The mind plays strange tricks on people. Recently, even though I know I’m way past my sell-by date (I haven’t taught full-time since 1987), I’ve been thinking it would be great to go back to the classroom. Not as a visiting author; as a class teacher. I’d like a nice Year 5 or Year 6 class, I think to myself, in a Victorian building fused with modern facilities such as a decent coffee machine. Well, today I had a reality check. I went to Bishop King C.E. Primary School in Lincoln and sat in on a Year Six literacy lessons. I went in at 9.30 am and by 11.00 am I knew there’s no way I’d survive a week in a modern classroom, let alone a year or two.
Bishop King School overlooks Sincil Bank, Lincoln FC’s ground
First the class had a warm up exercise. They were given a large sheet of paper in the middle of which was an abstract picture the size of a large post-card. Working in groups of four, the pupils each had to claim a corner of the sheet for themselves and write down the first things they thought of when they looked at their image.
Pebbles – one of the groups had a similar picture to this
Then, brains suitably activated, it was time to get down to business. Today’s lesson objectives were clearly stated on the white board:
Objectives: ‘To recognise how the author has used language to create atmosphere…’
The class were studying the Victorians so the book they’d chosen was Street Child by Berlie Doherty. Mr Adlington, the Y6 teacher who’d kindly allowed me in to his classroom, read a short extract from chapter eight. He then asked questions about the passage. Which words conveyed atmosphere? Built up tension? Some examples were written on a flip-chart. Pupils then had to show their individual understanding by highlighting the words on printed extracts.
Highlighting words to show they’d understood the task
After that came discussion about the words chosen and reinforcement of what ‘atmosphere’ meant. Mission accomplished.
Then it was on to guided reading. I’ve always wondered what this was. From what I could gather, children sat in groups of six, and read a book to match their ability. That would mean, say, four or five different titles per year group. In Mr Adlington’s class Michael Morpurgo’s When the Whales Came’ was one of the texts used.
When the Whales Came and er… Here Come the Girls!
As well as When the Whales Came this abridged version of Oliver Twist by Gill Tavner was being used by one group of confident readers to answer questions based around the illustrations. Mr Adlington worked with them during my observation, peppering their writing with positive comments written on post-its which they stuck in their exercise books.
These were the only two titles I spotted during guided reading. Some children left the classroom for their guided reading session to have phonics help with teaching assistants. This happens three times a week at Bishop King, although children who struggle with their reading are heard read every day. There were several newly-settled children from countries such as Poland and Latvia in the class who were still learning English.
Mr Adlington’s class use a mixture of picture books and longer texts in their guided reading sessions. He told me he had intended Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’ to have been a two week exercise but the class enjoyed it so much it lasted half a term.
Before I knew it an hour and a half had passed and it was time for break. I’d spent a fascinating hour and a half and gained an insight into a ‘typical’ literacy lesson. The children I spoke to were all engaged in the different tasks and were keen to talk to me about reading and writing. In addition to their guided reading books and their ‘topic book (Street Child) they all had their own reader in their trays. The school had a library area in the main building and non-fiction books on display in the classroom. Reading is Big at the Bish.
Non-fiction books for the Victorians topic
So what conclusion did I come to? I concluded that the teacher is under a lot of pressure to deliver so much in such a short time; the planning must take ages. Teachers have to differentiate much more than I did back in the 70s and 80s. Differentiate not only in terms of the class’s various needs but lesson presentation. Mr Adlington used PowerPoint, flip-chart, pre-prepared sheets with pictures and photocopied extracts on top of the traditional methods of questioning and discussion. Bearing in mind this was for one lesson. Lordy! It makes my handmade worksheet copied on a banda machine look pathetic. Yet Mr Adlington appeared unruffled; he delivered everything in a calm, relaxed way. His class clearly adore him and he didn’t have any moments where he had to ask them to listen or stop talking as they were always ‘on task’. The system, in this classroom at least, worked.
But it wasn’t for me. The National Curriculum feels too prescriptive. It is over concerned with analysis and far too hefty to deliver. I liked being able to choose a reader and just read it for sheer enjoyment. I liked teaching comprehension separately through short, unrelated passages and exercises. I liked being able to start a piece of writing and take all morning over it if needs be without worrying that we hadn’t covered maths etc. I liked having the classroom to myself without the need for TAs. I liked the Ofsted- free life I had. I know! I know! Just listen to yourself, Helena. Best enrol on that patchwork quilt course right now…
I’m sure new teachers take to the National Curriculum like ducks to water and I’m hoping the revised English National Curriculum that’s being introduced next year addresses some of the issues around reading for pleasure. Meanwhile, hats off to teachers like Mr Adlington. You deserve every box of Matchmakers that lands on your desk this Christmas!