In September I begin teaching Macbeth to two Year 11 groups. I’m starting at a new school, I’ve not met the students before and have to consider the practicalities of teaching in a post-Lockdown, Covid-safe environment. Over Lockdown and the Summer I’ve had the opportunity to read and reflect on my practice as an English specialist and try to refine my approaches to teaching. I’m recording my thoughts on preparation and deliver of Macbeth here.
It’s about 5 years since I last taught Macbeth. While I’m aware that I’m strong at engaging students in the play and fostering their ownership of the text, I’m less confident in my skills in enabling students to respond at much higher-than-expected levels in the exam.
I’ve worked with some teachers who are able to get good Literature grades from students. When I’ve observed them, they’ve deliberately approached delivery in an instructional, highly-didactic way. Theirs are Powerpoint-driven lessons, with lots of exam-style writing tasks which are heavily scaffolded. Students are told what to think about characters, themes, language and dramatic structure. There’s little to no personal and emotive exploration of the text. Exam-focused teaching techniques (quizzes, games, retrieval-practice activities) seem surrogates for enjoyment and fun with the actual text. Yet they get good exam results and, I’m certain, believe that getting disadvantaged children the highest GCSE grades possible is the best thing in terms of social mobility. They do “first teaching” in the way I’d expect pre-exam revision lessons to be taught. I’ve also seen them teach KS3 classes in the same way.
Unsurprisingly, the AQA English Literature syllabus expects skills of comprehension, critical reading, linguistic evaluation and an ability to compare texts. The larger, general aims of studying English Literature are cultural (“Through literature, students have a chance to develop culturally and acquire knowledge of the best that has been thought and written”) and to encourage children to become developed readers (“encourage students to read widely for pleasure, and as a preparation for studying literature at a higher level”). Among the objectives being assessed, examiners look for an “informed personal response” (AO1) and “interpretations” (AO1).
I’m hoping to combine an active approach to Shakespeare with exam-focused teaching that both enables students to develop a rewarding personal response to the play as well as enable them to secure better-than-expected grades. Experience tells me that engaged children are motivated to approach exams positively and gain higher grades.
Much of what I hope to achieve comes down to careful planning.
In terms of planning, my initial concerns are:
- How to genuinely engage students in the play. What can I do to ensure that students enjoy the play, find it rewarding and motivate them to approach the exam with a greater sense of ownership?
- What is it that I want students to learn (in the broadest sense) from the play?
- How can I balance an active approach to Shakespeare with the formal exam requirements?
- Can I encourage an active approach in the restrictions placed on teaching and learning by Covid-19?
- Can I teach the whole play in 21 lessons so that students are both actively engaged in the play AND really well prepared for the exam? Is there the time to encourage creative responses? I worry I don’t have time to adopt engaging and creative approaches with the mechanical teaching of how to construct exam answers.
- What I need to do to improve my teaching so that students rapidly develop the knowledge, skills and independence to write capable exam answers? What can I bring from approaches like Rosenshine’s Principles and Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion?
- While I’m sceptical about using a knowledge organiser, what do I need to do to develop a “learning agenda” (to use Barbara Bleiman’s term) in order to support the retention of knowledge about the text? (For instance, should I create a type of knowledge organiser for each Act in which becomes the basis for retrieval practice? So, after teaching Act One, I’d give students the Act One KO and insist students used it while we read Act Two and so on.)
- Homework and revision activities. I’m expecting students to struggle with any homework but, especially post-Lockdown, I can’t see that they can successfully study Macbeth without work at home. Any tasks I set must really be meaningful, though.
Year 11 students have approximately 21 lessons in which to study Macbeth in Term 1. My opinion is that it’s a stretch to try and teach the text in the depth necessary – including time for retrieval practice, exam answer practice and assessment. Something like 30 lessons seems better, allowing me enough time to include lots of retrieval practice, regular reviews/recaps and time to build exam writing techniques.
My initial plan looks something like this: