“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
― Lewis Carroll, ‘Alice in Wonderland’
How far to extend and challenge year Year 7? What is the balance between engagement and rigour in the Key Stage Three classroom? What do we want to secure in terms of reading habits in Year 7? As I highlighted in this post evaluating the research on transition, misconceptions about the ability of Year 7 students is one of the main reasons they fail to make a “flying start” in secondary school. Yet nurturing and fostering enthusiasm and passion for learning has to be a driving force and it can be a challenging tight rope to walk. This half term my Year 7 middle band group have been studying Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, and I have been using the masterful ‘Reading Reconsidered’ by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway to explore strategies to try to develop them as confident readers and writers. This has been combined with trying to promote a love of reading and making sure that they are enjoying studying the novel. Alice no doubt, would encapsulate this reading adventure as “curiouser and curiouser”.
Reading Harder Texts
‘Reading Reconsidered’ argues for the importance of exposing students to difficult texts and for a “steady exposure” of challenging texts throughout their time in education – a philosophy I wholeheartedly endorse! This year I have been sharing with Year 7 the A-Z of classic literature challenge. They know that I am tracing the classic author alphabet, with a two week speed date with each letter of the alphabet. The purpose of this is to take every opportunity alongside the novel to share extracts with this group. So far we have had classic adventures with: Austen, Bronte, Burns (conveniently timed with Burns night!) and Byron. Today we had a delightful part of a lesson discussing a section of Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’. What has surprised me about the process is the grasp of understanding this group can immediately reveal from a reading. In response today they noted: Coleridge is expressing his love for his child; he wants him to have opportunities he himself did not as a child; he values the beauty of nature over the city. Sharing this challenge and examples hopefully achieves the following: it models my own enthusiasm and love of literature with them; it demystifies the notion of ‘classic literature’ as arduous and dull; it ensures that we are regularly talking about literature and starting to embrace the ‘canon’ in its many forms. It can also be hugely entertaining and enjoyable: I am not sure if this group will ever recover from the horror finding out that Byron wrote ‘She Walks in Beauty’ about his cousin (I thought to reveal that it was also after seeing her at funeral would tip them over the edge!)
Habits of Discussion
Honing the quality of verbal dialogue has been a real push with this class this half term. This post on experimenting with speech in the classroom highlights a number of ‘speaktastic’ elements we have focussed on since September. A section of my classroom is draped in the ‘Thomtastic speech’ rules, which I refer students to regularly. The ‘Alice in Speakerland’ rules have been the following, adopted from ‘Reading Reconsidered’:
- Using formal vocabulary related to analytical writing at all times: novel, protagonist, thematic, quotation, dialogue etc.
- Eye contact at all times – “a vital precursor to being able to have an engaging conversation.” They struggle with this, but constant reminders about visually engaging with each other are starting to work.
- Key vocabulary words: each lesson students have a selection of words related to the focus of the lesson to use in their speech and writing. Repetition has been key with this, trying to make sure that students are growing a range of vocabulary both from the novel and related to it.
- Audible format: Luckily I have rather small ears, so constant reminders about the struggle of my “small Scottish ears” to hear responses helps with this one: students know they need to project loudly and clearly to meet my pernickety demands!
Show some Spunk
Classically named: this is where the fun comes in. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is such a rich character driven novel that this half term, expressive reading has been very high up on our agenda as a class. The fact that I get ludicrously carried away with reading the various characters has what ‘Reading Reconsidered’ highlights as “normalised expressiveness.” Students are now growing in confidence to read and for some it has become something on a competition to read with verve, passion and elucidate meaning. Getting this right now and practising regularly in all year groups will make sure that the sense of adolescence self-consciousness doesn’t seep in could prevent the wooden version of the Inspector that dominated Year 11 “performances” of ‘Inspector Calls’ this year!
Developing Close Reading
To illustrate an example of the various reading strategies in ‘Reading Reconsidered’ the work students have completed this week has been an amalgamation of strands that we have ‘trained’ towards. First students were given two extracts from the novel, with the question: How does Carroll create confusion in the extracts? This ensures that there is a focus for the reading task, to give students a line of enquiry to latch onto as they read.
First I gave them ten minutes to go ‘Solo’: to read the extracts and write down their initial points and quotations they would use. We have explored this regularly throughout the half term, gradually stripping back the initial help and support to allow them to come up with ideas independently. I am interested in the notion that “the benefits of Close Reading bursts has to do with the power of consistent practice”. This means from Key Stage Three students should be given regular opportunities in lessons to read for meaning and to tackle the tasks individually. This also ensures that the class have independently generated ideas about a text (“an unmediated read”) before we could really delve in and explore the nuances of meaning. After ten minutes this student had come up with the following initial ideas. We then built on that by sharing collaboratively all the ideas the class had come up with:
This was followed by a “show some spunk” (of course) reading, with students taking on different roles in the narrative. We then deconstructed the text in more detail, unpacking the various lines and annotating together. This was combined with using Lemov’s ‘cold call’ and hearing student’s volunteered answers. Every few minutes we would ‘progress check’ with students holding up their annotations in the air for all to see. This is a delightful ‘Teach like a Champion strategy: celebratory and motivational at the same time. ‘Alice in Speakerland’ was out in full force for this segment of the lesson! Also on the PowerPoint was ‘Alice in Worderland’, words for students to use in the discussion: “confusion, unclear, stressed, annoyed, weird, unusual, strange, unpleasant, perplexed, odd, ambiguity, disjointed, scared, fragmented, novel, dialogue, protagonist.” At the end of this section this student had the following, colour coded for different sections of her response:
Building Writing Stamina
This has been on of the key areas of focus for the half term. Students have had at least a thirty minute analytical writing task each week, exploring some close aspect of the novel. This has been combined with shorter eight to ten minute blasts of writing each lesson. The idea is that students have grown in their capacity as formal analytical writers and being able to write in more detail. They have struggled with this aspect, but positive reinforcements, being able to see the progress in their writing and receiving regular feedback (and weekly Alice in Superstar postcard!) have all helped them to see the fruits of their labours! I can also see that they have made developments in their ability to write formally and in more detail. This week the students had thirty minutes to respond to the task we had planned on confusion. I gave the students the following sample sentence starters to support their writing, which “provides students with specific words or phrases to start their sentences:”
- Confusion is first created for readers by…
- Carroll creates a sense of confusion by dialogue…
- Confusion is further shown through character’s behaviour…
- The lack of clarity creates confusion by…
- The sentence structure further generates confusion…
- Word choice highlights uncertainty…
- The strange actions of the Caterpillar perplex readers…
- Alice’s lack of understanding is confusing…
I then modelled two paragraphs to show them exactly what I was looking for. This a section of one student’s response. Obviously lots and lots to do, but this chap has come a long way since the start of the term:
Spending some time this half term reading, reflecting and implementing strategies from ‘Reading Reconsidered’ has been both rewarding and enjoyable. Teaching reading is such a complex challenge and it is easy to get stuck in the conveyer belt of what we feel comfortable with; sometimes it takes a window into a different and expert perspective to make us reflect and improve. Harnessing and developing strategies and structures to grow independent and confident readers at Key Stage Three could have a huge impact on their futures, and is exciting in its potential of the quality of reading that could grace classrooms. As one of my Year 7’s (perhaps) said when he gazed down at his splendid written reflections this week:
Thank you for reading.