On meeting your heroes

‘The youngest, aged twelve, could not conceal her disappointment, and turned away, feeling as so many of us have felt when we discover that our idols are very ordinary men and women.’        – Louisa May Alcott

I have never really placed much stock in the idea that you should never meet your heroes. To my mind, it is a sentiment predicated on an unfounded fear of seeing our idols as fully rounded people – human, with very human qualities – and instead holding them up as unrealistic objects of adulation. I have always found it rather thrilling to consider that people who have accomplished outstanding, authentic works of creativity and innovation were simply people like you and I. It helps, of course, to admire people who are just as well-known for the integrity of their character as for the calibre of their achievements. Think David Bowie, Nick Cave, Christopher Hitchens, Kate Bush, etc.

The closest I had ever come to meeting a hero of mine, prior to last week, was when I met Luke Haines in 2002. At the time, I was living in France and working as a volunteer translator for a local radio station, Jet FM in Nantes. Luke Haines, whose songwriting I greatly admired, was the founder of cult indie group The Auteurs and was touring with his new band Black Box Recorder. I was asked to be his interpreter during a live interview on the radio. I found him to be, let’s just say, somewhat aloof. Since then, my life has drifted along in a steady stream of normality, as I settled down with my family and tried to forge a career as a teacher.

Part of my new role at my current school is that of whole school literacy co-ordinator. To that end, I have spent much of this last year researching the work of Steve Graham, Judith Hochman, Debra Myhill, Doug Lemov and others in a bid to ascertain patterns in how other schools and districts have successfully implemented literacy across the curriculum. As part of my research I had the opportunity to spend a wonderful couple of hours with Phil Beadle, picking his brains about how best to begin the process of reinvigorating literacy instruction at my school.

At this point, I should point out that I have long been a fan of Phil Beadle. Indeed, I believe that his achievements should be treated with respect approaching awe. If you are British and teach English, you cannot fail to have come across his work. Australian teachers are likely to be unfamiliar with Phil’s career; check out some of his masterclasses on the old Teachers TV channel to find out how English should really be taught. Not via relentless drills or excessive use of lectures (although there is certainly a place for this), but through a skilful balance of explicit instruction and emotional engagement with texts. There is an art to the craft of teaching, and Phil Beadle is the acknowledged Picasso of the profession. And he has the results to prove it, too.

So to say that I was daunted by the prospect of a private meeting with him is quite an understatement. I was terrified.

Phil was a true gentleman in person: generous with his time and expertise, warm-natured and refreshingly honest. His advice on literacy instruction was precise, realistic and grounded in experience. A summary of his recommendations follows below (please note: I have fleshed out Phil’s ideas with some of my own beliefs and interpretations).

The main barriers to overcoming poor literacy instruction (both in English and school-wide) are as follows:

  1. Poor teacher knowledge of literacy
    • Teachers of English prefer the semantic aspects of the subject more often than not: discussing texts, inferring meaning, etc. They tend to have literature backgrounds, or wider arts degrees, and are less confident in grammar and linguistics
    • Syntactic aspects of English are often neglected as a result – teachers were often not taught these when they were at school and feel unequipped to properly deal with them. This is an example of the ‘Peter Effect’ – you cannot give what you do not have. At a minimum, all teachers should teach the following:
      1. Punctuation must be explicitly taught – especially in terms of how it promotes rhythm in writing
      2. Parts of speech, and essential sentence construction (subject + verb + complement) must be explicitly taught and practised as the bedrock of good writing

 

  1. Oracy is vital – and must be systematised
    • Oracy feeds into writing – if you can say it you can write it – so must be the natural starting point for establishing and perfecting writing tasks
    • It is a fallacy to believe that reading = better writing; it can, but mainly through oral rehearsal of the language acquired via reading
    • Students must be trained to speak in standard academic English, using the target vocabulary and grammar that will underpin the writing
    • Teacher-led, whole-class discussion must be reframed: use a variety of ways to place the onus on students to speak and articulate their thoughts, via think-pair-share-square, etc. Thinking routines such as the work of Project Zero can be useful for this.

 

  1. Extended writing needs greater routine
    • How often do we require students to write for an extended length of time in lessons, or each week? How many subjects require this?
    • Aim to ask students to write in as wide a range of forms as possible. This is especially important at Years 7-9, but also in later years, too. Junior Schools need to think carefully about this, also, since each day should involve extended writing as an extension of meaningful oracy

 

  1. Marking is often ineffective
    • Does marking actually value literacy? Does it demand that students learn from their mistakes, or act upon repeated targets?
    • Beware absolute reliance upon AFL, which is suitable for Maths / Sciences (where sequential knowledge mastery can be measured) but is not as effective in other subjects where multiple skills are often assessed as part of a wider rubric, e.g. English essays.
    • Mark rigorously, writing absolutely specific targets which must be acted upon. In a student’s exercise book, these can become running targets, e.g. Target 1 written on the first piece of work is always that same target number in any future writing for that pupil. Progression can then be seen in the book – if you stop writing Target 1, they must have mastered it.
    • A whole-school approach to marking must encompass literacy, and must be firm on this. Set out a standard annotation key which all teachers use and make sure that it becomes standard practice.

 

As I sat on the train typing up my notes from the meeting, it occurred to me that what we talk about when we talk about literacy instruction is not a set of techniques, but an attitude. Effective literacy instruction is a prevailing culture which values language – both in terms of accuracy and aesthetics – and this is why it is so difficult to enact change on a school-wide level. My future posts on literacy instruction will detail the beginnings of a pilot project I have set up with the Humanities department at my school.

My sincere thanks go to Phil for his time, generosity and patience.

If you are reading this and are considering booking Phil for school professional development, just do it.

I can also recommend a copy of his book How to Teach Literacy, too.

3 thoughts on “On meeting your heroes”

  1. Really interesting stuff, John. Lots of great suggestions although I have to admit that I find the proposal, “It is a fallacy to believe that reading = better writing; it can, but mainly through oral rehearsal of the language acquired via reading” hard to agree with. Reading, to me, can produce better writing because a motivated student uses it to acquire language and comes to understand how stylistic decisions can create very specific effects. The student who goes away and tries to replicate great writing need not express it through oral rehearsal to improve. Perhaps this comes from my own bias towards making students read and read widely in the belief that something like osmosis happens and they become better writers for it…

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    1. I would largely agree with you on that score, Kirstin. Other education writers, such as David Didau, also argue that oral rehearsal improves writing. Yet there is clearly a genuine need for all students to read extensively as a way of gaining exposure to new vocabulary, grammar and phrasing. My own intuitive belief is that attention is the crucial element in improving writing – noticing and registering interesting choices of phrasing rather than just skimming them over. It is what you and I do when we read, but I am not certain that it is what the majority of my students do. This, perhaps, is why oral rehearsal is thought to be so effective, in that it demands concentration on choices of vocabulary and structure. One minor adjustment I have made to my own teaching over the last few years is that I write a handful of key words on the board at the start of each lesson (usually abstract nouns) and prompt students to rephrase their contributions in class discussion using some of these words. It does gradually filter over into their writing. I will write a post about this in due course.

      As an addendum, there is a really interesting branch of neuroscience which attempts to explain the evolution of consciousness itself via Attention Schema Theory:
      https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/06/how-consciousness-evolved/485558/

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