Image: a hand-written manuscript of William Wordsworth's 'I wandered lonely as a cloud' © The British Library Board
The activity described in this case study was delivered through the School-University Partnerships Initiative (SUPI). Funded by Research Councils UK, SUPI involves 12 universities working in partnership with local schools, with coordination support from the NCCPE. SUPI projects aim to develop more effective engagement between researchers and school pupils, and to inspire a broader range of pupils to develop inquiring minds by engaging them in a diversity of exciting hands-on research related activities.
‘The Romantics’ was the first 'school-led' curriculum support activity organised through the Bristol SUPI. The activity ran as a twilight training session in March 2015, bringing together 45 English teachers from seven of the Cabot Learning Federation secondary academies as part of a ‘Federation Network Night’, a termly subject-specific CPD event designed by the Senior Network Leader.
Project background and aims
The context for this activity was the introduction of new GCSE English Literature specifications for 2017, which will feature Romantic poetry and unseen fiction and literary non-fiction from the 18th and 19th Centuries. In anticipation of these changes, it was decided that a CPD session on this topic would help to support staff; it was also hoped that exploring this period of literature within its historical and cultural contexts would revive the love of literature, which is often lost in the pursuit of pedagogic and examination exigencies. The session was designed in partnership between Helen Angell from Cabot Learning Federation and Dr Jessica Fay from the Department of English at the University of Bristol.
What did we do?
Helen introduced the session with two provocative questions: ‘What do we need to know about Romanticism to teach it properly and enthuse our students? And how are we going to teach it?’ On each table were handouts prepared by Jessica, including an introduction to British Romanticism with key dates, definitions and contextual information about the period; three extracts from Wordsworth’s poem, ‘The Prelude’ illustrating different versions of the extract from each of the revised editions of the book; and two poems by Wordsworth and Shelley.
Jessica explained that the materials for the session are based on her own research interests in Wordsworth’s poetry. She explained – with reference to the three versions of The Prelude – that she would talk about love and epic in the work of first generation (Wordsworth) and second generation (Shelley, Byron) Romantic poets. She also outlined definitions of Romanticism and introduced some of the historical contexts from which this poetry emerged, from the American Revolution, to the First Reform Act, and issues of social justice and nationalism and the beginning of the French Revolution. Lively table discussions followed, exploring questions such as: Why are the Romantics superior?; Is this arrogance or the establishment?
There was a clear consensus that the session had stimulated teachers’ interest in research. Of those teachers who responded to a post-event survey, all agreed or strongly agreed with this statement and in this respect it can be argued that the SUPI aim of bringing research into schools has been very positively received by teachers. One teacher commented that the session had helped to ‘develop my own knowledge of the Romantic Period in order to impart this to my students in lessons. Having an expert who really knew this period well inspired a desire in me to delve deeper into research/contextual information which will inform my own pedagogy’.
Another teacher said: ‘The part of the session where we were asked to brainstorm different ways into teaching Romantic texts was useful, as we will need to differentiate across our classes, particularly for the lower ability who will have difficulty accessing the actual texts themselves.’
Whilst the main aim of the session was to help prepare teachers for the forthcoming changes to the English GCSE curriculum, it was also viewed as an opportunity to stimulate teachers’ appreciation of English Literature. This was concisely described by Helen as ‘re-engaging with your own learning. And that thing about lifelong learning… If we can encourage people to refresh their subject knowledge, but also just take part in research professionally, and perhaps on their teaching, then actually that’s of real value.’
The overall survey evaluation of the session was extremely positive for most respondents and all expressed their appreciation of the speaker’s knowledge and their use of research. This is a pleasing basis for the development of the SUPI partnership between the CLF and the University, where the expertise of academic staff and students can be utilised in support of teacher CPD.
Key lessons learned
- Currently these sessions do not fully address the pedagogic needs of teachers and should be framed as a standalone session for obtaining contextual or specialist knowledge or built upon as part of a programme/sequence of CPD sessions where teachers discuss how they would teach the knowledge learnt. Where appropriate, in the future we would look to have a teacher and academic collaborate more on a session to ensure both specialist knowledge and teaching applications are covered.
- The subject specialist session does not suit the needs of all teachers and may not be useful for teaching across ability ranges. We would consider advertising sessions to specific teacher audiences (e.g. NQTs) depending on the academic content covered and how much time will be spent on applying the academic content to lessons.
- One of the strengths of this model was the high level subject knowledge from Jessica which required a fairly senior academic. If we were to continue to offer CPD support for schools by senior academics, we would need to consider what the benefits are for the academics to get involved, and publicise this clearly to recruit them.
Keys to making it work
- The subject expertise of the University researcher is important for gaining respect of the teachers but of equal importance is the teaching experience. This was commented upon by a number of teachers who have expressed appreciation of her skills in working with a ‘tough and tired group of teachers at the end of a school day. The way that Jessica acts is highly important for the success of the Romantics session’.
- Matching teachers’ needs and the expertise of the academic is key and currently requires someone in a schools liaison role. They can also set up good communication between the academic leading the session and a teacher (on behalf of others). It is particularly important for them to decide what is mutually beneficial and to bridge the gap between these expectations through planning meetings.
- Opportunities for teachers to discuss and ask questions are an important part of a subject specialist session. These sessions represent an opportunity for intellectual debate for teachers and should be seen as a different approach to skills training. This also helps them to discuss teaching applications of the knowledge gained in the session.