Let’s Think in English in Lockdown
By Leah Crawford
This blog grew out of a short email exchange with a very experienced KS2 English leader and teacher of Let’s Think, Tom Leigh, who works at Fryern Junior School in Hampshire.
Tom contacted me and a few other Let’s Think teachers in the Hampshire network to ask if we were teaching LTE to children in ‘bubbles’ back at school and how it was going. He admitted he was finding it just did not have the same momentum as teaching a full class who can sit in small groups and in close proximity. A few email exchanges, and a few weeks later, Tom came back having taught the lesson ‘Feathers’, to his Year 6 bubble and been deeply moved by the experience. Luckily, he had recorded and transcribed the session, so that I could in some way relive what had happened.
I could tell Tom had a deep tale to tell, so we arranged to do an informal interview on Zoom to catch up and reflect together.
We talked about a particular upper KS2 Let’s Think lesson based on the short stop-motion film ‘Feathers.’ If you don’t know it – you might wish to follow the link and watch it before reading the blog.
So Tom, you’ve been back in school since the return of year 6, teaching a bubble of between 8-10 children?
Yes, I mean, even further back, when we went into lockdown lots of us felt a kind of release of stress and workload. Someone in school told me their stress headaches had stopped, there were people saying how they’d managed to get back a work-life balance. Then by the time we could get back in school with children, there was a feeling for some that it was a nicer pace, quieter. But I found it really difficult. It didn’t feel like we were doing anything that mattered. In year 6 particularly perhaps, we were going back and consolidating skills already taught. We found they really had remembered everything. We had been really successful in consolidating the curriculum. I had been looking forward to getting back to teaching but there was no buzz, lots of task completion, but without interaction it wasn’t real learning. The children have been more pleased to see each other, rather than excited about their learning. I’ve realised how favourable a normal class size is.
Perhaps this reflects what the children had been asked to do in Lockdown, but they were happiest when they were given short inputs then asked to get on with something, rather than you as teacher leading and mediating them through a learning process.
Is this just you, Tom?
No I’ve been asking the team for reflections on being back at school and they all feel learning has become too teacher led, probably linked to the fact that there is less pupil to pupil talk. It’s not just Let’s Think, but teaching reading and the initial stages of writing when your aim is for children to generate ideas in their own mind through interactions.
So when you contacted the group you had tried how many Let’s Think lessons?
Just one, but as I say, any English lesson that relied on the generation of ideas through talk just felt flat. Responses were short and there was little exchange across the group.
So why wasn’t it working?
We rely so much on the initial sharing and drafting of ideas being in a small group. I could not sit them in small groups in close proximity – we could only try to share some ideas in pairs two metres apart. There is an anonymity in belonging to a small group compared to sharing with a whole group. The small group rehearsal and shaping of ideas builds confidence that they have something to say and something that has been tested out, built upon and is worth sharing. In the bubble, all those little, tentative conversations can be heard by everybody. They start to talk, then realise the whole group is listening in. So it ended up with me trying to tease out each child’s thinking and drive it forward when they weren’t really ready to make ideas public yet.
So if we reflect more widely about what matters in Let’s Think, it’s that space for safe oral drafting of ideas. I need to share an incomplete thought aloud to realise what I think and to shape it.
Yes – but also it not being only their thought. A collection of thinking has already happened before it goes public which makes it safer to share. In a group of 9 or 10 a thought is only what I am saying, it is my opinion and it’s more risky to share that.
I suppose what you’re saying is that the benefit of the small group is that the initial feedback comes from peers and does not have to come from the teacher.
Yes, but not just the testing of a thought but how children often only share the beginnings of a thought, which grows through their interaction. So often in Let’s Think, they are teetering on the edge of understanding what they are trying to say. That’s what’s so great when you transcribe it because you can see the cyclical way in which their thinking develops over several interactions, and they’re getting so close to what they think they mean.
I think also, my favourite thing is to do with the slow reveal of texts in Let’s Think, the gradual building of understanding, a moment of reveal and then that moment of gasps and thick silence and stillness. Then you ask a question and you hear this boom of talk and buzz.
And that really wasn’t happening. They were too tentative, too uncertain. You could see them thinking ‘Who’s listening and who can I turn to…’ – they’re set out in this grid in the classroom.
So this was the point you contacted me and a few others to see if we had any ideas on how to make the best of a situation we can’t change. What changes did you decide to make when you taught ‘Feathers’?
I thought it best just to try a few things at a time. So the first thing was to select those pupils who I knew were being most affected by the lack of a small group feedback, move towards them and act like their peer group to help them build an idea. The other thing was through the lesson to cue in those ideas I knew they had said to me, that I knew could go somewhere if the group got hold of them, but the pupil would not think to offer to the group. I normally don’t have to be so active in this process. The other change was one of the suggestions you made which was to encourage the group to consider the lines of enquiry that had emerged so far and evaluate them. Normally, this happens quite naturally, the best lines of enquiry are usually the ones that most children want to talk about, but with the smaller group it seemed like we were more easily going down a less interesting or valid path.
Yes – there was an example of them thinking the evil doctor wanted to turn her into a bird rather than to ‘cure’ her in some way.
And that made me think about Let’s Think teacher training and how important it is to have mapped out purposeful pathways in the questions, or you can get real momentum in the dialogue and interest but it’s really not a purposeful line of enquiry.
I know we had wondered together whether some written sketch notes of ideas on whiteboards might help the ‘drafting’ and I was going to try that next but wanted to resist it as much as possible, because I know once they commit and write something down it becomes harder to redraft and rethink.
That’s really helpful. So perhaps for all of us from September, when we are reconnecting groups with each other through Let’s Think, we might need to do a bit more work to scaffold the development of ideas like a peer, to cue in ideas with promise and to provide summaries as a springboard to the next phase if the group is losing the thread.
Yes, so a good example in the transcript is a student, student S who is not a high attainer, he is not confident to share ideas and can be quite poorly behaved. He asked me, it seemed to be just out of the blue ‘How old do you have to be to go on social media?’ And I could hear in that he was on to something about the girl’s age, and another boy next to him – 2 metres away from him – they started talking about being 18 and being a teenager. At that point, in their minds I’m not sure the link with the meaning of the film was clear but something important was emerging. So I could cue that in when the evil doctor theory was taking over:
|Teacher||Ok lots of you seem to be going down this avenue of the evil doctor. S you said something earlier about, something to do with being 18.|
|S||What about social media?|
|Teacher||Teacher: When you were chatting to N|
|N||Wait Mr Leigh, teenager and hair goes quite well together because as you get older the more hair you grow|
|S||No because she’s young she doesn’t understand what she can do yet but when she’s 18 she’ll understand her true powers of what she can do she’ll be able to fly and stuff because maybe at her age now she doesn’t understand she’s just growing wings and it’s weird she doesn’t understand but something will happen when she’s older|
|Teacher||N does that link to what you were thinking?|
|N||Well as you get older, you get more hair|
|S||So she’ll grow into a full bird|
So I cued them in to watch the rest of the film summarising what they had agreed: that the Mum seemed worried about her turning in to a bird and wanted the doctor to do something about this, and that her being a teenager might be important but we weren’t too sure why yet.
There was open jubilation when the girl spreads her wings and flies and as the film finished a beautiful collective pause for breath and silence.
I asked them to consider the final two questions:
At what point the girl is free?
What do you think the message of the film might be?
|ES||Me? Well I don’t know I kind of think that it’s like well it’s like because like everyone saying she loves the daughter and I think that because she loves the daughter she might not want to let her free she would want to but not because she would miss the girl loads and you can see that when she made the breakfast she loves the girl so much that she wanted to make her happy so I guess it’s like I don’t know…|
|S||Technically, you would have to let her out either way because she can’t eat normal food and it’s her instinct to stay outside|
|Teacher||So her instinct is to be free but the mother maybe is resisting that, and EB was saying the message is that she had to let her go. Okay…H?|
|H||My own message of the film I don’t know if anyone can build onto it is that looks don’t matter, inside, your family, your family or your friends will always like you as who you are. Not your looks if that makes sense|
|K||Who’s heard the phrase: if you love me you have to let me go? Because it’s kind of like she loves her so she wants to keep her but actually if she really loves the girl she has to let her be free|
|N||I’ve seen this quote once where it says a mother holds their child’s hand for a while but their heart forever…|
|Teacher||Okay (choked!) how does that link?|
|N||Obviously, she wanted freedom so like K said she loved her so she had to let her go but still she loves her inside…|
|Teacher||Can I bring you back to what you said about the teenager?|
|N||Oh because she’s getting older|
|Teacher||How might your messages link to what S and N said about the teenager? Have a think|
|K||Well you know when you’re an adult and you start to move out around the age of 18 or 20 it’s kind of like I’m going to turn S’s “she’s ready to fly” thing into a metaphor because if you’re a teen you are ready to fly you’re ready to go out on your own you’re ready to be free but I’m sure people who have grown up children, you know how it can sometimes be. My Grannie’s told me about this, it can sometimes be almost like kind of heart-breaking because it’s like that child, that person who you’ve loved and grown up with for all of their life is just going.|
|Teacher||What did you say N was the saddest point?|
|N||Oh when she made breakfast for one|
|S||Yeah but then the girl actually came back|
|Teacher||How do you know that?|
|S||Because you heard beak tapping on the window|
|EB||Building on K’s point It’s kind of like heart-breaking because when they move out it’s kind of sad because you’ve been with them their whole life if… and it’s kind of like you have to|
|Teacher||So like you said, it’s going to change…. Okay… (deep breath)|
You can see I could barely speak at the end, they had just stopped me in my tracks: what they were thinking and saying was so moving. This was the first time the mixed ability of pupils in the room were supporting each other. You don’t want the K’s of this world to say too much too soon – but she was picking up on S and N’s comments and taking them further.
And I realised I literally had been pretty miserable teaching in school. Then I taught Feathers and I thought this is what I’ve missed and this is why I’m a teacher at all, because, I was feeling like the children were changing and I was giving them something of value that would help them in the future. You’re creating ways of thinking that are so transferrable, not just in education but in life.
Does this mean anything needs to change next year, Tom?
Retaining the dialogic method in reading, writing, maths is going to be harder but so vital. We won’t be teaching in bubbles, but there will be restrictions on seating arrangements and on pupil movement. The pupils also will need to be supported to connect with each other and to experience again how they need each other to think more deeply. This idea of the catch-up curriculum could be reduced to prioritising a list of objectives and focusing down on those and this could lower expectations. But if I think about what we’ve been doing since the need for test preparation disappeared: the skills are all still there of clarifying, monitoring, inferring, but we’re getting much deeper inspiration from the text to think and to write. So that’s my reflection for the summer is how to keep the richness and buoyancy and teach skills through this and not go back to tick-boxing.
And I think we need to reflect on the speed in which the world was able to change itself in Lockdown. So when we know change is necessary, there’s always the cry of, ‘Oh this is just the way it is…’ Well, you can’t make that argument anymore. You’ve just got to be open minded to it. I sent out a few sort email prompts to the staff here on what it’s been like to teach English in Lockdown and it was amazing – I got pages and pages back – teachers deeply thinking about what they are doing and why. We just don’t do it enough. I want staff meetings to be about reflections.
Tom I think so many teachers in all phases will feel some resonance with what you’ve been saying here. If we don’t use a crisis to reflect and reset, then what have we gone through this for?