Getting serious about genre pedagogy: designing and teaching genre-based units of work

It’s been a while, almost 7 months in fact, since my last blog here. My initial enthusiastic rush of blogging frenzy back in March, written in 4 or 5 days at the end of the spring term just before I disappeared to China for two weeks’ holiday, petered out upon my return to school for the summer term when internal changes reduced our leadership team to only 3 people and I suddenly found myself doing at least 2 people’s jobs.

So I thought now was the perfect time to resume regular blogging: my wife is 38 weeks pregnant with our second child and I’m responsible for the imminent opening of our School Direct training programme to applicants for September 2014. I’ve got loads of time on my hands, so why not?

I’ve decided to resume penning my thoughts to any who will listen because I believe what I have to say is important, vital even. That might sound arrogant, but as one of my fellow bloggers and inspirational pedagogue David Didau said here, I think I have earned the right to share my ideas because I have put an enormous amount of thought into my approach to teaching over the past 2 years. I am increasingly convinced that I am using a pedagogy – genre pedagogy – that has the potential to transform the educational outcomes of my pupils and as I said here (final paragraph) to democratise abstract, academic knowledge for those who have the least access to it. In short, this is a pedagogy for the oppressed, one which will enable marginalised pupils to gain the powerful knowledge they need to be successful (not a pedagogy of the oppressed, as proposed by Paulo Freire and which teachers like Tait Coles here seem to have rediscovered recently – Freire’s ideas would, I believe, only result in further marginalisation of the least powerful in our society).

So, I plan to blog about the new scheme of work I am planning and delivering to my year 10 history class. This blog post will set the context for this work and lay out what I intend to do and achieve with the class. I will then blog at the end of each week (with a gap for my imminent paternity leave!) on what I did in individual lessons, evaluating them and sharing some thoughts on what I’ll do in the next week.

My year 10 class are set 2 out of 3, with baseline KS2 levels (average English & Maths) of between 4c and 5c, meaning their ‘target grades’ (school’s terminology, not mine) are between grades C and A. However, as Tom Bennett has said in the past here the idea of targets (even when they’re given the label ‘aspirational’ or some other such optimistic name) is incredibly limiting, so my aim is for every pupil to achieve an A or A*. And I don’t just say that to sound morally superior; I genuinely believe that every pupil in the class is capable of achieving the top grades if only my instruction is appropriately organised (to paraphrase the American psychologist Jerome Bruner).  The key is whether I can successfully teach them to organise and express their knowledge and understanding well enough by teaching them to write the key historical genres needed at GCSE.

We are following the OCR History B (Modern World) specification and the section I am teaching is the depth study Unit AO17 ‘The USA, A Land of Freedom? 1945-75’ (having begun their GCSE course in year 9 the pupils have already studied ‘International Relations 1919-39’). The content of this unit is outlined here on pages 33 and 34 and is organised into 4 key questions:

  • Key Question 1: Why was there a ‘Red Scare’ in the USA?
  • Key Question 2: How successful was the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s?
  • Key Question 3: Who improved civil rights the most in the 1960s and 1970s?
  • Key Question 4: How far did other groups achieve civil rights in America?

These key questions give me a crucial starting point in deciding how I can best equip my pupils to achieve top grades in this part of the paper. They represent distinct genres of historical writing, which I have matched against the genres of school history identified here by the brilliant Caroline Coffin. So as well as thinking about the content pupils need to learn to answer those key questions (helpfully laid out by the spec.) I am thinking also of how to teach them to produce those historical genres, which are as follows:

  • Key Question 1: Why was there a ‘Red Scare’ in the USA? Factorial Explanation
  • Key Question 2: How successful was the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s? Argument – Exposition
  • Key Question 3: Who improved civil rights the most in the 1960s and 1970s? Argument – Discussion
  • Key Question 4: How far did other groups achieve civil rights in America? Argument – Exposition

(My plan is to potentially alter key question 4 so as to include the final argument genre of Challenge, which would necessitate changing the question to something like ‘How far do you agree that Native Americans improved their rights more than Hispanics and women in the period?’)

These genres match pretty well to the kinds of questions pupils will face in the exam; this section of the paper always includes a sequence of questions as follows:

a) Describe… [4 marks]

b) Explain why/how…[6 marks]

c) A judgement question like ‘How far…’, ‘To what extent…’ or ‘Do you agree…’ [10 marks]

Therefore the content I deliver related to each key question will be taught whilst also working towards producing the relevant focus genre for that key question, using the teaching and learning cycle outlined here.

A slight complicating factor in this neat journey to exam success for my pupils is that this part of the paper also includes a section of source-based questions. There are three questions, each based on a different source, from the following types (and each worth either 6 or 7 marks):

  • What is the message of the cartoon?
  • How useful is this source to an historian studying…?
  • Why was this source published in…?
  • How far does this source explain…?
  • Do you agree with the interpretation in the source?

As a result, I will also need to explicitly teach pupils how to approach each of these types of question, which don’t fall neatly into Coffin’s taxonomy of school history genres. Consequently, I will include within each of the teaching and learning cycles above a ‘mini-cycle’ that works towards producing one of the source-based questions too. Therefore during the first cycle – teaching the content about the ‘Red Scare’ with the focus genre of ‘factorial explanation’ – I will also teach the ‘How useful is this source to an historian studying…?’ genre using a range of sources on the topic of the Red Scare.

In focusing on the specific genres and how pupils can learn to produce them, I will be considering 3 interrelated levels: whole text, paragraph and sentence/clause.

We will firstly look at the stages and phases of these distinct genres at the whole text level, ensuring pupils understand the larger ‘building blocks’ of each piece of writing and how each section contributes to the genre achieving its purpose of explaining or arguing about the past. My analysis of their last assessment tells me that the pupils in this class are pretty secure in their knowledge of whole-text organisation, so hopefully this will be a simple recap – the next two levels are where the challenge lies for them.

We will therefore move on to look at how information at paragraph level needs to be organised. This is where I can push pupils from using everyday language to express their historical knowledge to using more specialised, abstract and formal language (from ‘Lots of people were scared of Communism’ to ‘There was widespread fear of Communism’. I also hope to demonstrate through this the limitations of the ‘P-E-E’, ‘P-E-A’ or ‘P-E-E-L’ formulae that we unthinkingly drum into our pupils, instead showing them how much academic historical explanation is organised as:

Event/factor expressed as an expanded nominal group

caused/led to/brought about or resulted from/was caused by/was a consequence of

Event/factor expressed as an expanded nominal group.

For example:

The French invasion and occupation of the Ruhr Valley industrial area in January 1923

Was the result of

Germany’s inability to keep up with the reparation payments mandated in the Treaty of Versailles.

Which then opens up opportunities for them to expand on these events, drawing on their contextual knowledge, rather than straitjacketing them into point-evidence-explanation, yawn, yawn, yawn.

Finally, we will focus on the sentence and clause level, ensuring pupils understand what makes up these two units of meaning and equipping them to write sentences that make sense and which clearly express their historical knowledge, something many pupils in the class – almost all of whom are EAL – struggle with.

That’s as far as I’ve got in my planning. I start teaching this unit on Wednesday 6th November so I will post again before then to outline my plans for the first week of lessons in the scheme.

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12 thoughts on “Getting serious about genre pedagogy: designing and teaching genre-based units of work

  1. After the exchanges on twitter this morning I looked at this blog and the previous one and found them very thought provoking. I love the work you are doing helping students with their use of language and think I could learn much from your work. However, one thing bothers me about your focus. Ultimately progression in history is not through better facility with language but through a better understanding of the material. The depth and breadth of the context you bring to bear leads to better understanding and thus better answers to the questions. This is why the NC levels are flawed because they assume progression is independent of the material used. True, sometimes understanding is not possible without the right language but there is no generic ‘explaining skill’ the acquisition of which will turn you into a strong history student. That is only possible if you have a deep and broad grasp of the context. Therefore I am unsure about the way you have divided up your course which seems to be with the aim of developing generic explanatory skills. I am all in favour of encouraging students to use more sophisticated language and showing them how this language can help them make more precise or nuanced judgements. However, they will be polishing an empty shell, becoming better at English but not history, if the core goal is not broader and deeper understanding of the context.

    • Heather,

      Thank you for taking the time to read the blog & post a comment.

      I completely agree that pupils get better at history by knowing more & understanding more deeply. I also completely agree with your critique of the NC levels for history. But I also believe pupils’ ability to demonstrate this knowledge & understanding is inherently bound up in the language they use to do so; getting better doesn’t just mean knowing & understanding more. For instance a pupil has got better at history if they are able to move from saying/writing ‘there were lots of poor people in the 1800s’ to ‘poverty was widespread in the 19th century’. So to dichotomise (is that a word?!) the content & the language is unhelpful, in my view.

      Please don’t misunderstand what I am going to teach either (I hope this will become clearer as I continue the blog), as I will be ensuring I deliver the key content of the specification. In fact, I’ll spend about 10 hours of this scheme of work doing so before we explicitly begin to address the issue of how to write the factorial explanation genre.

      As such my core goal is absolutely to broaden & deepen the pupils’ understanding – no empty shell being polished, I promise.

      • The SFL/Sidney School/genre folks would argue that you can’t learn an academic discipline without learning the language used to write its genres, so there is no dichotomy between studying history and the language of history (cf Mary Schleppegrell’s wonderful book, “The Language of Schooling” and the work of Martin & Halliday that you’ve cited elsewhere on the blog). Thanks for this inspiring write-up of your course!

      • Nigel,

        Thank you for your comment. Do you know Mary Schleppegrell? I have read a little of her work and an academic I am working with from a UK university has invited her over to visit in March, so I should get the opportunity to meet her.

      • No not personally, but I’ve heard her speak at TESOL conferences a couple of times, and she’s brilliant. Her current work is right up your alley: helping English-language learners handle the increased literacy requirements of the new Common Core State Standards (the closest thing we have to a national curriculum in the US). It’s great that she’s going to speak in the UK!

    • Harry,

      Thank you. I hope there is much to steal.

      I’m hoping to reciprocate by stealing lots of ideas on ‘hinge questions’ from you! I’m going to try to incorporate them into this unit…watch this space!

  2. Thanks for this, Lee – I found it interesting, and look forward to reading about your/your pupils’ on-going learning journey.

    Just one thought about “my aim is for every pupil to achieve an A or A*”, which is a sentiment I’ve seen expressed by others in their blogs, too. I absolutely agree with having high aspirations and teaching in such a way that you enable all pupils to aim for the highest standards possible. I just have a concern that there may be some pupils who will work their socks off, really try their best and end up with a grade which ISN’T A/A*. It may be that despite their and your best efforts, meeting the A/A* criteria was just beyond their grasp, but they really have achieved the best they can. Do you accept this as a possibility? If you do, what would your response be?

    I suppose I’m asking whether “my aim is for every pupil to achieve an A or A*” is something you would make explicit to your Year 10 class. If you did, would all see it as aspirational or would some see it as unhelpful pressure, and if a student really did work as hard and as effectively as they possibly could and gained a B, what would stop them (and you?) feeling as if it was a failure?

    Just interested in what you think.

    • Jill,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      I do accept as a possibility that not all pupils will get an A or A*. I genuinely believe all are capable of it, but with much beyond my direct control (how much they revise etc) I obviously can’t guarantee it. But your question has made me reflect – I do need to be careful not to alienate pupils with the way I talk about aiming for A and A*s. I think what I will say to them in future is that I am preparing them to have the knowledge they need and the ability to express that knowledge in a way that will enable them to produce A and A* work. Whether they get there is not solely down to me but I will do all I can to equip them.

  3. Pingback: Getting serious about genre pedagogy: designing...

  4. Reblogged this on Nigel "Teacher" Caplan and commented:
    Here is a wonderful example of the genre-based teaching-learning cycle in action in an English year 10 (10th grade) history classroom. I’m particularly impressed by the way the teacher/blogger, Lee, has integrated “the language of schooling” (in Mary Schleppegrell’s phrase) with the content of his course and the writing demands of the final exam (which has more writing on it than most American equivalents).

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