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!

4 Comments

  1. Emilie

    This is really interesting. Some questions please:
    1) What do you do if the students want to do the same option and no one (or very few) select the other option?
    2) How much time does it take for teachers to develop their individual programmes?
    3) How do you ensure staff have the time to plan their programme on top of all the other demands on their time? We collaboratively plan curriculum plans and lessons to reduce our workload and I am wondering how we could fit this programme into that style of working.

    • Christopher

      Hi Emilie,

      We are asking the students to select their first, second and third choices to indicate to them that they can’t be assured that they’ll get their first option. If there are problems with student selection in terms of numbers, or if a student has selected a programme that may not be the best for them in term of its level of challenge, we will resolve this through negotiation. I know it’s potentially opening a can of worms, but given that the students have had no choice in English at all in the past, it has been fairly easy to indicate that some choice is better than no choice. Engaging the students in the choice is important to me philosophically for a number of reasons – and to be honest, one of those is that I want to engage the students and their families in conversations about the make-up of their learning. I believe this, over time, will lead to programmes that are a great deal stronger because the feedback we get will be of much higher quality. People tend to take the time to give their input when they know something will come of it.

      In our department teachers have always had quite a lot of scope to develop their own programmes. It does take more time, but it is also one of the more interesting aspects of our professional role. It doesn’t exclude collaboration on planning, and the fact that all of our term by term planning will be openly available online, along with all of our class resources, means that everything we create we also share. We still spend a lot of time in co-ordination, but that co-ordination is more focused in setting up the over-all frameworks, discussing what’s happening in our classes, and moderating work that has arisen from some fairly diverse contexts. Those moderation meetings are a key to the success of this strategy and are so interesting! Because the classes are timetabled in a block, we also have the unique opportunity to be able to share classes, or reconfigure them for periods of time for special projects or shared teaching without having any impact on the wider school.

      I think the only answer to the time issue is that we prioritise this work – and that I’m very grateful to have committed and motivated colleagues!

  2. Emilie

    Thanks so much for such a detailed response – I will be taking ths idea back to our team!

  3. The Scoob

    I really like your style of writing because you engage the reader and make them laugh
    which a good writer will tend to do.
    I also loved the video containing a piece of Film Club even with a yawn from me during the questions.
    I sincerely believe you should write your own book because your book would be a
    best- seller

    From E.

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