The second principle is “Present new material in small steps with student practice after each step.”
Do I do this?
Not as often as I should. (I’m not going to get 100% on this quiz, Sir.)
Why don’t I do it more often? Sometimes I think due to ‘the curse of knowledge‘: I underestimate what I know and sometimes think that tasks are simple, one-step tasks when, for novice learners, they are actually a couple of steep flights.
And sometimes, in what is developing as a bit of a motif, I am panicked about ‘getting through the text’. But less haste, more speed. What does it avail any of us to have ‘done’ the text, if students lack quick, confident understanding and haven’t been given enough opportunity to consolidate their knowledge in written form? Can we complain about their poor written analysis when we don’t prioritise writing in class? No! (She says, acutely conscious of her own shortcomings in this very area.)
Okay. So. On board with this idea. But how to go about it?
[Thinks hard. Eats some Sakatas.]
Start at the beginning
Teach characters and plot. Really teach them. Test them. Make them required knowledge. Anyone who has taught The Tempest for two months only to discover that their students still aren’t sure which one’s Antonio and which one’s Alonso will understand the importance of this, ditto anyone who has had students gasp when they realise Boo Radley is in the Finch house, even though you are seven weeks into the unit and they were supposed to read the novel in the holidays. As Anthony Radice has pointed out, students need to know the full plot at the beginning of their study in order to understand the significance of events and images as they occur in the text. If students don’t know characters and plot, I’m building my house on sand.
Start before the beginning
What would really help with the whole small steps thing is careful sequencing of school programs. For example, we teach Shakespeare to every year group. (Well, in the schools I’ve worked at; I’m lucky.) Ideally, after five years of annual Shakespeare instruction, we should not need to spend much – if any – time teaching his context to Year 12. We should, if we’ve sequenced our instruction carefully in the earlier years, have Year 12 students who are all over Elizabeth I, James I, the Chain of Being, the Age of Discovery, Renaissance Humanism and the Post-Reformation spiritual and political turmoil.
Know what I want my students to know
Map out exactly what I want them to know at the end. Sounds obvious, but it takes more time and effort to figure out than you can possibly imagine. You need to know something really, really well to communicate it clearly to someone else. There’s probably an Einstein quotation about that somewhere.
Then let students have that map.
Write early, write often
Carve out the time. Teach a small chunk of the text. Then set a writing exercise based on that. Then teach the next chunk. Then they write. Let them write. Every lesson.
How small should that small chunk be? I don’t know. Ten minutes of text teaching -> ten minutes of modelling and student writing -> ten minutes of text teaching, etcetera? Or twenty-five minutes of text teaching -> ten minutes of modelling -> fifteen minutes of student writing?
It might vary; I need to experiment with that. And it’s time to get hard core about student punctuality and preparation: we’re all on the clock.