Last year, for my self-directed appraisal target, I picked to focus on talking less in class. I have a good teacher voice and I like to wax lyrical; sometimes I rely on this too heavily, particularly when I am tired. I should know better: my own mind wanders at an astonishing rate when I am just sitting and listening, which is why I take notes/blog at the CPD I attend – otherwise I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to maintain my focus.
I asked for help coming up with ideas to talk less from the Teaching & Learning Team at school. We talked about a few ideas and one of my Geography colleagues, Ghaz, talked about her mystery lessons. If you talk too much in a mystery lesson, it ruins the mystery, so it should be a really straightforward way to ensure one talks less. This reminded me of an exercise I once saw done at SHP with sources and so I decided to try it with my year 9s during their study of JFK.
I planned a three-lesson sequences focused on the alleged mystery surrounding the death of JFK. I’m not really one for conspiracy theories but we do this every year with Y9 towards the end of term, because it fits into our wider study of the 60s, it’s vaguely familiar (important with students who have had their final levels reported and might not be continuing with history at GCSE) and it’s a really good exercise in looking critically at sources.
In the first lesson, I introduced the topic with the iconic picture of JFK Jr saluting his father’s coffin, asking for inferences. I then expanded the picture to include Jackie and Caroline Kennedy, and explained that it was a funeral. They then did this task:
I made the information into QR codes, which were printed onto coloured paper and stuck around the room; students used school iPods to go treasure seeking. I used my usual trick of telling them to read the instructions on the board and ask me only if they didn’t understand: everybody got it, so I barely spoke at all. At the end of the lesson we recapped the main events, according to the Warren Commission.
I started the second lesson like this.
I do love a good “True or false?” starter. As I had hoped, it led to a lot of discussion, which was led by one of my laddish boys – less talk from me again. Then we moved onto this:
They completed this task in pairs, and using slightly different information packs. They all had some of the same information, but the rest was intended to lead them in one particular direction. Some students had information that pointed towards a Mafia conspiracy; some pointed towards a government plot; the final set pointed towards a communist plot. I chose the pairs ahead of time and planned which pair would have which piece of evidence, which allowed me to differentiate as some of the evidence is more complicated. This was a bottom set; with a higher set I might have mixed the evidence up or provided two conflicting sets for my top achievers.
This section of the mystery was based on the activity I saw done by Dale Banham and Russell Hall a few years ago at SHP, which was about the murder of Kirov. Giving out different evidence ensures that each group will come to a different conclusion, which provokes valuable discussion, both of the topic (verbal rehearsal for writing up) and the nature of evidence.
The pairs were eager to get started. Again, nobody needed explanation after reading the instructions and checking with each other; I circulated the room prompting them to look at this piece of evidence or that. Nobody used all the evidence; I had purposefully provided too much to try and encourage them to be discerning about what they used. For people needing a bit more of a push, I provided a list of things to consider. Less talk from me again.
The activity took the rest of the lesson and half of the third lesson. At this point student pairs – now Expert Investigators – presented their infographics. For this I provided spectacles (3D ones with the lenses pushed out) and a magnifying glass, because, in the words of Sheldon Cooper, what’s life without whimsy? Some were dismayed to find convincing evidence that pointed in a completely different direction to theirs, which made them really think about whose evidence was more trustworthy.
Bonus feet in that picture, sorry.
Overall? I barely talked at all, so in terms of my target, it was a winner. It created some really heated debate about who did what and the difference between circumstantial evidence and solid fact. It inspired a definite thirst for knowledge among my students, some of whom started badgering the observer (a fellow history teacher) for more facts they could use to win the debate. Some went home and found more information, off their own backs. A bottom set, most of whom were in the final throes of their history education. I was impressed! We’ve had a bit of discussion about what outstanding classroom behaviour looks like, with the suggestion being it is characterised by a certain “leaning-in” of students – they were definitely leaning quite a long way in with this one.
Drawbacks? Making the resources took a while but I will always have them now; and so will you, if you want them.
My resources –
Lesson 1 – fact-finding QR codes
The PDFs were Publisher files but WordPress objects to those – please contact me if you want the editable versions.
Have a look at Teaching History from 1979 ( Hodgkinson and Long) on JFK and “Slow-learning children” ….really years ahead of its time