Back to school: Five top tips for the new school year

By York Notes Series Consultant, Mike Gould


How can we as English teachers prepare GCSE students for the challenges and opportunities a new school year brings? For me, it comes down to trying to marry a business-like, confident approach to the requirements ahead alongside a reminder that English is a rich source for personal growth and expression of ideas. A tall order? For many of you these might already be the touchstones you work by. So, how can it be achieved?

1. A welcoming and engaging display

The displays in English classrooms are often second to none, but prioritising a wall or a display specifically for English Literature texts can reap rewards. You could have individual or linked set poems displayed alongside evocative images, or scatter key quotations from a novel at angles in different colours, or create a timeline for a set text with political events and canonical works from the period. Such visual reminders can help keep the texts alive throughout the year.

2. Thoughtful layout

Thinking creatively about your classroom layout can also be useful. Whilst each year group you teach might require different approaches, building flexibility into the table layout is always useful. Perhaps a set-up where pairs can easily link up with other pairs (for example, tables in a row, enabling students to ‘turn round to work with others’) will allow you to move between more direct teaching and guided learning, matching the need for brisk delivery with more exploratory discussion.

3. Surgery space

Linked to the above, how easy is it for a student to physically speak with you during a lesson? Is there a spare chair close to the desk that a student can quietly occupy if they need to discuss something? Alternatively, is it possible to create a surgery space – a small corner of the classroom (it would be great with easy chairs, but that might not be a reality) where you can talk to students one-to-one?

4. Shared strategy

While you may feel anxious yourself about the year ahead, giving students a sense of confidence that they can get through it is vital. Sharing plans for the year – what you will cover when, what needs to be done by what date – may already be established practice, but if it isn’t, a ‘road map’ which can be shared with the class through a displayed timetable, or individually tailored to particular groups’ needs, will help enormously.

5. Just imagine

It is something I have blogged about before, but there is a natural tendency to think that the first priority of any ‘back to school’ period is to hit the ground running in terms of cramming in content, revising text knowledge, learning persuasive techniques and so on. I would argue that putting aside time for creative work with no ulterior motive (no need to mention the English Language paper) for a lesson or two is time well-spent. Perhaps you could provide half a dozen short texts – poems on Autumn, the opening paragraph to a novel from the point of view of someone the students’ age, even a few lines from a play or song – and give students some free rein to draw, write or compose their own pieces.

It is worth reminding students that at the heart of English is the creative spark and the desire to express feelings. It is the very reason many of us chose to teach it and as students why we enjoyed studying it. So, the beginning of the new school year might be a great time to reflect on the summer just past or simply to indulge oneself by pursuing an imaginative route that diverts from the normal road. And this is as true for you as it is for students: how often do students see teachers write creatively?

To sum up, the route through any school year is a shared one, but for GCSE, with so much uncertainty as well as promise ahead for students, having a teacher who has mapped out the path for them will be incredibly liberating and reassuring. And, realising that the person they trust with their learning is also willing to listen and encourage creativity will reap dividends over and beyond any final grade, however satisfying that may be.

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