Challenging Texts: See Opportunities not Plagues

Across my many travels, a consistent tone in schools with whom I’ve worked on ‘Opening Doors’ is to make challenge for all a habit, a norm, an everyday mindset. I’ve seen and felt the new learning echoing in every question, each resource and the very tempo of expectation set by the teacher. The most advanced pupil acquires new knowledge; but every pupil has some new concept to explore. Learning skills support the unlocking of that knowledge, inspired by the teachers’ growing expertise.

It’s easier said than done, mainly because, over time, there can be a drift back to a focus on set middle of the road expectations or a lack of knowledge of how depth and breadth can be planned for in subject specific ways. That’s where effective CPD can help, particularly the kind that takes place every day in the classroom. See an earlier blog:

A Daily Diet of CPD! January 2019

Doug Lemov in ‘Reading Reconsidered’ writes an excellent piece about the ‘plagues’ of accessing complex texts. He says (p29) that the ‘plague’ word is tongue in cheek of course and he explores: archaic text; non-linear time sequence; complexity of narrator; complexity of story; resistant texts, those which set out to be difficult to understand.

This has been inspiring to support reflections on the processes I’ve had feedback on from schools using both our core literary explorations from the past or whole texts linked to them from the present. Rather than plagues, the implications of younger pupils reading fascinating literature actually presented opportunities! Please read one school’s story here:

A Daily Diet of CPD! January 2019

The more the extra dimension of quality texts, past and present become planned for, the more the level of challenge becomes less threatening. In every key-note and inset I emphasise the importance of picturebooks, children’s fiction AND past literature co-existing in a dynamic curriculum for English.

Take this example from ‘The Phantom Coach’ by Amelia B. Edwards, a contemporary of Charles Dickens. The protagonist is lost on the moor (and it’s probably one of the first fictional examples of such a situation!) and stumbles upon an old dwelling with an eccentric scientist whom the narrator describes close up in this kind of way:

Over and over again I looked from my host to his surroundings, and from his surroundings back to my host, asking myself who, and what, he could be? His head was singularly fine; but it was more the head of a poet than of a philosopher. Broad in the temples, prominent over the eyes, and clothed with a rough profusion of perfectly white hair, it had all the ideality and much of the ruggedness that characterises the head of Ludwig Von Beethoven. There were the same deep lines about the mouth, and the same stern furrows in the brow. There was the same concentration of expression.

Here are a few ways in which great teachers have taken opportunities to go deeper and delve for more knowledge and understanding:

1) Take the chance to define and explore ‘poet’ and ‘philosopher’
2) Find images of Beethoven and compare with the description. This helped vocabulary like ‘temples’ and ‘prominent’ and ‘rough profusion’.
3) ‘Opening Doors’ always links in whole text reading and comparisons with top class extracts ( and this is only a small part of the text in ‘Opening Doors to Quality Writing, ages 10-13). So, teachers can take the opportunity to use other descriptions where there is a zoom in on a character’s face eg in ‘Dracula’( see ‘Opening Doors to Famous Poetry and Prose’)
4) Pupils will be well set for their own close up description with an opportunity to match a face with the setting.
5) Plan for dialogic talk providing the means to explore the style and a more direct instruction mode modelling and exemplifying a range of contexts for the meaning to be appreciated.
6) For top class success, this kind of English experience will come as part of a rich curriculum planned though primary into key stage 3 with concepts, deeper objectives and quality texts getting progressively harder but joyfully accessed in chunks.

Please see the popular Crown House website for pupils’ work linked to quality texts from across the UK including ‘The Phantom Coach’

I’ll end with a humorous anecdote which may also have a serious side to it. I once taught a mixed class of years 5 and 6 about ways in which writers gave us an impression of a close up, a zoom in on a face and how this might be done. I was exploring the ‘Phantom Coach’ short story with terrific interest on what the scientist’s face might look like. Of course, the Beethoven reference came up.
‘Who was Beethoven?’ I asked
Huge numbers of hands went up. I was thrilled – what knowledge!
Unfortunately, nearly all the answers were the same:
‘A large, shaggy St. Bernard dog’.
They then proceeded to give an in depth analysis of what happens in each ‘Beethoven 1’, ‘Beethoven 2’ ‘Beethoven 3G’ etc, etc. It is of course a popular film series.
Only 2 out of 30 knew Beethoven was a composer, though interestingly the answers were not ‘wrong’! There is food for thought in that.

It could be that all our attempts to include more literature, art and music in the curriculum are needed; though there is still ‘capital’ in knowing about Beethoven the dog as well as Beethoven the composer. It’s just that the detail they offered me on the St Bernard dog was far greater than on the famous composer. Whatever the case, let’s keep the laughter going in lessons and turn funny moments into learning opportunities. I was able then to make the point about the scientist’s hair in the passage anyhow!

Learners of all abilities love to talk about new words, unusual styles and to hear about great writers, past and present. Primary age is the time to sow the seeds of big ideas and key concepts; transition to key stage 3 can then be ambitious. Quality texts from the past can certainly be more of an opportunity than a plague and huge thanks to Doug Lemov who always rates the need for challenge so highly! Doug says (p44):

It is quite possible that only years later, long after our students have passed on down the years, would they reap the deferred rewards of a decision by their teacher to teach complex texts.

Bob Cox

New Books, ‘Opening Doors to a Richer English Currculum’

Complementary Reading

Eyre, Deborah (2016) High Performance Learning: How to Become a World Class School. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.
Lemov, Doug, Driggs, Colleen and Woolway, Erica (2016) Reading Reconsidered:
A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Myatt, Mary (2018) The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational.

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