Is there such a thing as the perfect English lesson? Well, no, probably not. At least, not that I’m aware of. There is, you may be disappointed to discover, no single lesson that you can trot out endlessly and clap yourself on the back for being a good egg. If there were it would quickly become dry, boring and you’d quickly be exposed as a fraud. But, if we remove the definite article (whoa! Grammar!) and consider perfect English lessons, then we can probably agree that there is some mileage in having the discussion.
If you’re reading this, I’m assuming that, like me, you’re either a pretty good teacher who wants to be better, or someone with an observed lesson looming who’s looking for tips. In the latter case be warned: there’s not much that can be done to disguise bad practice over the course of a single lesson. There is no silver bullet that can turn us into an amazing teachers overnight; being outstanding is, I think, not a matter of charismatic delivery. It’s about hard work and effort. It’s about thorough planning based on sound assessment for learning. And it’s about consistently being there and having high expectations of and belief in the kids in front of you. I consider myself to be a good teacher who is capable of delivering an outstanding lesson with a fair trailing wind and if I’ve had a good night’s sleep.
Like me, you’ve probably taught some shoddy lessons along the way of which you were immediately and rightly ashamed. The temptation is to nail these failures into the lead lined coffins they belong, but there’s gold in them thar hills. One of my heroes, Samuel Beckett asked in my all time favourite quote, “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” If we can expose these moments of shame to the harsh light of inquiry there is perhaps much to learn, though the process of learning it can be painful.
That aside, these failures are hopefully few and far between. In the average week I reckon I serve up a couple of satisfactory efforts amongst the mainly good lessons I preside over. The outstanding lessons are (and I hope for a couple every week) either the product of inspiration and as surprising to me as they are to my students, or meticulously planned.
It is this latter instance of the well planned, competently delivered English lesson which I’m interested in dissecting. Is it possible to unpick and classify what exactly this is?
What makes English different?
The other question which may be doing the rounds in the nether regions of your mind is, what makes the English lesson different from other lessons? And d’you know what? Apart from the content (the stuff which makes it English rather than say, history or French) there’s probably not much to go on.
Lots of folk have opined on what lessons should have in them and Jackie Beere has already provided us with a concise overview of the perfect Ofsted lesson. Is there any need to think about what a perfect English lesson might be like? Well, I don’t know about you, but us English teachers are a funny breed and maybe, just maybe, a little bit elitist. A little bit sniffy about some of the other subject specialisms. Clearly, ours is the most important subject; maths, the only other real contender is just hard sums and funny squiggles. Where’s the emotion? The passion? The humanity?
We teach students mastery of their own tongue; we expose them to great cultural works; we give them time and space to articulate their adolescent feelings. And we try to teach them about apostrophes and commas and stuff. Where else other than English lessons are students at once creative and analytical? Where else are they exposed to such breadth and variety of experiences? Other subjects all do bits and pieces but in no other lesson will a student encounter such an unpredictable, bewildering array of lovely stuff.
I realise I’ve probably alienated any non English teachers who might have been sufficiently bored to read this far and for that I apologise, the above is of course written with my tongue firmly in cheek.
And by the way, my book The Perfect (Ofsted) English Lesson is now available on Amazon.
Here’s a lesson which, if not perfect, is certainly about as close as I’ve ever come: Anatomy of and Outstanding Lesson