There is nothing new about great teachers using challenging texts in the classroom, but I am seeing some very exciting developments when it comes to using quality texts inclusively on a journey to quality writing. Where previously a text might have been considered too hard, or limited in exposure to the more able pupils, access is being widened. In my work with schools, I use the phrase ‘opening doors’ to define ways of engaging pupils in the search for meaning in quality writing and affording them varied routes into harder but more fulfilling language and literary experiences. Literacy is taught through literature and spelling; punctuation and grammar through engagement with sounds, meaning, word derivation and context. That can be the preserve of all pupils as long as the ‘opening doors’ strategies are in place. The more able are prompted to wrestle with language and style in a more complex way and to go ‘beyond the limit’ but all pupils have their rate of new learning accelerated.
I was passed a very promising poem by a year 5 pupil who had been inspired by ‘The Path’ by Edward Thomas and also by the way his teacher had supported access to the poem, since ‘The Path’ is very challenging, yet wonderfully mysterious, see: http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/edward_thomas/poems/3296 .
Here is the pupil’s first stanza:
A bridge of winding silver trickles on,
Glowing throughout the stone grey columns.
Long gold cylinders covered in spikes,
And topped in huge wartime statues.
Dark navy stones litter the floor,
And build up to form mountains.
On and on he took step by step,
Towards the great iron gates
The teacher, from Hook Junior School in Hampshire, had been one of a group of pioneers in a creative English network whose aim is to share practice and devise new ambitious ideas together. A community of writers is often advised for pupils but developing a community of teachers who love writing is just as important! Some of the ‘opening doors’ strategies we used included:
- Pupils inventing questions using an illustration of the mysterious path
- What kinds of paths have you walked on?
- What might a path represent?
Further differentiation can be included using visuals or whole stories from picture books, for example Into the Forest by Anthony Browne, to help access to the concept of extended metaphors. A strategy I particularly like is using an ending for reflection upon the beginning. In the Edward Thomas poem, the last few lines are thought-provoking:
…… and the path that looks
As if it led on to some legendary
Or fancied place where men have wished to go
And stay; till, sudden, it ends where the wood ends.
The teacher managed to exploit some of these techniques to develop the theme of paths, woods and journeys into such a fascinating dialogue that the pupils were not fazed when it was time to explore the full poem. I have always thought that ‘opening doors’ represents what teachers often do in all subjects and for all ages – signpost the way! Stretch, challenge and extension are an entitlement for all, with planning and thinking pitched at the top for maximum expectations. ‘Entitlement’ is a very important word. Without ‘opening doors’ methods of some kind, literature could become the preserve of the few rather than a gateway into literacy, learning and culture for a whole school community.
Searching for excellence in this way also brings new evaluations of the reading and writing process to the fore. It really is true that when pupils explore new language and styles they imitate and adapt with more flair. Expectations are not just ‘high’ but ‘open’ with budding young writers striving for new creative twists. That’s hard to do if the text is of a standard which is too easily mastered. This pupil from Marshgate School, Richmond, was asked to imagine what it might be like if the light started to come in on Miss Havisham’s world in Great Expectations. She wrote:
A ray of light slowly edged its way into the room. It was like an infection spreading through the cracks.
What a clever interpretation this is of the dark world Miss Havisham has inhabited by suggesting that the light returning is a kind of illness invading a life which is itself diseased. Young writers can relish the challenge of such exercises and, of course, this is a stepping stone to reading the whole text at some point.
Just in these brief examples the potential for exploring philosophy is clear. Do we need a path in life mapped out for us? Was Miss Havisham evil or ill? Thinking, engaging and questioning has to stream constantly through the opening doors process and the quality texts give us so much to think about. Recently, I worked with teachers at Alverstoke Junior School on a day where we set up possibilities for using philosophy to inspire better English and I think the potential is huge. We studied sections from H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon and tried to deepen knowledge and learning simultaneously. The knowledge acquisition was deep in terms of narrative technique, whimsical humour and how Wells created wonder; but the philosophy added key questions to the learning:
- Why has mankind been to the moon?
- Should mankind have been to the moon?
- Do you think science fiction is valuable?
So, when we read about Ofsted’s interest in ‘scholastic excellence’ and the national curriculum focus on subject knowledge and ‘literary heritage’, perhaps there are opportunities here for a joint learning journey, teacher and pupil together. Learning about literature is for life not for a key stage or for a test. Quality texts can and should be planned for across key stages two and three for continuity and progression, so now is the time for transition work with a clear agenda. Very well organised partnerships are planning for English progression in a ‘beyond levels’ educational world through key stages 1–4.
If the doors can open, then the opportunities for all can multiply. There are more demands from the national curriculum for rigour and these can be met by developing much richer English lessons where reaching for more understanding, struggling a little for meaning and wiping the brow a bit more for the right style or an apt phrase can be the norm. Let’s replace the draft which gets ‘copied up’ with the one that may get rejected completely because a better idea has come along. Using quality texts for that journey to quality writing is a good starting point. If the access strategies have worked, you may well be jump-starting a lifelong love of reading too. As the writer Maya Angelou said:
“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.”
Bob Cox, is an Education Consultant and Director of Searching for Excellence Ltd and Advanced Skills teacher with 23 years’ teaching experience. He has supported over 350 schools in their search for excellence and has presented at numerous national and international conferences. He directs his own Saturday Challenge enrichment school for able learners, as well as presenting for universities and writing articles and books on extending able learners and the excellence culture.
Bob Cox (2014), Opening Doors to Famous Poetry and Prose. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing.