Kings, Nuns and Team Teaching.

Long Live the King! No, not a post about the Royal Infant. This is about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and how he helped engage a less-than-motivated S4 English class. I’m an English teacher in Glasgow, but I’m a bit of a nomad at the moment. For various reasons I’ve no permanent base school, despite being a permanent teacher, and have been fortunate enough to work in a few different schools over the last couple of years. At the tail end of the summer term I secured a secondment for this session as a leader of learning for Glasgow, but the post wasn’t due to start until the 26th of August. In the meantime, the council placed me in Knightswood Secondary for a fortnight, as an extra body.

My remit was a bit of team teaching and a bit of development work, and one of the classes I was working with was a National 4 class in S4. From the first day I was in with them, they were hard work. Two or three disaffected characters made it nearly impossible for the rest of the class to benefit from the teaching, even with two teachers and a formidable PSA in attendance. I spent my first two periods sitting at a table with some of the worst offenders, doing my best to engage and focus them, which worked well with some, not so well with others.

As a department, it had been decided that National 4 would ‘shadow’ National 5, in that we would study a ‘set text’ from the same selection of authors used for N5 and Higher, picking a text relevant to the level. My partner teacher picked Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Elvis’s Twin Sister’, in which the poet imagines Elvis’s twin (who was male and died at birth) survived and was in fact female. The character is a nun in a convent, whose life both reflects her famous brother’s and is at the same time its opposite.

My partner introduced the background to the poem. So who’s heard of Elvis? A few hands went up. What do you know about him? He died on the toilet. He was fat. That’s pretty much it. So we put on a clip of a young Elvis, brimming with energy and charisma, singing blue suede shoes. They were hooked. They went away to research Elvis and his life, returning the next day to look more closely at the poem. We discussed the poem in detail, looking at clips of Madonna (whose quote –  ‘Elvis is alive – and he’s female’, regarding K.D. Lang – is the poem’s epigraph) and some more of the King himself. We talked about the influence of his music, the enduring power of his legend, the significance of the poet making his sister a nun…the time passed in a flash.

Next day, I led the lesson for the first time, not sure how they would react – after all, my partner teacher had already had them for a year, and I was a random stranger who had plonked herself in their midst for a few lessons. I’d put together some textual analysis questions for the class, and this was going to be pretty old style – how were they going to react to me and the work? The answer is – brilliantly. The focus was total, and their buy-in excellent. We circulated as they worked to help, encourage and praise – and the praise was well-deserved. The more vocal elements of the class had gradually settled over the past few lessons, and this allowed the quieter kids to shine through, and dare to offer ideas and answers where before they would have stayed silent for fear of a spiky retort from the ‘bad’ kids. I looked around the room to see young people feeling good about their work, proud of their achievement, as they came up with answer after answer that was interesting, appropriate and original. I really hadn’t expected this, and their teacher and I were as delighted as we were surprised.

My final days with them saw us looking at report writing, asking them to take source materials about Elvis, extract the key details and present them in their own words. Next we had a bit of group discussion, with the groups given 8 possible paragraph topics on paper slips with some blank ones for their own ideas. The task was to order the topics into a suitable structure for a report on Elvis. I’d expected we’d be spending a lot of time focussing kids to the task and trying to encourage some of them to take part, but in fact everyone got involved straight away and the task was completed super fast. The class went away ready to get their final Elvis facts together and begin their reports the next week (although some had already begun and written a few sample paragraphs).

I was really sad to leave the class. After the first lesson or two, I was not looking forward to working with them for the two weeks, but things changed to quickly, and I’ve left them promising to send me their finished reports to see. My partner was, understandably, wary about having a strange person in teaching alongside her, but by the end of the time we were both so sad to see the end of the arrangement. I truly believe that the difference in the class was entirely down to there being two of us. We were able to share the work of teaching and motivating the kids, and keeping a lid on any dodgy behaviour. We were both able to plan and deliver resources according to our strengths, and if the arrangement had continued, we would have shared the load of assessment. I’ve done team teaching before, and that experience was one of the best in my career, and here yet again I’ve seen it having a huge effect on the learning and motivation of a class. It’s really unfair that we’re now having to change their dynamic once more, but there’s nothing to be done about that. If only there was the money in the system to build in an ‘extra’ teacher to each department, to let this kind of teamwork develop – where kids need this extra support to do their best, it really does offer an incredibly effective solution. However, with every penny being scrutinised and justified, it’s not likely to happen any time soon, more’s the pity.

As for Elvis, I suppose it’s testament to his enduring legacy that over three and a half decades since his death, he still appeals at least a little to Glasgow teenagers, and the poem was pretty perfect for National 4 – if anyone would like a copy of the textual analysis questions and report writing unit, drop me a tweet at @katiebarrowman


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