Great teachers “take joy in going off piste, using deep subject expertise to go beyond the syllabus”.

Tom Sherrington, The Learning Rainforest
File:Off-piste skiers ready for takeoff from Storebjørn peak in Jotunheimen.jpg

The Year 10 Great Poetry Debate

Arriving in a new school this year, teaching a new exam board and a new GCSE syllabus to Year 10, I think I often failed to go ‘off piste’. Since the texts and exam were unfamiliar, I spent hours pouring over mark schemes and writing example responses for students. This was certainly useful for me, but I was aware that my Year 10 class in particular, slogging through a very varied poetry anthology, were getting quite an exam-driven diet in English. Luckily, someone on Edutwitter came to the rescue in posting an idea for poetry debates based on anthology poetry. (I have since forgotten who this was and am unable to find the tweet again, but thank you!)

My colleagues and I set about planning our own debates, explicitly going beyond the syllabus and asking students to consider more complex debates than the exam will. Each debate statements linked two poems, so students were also revising the exam texts through comparison. Although again, there is actually no requirement to compare on the GCSE exam, I have always found that comparison is a great way for students to consolidate their understanding of each text too. We decided to match teams with a group from another class so that they would also be discussing .the texts with different students to normal, hopefully extending the range of opinions they would be exposed to.

Some of our statements included:

This house believes that ‘Muliebrity’ is a more successful feminist poem than ‘Caged Bird’.

This house believes that ‘Sonnet 29’ presents a more realistic view of love than ‘Marrysong’.

This house believes that ‘Farmhand’ is more revealing about mental health than ‘Not Waving but Drowning’.

We grouped students carefully, shared the judging criteria, and then gave them two lessons to revise the relevant texts, complete necessary research and write their opening speeches, plan and rehearse arguments.

The actual debates were very controlled in structure, to ensure that we could get through two debates in one 55 minute lesson:

Opening statements:

The ‘For’ team had 90 seconds to present their opening statement, then the ‘Opposing’ team had 90 seconds to present theirs.

Preparation for rebuttal:

Each team had 2 minutes to prepare their rebuttal.

Rebuttal: 

The ‘Opposing’ team had 90 seconds to present their rebuttal, followed by the For team.

Closing statements: 

The ‘For’ team had a final 60 seconds to present a closing statement, followed by the Opposing team.

We also tried to make the most of the student audience to each debate, creating specific criteria for them to mark each debating team on. The mark sheets, which attempt to give concrete examples of ‘what a 5/10 might look like’ are attached below. One real benefit of this criteria was that it asked the observers to look out for specific comments about poetic method used in support of an argument. Another was the requirement for whole group participation.

The students really enjoyed the chance to show off their knowledge and we were impressed by their rebuttals too, which often had to deal with quite complex arguments about the male mental health crisis and if it’s even possible to ask what ‘successful feminism’ is. The strict structure was absolutely necessary because the arguments were so impassioned. I even had to ask students to stop shouting at each other about feminism at lunch, two hours later. We whisper-argued instead. Off-piste success.

This was a particularly good task to ensure that all students in different classes received access to a higher level of thinking about the texts. It led to useful discussion between teachers about how to continue to challenge different students too. My one concern about this task was the competitive element, which we introduced more because we wanted to ensure the audience / judges paid close attention than because we wanted ‘winners’. I think it drew some attention away from the content at times, so I think I would remove the scoring next time.

If you’re looking for similar ways to manage ‘off-piste’ extensions and challenge all students, I highly recommend ‘The Learning Rainforest’ and Tom’s blogs too:

https://teacherhead.com/2013/12/27/teach-to-the-top/

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