“Head orders empathy lessons for screen-fixated Generation Me”
Headline ‘The Sunday Times’
I had a delightful train journey to Glasgow last weekend (to take my Gran to see Anton Du Beke of Strictly Come Dancing fame, seeing as you asked. Yes, as wild as it sounds, thank you.) The journey there I spent reading and reflecting on the first three sections of Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby’s brilliant ‘Making Every Lesson count’: “challenge, explanation and modelling.” The way back involved the standard Sunday evening perusal of ‘The Sunday Times’. I wanted to spend a week experimenting with some of the ideas in the book and was hunting for some inspiration, a lightning bolt to base a week of lessons on. That is when I stumbled across the headline above, in which Andrew Halls, head of King’s College School, outlines his rationale for running empathy lessons in his school. In the article he argues that technology has robbed young people of empathy and left them stranded in “an empty wilderness of solitude and disconnection”. Interesting, inspiration found.
Stage one: Challenge and Explanation.
“We should set the bar of excellence high for all students, irrespective of their starting points”
‘Making Every Lesson Count’ pg 18
One of the things that resonates from ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ is the notion that the prerequisite to a learning experience should be challenge. I found this hugely refreshing: striving resolutely away from attempts at engagement through gimmicks and outlining clearly the dangers of low expectations. I have written at length about my aim to ensure that Year 9 are being rigorously challenged this year, starting with using short stories to model narrative writing and structures to ensure sophisticated analytical writing when teaching Shakespeare. I teach two lower band groups and I want them to start GCSE feeling confident and with secure knowledge of how to approach GCSE style topics. GCSE has been a real feature of our lessons: we use a metaphor of the GCSE ladder, and how many rungs we are climbing to meet this standard.
This term we are starting to explore transactional writing styles, beginning with lively article writing. On Monday I copied the article from ‘The Sunday Times’ for both groups. ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ has an excellent section on the importance of personal anecdotes informing teaching. Cue story of weekend adventures followed by how fascinated I was by how they would respond to the points in this article, and how I had torn it out excitedly to share with them (hence the bad copying!). I also wanted them to be curious, to emotionally engage with this topic, so stole the notion from ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ of framing the lesson like a story – building more layers and not explaining the overall purpose of the week until I had some sense of them engaging with the content:
First was a simple emotional response I wanted: how do you feel about this as a young person? We deconstructed the main points in the article, building up a collection of key words from it in their books. They then wrote a short response to the article, using evidence from the text to inform their views. To ask them to consider further the notion of young people being disconnected I showed them this wonderful clip (one that does engender real awe from students and a brilliant one for the power of language)
I then set them their mission for the week. They would have forty five minutes on Friday to complete a response to this:
Welcome to the ‘Sunday Times’ magazine team. Your first assignment: We have had a barrage of letters from individuals in the past month savagely condemning young people. They have stipulated that young people are without empathy and ultimately bring nothing to society. We would like you to complete a response: can you challenge these misconceptions?
Taking of misconceptions, I had a think on Monday morning about where students might be wrong with this topic, with this thinking central to the Explanation section of ‘Making Every Lesson Count.’ The issues I had envisioned:
- Inappropriate tone.
- Inability to write in a ‘lively’ and engaging style.
- Structuring points, expanding to ensure length (this will need to be five hundred words in their exam at the end of Year 11)
- Ability to counter arguments about young people.
- Knowledge of media connections.
- Knowledge of and ability to employ appropriate techniques.
I found this hugely enabling and purposeful, giving structure and direction to the areas to focus on for the week. Lesson two would need to start to work towards scaffolding these targets for them. I started the lesson with a collation of media headlines about young people. They then worked in groups to create mind maps about misconceptions about young people. Time for some pointed questioning on each area: how do you respond? How does that make you feel? This started the approach to targets 4 and 5. This was then countered with students repeating the task with explorations about the reality of young people. Delightful and by this point some sweaty indignant faces, beginning to get the idea they would be acting as defenders of the youth of today. This is the point in which we built in some techniques, with a slide of areas on the Powerpoint for students to use in their arguments about the reality of young people. Interesting validation of the point raised in ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ that motivation is engendered through content, not before.
At this point, however, two lessons had gone by without students writing in the style that I wanted them to produce in a lesson by the end of the week. I am a real advocate in using models, as this post waxing lyrical about the value of modelling narrative writing for Year 11 highlights. Live modelling, however, is something that I have always been slightly hesitant about, particularly hand written modelling. Yet reading ‘Make Every Lesson Count’ was another voice illuminating how vital this could be as a learning experience. I particularly wanted to demonstrate the style and register of lively magazine for them. I liked the idea in ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ of the students joining in with the writing as I completed it and also the collaborative notion of students assisting with the live modelling: “No, sir, change it to this word” etc. The students then drafted their opening paragraph, that would be developed and improved on for the final draft.
Stage Two: ‘Modelling’
I found this section of ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ particularly fascinating. I wanted to experiment with pre prepared multiple models and show students potentially different ways of approaching the task. I also wanted to explicitly teach areas of the above misconceptions I felt would be an issue. I wrote three different body paragraphs of: The Heroic Defence of Young People each with a different approach. To start with I gave students ten minutes to read in silence, circling words they were unsure of, beginning to annotate features and rating the paragraphs in order of their perceived efficacy 1-3. They then had some time afterwards to share their thoughts with others on their table. I was fascinated listening into this dialogue, with some fairly sophisticated debate about the merits of each paragraph. They then voted and justified their answers, with reference to the ‘star section’, the section of their winning model paragraph they thought was most effective. They key to this was investing time in deconstructing the thought process with what ‘Making Every Lesson’ count defines as “quick fire questioning”:
“The most effective modelling goes hand in hand with quick fire questioning” pg 109
The questions I used to structure this balanced the positive with asking students to reflect on how the work could be developed further. I broke this up by asking students to write an improved version of particular sentences or areas in the back of their books to use as notes:
“Why did I use that particular word?”
“What is the structural impact of that choice?”
“What would develop this idea further?”
“What is the impact of using that particular technique”
“What was I aiming to achieve with this?”
“What could build on this further?”
“What was I thinking at this point, what comes next?”
This is one student’s notes:
While I knew that some of more able students would fly with this I knew that some wouldn’t, and reading ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ illuminated further the close binary between challenging and overwhelming young people, so I wanted to set them up to write well and structure a more extended response. So I completed a ‘Thom’s Action Plan’ and ‘Thomtastic vocabulary’ (included in the above link) for the groups to model my thinking for the article as a whole and seek to build in more key vocabulary. Students then completed their own imaginatively titled plan, deciding which arguments they would refute in their response.
Friday afternoon saw them writing like troopers for forty five minutes. Given that they knew this was coming and that we had built up to this moment for the whole week they tried very hard. One student’s essay:
A couple of examples that show development and an interesting mix between using exemplars to support their framework and their own ideas:
Next week I plan to use the next three sections in ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ to build further on these skills and will write about the progress. I am interested in the redrafting process and to see what the impact of multiple redrafts of these paragraphs will be. I am very aware that there is lots of work to do to ensure that some of the skills are embedded with these groups. Regardless, I skipped out of school on Friday afternoon like Mr Du Beke himself, feeling very grateful for the wisdom of Allison and Tharby. More importantly, feeling that implementing ideas from their text was having some genuine impact on the capacity of students to write well. Incase this hasn’t resonated: do buy/read/steal a copy of this text at the first opportunity. Thank you for reading.