Warning: this is a LONG post… get a cup of coffee before you sit down to read it!
I’ve been visiting and re-visiting the draft spec for the new Junior Cycle English on and off all summer. To be honest I’m embarrassed it’s taken me this long to put virtual pen to virtual paper (aka typing a blog!) to gather my thoughts and pinpoint my response to it all.
First, let me say this. I don’t believe that exams are the best way to assess creative writing. Forcing students into a stuffy room with a ticking clock to respond to random topics chosen by some nameless faceless entity – I’m sorry, that’s just stupid! Nothing I’ve ever written that I’m proud of has been produced under these conditions.
All writers, bloggers, journalists, poets and teachers draft, edit, redraft and refine before submitting their work for public scrutiny. Sometimes the words flow, sometimes they don’t. But most of us have at least occasionally known the experience Hemingway spoke of when he said “there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed”.
Of course, we don’t believe in typewriters in our exam system! Nope, your spelling mistakes, messy handwriting and that entire first paragraph which produced a little bit of vomit in your mouth when you read back over it (so then you crossed it out) must all remain in situ to be scrutinised by some other nameless faceless entity (apologies to those who correct!) whose job it is to judge not your ability to write well, but your ability to write well under these highly unnatural, creativity-killing, exam conditions. I have seen too many talented students produce incredible creative writing when given the space to choose their own topic and the time to breathe life into it, to accept the status quo. If editing and drafting to refine your work is good enough for the real world, it should be good enough for our education system.
That’s not to say that I don’t have real and pressing concerns about plagiarism. I do. But worrying about potential abuses by a minority is no justification for sticking to a status quo that stinks. I also have real and pressing concerns about the role of the teacher in assessing his/her own pupils, particularly about the damage this could do to the teacher-pupil relationship. I see myself as mentor and advocate not judge and jury and so do my students (but more on how I think this could play out later).
So enough editorial. What do I make of the draft spec for the new Junior Cycle English?
INTRODUCTION, RATIONALE, AIMS
I really like the “why” of the new Junior Cycle. Aspirational it may be, maybe even impossible to achieve at all times, in all places, but the notion of placing students “at the centre of the educational experience” sings to me. It forces me once again to grapple with the tension between the roles teachers now play: sage on stage when necessary, guide on the side as often as possible. And of course we should all aspire to offer “experiences that are engaging and enjoyable”. Now before you jump on me, I’m not suggesting for a second that I achieve this even 50% of the time (and let’s face it, what one students enjoys, another finds ‘boring!’) but it’s a good goalpost to aim for.
If I had written this document, I would have added that educational experiences should also be challenging. I don’t buy into the notion of simply entertaining students. I want their brains to fry and fizzle every day, not float along in some haze of airy fairy ‘look how much we’re enjoying it’ new age new pedagogy nonsense. Was it hard? Good. Then you’re probably learning! (see zone of proximal development – Vygotsky).
In terms of my issues with this section, one sentence jumps off the page at me: “where possible, provide opportunities for [students] to develop their abilities and talents in the areas of creativity, innovation and enterprise”. The very phrase “where possible” [my emphasis] completely lets us as teachers off the hook. If we begin with the assumption that developing students’ creativity is somehow not really our domain or if we think of it as some kind of profoundly difficult minority activity, then we’re hardly going to embrace it wholesale. Yet “being creative” is one of the six key skills of the new Junior Cycle and, more importantly, is a fundamental contributor to human health, happiness and personal satisfaction for our entire lives. Don’t let us off the hook on this one. Make us make it happen! In fact, strike that. English teachers are already doing this wholesale – creative writing is 50% of our students coursework as it is! We just need to consciously devote the same amount of teaching time to it as we do to the critical analysis of literature side of things.
A second aspect of the rationale jarred for me. On the one hand we have the statement “respect is shown for students’… literacy practices outside of school” yet a couple of sentences later we get the factually inaccurate statement “students read literature with insight and imagination not only in class but privately as well”. I’m sorry to have to break this to the authors, but saying something is true does not make it so. Yes, there are students who enjoy reading as a leisure activity. And yes, there’s another group of students who read when the teacher tells them to in class and/or for homework. But all the research says there’s a growing number of students who never ever read. Their “literacy practices outside of school” – not reading, not valuing reading, in some cases not even having access to books – are what’s causing the slump in literacy we’re seeing every day in our classrooms. As teachers, we can request that management timetable a reading class once a week (but let’s face it, the timetable is already bulging at the seams and will 40mins a week really make up for a lifetime of not reading?), we can model good behaviour, we can suggest books for students to read and we can generally put across the message that reading for pleasure is a normal and enjoyable activity. But please stop holding us responsible for things which are completely beyond our control i.e. “students’ literacy practices outside of school”. Of course we’d all love it if every student that passed through our care had a deep abiding love of reading, and would select it above all other leisure activities given a choice. But let’s get real. That’s never going to happen. We can do our best, but we cannot perform miracles and we certainly shouldn’t be making kids feel dumb if reading isn’t one of their top five hobbies. How would that constitute having respect for their literacy practices outside of school?
Apologies. Rant Over!
As for the aims, I really like their clarity and their use of metacognitive language – create, control, critique, find, use, synthesise, evaluate and communicate. As a teacher who’s obsessed with the potential of technology in education, I’m also pleased to see “multimodal” texts included. However, I would like to see some mention of writing for an audience beyond the classroom. In my experience, once there is an audience that’s crucially not just the teacher, whether it’s peers (this is highlighted as vital good practice on page 20) or in competitions or online, engagement, motivation and quality all improve dramatically. Obviously we need to offer choice here – no-one, student or teacher, wants to be forced to share or publish, nor should they be. But feedback is crucial to improvement and like it or not the teacher is limited in how much individualised feedback they can offer. Ponder for a moment that a primary school teacher is responsible for giving feedback to somewhere in the region of 25 – 33 students. Meanwhile most secondary school teachers prepare, deliver and respond to the needs of perhaps 200 – 250 students. And as we all know, these numbers are on the up up up! Every time I hear the phrase ‘pupil-teacher’ ratio I want to vomit because I know the more students I teach, the less time I have for each of them. Yet despite the ravaging the education system has endured since the recession began, unbelievably we’re being told to brace ourselves for more.
I also really like the grid which connects the statements of learning to what we actually do in the classroom. And once again, because of my personal bias towards edtech, I like both the statement “the students uses technology to learn, communicate, work and think collaboratively and creatively in a responsible and ethical manner” and the relevant learning “students will engage critically with texts in a wide range of formats. They will explore the potential to create texts that are rich in variety of content and presentation”. However, I think to really embed the idea of online texts and digital creation they should amend the relevant learning statement to say “in a wide range of formats, including multimodal digital texts” and should specify that students “create digital texts”. Make us make it happen! (of course, access to computer labs, or tablets, or whatever is still a major issue and I don’t deny this for a second. We can’t make it happen if we don’t have the tools!).
Secondly, if you really want teachers to embrace the digital, for the love of all that is sacred, give us training. Let us use Croke Park hours for CPD and yes that will mean not all teachers being in the same place at the same time doing the same thing. But for God’s sake, a little bit of trust wouldn’t go astray here (yes, I know it’s the Minister I should be ranting at, not you guys…).
The literacy and numeracy grid on page 9 is all aspiration, rather than fact. I don’t want to come across as one half of Statler and Waldorf from the Muppet Show with my curmudgeonly grumblings but let’s look at this statement for a moment: “[Students] will develop their reading skills by encountering a variety of texts which they learn to read with fluency, understanding and competence using a broad range of comprehension strategies”. First of all, simply providing a wide variety of texts does not create the ability to read with fluency, understanding and competence. (cf. my little rant above about students literacy practices outside of school). Secondly, no matter how broad the range of comprehension strategies, comprehension itself is the product of complex interwoven factors. I’m not saying improvement isn’t possible, of course it is. If I didn’t believe in progress for all students I wouldn’t be a teacher. But no matter what we do as English teachers we will always encounter a wide range of reading abilities in our students. This is just a sad fact of life and beating us over the head with PISA statistics very couple of years won’t change it. I guess, the word I ignored which I need to zoom in on here is “develop”. They all get the opportunity to “develop”. That’s ultimately our goal. See, I told you I wouldn’t morph into Statler and Waldorf!
On page 10 of the document (only 48 more to go!) the links between ‘key skills’ and ‘learning activity’ are too narrowly defined. Take, for example, “being creative”. This is translated into “students will engage frequently with literary narratives and will compose imaginative narratives of their own”. First of all, reading literature is reading literature. It’s creative in the sense that the brain must translate the words into pictures and sounds and emotional experiences but you don’t actually create anything yourself. You are the beneficiary of the writer’s creativity. Secondly, why define being creative as “students will compose imaginative narratives of their own”. I know we’re getting into semantics here, but narrative is broadly taken to mean “story” and hence at a glance this implies that all students simply need to write short stories at some point in Junior Cycle and that’s the box ticked for creativity. I’ve had students collaboratively write film scripts, and then film and edit them; I’ve had them create sets and props and costumes and perform scenes from their play; I’ve had them write poetry and songs and create how-to videos and advertisements. They’ve created facebook pages for characters in their novels; they’ve written and created an episode of the Jeremy Kyle show where Juliet and Lord and Lady Capulet examine the problems in their parent-child relationship. After these wildly creative, think outside of the box experiences, they write much more fluidly, intelligently and creatively about the characters and their relationships. Being creative is too narrowly defined here.
The creative process is also aided hugely by collaboration, but again, this fails to come across in the draft specification. Working with others as a key skill is narrowly defined as sitting at a table having a chat “students will collaborate with others to explore and discuss views on a range of texts and contexts”. Sigh! If we’re really going to exploit the value of collaboration, get them creating in groups. Make something new, instead of always simply critiquing something that already exists. For me personally, this is possibly the most disappointing element of the draft specification for Junior Cycle English, that it has such a weak sense of the possibilities collaboration amongst students creates. And as English is the first subject (and I absolutely recognise that this makes the job of the authors of this specification really really difficult) if we don’t grasp it here, it won’t follow through to the other subjects when their time comes. If you want exemplars, look to the guys in Bridge21 and Fighting Words. They’ll show us the way, they’ve been there already, they know the path. I also think the guys at Fighting Words (but I don’t presume to speak for them) would fundamentally disagree with the statement on page 22 that the writing process is necessarily always a “private, pleasurable and purposeful activity”. You can make it more pleasurable and purposeful by getting students to collaborate. Of course writing is very often a private activity but it does not have to be, particularly at the beginning of the process when sparking ideas and finding inspiration are so vital.
A sub-set of learning outcomes for First Year is a great idea (p11). The inclusion of multimodal texts (p12) and the recognition that the term “text” applies to more than communication in written formats brought a big smile to my face. The expectation that students have opportunities to “generate their own texts in response to those studied” is also one I believe in passionately. However, I do worry that a minority of teachers (and remember, for many of us, studying English in college meant learning to be a literary critic – there was no creative writing element to our degree at all!) may interpret this very narrowly as meaning ‘write loads of academic essays’. One of my favourite student led projects in recent years was a ‘wife swop’ style diary blog, except it was ‘student swop’. They imagined what would happen if Juliet was transported in a time machine from 16th century Venice to 21st century Ireland and swopped places with one of the class. Then they wrote a script, filmed it and edited it. The results were comical but also insightful and imaginative. At the end of this process they each wrote an academic essay (I’ve got nothing against academic essays, I promise!) and all were of a really high standard because each of them understood what it was they were writing about on a deep and personal level. Without the project their essays would have been adequate I’m sure but neither personal nor insightful.
Perhaps there are many English teachers out there who believe that creating multimodal texts belongs not in the English classroom but should instead find a home in the short course on Digital Media literacy. But in my experience creating multimodal texts dramatically improves the quality of their more traditional academic essays. Furthermore, Digital Media Literacy remains an optional short course that many schools simply won’t opt for, particularly if they don’t have – or can’t spare – knowledgable personnel to deliver it.
Page 13 is the page that really makes my heart race, but not in a good way. We are told that “a model of rolling prescription (resembling the current model of prescription for Leaving Certificate English) will be put in place”. I fundamentally disagree with this proposition. By all means, offer a list of suggested texts but please, please, please do NOT make it prescriptive.
In case some of you out there haven’t noticed, there are a couple of significant things going on within education at the moment. No, I’m not talking about Haddington Road and pay cuts, I’m talking about a movement away from focusing on the secondary school teacher’s content knowledge (which must at all times be above reproach) and a movement towards looking at our understanding of pedagogy – not what students learn (content) but how students learn (pedagogy). We’re also now adding to the mix the pressing issue of using technology to aid students in consuming, critiquing and creating both content and understanding. (You can read more about TPACK here). This is a whole lot of change is a short space of time. Add in the new Junior Cycle key skills (where pedagogy & technology are central), the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, School Self-Evaluation and exploding class sizes and you’ll get a flavour of why teachers feel completely overwhelmed.
I already spend way to much of my time at senior cycle preparing new content because every year the course changes and I am back at square one consuming, critiquing and creating for novels, films, plays and poets I’ve never studied before. On the one hand you could argue that it keeps me fresh and forces me out of my comfort zone and into the role of ‘student’ repeatedly. On the other hand, it takes away from the time I’m able to devote to exploring new methodologies, new pedagogical models, new ways of doing things. It also takes away from the time I have available to devote to getting to grips with new technologies and to offering feedback to my students in Junior Cycle. If I am now going to have to change texts every year at Junior Cycle as well, I may just as well throw in the towel on new pedagogies and integrating edtech. The NCCA seem obsessed with the idea that the learning will improve if the texts keep changing – why oh why jump to that conclusion? No matter how many times I teach Romeo and Juliet it is still a towering tragedy which grips my students in a way few other texts do during their time at school and every time I teach it I teach it anew. So, my biggest most pressing request is this: offer suggested texts for the new Junior cycle. Don’t make it a prescribed list. Please?
The other major concern I have is with the specification of a minimum requirement of longer and shorter texts to be studied. The example given here is for first year students to study a minimum of:
- two novels,
- multiple short stories,
- three short plays or substantial drama excerpts,
- ten poems,
- newspaper articles and features,
- biographical texts,
- informative texts,
- dramatic performances and
We’re also covering grammar, punctuation, spelling and structure, essay writing and advertising. Plus collaboration, communication, creativity, staying well, managing myself, managing the transition from primary to secondary school and the demands of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy.
I am timetabled for four classes a week with my first years. Because of cutbacks and a profound shortage of English teachers in our school (4 English teachers retired, one was replaced) we cannot implement the recommendation by the inspectorate to increase our provision to five classes a week. So I’m left with three 35minute classes and one 40minute class or 2 hours and 15 minutes a week (if they are there and not gone to a football or basketball match, or having a talk or gone on retreat or it’s the week of a bank holiday or I’m out sick). There are 33/34 weeks in the academic term. So that’s 2.15 x 33 = 74 hours approx. Now look at the list above again. Does it seem reasonable to you to ask teachers to cover all that you have listed in 74hours? Because it sounds like an insane demand to me. I’m sure I’ll find a way to do it if you tell me I have to but it will mean covering the course at a breakneck speed. Forget about depth, forget about the ‘active classroom’ with time devoted to discussions and projects and creativity. If you do this it will become a race and the students will be the first casualties.
There’s also such a thing as a teachable moment. When the Kony 2012 video exploded on youtube, I used it as an opportunity for critical analysis of online media. When Oscar Pistorius was arrested for the suspected murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, I used it as an opportunity to discuss fallen heroes via Derek Mahon’s wonderful poem “After the Titanic”. Tomorrow at 11am my leaving certs will watch Seamus Heaney’s funeral. Now is the time to teach his poetry, now is the time for them to really grasp why it is that Heaney is trending on twitter, why it is that our entire nation is in mourning. Overload the curriculum and English teachers everywhere may decide that the luxury of embracing the teachable moment is no longer open to them when there is so much compulsory content yet to be covered.
EXPECTATIONS FOR LEARNERS / LEARNING OUTCOMES
The expectations for learners which stretch from page 15 – 22 are very clear. It is specified that students “generate their own texts” and within the term ‘text’ they include oral, visual and multimodal as well as written texts. However I can’t help but feel that multimodal and visual texts and collaboration should be making a more pronounced appearance here. In the appendix which accompanies this document, the annotated examples of student work are all written samples (and yes I know you can’t print off multimodal texts, but they could be hyperlinked in the online version?). If the examples you give are all old-school pen and paper examples then nothing will change. In fact, this document is almost apologetic for presenting the examples of students’ work in a typed format rather than photocopying something handwritten (“to ensure that individual students will not be identified the examples have been typed, but exactly as they were written”) as though it is somehow less authentic or trustworthy if it’s typed. If that is the case, perhaps once I’ve finished typing I should painstakingly hand write out this response so that the people reading it will know it’s me, a real teacher and not a robot offering this feedback on the draft specification for the Junior Cycle. Of course, this is utterly absurd and so too is insisting that students handwrite rather than type their work. In my experience, they are much more inclined to engage in a process of drafting, editing and redrafting if they can do it easily on a word processor and the quality of their work improves, in many cases, dramatically. Asking them to write with pen and paper is like asking us all to go back to the days of horse drawn carriages. If there’s a faster, better method, why would you stick with something slow and cumbersome?
I was really interested to see an asterisk beside reading strand point 6 on page 18 which states that for final assessment students will “search a range of texts, including digital texts, in order to locate information, to interpret, critically evaluate, compare, synthesise and create text”. Anyone who knows anything about digital texts, and hyperlinks and embedded video content knows that you can’t ‘print off’ a digital text and still offer it up as a genuine digital text. So the question emerges, will students soon sit exams with digital devices? Or will the examiner ‘play’ a youtube clip? He’ll have to burn it to disc because so many schools still don’t have access to youtube!
I’m also curious as to why students won’t be asked “using appropriate terminology” to asses how features of language “contribute to overall effect” in their final examination. I just wonder why this was excluded from the elements to be assessed in the final exam.
Undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of the new Junior Cycle was the unilateral decision that from now on teachers would assess their own students. I fundamentally think this is a bad idea. I have no problem working with students to prepare material for assessment. However, teachers are not robots, we are not always capable of impartial detached objectivity, particularly when it comes to students we are particularly fond of…. or not, as the case may be! We are also prone to over-valuing work ethic as opposed to natural ability, particularly if students with heaps of ability have zero work ethic. Add to the mix a few pushy helicopter parents, or teaching your neighbours kids, or your colleagues kids or your own kids, and assessing our own students gets very messy indeed. The impartiality of the current system is one of the very best aspects of it. Throwing out the proverbial baby with the dirty bathwater makes no sense at all.
I really like the addition of an oral presentation to the traditional reading and writing tasks. Big thumbs up! However, there is one sentence from page 25 that actually made me lol – it’s so blatantly a sentence from another era: students will learn basic research skills including “preparing a presentation, using props and handouts”. Hilarious. Anyone who’s ever presented knows you DO NOT GIVE YOUR AUDIENCE HANDOUTS while presenting because they read the handout instead of listening to what you’re saying. Give them one at the end by all means, but don’t distract them with it while you present. Also, props? Seriously? I have yet to see a single prop in the hands of any great modern orator, Barack Obama, Stephen Donnelly and every person who’s ever given a Ted talk included.
Plus talk of props and handouts ignores the potential of technology to make this process more appealing to students. Does a podcast count as an oral presentation? Does a poetry reading? What about a reading of a poem you’ve written yourself? What if you’ve written song lyrics? Could you sing a song you’d written? Can you make a youtube video and submit this as an ‘oral presentation’? If you are chronically shy, can you record your presentation in the comfort of your own home, re-recording until you’re happy with it? Would this count? Could you record yourself, just audio, reading the presentation and use this recording to help you learn it off before delivering it to your peers? I used to do that when I was performing in a play and had loads of lines to learn. I guess what I’m saying is that I’d just like more clarity here.
The section on personal writing on page 25 also specifies that “trying things out, revising and polishing for publication”… “is best done over time, with supportive feedback and scaffolding from the teacher” (my emphasis). First of all, why are peer feedback and assessment not making an appearance here? Secondly, please refer to my previous comment about the number of students secondary level teachers teach and the explosion in class sizes. Now let me simplify it even further for you: to give each pupil I teach 10 minutes individualised feedback a week:
200 x 10 = 2000 mins or 33hrs 20 mins
Experienced teachers know that you can’t really offer this during class time – once the roll is done and an activity started (and this is assuming you don’t do any whole class teaching) you’d get around to 3 pupils maximum. That means neglecting 90% of the class while giving your attention to 10%. To assess and offer feedback on one piece of work would then take up ten class periods but to cover the curriculum you’d need to have long moved on from whatever that exercise was before ten classes had passed.
So my job starts to look like this:
22 hrs class teaching,
33 hrs corrections (but in reality, senior cycle essays take about 25mins to correct not 10 mins)
12 hrs class preparation (many weeks this is a vast underestimation)
5 hrs subject department/croke park/school self evaluation/literacy and numeracy/ICT
3 hrs extra-curricular
75 hour working week
Anyone who knows anything about me at all knows that I am a complete workaholic, but even I know this isn’t healthy.
The critical reading element offers a very dull interpretation of what is possible – the draft spec says that students will complete exercises such as “key moments create different/similar feelings in me; I prefer this character because; this beginning/ending appeals more to me; I prefer this style of writing”. I’m yawning just reading it. It reminds me of a tweet I read recently:
‘I’m so proud of my worksheets‘, said no student ever.
However, I do like the sentence which states that “these activites will provide opportunities for different kinds of student output”. There seems to be scope here to create the kind of multimodal texts which give students the opportunity to really dig deep into characters, their relationships and the cultural context of the texts they are studying. It also means, in my experience, that their “written personal reflection on the critical reading of texts for summative assessment” is genuinely of a high quality and genuinely personal.
For assessment purposes, I think there needs to be a limit to the amount of times a teacher ‘corrects’ a students work. It’s extremely important that the work remains the work of the student in question. As a teacher I am guilty of acting like a literary editor for my students, re-writing sentences so they sound better, correcting spelling mistakes, crossing out words and offering more accurate synonyms. It’s all a bit stupid really – I am wasting my time because in my heart I know they don’t learn to be a better writer by watching me be a better writer. Yes I’m good at English, I’d want to be, I’m a bloody English teacher. But at what point does an essay or short story or newspaper article stop being the students’ work and start being some weird hybrid of teacher and student? This is particularly a concern where the aim of the exercise becomes to just drag weaker/lazy students over the line so that they pass. Surely all students learn in this circumstance is “if I don’t do the work someone else will step in and do it for me”. Hardly character building, is it?
Finally two more things. “Reporting to parents” p24 implies what? We’ve got parent-teacher meetings. Are you suggesting something else? Something more?
And all of the annotated examples specify that the writing takes place at home, for homework. Does this not come with a danger that you simply cement mistakes and/or encourage writer’s block? I know motivation and focus in class can be an issue but at least if students are working on something during class, the teacher and their peers are there to help them when they get stuck and to answer questions when something needs to be clarified?
To conclude, with seven hours of my weekend now gone (I told you I was a workaholic), I like the draft specification for the most part. The time, effort and care that’s gone in to it is everywhere evident and if at times I came across as a sarky whinger, I apologise. But this document will be pivotal for those of us on the ground for years to come and so I am glad to have this opportunity to offer my – extremely detailed, nay longwinded – two cents. I acknowledge it’d have been more useful a few months ago, but better late than never, eh?