I’ve known about the Literacy Shed for quite a long time now, but it wasn’t something I’d ever really considered using. I was absolutely guilty of writing it off as a ‘primary thing’ that had no place in a secondary English lesson. That opinion changed when its founder, Rob Smith, came to speak at Lead, Learn, Lancs last weekend. I only caught a couple of minutes of his workshop, but even that tiny snippet was enough to make me reconsider how I could use it in my lessons.
The opportunity came yesterday with a Year 7 class, which happened to be my performance management observation. I’m the fourth English teacher they’ve had this year and have only taught them since the start of the Summer term. They’re a class who’d be a challenge even if I’d had them since September. We’d been studying Shakespeare but then their assessment was a generic reading comprehension task, and they did that last week. Throw in that it’s virtually the end of the school year and that I’d was doing it straight after being away on a three day course, and you can well imagine why I was looking for something to really engage them without being gimmicky. Luckily for me, my line manager had said that doing an out of context lesson would be fine.
I had a bit of a browse of the website and eventually decided to use The Present. There’s such a range of high quality clips that choosing wasn’t easy, but this one struck a chord when I watched it and I could immediately see how I’d break it down for a lesson and link it to their prior learning. I started them off with a question – what’s the best present you ever received, and why was it the best? Expecting answers from my students like ‘my PS4’ or similar, imagine my reaction when the first response was ‘the gift of life – because without it I wouldn’t have experienced any of the wonderful things I have in my short time’. Thinking that was a bit of a fluke, the next one was ‘my family – because without them I wouldn’t have any support’. ALL THE FEELS. I did eventually get a PS4 response, which was almost a relief before both myself and the assistant headteacher observing me lost it completely!
With an aim to have them write a third person narrative of the story in the film, I showed them a few seconds of it at a time and asked them a series of questions, to which they answered in bullet points. I specifically asked them to not discuss ideas and answers, as I didn’t want them to influence anybody else. It went something like this (which will be easier to understand if you watch the clip – it’s just a couple of minutes long):
Questions for the students:
What’s going on? How do we know? What evidence is there? They needed to think about the sound as well, which was rapid gunfire.
What do we know about the boy? What evidence is there to support this?
What’s in the box? What was the boy’s initial reaction to it? How do we know this?
[At this point one of the students asked how they could possibly know what was in it. I reminded them about the visual clues we saw – the boy’s mother carried it easily, and the size of it ruled out lots of potential things. I happened to have a cardboard box about the same size in my classroom, a total coincidence, but used it to give them a bit of perspective.]
How has the boy’s reaction changed from when he first opened the box? What clues are there?
How does this make you, as the viewer, feel? Why does the boy react like this? Why doesn’t he like the dog?
At this point I gave them an opportunity to add to their last response.
What’s the purpose of the music in this part? What effect does it have on you, as the viewer?
How do we know that the boy is becoming interested in the dog? What evidence do we have?
How does this new information make the viewer feel? Has it changed your opinion of him?
How does this ending make you feel?
We then had a quick discussion about some of their predictions, what was right and wrong and why they’d thought what they had. There was another moment of wondering who these students were and what had happened to my usual group when one of them asked if the reason the boy didn’t like the dog at first was because he rejected him due to his missing leg, the way society might have rejected the boy. I mean, come on!
We watched the film as a whole after that, looking for clues along the way as to the ‘reveal’ – I told the students afterwards to remember when writing their narratives that they want to give clues without giving away the ending, so as to engage the reader without spoiling the story. I linked the task back to both the fiction writing we’d done at the start of term and to a direct speech punctuation task as a reminder before they got started (and a big hint to my observer!), and they got cracking.
We certainly didn’t get as far into the writing task as I thought we would, but to see them as engaged as they were on a Friday afternoon just before the end of the year, I couldn’t have been happier. We focused on the opening paragraph in particular, and after a bit of independent writing time we shared some examples. They were absolutely brilliant. I’m really looking forward to spending Tuesday’s lesson getting stuck back into them.
If you’re a secondary English teacher and like me had written off the Literacy Shed, I thoroughly recommend having a good look at it and thinking about how you can use it for yourself.