Cross curricular and issue-based conversations in English.
Last week, at our school residential conference, we watched a speaker, Hywel Roberts, who encourages teachers to make links between subjects, to bring in real world contexts into the classroom and to ‘trap’ children into learning or to make them learn ‘accidentally’. Whilst these were some ideas I’d already begun to embed in my practice, this session really enthused and encouraged me to pursue them even further.
Every Friday, my year ten group have a debating and discussion lesson. Despite our government’s desire to reduce the profile and importance of speaking and listening, it is vital we teach these crucial skills to our young people. Not only are these key life skills but, the relationship between articulacy and effective written communication means that improved oral fluency will inevitably raise standards in all aspects of the curriculum.
During this lesson we discuss, debate, converse, think, philosophise, argue and listen carefully. There is always a link to the text or skills we have been covering. For example, during our scheme of work on An Inspector Calls, students argued the issue of social responsibility. Now, we are covering Macbeth. This Friday, students are being asked to consider a woman’s role in society, making links to Lady Macbeth.
Our school has also been focusing an awful lot on the quality of questioning in the classroom. As the students enter the room, there will be three questions on the board. These are differentiated. Firstly, students are asked to recall what they can remember about the Jacobeans’ attitudes to women. Next, they are asked to apply this knowledge by explaining how Lady Macbeth defies these expectations. Lastly, they are asked to compare these expectations with those that we have of women today and whether this affects the way a twenty first century audience perceives this character. Inevitably (though I have not taught this yet) students will assert that women are now equal to men and we have completely different expectations of them.
Though it is true that women’s rights have certainly come a long way since the seventeenth century, the next stage of our lesson will ask students to question their preconceived notion that women are now ‘equal’. I will ask them to watch the Lenor advert, featuring actress Amy Sedairs. In this advert, Sedairs is dressed much like a 50’s housewife and behaves in a way which can only be described as ‘ditzy’. Her hair is perfectly coiffed while she moves around a laundry room. Students will be asked to consider whether our expectations of women have changed and how women are being presented in the media.
Students are then given a list of statements. These range from ‘A woman’s place is at home with the children’ to ‘Men and women should work together to look after their families’. In addition to these two extremes, I have also added statements which will, hopefully, encourage a little more thought and provoke a bit more discussion. These include ‘Women know more about how to look after children because it’s instinctive’ and ‘Men are physically stronger than women and are, therefore, more able to protect them’. During this activity, students are asked to ‘Think-Pair-Share’. I’m sure many of you have come across this technique but it really is an invaluable way of allowing all students the opportunity to ponder and discuss ideas. It also reduces the social anxiety of answering in front of your peers if students have already had the opportunity to discuss with someone else, who can help to shape their thoughts.
Before our whole class discussion, students are given the opportunity to discuss and record their ideas around the statement, “A woman’s place is in the home”. Students can use board markers to record their answers (if they wish) on the desks. Having used ‘table writing’ several times now, the rebellious act of writing on the tables, seems to enthuse students. Additionally, because it is so readily removed, the fear of getting it wrong is reduced.
Lastly, I am going to trial something I haven’t done before. I have printed off a class photo list and all students will receive a tick next to their name once they have spoken. Though a very straightforward way of encouraging all students to speak, it is not something I had used before and less resource heavy than a name generator or lolly sticks. I must credit my colleague, Helen Martin, for giving me this simple yet very effective idea. The class will be asked to discuss whether a woman’s place is in the home and I will facilitate the dialogue, encouraging students to build on what others say or to refute their ideas in a mature and articulate manner.
While students may feel that these activities are simply asking them to express their opinions on the role of women in our society, students are not only engaging with issues around gender and media representation, they are also able to consider the perception of women in the twenty first century. This is a key skill for their English Literature exam paper. So, while we are having an exciting and heated debate around gender roles, students are actually being ‘trapped’ into thinking about the context of an audience and how this shapes our expectations and perceptions.