Fostering pupil voice and their experience of texts

Over the lockdown period, I had the fortune to join a series of English and Media Centre webinars with Barbara Bleiman, who is an absolute legend in the English world.  In those webinars, Barbara Bleiman really really made me think and reflect upon my own practice.  She made me think and reflect about how much we value pupil voice and how frequently we offer pupils the opportunities in lessons to have a voice.

In fact, in her 2020 book What Matters in English Teaching, Barbara states that

When Lucy Webster and I have worked with underperforming students, asked in by teachers to help them improve their writing, it has always been the case that the technical aspects of their writing are a less significant problem than their uncertainty about what they should be saying.  Having good ideas, being in charge of the material, and having confidence in exploring them is a bigger problem than paragraphing, punctuation or academic signposting.’

This made me really reflect upon our thinking around a knowledge-rich curriculum. One idea surrounding a knowledge-rich curriculum is the idea of teacher as expert and student as novice.  I totally understand the concept of this and agree and yet feel, perhaps, if this is so rigidly reinforced then we are turning our back on some of the opportunities that might have been present otherwise. I have been considering the following questions:

  • In conforming to the narrative of teacher as expert and pupil as novice are we guilty of diminishing our pupils’ own voices and responses to the texts we study?
  • Do we, at times, consequently, underestimate our pupils’ capacity to respond and bring their own knowledge to a text?
  • And finally, in positioning ourselves as expert, do we reduce the element of awe and wonder for pupils that we should all experience when we approach a text for the first time?

This is something that needs much consideration.  However, since attending Barbara’s webinars, I have been reflecting hard on my practice and tried to incorporate opportunities for pupils’ voices to be shared and heard and empowered.

  1. Use of mentimeter / Jamboard

Here after reading ‘A Passage to Africa’, pupils had an opportunity to reflect upon what they had read before delving deeper.  What struck me as their responses came in was their very emotional reaction to the piece.  This in itself shouldn’t have been surprising because it is an emotive piece but it did make me stop and consider the fact that the pupils needed to digest that – time that I needed to give them.  As a result of receiving these responses, we spent time, as a class, discussing how we had responded to it and why, drawing attention to the text’s emotional impact first. This proved to be very enriching when it came to the analysis later on.

Passage to africa

In a second example, one whereby I asked my year 12 pupils for their responses to ‘Death of a Naturalist’ by Seamus Heaney, I actually came to realise in allowing them time to personally respond that I had underestimated their ability to understand what I thought was a more complex poem.  Having arrived at the lesson with my annotated copy of the poem, ready to share my expertise and knowledge, I ended up ditching this and stepped back.  Instead, having seen that they had comprehended the big ideas, I organised them into pairs to deconstruct a smaller portion of the poem and feed back, with me offering my expert voice instead only to consolidate and support their understandings.

Death of a naturalist

  1. Padlet to support reading

A new homework task I have created this term is a reflection of our reading.  This is a lovely opportunity, outside of the classroom, for pupils to share their ideas and thoughts. I have created a class Padlet on which I expect pupils to upload their reading.  I modelled a short response to a youth fiction text I had read but provided very little else in terms of parameters.  This was to enable them to feel free to express their responses to texts in a way they saw fit.  It is absolutely joyous each week to read their thoughts and reflections and share these with the rest of the class.

padlet2

  1. Giving choice with regard to the content of a task

Both Stacey Reay and Jennifer Webb have spoken about the power of choice in helping pupils to find their voice.  And yes, while I understand this should be approached with caution in terms of subject matter, I, too, have found this an enriching experience.  This term, my y9 pupils are writing opinion columns and rather than me determine the nature of the column, a one-size fits all approach, pupils have determined what they have wanted to write about.  This has enabled them to use their own voice to explore an area they feel passionately about.  Topics such as wellbeing, artificial intelligence, transportation and privacy.  Instead of determining the topic, I have focused my attention on supporting them in developing research skills, fact-checking etc etc to enhance the way in which they speak about their chosen topic, balancing the passionate voice so that they are able to write intelligently as well.

Writing choice

And finally, we must consider the personal response and the personal voice when we are planning.

Having recently seen schemes of work in which the contextual backdrop is provided first or a summary of the text is given before our reading of it or a glossary of key terms or key vocabulary is gone through at the start, (all things, I, too, have been guilty of) I begin to question if we have lost our way with the teaching of literature.  And that is really, I have come to realise, what Barbara wanted me (and us) to think about all along.

If we are trying to foster our pupils to become lifelong passionate readers; if we want them to go on a journey or an adventure and discover things for themselves; if we want them to laugh, cry, be shocked and dumbfounded, I can’t help thinking that the way in which we sometimes deliver our knowledge-rich curriculum or the way in which we front load some of the aspects of the teaching might actually contribute to the destruction of all joy in the reading process.

This year, I read Of Mice and Men with my pupils.  They were blissfully unaware of how the story ended. As I read the final pages, I felt my voice break and the tears fall.  And then when I had finished there was nothing but silence.  Silence.  For several minutes, in fact, until one pupil commented that ‘that was really sad.’ The pupils were all sitting with their sadness.  Their connection to the text absolutely palpable.  That is the joy of literature teaching.  The journey that isn’t shaped by knowledge initially but that is experienced first. And so, in my opinion, we must work to create those moments of joy and the spaces for pupils to hold the text as their own first – to sit with it, toy with it, play with it, think it over and digest their own response to it.

And then, and only then, should we review it with our expert lenses on.

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