have use in sending a quick message, but they don’t successfully convey what a person things or feels. A smile has so many different meanings. Reactions need interrogating and exploring so we can develop ideas.


[3] The student’s position as the audience  

This is the tricky one, because it means moving the student away from ‘entertainment’. A lot of a student’s reaction to a text is based on ‘interest’. What interests them? That’s quite different from engaging with characters. We need to move towards audience identification and audience detachment. Put the student in the text. Not a silent observer.


[4]The plurality of audiences / reactions

For students, they seem there is a correct ‘reaction’ to the text. That often causes them to doubt what they say for fear that it is wrong.

Students need to know that the writer did not write the play / text with their English teacher in mind. They way was written to appeal to a wide audience. Therefore, the men in the audience might react differently to the women. The young to the old. The parents to the children. The young men to the old men. The plural notion of audiences is key for understanding what is going on. I see some teachers introducing literary theory with some success. What if it was as simple as teaching students to view how different parts of the audience would react?

 

[5] The paradoxical states of emotion

Emotions are complex things. We can both like and dislike something at the same time. There are family members that fit into that category for me. These conflicting views and emotions are important. Conflicting emotions are a key reaction to a text. We like this about them, yet we don’t like that bit about them. A bit like real life really.

Emotions and reactions are nuanced. If we turn reaction to a like or dislike, we simplify the reaction and the process.


To help students with developing the discussion on the audience’s reaction I have developed these steps to help develop their responses to the text:

 

Step 1: Is it a positive or negative reaction the audience has?

 

Step 2: What makes them have this reaction?

Do they recognise ….?

A situation

Do they understand…?

A specific person

Do they empathise with…?

A dilemma

An emotion

 

Step 3: What word from these best matches the audience’s reaction?

The audience ….


Step 4: Why does the writer want the audience to feel or think this at the moment in the play?

…so that we ….

…to prepare us for ….

….to make us see ….

… so that we realise that …



I have made a little table to help with expressing these ideas in discussions. Students are to have this with them when discussing the text.

What is the audience supposed to feel?

positive

negative

What makes them have this reaction?

recognise

understand

empathise

What makes them have this reaction?

situation

person

dilemma

emotion

What word best describes this reaction?

identifies

recognises

understands

supports

champions

admires

warms to

respects

favours

sympathises

empathises

pities

relates to

comprehends

connects

hopes

worries

fears

Why does the writer want us to feel this?

so that we

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

to prepare us for

 

 

to make us see

 

 

so that we realise

 

We live in a judgmental world. We make lots of judgments, daily. The problem we have is that those judgements have been reduced to polar opposites. We like or dislike. We RT or block. We need to have a greater understanding of our reactions. We are too quick judge. The problem that comes from this quick judgements is that we have reduced the opportunity for empathy. There’s no need to pity someone in snap judgement.

Pity needs time.

Empathy needs space.

Connection needs opportunity.


The classroom is key for this: pity, empathy and connection. That’s the power of books. That’s the untapped seam we need in the world just now. And, it is already there. 

Let’s have a one big pity party!


Thanks for reading,

Xris

 

 


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