Build a New English Department: Step One – The People

He aha te mea nui?
He tangata.
He tangata.
He tangata.

(What is the most important thing?  It is people, it is people, it is people.)

I start a new year in a new role, Head of Department for English. As part of my application process for the position, I was asked to make a presentation to the selection panel about how I would have an impact. In this presentation I placed the student firmly at the centre of the picture and expressed the view that to be truly outstanding as a department, everything we did had to be done in pursuit of the best possible outcome for our students. In order to achieve this, I contended, we had to inquire as to what the ‘best outcome’ looked like – we also had to embrace the notion (made famous by Hillary Clinton) that “it takes a village” to successfully bring up a child;

There are many significant benefits to working with the families of our students, but the two that are in close focus for me with this current plan are:

  1. Families carry enormous wisdom and practical knowledge and highly interested in their sons’ schooling
  2. By collaborating with families, we amplify our efforts within the school walls.

The Town Meeting

Never afraid of a cheesy metaphor, at the end of last year I set up a town meeting where the 2013/14 teaching team, families, students and any other interested parties were invited along to discuss the whole sphere of learning in English. We asked the assembled group of about 50 people a range of questions about our role in the boys’ learning and what their expectations, aspirations and concerns were. An online survey was also available for those who weren’t able to attend the meeting. It was a brilliant, honest, positive and critically reflective meeting which we will now repeat on an annual basis. We published the raw feedback online and pledged our accountability to acting on the plans and expectations that were set.

It was wonderful to spend a couple of hours in deeply engaged conversation about our subject with the students and families for whom we work. There were many points of agreement – and of divergence – but in the end the messages were coherent. The students, families and the teachers alike all valued the subject of English for its capacity to promote in young people a critical voice, a capacity to engage with society, we prized it as a vehicle for self-expression and creativity, but also the subject’s role as a core engine for basic literacy and the importance of this for life success was clearly underlined.

We gained for ourselves a mandate.

Real Choice

One strategy that we have invented to respond to the need to differentiate what we offer to meet a variety of differing needs and expectations has been to empower our students and their families to participate in the selection of class groups. This is how it will work:

  1. The teachers, taking into account the mandate implied in the coherence of the responses at the Town Meeting, create a set of learning programmes that are designed to engage the students, thoroughly cover the curriculum and provide for a diverse range of options at every year level.
  2. We produce a set of booklets that guide the students and their families to make their course selection.
  3. The teachers present their individual programmes to each year level at the beginning of the year, giving the students an opportunity to ask questions and discuss the implications of going with one programme over another.
  4. The students and their families consider the options and make a first and second choice selection using an online form – where they are asked to write a paragraph explaining why they wish to be considered for the programme of their preference.
  5. The teachers formalise the class groupings, informed by the students’ selections.

I’ve attached a draft of one of the course booklets. The Edutronic functions as a hub of information for this course selection process and there the students (and you) can access detailed information about each of the programmes, information about the teachers, the assessment schemes, exemplars of work as well as the usual notices and information you’d expect from a department site.

Here is a presentation I made for #TLT13, The University of Southampton Teaching and Learning Takeover:

Have a look around The Edutronic and let me know what you think of what we’re building for our students – your feedback would be gratefully received.

Here’s a development sample of one of our course booklets, you will already see how much the teachers are embracing this process and creating programmes along the principle of a ‘line of inquiry’. They are empowered to engage in their passion for their subject and use their professional judgement to balance the interest with the requirements of the curriculum:

It’s going to be a very interesting year – I’ll keep this journal going and let you know how it goes!