Can a creative project prepare students better in English than exams?

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Sarah Lindon, an English teacher at WHS, reports on an experimental project the department ran in place of summer exams for Year 7 last year, and how it extended students’ horizons and ambition in English.

Though it is not by design, nonetheless it seems apposite that I am writing about the value of independent project work for students, now that children across the country are having to adapt to very different educational provision. I’d like to share what English teachers at Wimbledon High learnt last year from devising a poetry project for Year 7s in place of exams. Hopefully it can both inspire and reassure teachers, parents and students about the benefits of such learning.

How did we investigate?

As a department, we found it refreshing to put aside the annual exam training and investigate instead how our students’ education might better be served by a unit that fostered independence; balanced creative and critical skills; and made space to explore more freely their personal interests in the subject.

From experience, we know that students with a strong appetite for independent reading do better in Key Stage 4. Wide, adventurous reading confers benefits throughout the GCSE Literature and Language syllabus. So we wanted to nurture personal but scholarly enjoyment and independence among Year 7s in their own reading. Our hypothesis was that holistic engagement with the subject early in their secondary education would prove more valuable to their academic development ultimately than immediately drilling exam skills.

To this end, I adapted a format used in some university creative writing courses: researching a writer of particular interest in depth with the aim of extending and developing a student’s own writing practice, and developing analysis and reflections on both the reading and the writing undertaken. This entails a range of skills that are essential to the study of English at school: close reading, analysis, creative writing, reflection and evaluation.

We had three weeks’ homework time available as well as some class time. The first week would involve research, the second, writing, and the final week, evaluation and reflection. Our conclusions on the project’s success would be based on the quality of student work, our professional observations, and a student survey.

The design of the project

The Year 7s were given five poets to choose from. For the research phase they produced detailed annotations of three poems by their chosen writer, with comments on the ideas and the techniques found in them. The second phase involved identifying an aspect of the chosen poet’s work that they wanted to explore for themselves creatively. This could be quite freely interpreted and might be based on subject matter, form, tone, structure, style or technique, or a combination of these. The outcome was to produce a poem of their own inspired by the work of their chosen poet. The final phase was an evaluation, consisting of writing up analytical observations about the poems, followed by reflections on how they had responded to the stimulus pieces in their own creative writing.

Findings on reading skills

The investigation produced fascinating results. Some genuinely outstanding analytical and evaluative work emerged. Even without an exam structure, many of our students wrote to a very high level, demonstrating impressive insight into their reading, and writing with fluency and a sense of personal voice that seemed to flow from their extended immersion in and deliberate investigation of ideas and techniques that interested them. Students who usually expressed distaste for analytical writing were now motivated to get under the skin of the work they liked and figure out how to learn from it as ‘makers’. Foregrounding the complementary nature of analysis and creativity often seemed to engage them more deeply than dealing with either skill in isolation.

Though some struggled to annotate poems independently, they were often able nonetheless to articulate thoughtful responses to their reading in the write-up, usually thanks to the freedom they had to give particular attention to the aspects of the work that intrigued them the most. For others, trying to employ for themselves techniques used by their chosen writer prompted new understanding of the skill and thought behind producing a poem. Sometimes, the application of ideas and techniques in their own creative work revealed greater sensitivity to the poetry they had read than they were able to express analytically in annotations or in prose, through adept application of techniques or ideas found in the poems.

Findings on writing skills

Virtually all of our students showed notable progress in their own creative writing. In many cases, the leap in quality of the work was really marked. In others, familiar subjects and methods from previous pieces returned but with a new twist. The Year 7s quite often identified this phase as the most challenging, despite performing very well in it, perhaps reflecting a productive sense of ambition and ownership in their work at this point. Working from good literary models in creative writing can spark much more robust experimentation than students might otherwise attempt.

Often, it was the very idea or technique that a student found most challenging to work on that they had most success in, revealing their real investment and care. There was interesting evidence of the degree of work that went into some of these pieces, including rough notes and drafts, the gathering of lines over several days, as well as whole other pieces discarded and new ones started. The combination of freedom and structure engendered by the project’s design seemed to encourage a spirit of both adventure and discipline.

Writing

Student reflections

Evaluations often went beyond the 800-word limit, implying that our students were keen to report all of their thinking. Some took the opportunity to explain how important the independence had been to them. Across the ability range, they expressed enthusiasm and enjoyment of the project, even where they believed they were not very good at some of the work. So it seemed that they valued the sense of autonomy and scope for creativity even where the final ‘product’ might not have been at the level they would ideally like to achieve. This is surely a key foundation for a resilient, intrinsically motivated approach to reading and writing.

Many students were interested by the fact the project allowed them to look at a poet’s work more holistically, not just at isolated poems. This allowed them to consider differently how and why a poem is made, as well as generating a sense of personal connection to the writer. Their definition of what poetry is, and of what it can arise from, was broadened.

Closing thoughts

As teachers, we were very impressed by our Year 7s’ commitment and the quality of the work they produced. Based on observation and student voice, it is clear the experience was very enriching for them, and their independence and enthusiasm carried over into their Year 8 ‘Unseen Poetry’ work this academic year. They gained nourishment, autonomy and recognition for their personal interests and talents, thanks to the freedom of choice and freedom of expression engendered by the project. Some also went on to perform their work at our lunchtime Spoken Word events, alongside other students right up to Year 13s. It was very special to see them more than hold their own in this arena, reading with conviction and aplomb.

As part of a mix of teaching and learning strategies, there was no sense in which this project seemed a poor cousin of exam preparation in terms of educational value, and we are excited to be starting the unit again with this year’s cohort this term. You can see some of our students’ thoughts below, along with a small sample of their work. I hope this example of an extended project can boost your confidence in the benefits of carefully designed independent learning.

Student comments

‘I thought overall the most enjoyable thing about the project was the fact that it was totally independent, we were given a free rein to do what we liked. We weren’t given any guidance, we weren’t told we had to do something specific, and I feel I produced some work I’m proud of.’

‘The creative task allowed me to use my imagination, which had been shaped already by reading [the poet’s] work. Overall I really enjoyed this and the tasks complimented each other very well.’

‘Now that I have explored Maya Angelou’s poems in detail, it has slightly changed my way of writing poems by making them more mature in a way of finding an inner meaning and using more techniques. Now, I would do this task again but with a different poet, to see how it alters the way I write poems further.’

‘I have really enjoyed this English Project because it has made me feel so much more confident of my work. I have felt a lot less pressured because of the timing.’

‘Something that I found thought-provoking was analysing the poems because it showed the thought process that Maya [Angelou] went through when she was writing the poem, and it was amazing to see it.’

‘I liked how the essay we wrote was based on everything that we had done in the project, instead of just one part.’

‘I found it challenging to find the right balance when copying my poet’s work because I wanted my own voice in the writing, not just an impersonation of Clarke’s work.’

‘The work was more independent, meaning that I had to figure some things out myself. I liked this because although it was harder to get started, it was a lot easier for my writing to flow once I did get started.’

‘I learnt how to take inspiration from others’ writing.’

‘I learned how to be creative whilst writing in a set form and what poetry is really about. Not just a few lines rhyming with each other but deeper meaning.’

‘I learned that everyone has their own unique way of writing poems, books, stories, and that it doesn’t have to be perfect at all.’

‘This project changed my views on poetry and the poets that write them in the sense that so much thought goes into poems. As well as this more thought probably goes into the structure of the poem than the actual words.’

‘It explored the more creative side and it made English seem more exciting in the sense that you can create your own work in this way.’

‘Completing this project changed my understanding of English because it showed me how to link creative writing with analytical writing which before I found unconnected.’

Sample creative work 

Misty

“fear” is a thing with horns –
That tips you over the edge –
Chanting the cries from hell –
That never stops – at all –

The nest of a new born bird –
Burnt to charcoal ash –
Left alone and banished –
From the life of all living –

Abandoned on the island –
With only rotting wood –
Chanting the cries from ocean floor –
Reaching up with skeletal hands –

Sample analysis and evaluation

Anita

From [Gillian Clarke’s] poem ‘Lament’, the line ‘the oceans lap with its mortal stain’ in the third [stanza] gave the poem a furthered and deeper tone. This line is a play on words since it could have a few different explications. One possible way of interpreting this line could be that the stain is fatal and killing the ocean (which is the truth) as one definition of mortal is deadly or lethal. This carries across a feeling of action, as though it is telling the reader that it could kill the ocean and they should do something to stop it. Another way of interpreting the line could be that we, ‘mortal[s]’ have caused this stain on the ocean as the other meaning of the word ‘mortal’ is someone subject to death, as opposed to immortal. This is more liable to make the reader feel a sense of guilt, as they have helped towards this huge oil mark on our ocean’s surface.

Lara

[In my work, Maya Angelou’s] ‘The Mothering Blackness’ influenced the idea of separation and division between the two people, however instead I thought it would be thought-provoking to show the separation and division between the same person through comparison. Throughout all of Angelou’s poems, she also uses her own structure, with irregular rhyming, so I carried that through, with my poem using short lines, but longer sentences to capture the sense of life carrying on. Like ‘Awaking in New York’ my overarching theme is universal, however it is written like ‘The Mothering Blackness’, with a more specific story. Once I had come up with the idea of using a comparison, I got most of my structural inspiration from Caged Bird, however the initial ideas of the poem, were slightly influenced by ‘The Mothering Blackness’. Once I had come up with my idea, I was very certain of it and did not have any second thoughts. Once I had written it, I shortened the lines and cut the sentences off at random points to give a sense of enjambment linking to the fact that life still flows on and can be messy, or not in neat, straight lines. This meant that I had to have very powerful word choices to fill each short line, so I used a Thesaurus to find the most evocative words I could.

Training to train or training to compete?

Coutts Coutts-Wood, Director of Sport at WHS, looks at the psychology behind training and being active in a competitive environment, and how we can make training more effective.

 

Training is designed to develop a player; it creates a safe learning environment where repetition and reinforcement help to foster the necessary mental and physical skills required for competition. It is where you can try to be the best version of yourself. In training or practice, athletes are often more relaxed and focused, full of positivity and excitement and it is the space in which making mistakes repeatedly is ok. It is where the athlete can learn from errors and where faults are forgivable and ‘allowed’ – after all it’s only training, right?

It can be too easy to approach training or lessons with the mind-set that your time is not as important, that the rewards from excelling are lower and consequently less value is placed upon quality of performance. It’s very easy for pupils at times to think, ‘it’s just a lesson, it’s only a practice, it doesn’t matter’. Does this, therefore, allow the quality of practice and training to diminish? Should poor performance during these sessions be excusable from peers, coaches and athletes alike?

U15 Tumbling Team
U15 Surrey Tumbling Team Champions

Of course, in competition everything is different. The low stake, relaxed and positive emotional state established in training does not always translate into competition. Instead, the ‘now it really counts’ mantra attached to the performance encourages increased pressure from the athletes on themselves. It can be true that for most athletes, once in the competition, thoughts of self-doubt and disbelief creep in so that they tense up, and their fluidity and control is compromised and consequently the performance is not as good as in training. Moreover, athletes experience cognitive overload and narrower attentional focus during competition. A great example of this was shown in in early research on the topic by Yerkes and Dodson and is known as the ‘Inverted U Theory of Arousal’ (1908). Their model looks at the relationship between arousal and performance and suggests that optimal performance should occur when arousal is at a moderate level. If arousal is too low (perhaps in training) or too high (often in competition) performance quality can be compromised.

If we always have this distinction between training and competition, we are never truly preparing ourselves appropriately. It is important to think about how we can get the best results when it really matters and what that means during practices and lessons. It seems vital that any training is structured to mimic the types of competition that we are striving to excel in.

Using training effectively

U13C Netball Team

It is our job as physical educationalists to ensure that our athletes have the ability to handle the psychological ‘now it really counts’ challenge of the event alongside the physical demands. It is now much more common that professional athletes seek sport psychology services to learn how to perform in a competition as well as they do in practice. As Weinberg and Gould (2007) discuss ‘a lack of physical skills is not the real problem – rather, a lack of mental skills’ can be the cause of poor performance.

Your physical ability has not changed or decreased, so why does your performance? In training you don’t always put pressure upon yourself. In training you stay focused on what you are doing. In training you are relaxed and having fun. We must repeatedly train ourselves to always be competition ready, to improve the flow of skills, and to cope with the fast paced, high intensity environment where more is at stake.

So if we really want the performance of our athletes under pressure to resemble what has been done in lessons and training, we need to shift the view that competition is far more exciting than training, of greater importance and only enjoyable because of the extrinsic incentives that motivate performers. We must duplicate exactly what has been done in those practice sessions mentally and improve the coping skills under pressure to reflect the demands of the competitive environment. If we never practice in these high stakes situations, we will never be prepared for competition.

Conclusion

As teachers, I believe it is our role to make training as stimulating as competition, create problem solving opportunities and appropriate challenge. We must fashion training environments where we prepare our athletes for competition and move away from the view that practice is just where you go to train to prove you deserve to be in the team.
So, perhaps next time that dentist appointment is due to be booked over a games lesson, rather than thinking ‘it’s only training’, think would you approach a fixture with the same attitude?
You can therefore expect the quantity of competition-based game scenarios to be increased in lessons and training going forwards to ensure than we are ‘practicing’ at the desired intensity and with the high quality that we know we will need when we formally compete. More ‘mock’ competitions, a bigger audience present, sessions where the stakes are higher will all help reinforce the fact that training and competition should not be seen as separate. Ultimately we will be competing in our training and training to compete.


References
Weinberg, R; Gould, D (2007). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology.

Yerkes, R.M; Dodson, J.D (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Physiology, 18. 459-482

For interest, I would recommend reading Bounce by Matthew Syed where he discusses the importance of purposeful practice.

Learned helplessness: is the modern approach to pastoral care really helping our students?

This Winter Term the Schools Practice at Odgers Berndtson launches the first series of articles for its new Voices in Education series. These articles are written by a number of leading voices across the schools sector. They have been written to start conversations about important challenges, opportunities and ideas within the schools sector today. In this original article, Ms. Fionnuala Kennedy, Senior Deputy Head at Wimbledon High School GDST, writes about the need to ensure that pastoral care in schools is enabling resilience and not teaching helplessness.

I am realising as I get (inexorably) older that there are certain things at which I have learnt to be entirely helpless. These include but are in no way limited to: replacing the spotlights in my kitchen ceiling; knowing how the staffroom photocopier works; memorising people’s phone numbers; and running 10km. It horrifies me to have had this realisation. I consider myself to be an independent person, capable and well-educated, and yet these are all basic things I can no longer do. They’re not things I could never do, such as dancing en pointe, or flying a plane, but things I have slowly erased from my skillset, either because I no longer require the ability to do them as I have someone else to do them for me (ceiling lights, photocopying), or technology means I no longer have to use my brain to complete these tasks (phone numbers), or I haven’t practised them enough and so have lost the ability to do them (running).

We’ll all have these elements of our lives that we can no longer access, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it’s simply inevitable that in the wiki/google/Alexa age, we no longer need to memorise phone numbers or indeed anything; that knowledge is no longer necessary or even relevant (nonsense, of course); that a key aspect of becoming more senior in your career means you’ll forget how to do some of the more administrative tasks; and that as we get older we have less time to spend on leisure activities such as running.

But, it got me thinking, this erosion of ability, this learned helplessness I have slowly developed as a result of others doing things for me, or because I haven’t exercised the right muscles to maintain the skill: to me, this loss of ability perfectly represents a key and indeed increasingly crucial element of pastoral care in schools which is threatening the ability of our pupils to develop skills for themselves. This is no way to minimise the importance of supporting young people experiencing poor mental health, and Wimbledon High is a pioneer in ensuring we are open in our thinking and discussions around those serious issues. But it is my increasing concern that the ever-earlier interventions of pastoral leaders and carers, as well as the anxiety surrounding the modern approach to parenting, means that teenagers are losing the ability to help themselves in testing situations. And we know it’s an ability they are losing, rather than one they never had – just like my running. When you see a toddler learning to walk, they will naturally pick themselves up after a tumble, using the nearest item of furniture to carefully but determinedly find their feet again. They learn for themselves that they are not helpless, that it is within their ability literally to keep on going. So we know children instinctively understand what it is to work something out, to struggle until a goal is met and to rely on their own strength to do so.

It stands to reason, then, that when we remove obstacles from children’s paths at the first sign of struggle or distress, when we over-medicalise or put into a therapeutic context what could well be simply an expression of sadness or anger, and when we move in to solve problems for young people rather than asking them how they wish to approach an issue for themselves, we are encouraging learned helplessness, removing from them slowly but surely the ability to cope and navigate as they head off into the world, without us acting as stabilisers. Our intentions are wholly good, and the outcome a potential disaster. Resilience must be developed by the individual themselves, not handed out as a gift.

So, what’s the answer? Well: we must be robust with parents, laying out the approach of the school and sticking to it, not giving in to parental pressure to intervene in an area of a pupil’s life when you know it’s not the right call. We quote to our parents Beckett’s phrase: ‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better’, adding that what he did not write was ‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Text your mum, she’ll ring the school to complain and you’ll be put into the netball team after all’. A true, trusting partnership with parents is absolutely crucial.

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And what about the pupils? I really like asking them to adopt the ‘Three Before Me’ mantra: which three things have they tried before coming to me for help, and why do they think those things didn’t’ work? I’ll guarantee that you’ll find that 9 times out of 10 they are yet to try anything for themselves…

And finally, what about us as educators? Well, it’s difficult, but I try always to ask myself: am I unconsciously removing obstacles here without needing to do so? If so, is it because it’s quicker to arrive at a solution which will suit the child and parents, and I am very busy? Is it because I genuinely care and really want to help alleviate the suffering of the pupil short term? The answer is almost always yes to at least one if not both of those questions. We all came into this career because we are the solvers of problems, the finders of solutions, and because we want young people to be happy and to thrive. But we run the risk of raising a generation of young people who have learned from us not only Shakespeare, and differentiation, and chess, but also how not to manage themselves in times of difficulty or complexity.

It is not the role of schools to keep a child’s life storm-free. Rather, it should be the aim that every child leaves school able to say, along with Louisa May Alcott, ‘I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship’.

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