How to plan a scheme of learning as part of a thematic curriculum: essential advice and lots of useful downloadables.
Planning a scheme of learning as part of a thematic curriculum
In a previous blog post, I advocated for the benefits of a thematic curriculum in the Engish classroom, arguing that structuring learning by theme provides a conceptual schema that allows students to see patterns, appreciate deeper layers of meaning and make connections across literature, language and the media whilst studying texts that might be considered ‘canonical’ alongside contemporary texts and multi-modal texts.
As I explained, our Key Stage Three Curriculum was chosen to reflect a breadth of ideas and thinking. We debated which themes would reflect the agendas, structures and motifs that are part of our cultural landscape. Each theme is divided into two schemes of learning, each which allows us to explore a genuinely diverse range of texts. In practice, this allows students to read at least three novels each year, as at least one of those schemes of learning within each theme is anchored by the study of a novel. The students also read a variety of different text types, and would typically experience throughout the key stage a range of non-fiction, poetry, drama and multi-modal ‘texts’.
Each scheme of learning works toward the planning of a writing assignment which is drafted and redrafted. The student receives feedback throughout the writing process, usually augmented by new teaching. The penultimate draft is marked in some depth, allowing students to respond. Assignments are not summatively assessessed. There is no single focus on either reading or writing, but instead, the assignment draws together these closely interlinked parts of English. Final feedback offers strengths and things to think about.
Several people from schools around the country have asked me to share some examples of how we approach planning a scheme of learning. I thought it might be worthwhile describing and explaining one scheme of learning in more detail, with opportunities to see how it evolves and captures ideas, good practice and new resources as it is taught. The scheme of learning is available to explore here, but throughout the blog post, I’ve hyperlinked directly to resources which you can download.
When reimagining our Key Stage 3 curriculum, we spent a lot of time debating how best to plan, with the support of North Yorkshire’s excellent English advisory service. As a school with G Suite, we used Google Drive from the outset to plan the curriculum, schemes of learning and resources. The ability to plan collaboratively, to work together in real-time and to know that each and every element of our planning is always a ‘live’ document is very powerful. Planning hyperlinks to resources in acccompanying folders. Should a resource be modified, the hyperlink can simply be updated. Planning templates have deliberately been constructed with phrases such as ‘suggested activities’ or ‘possible differentiation tools’ to encourage staff to do things differently and to try new ideas, with the expectation that they would bring these back to the planning, and that review, refining and culling of material would be an organic, on-going process. We feel strongly that this approach encourages everyone in the department to make a contribution, but it also empowers everyone to grow professionally, encouraging an autonomy in which we’re all accountable to each other.
An example of a thematic scheme of learning: the Gothic
Our scheme of learning ‘The Gothic’ forms part of the wider theme of ‘Subversion and Rebellion’. In the first part of the summer term of Year Nine, students study Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, looking at how the play explores the idea of transgression as a dramatic text and and as part of the context of the play. We then explore the Gothic, considering how it functioned as a sort of counter-cultural response to Enlightenment thinking, as we begin to transition students into Key Stage Four.
At Boroughbridge High School, we move students into their new year of school life halfway through the second part of the summer term. In the last week of the old timetable, there’s the opportunity for Year Nine students to attend a outdoors-based residential visit. Not all students participate, so we use English lessons that week, in which the remaining students are collapsed into two groups, to explore the Gothic creatively. Some students create a Gothic mood board, a bricolage of ideas and images which reflect what their understanding of the Gothic is. Others explore Gothic motifs through craft activities. Of course, as students are working on these tasks, the teacher provides guidance and challenge, enabling students to discuss their work through the provision of vocabulary that allows a deeper, more precise critique: liminality, transgression, subversion.
The following week, when the rest of the students return from the residential visit, the things the students have made are there in each classroom, serving as visual artefacts to represent what the students in school have been working on and providing an opportunity for them to explain to the other students some of the ideas and concepts they’ve learned about.
At this point, we begin to teach the scheme itself. Rather than relying on narrow learning objectives which can be limiting and which might encourage ‘closed-down’ responses, each week of teaching – approximately – is represented by a Key Learning Question.
When we first began using Google’s G-Suite to plan collaboratively, we felt it was important to indicate which ‘activities’ we considered ‘teaching tools’ – activities led by the teacher – and which were ‘learning tools’ – activities led by the student, either individually or in pairs or small groups. We then began to work on ‘differentiation tools’ – suggested ways of supporting students. We flagged up important questions in italics.
What do we mean when we describe something as ‘Gothic’?
Students begin their study of the Gothic with facilitated enounters with a variety of Gothic images, film clips and extracts. This particular scheme of learning asks students to engage with a particular cultural moment, but it’s one which students usually have some prior knowledge or experience of. At first, the teacher asks students to annotate images and watch film clips with the intention of establishing, through discussion and annotation, what students already know. Some questions ask students to make links to things they already know but to interrogate and unpick some of their assumptions. What words and phrases describe the images? What do they have in common? Can we group the words that describe the pictures into categories? Why do we describe these images as ‘Gothic’? Could the images be considered ‘horror genre’ rather than ‘Gothic’? Are those two terms synonymous or are they notably different?
Why did the Industrial Revolution inspire subversion and revolt?
Having established the estudents’ understanding of the aesthetics of the Gothic genre, the next step is to facilitate research to allow them to understand the context of Gothic as a cultural movement. We show students scrambled words from ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ by William Blake. What do they think the poem will be about? Can they identify any word categories (lexical sets)? We read the poem, and together, discuss: How does Blake present his opinion of childhood in the poem ‘The Chimney Sweeper’? What were people like Blake trying to do in poems such as ‘The Chimney Sweeper’? Why has the poem been written? How might the poem be like the images we annotated at the start of the sequence?
Given the artistic element of Romanticism, we’ve found it’s useful to explore poetry alongside visual representations of the Industrial Revolution and of the natural world that poets and painters believed provided a sort of consolation against the ravages of industry. Students work in pairs or groups to annotate these images with describing words and phrases that depict the Industrial Revolution. The teacher takes feedback in a whole-class discussion, using this slideshow. How do these paintings suggest an alternative to Industrial Revolution life? The teacher takes feedback. How do poems such as John Clare’s ‘Sonnet’ evoke a similar mood to the second set of paintings?
The next step involves providing students with a partially completed PowerPoint of ‘research’, in order to scaffold the process of finding relevant and helpful information. This is augmented by clips from Peter Ackroyd’s excellent documentary The Romantics. We then attempt to summarise the research by using a grid or series of boxes.
Further images can again be annotated as a method of considering how ideas around the Gothic were presented visually.
How could the eruption of Mount Tambora inspire the Romantic poets?
Peter Ackroyd’s documentary is used again to introduce the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora as an event around which our understanding of the shift from Romanticism to the Gothic can be understood. The teacher shares a Peter Ackroyd quotation with the students: ‘With the explosion of Tambora, it was as if nature had retaliated against all those who had tried to tame, predict or influence it.’ How might the eruption of the volcano have influenced the new generation of Romantic poets who had already been influenced by Wordsworth, Coleridge and Clare?
Students work with Lord Byron’s poem ‘Darkness’. How might this poem assert the primacy of the natural world? How does it create an ‘apocalyptic’ tone? How does the poem represent the natural world? We then explore the events that took place in Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati. Students think about some key words from Chapter Five of Frankenstein. Can they be contrasted? Categorised? Placed into a hierarchy?
The students read the abridged extracts from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. How has Shelley used the gothic horror convention of stormy or dreary weather to create an eerie or tense atmosphere? How else does Shelley create an eerie and ghostly atmosphere at the beginning of this chapter? What do you think Victor’s attitude towards his creation might be? How does Shelley provoke fear and revulsion in the reader by use of description? Focus on the monster’s description in particular. How does Shelley use a juxtaposition of ideas to describe the monster? What effect is created? Why does Victor feel so regretful over his creation? How has Mary Shelley created a sense of horror in this extract? Why might Mary Shelley have thought about the notion of nature against the man-made world?
Students consider the extent to which Victor Frankenstein is presented as an ‘Enlightenment figure’ by Mary Shelley. This sequence can be enhanced with clips from both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994; dir. Kenneth Branagh) and Victor Frankenstein (2015; dir. Paul McGuigan).
How could a ‘Gothic film’ be set in 1950s suburban America?
Having established understanding of the aesthetics of Gothic and the historical and social context of the movement, the idea of exploring the cultural construct through a new text can really help students to apply what they’ve learned critically and in an exploratory way. Thinking critically about the Gothic can perhaps best happen when it is problematised. Cue Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton’s classic. The incongruity of this film allows the students to engage with the question of the Gothic from a standpoint of being less than certain – always a useful place from which good learning can happen.
Students are asked to annotate screenshots from the film as a paired activity which allows them to apply what they already know about the Gothic aesthetic.
Students are encouraged to explore further screenshots which are perhaps at odds with the more overt Gothic elements of the film. In doing this as a whole-class discussion and annotation exercise, students’ responses are refined and the critical vocabulary needed to deal with the task and the text can be explored. The teacher can push for more precise, refined words, making suggestions and exploring new vocabulary in context where it feels appropriate.
How might the Gothic provide recognisable motifs, archetypes, narratives and feelings?
Introducing students to some of the most significant Gothic motifs in relation to the various texts and films they have enountered can provide them with some critical tools to develop their ideas in the assignment they’ll be asked to write at the end of the scheme of learning. To get to grips with some of these motifs, students might write in an exploratory, creative style.
Students also read non-fiction and explore the different ways that Gothic narratives and motifs continue to inform stories and ideas. Extracts from The London Journal of Flora Tristan (1842) can be used to productively explore how context and cultural momentum provide narrative and stylistic touchstones for writers in the period.
We also explore how the motifs of the Gothic continue to resonate throughout writing that explores the tension between the natural world, the scientific world and the supernatural world. Matthew Shaer’s feature in The New York Times Magazine, which, for the purposes of teaching, I’ve abriged, works really well as a way to teach students how Gothic motifs provide writers with a set of tools to creative narratives and reference points for readers which come already loaded with meaning and insinuation.
Students can begin by exploring a series of extracts from Shaer’s article, focusing on the presence of the Gothic motifs and considering, through discussion, the implications of these motifs and why the writer might have chosen to use them in the context of an article about transgressive science. Modelling a reading of this text and the ensuing discussion could be a productive way to introduce students to the skills needed for GCSE English Language Paper 2 in a much more open-ended way, through inquisitive reading, thinking analytically and working out what works well and what doesn’t work so well.
Why does the Gothic continue to endure and fascinate?
Having explored a range of moving image, poetry, textual extracts and non-fiction, students are charged with the task of producing some analytical writing. Rather than setting this up as a GCSE-style assessment which borrows the format of an exam answer, the focus is on students writing analytically about a text or range of texts and drawing upon everything they’ve learned. Teachers can suggest a range of tasks; more confident students can, with their teacher’s assent, devise their own. ‘To what extent is Edward Scissorhands a Gothic film’ could work well. Alternatively, students might consider something along the lines of ‘Why does the film Victor Frankenstein explore imaginatively the origins of the eponymous character?’ Tasks such as these provide opportunities for students to consider the ways in which the Gothic, as we have explored in the previous week, still has cultural and social resonance, especially in a world in which the tension between the natural world and the world of science and technology is profoundly felt.
Students begin by planning a response. This process is modelled by the teacher, from thinking about a conceptual response, to planning ideas and drawing on examples, sequencing ideas, writing the introduction, using context to inform the response and writing analytically.
We’ve spent lots of time working on ways to teach students to write analytically without recourse to structures such as PEE, PEAL or PEAZLE, but instead, understanding what makes analytical writing effective. We established three particular maxims for effective analytical writing: individual response; precise, cogent expression and personal voice. To deepen this, we agreed that sophisticated analytical writing could be acheived with a variety of techniques that reflects a deeper reading which identifies patterns, conceptualises understanding and which creates a rapport between reader and writer.
Having written my earlier blog post about my thinking behind a thematic English curriculum and how it can provide some posssible solutions to the big questions many of us are currently wrestling with, I wanted to unpack some of that and explore how, for us at Boroughbridge High School, it works in practice. Obviously, this blog post has dealt with one scheme of learning that forms part of a wider thematic unit, so think of this as a ‘slice’ of what students experience rather than a whole. Many of the other elements of what I wrote about manifest themselves elsewhere in the curriculum; others we’re still working on.
My intention in this blog post was to demonstrate some of the thinking behind how we’ve planned our curriculum; what Ofsted would call our ‘intent, implementation and impact.’ A thematic curriculum – especially one which is collaboratively planned – is a continually evolving thing that is always live and in the process of being refined. As always, I’ll makes any updates I think would be helpful as and when the need arises. I’m particularly keen to share some examples of students’ extended writing about the Gothic when they’re ready. Watch this space.