The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 160 Transcript
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
I think every teacher would love to have a thick file of lesson plans that are all home runs, each one guaranteed to engage students, encourage collaboration, teach our curriculum in a rich and relevant way, and develop our students into lifelong learners who can take what they learn and use it in a way that benefits the world. And because my job here is to help you do your work better, when I come across lessons that fit that description—especially if they would fit in a lot of subject areas and grade levels—I like to share them with you.
And that’s what I’m doing today. My guest is Jane Currell, a primary teacher who currently works with nine and ten-year-olds in the U.K. Recently Currell had her students do a project that ended up really hitting the nail on the head: an interdisciplinary unit where students studied a fictional place called “Alchemy Island.” After they’d studied the geography of the island and analyzed the materials found there, Currell had them work on an environmental campaign to stop a project that would result in the deforestation of a portion of the land. Unlike a more traditional persuasive writing assignment, this task had more relevance and more tangible consequences, and Currell’s students were hooked, engaging thoughtfully in the work and collaborating in a way that Currell hadn’t seen before.
We’re at a time in history when it’s absolutely vital for citizens to speak up about the things they believe in and to understand how a powerful voice can make real change happen. Today we’ll look at how Currell taught her students to do this and how you can do the same—with any topic— in your own classroom.
Before we start, I’d like to thank Listenwise for sponsoring this episode. Listenwise is an award-winning online listening curriculum that brings NPR podcast lessons into your classroom for grades 2-12. Teach listening skills while building content knowledge using engaging and relevant non-fiction podcasts. Listenwise is great for addressing the listening & speaking standards on your ELA state assessments, like the Smarter Balanced test. And with Listenwise Premium, you get built-in literacy supports, automatically scored listening comprehension quizzes, and interactive transcripts so students can read along as they listen. Research shows that better listeners are better learners. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at listenwise.com/cultofpedagogy
Support also comes from National Geographic Education. During a school year like no other, National Geographic Education is here to offer support with a space to connect, learn, share, and celebrate successes along the way. We invite you to explore National Geographic Education’s free tools and resources to engage and inspire K-12 students wherever they are learning: virtually, in-person, or a hybrid of the two. Join the community and the conversation with other educators across all our social platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, at @NatGeoEducation. Plus, explore all of our free resources by visiting www.NatGeoEd.org/LearnAnywhere
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This mini-course is that compass: A set of four “laws” for planning instruction. Just instruction. Yes, many other factors influence the quality of a student’s education, but when it comes to instructional planning—that 45- to 90-minute block you set aside for actual pedagogy—following these principles produces the most powerful learning. In about two hours, this short course teaches you the laws through videos, guided notes, and quick module quizzes to check your understanding. To learn more about the course, visit cultofpedagogy.com/laws, and use the code LISTENER at checkout to take $5 off the tuition. That’s cultofpedagogy.com/laws.
Now here’s my interview with Jane Currell about teaching a campaign unit.
GONZALEZ: Jane, welcome to the podcast.
CURRELL: Thank you. Great to be here.
GONZALEZ: We are going to be talking today basically about a lesson that you tried spontaneously that ended up really working out well. That’s pretty much the main thing that we’re going to be talking about, about doing this type of lesson where students are doing campaigns. Before we get into the details, tell us a little bit about your work as an educator.
CURRELL: Yeah, well I qualified as a teacher in Britain 26 years ago. Since then I’ve had quite a lot of adventures teaching in England for a number of years but also India, Mozambique and Kurdistan. I was teaching in a range of settings in those places, some of them in urban, some situations, and some in international schools. I had a range of experiences around the world. Then 3.5 years ago, I returned to Britain, and I studied a masters in effective learning and teaching at the Institute of Education in London. Also during that time, I had been teaching in a number of contexts in inner city London. Now I teach 9- and 10-year-olds in that context. At the moment I’m very excited because in my school I’m facilitating the process we’re going through, which is to diversify and decolonize the curriculum, which is something I’m really passionate about. I also coordinate history and geography, which of course when you bring those together, that’s a massive opportunity for integrating social justice perspectives in the curriculum. We don’t have social studies in the UK. We have the subjects separately but we use them through the topic work that we do.
GONZALEZ: First of all, when you say you qualified as a teacher, were you called a history teacher? Is that what the title was?
CURRELL: No, I’m a primary school teacher.
GONZALEZ: I gotcha.
CURRELL: Key Stage 2, which is 7- to 11-year-olds, yeah.
GONZALEZ: Oh, okay, okay. For that age group, you still, you study all of the different subject areas as a teacher?
CURRELL: Yes, yeah.
GONZALEZ: Got it, got it.
CURRELL: Elementary, as you would say, yeah.
GONZALEZ: Okay, yeah. If someone is teaching history there, is that what it’s called? It’s just called history, or is it even separated further?
CURRELL: It’s called history, and geography is geography.
CURRELL: But we do a lot of topic work, so within one theme, you might have both. So they do overlap, but it’s not anything like the social studies setup, which when I taught in international school with a strong American influence, as I understood it, it took me a while to get my head around it there. It’s history and geography and citizenship. Am I right? All sort of in one?
GONZALEZ: I think it must be called civics where you’re sort of learning about legal types of things and participation in government and that sort of thing is sort of civics.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, I guess that would be the citizenship piece of it. That’s interesting though that they’re separated.
GONZALEZ: And you also have a blog.
CURRELL: Yes. I had dreamt about it for a long time and at the beginning of lockdown, I began writing at passion4pedagogy.com.
GONZALEZ: Passion for Pedagogy, yes.
CURRELL: Passion for Pedagogy. I’m really writing there all about critical pedagogy, so how to look at education through social justice lenses and how to bring that into your teaching. I’m talking about the journey we’re making in our school and how to create a more anti-racist curriculum and also think about other areas such as gender and ability and so on, climate justice.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. That’s so interesting because that’s been such a big topic this year in particular. It’s gotten even more attention this year in America, and so to know that there’s an equal amount of work going on over in Great Britain is encouraging.
CURRELL: Yes, no, it’s really happening. People are really engaging with it. Amazing, yeah.
GONZALEZ: Fantastic. So this is sort of a very small piece of that kind of work or kind of an example, I guess of how you’re doing that. You were teaching a unit, and then you sort of added this campaign element to it. So we’re going to be teaching, we’re going to talk a little bit about the unit that you taught, and then teaching listeners how they could do the same type of thing with their own students. Let’s start by having you tell me a little bit about the unit that you did and how it kind of evolved into a project where students were actually working on an environmental campaign.
CURRELL: Yes. Well, I was teaching a new class. It was the beginning of the academic year. We’d kept things quite formal, in terms of structure in the classroom, and I knew I wanted to break out of that and do something that would mean the children were working in groups, and there was a lot more talk going on between them, and they could present things. So I decided that campaigns is one of the things that we do in the upper years at our school, so I picked on that. I felt a little bit, it felt like a risk because I didn’t know my students that well. I’d just been with them for three or four weeks, and I was still working out behavior issues. I knew that I wanted to try out some pedagogy that meant they had some choice and there was collaboration going on and a lot of the things I guess I’d been learning about in my MA. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and give them a chance to show me what they could do. I realized that with the campaigns, because I picked an issue and then they were going to do different kinds of persuasive writing, that there were lots of different types of writing that you could do to be persuasive for a campaign. That’s where they would get a choice. I knew that socially they would enjoy working in groups. I jumped into it and was very glad afterwards that I had because I saw the benefit of a bonding as a class and I grew in confidence in knowing that they could manage different kinds of structure in the class and do so well. I learned a lot through it. My head teacher actually said, you could have done it earlier in the term, but I wasn’t ready at that point but I was pleased that I had jumped and taken the risk in the end.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. So the topic itself was Alchemy Island, this was this fictional island that you had been studying already with the students?
CURRELL: Yes, yes. So that was our theme for the term, sort of seven-week term. We used that topic, that was the science and geography, but also there was lots we could do for our writing.
CURRELL: So within our writing, that’s where I wanted to include it.
GONZALEZ: Got it. Basically the way you transitioned from it being this interdisciplinary study of environmental stuff and the geography of this island, then you sort of just gave them this scenario telling them that the island was going to be developed for commercial purposes. You’ve just completely made this up.
CURRELL: Yes, yeah. So the island has an area of forest on it, so I decided that, I made that choice. There could have been other issues [inaudible 0:13:17] but I decided to choose an environmental topic, which lent itself to that setting, and that part of this forest would be destroyed for this development and introduced it to them through a mock letter. This was going to happen and how did they feel about that? It went from there.
GONZALEZ: Right, right. Then they all started to work on different ways of trying to inform the public and try to campaign against this development so that they could keep that portion of the island intact, I guess.
CURRELL: Yes, yeah. That was where the choice came in, because they came up with how they could communicate about it, the different ways that you can use writing, whether it’s creating a placard or a poster or writing a speech. Then when we had had all the ideas together, they decided which one they wanted to work on, and I think that was a key, the motivating factor. I wasn’t saying like, we’re all going to do this, but they got to choose which bits they would work on, which was positive for them.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, and you got, you found that the engagement was really high from them, the students really got into it?
CURRELL: Yes, yeah, and I think that was A) because it was an environmental issue, a social issue. They already knew quite a lot about. Because it’s real life, that they could see this going on all the climate campaigns near where we live and then to be able to choose not being told and not doing it as a whole class, being able to choose their specific area to work on, I think, made it very meaningful for them.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. So since this worked out so well, you hit on something and thought, this is a great thing that other teachers could do. This type of project, teachers could do with their students on a variety of different topics. A lot of times we will have students just write these sort of generic persuasive essays, which isn’t really a real form of writing in the world. It’s usually, it’s people write to persuade, whether it’s a letter to someone to change their mind or a public interest campaign type of a thing or they’re out on the streets protesting, and that’s persuasive writing also, whether it’s a speech or whatever. So what is it that you think that makes doing a campaigns unit with students work so well? You’ve done some reflection about what is it about this kind of project that works so well? Can you share some of those reasons?
CURRELL: Yes. Yeah, I think there is several things. Firstly, I just mentioned that it relates to real life. So I’m teaching 9- and 10-year-olds. They know about climate change. We were in a context where the summer before we were together there were lots of demonstrations going on. I think they are genuinely interested in it already because it’s a real-life issue. It’s also a great opportunity to integrate critical pedagogy. So you can use your lenses of social justice. You can look at it through the lenses and ask questions like, is it fair? Is it fair that people are going to be moved? Is it fair that the forest is going to be cut down? What’s the impact of that? Who has the power in this situation? So you’re just raising these critical questions and how much voice do the people on the island have? Can they change that decision? So I think being able to bring criticality and create that consciousness in them is just really valuable in developing them as people. Also you are giving them opportunity to practice using their voices, so it’s a very safe environment and very early steps in learning what is a campaign and making that connection with oh yes, in life I have a voice and I can make a stand. It gives them a sort of gentle introduction to that that hopefully they can take on into life and put into action at other times.
CURRELL: I also really appreciated that it was collaborative. So when they’re sitting in their groups, they’re sharing resources, they’re talking. When they’re writing [inaudible 0:18:13] sentences, they’re sharing them and hopefully growing each other. And where you’ve got mixed ability groups, just the talk and the learning that they sort of catch, because learning is so social. I was really happy that I could have them in groups facing each other and interacting a lot more than some other lessons. That was an advantage. Lastly, actually I discovered that you could, they could practice a huge range of writing styles between them because creating a placard is very different from writing a speech or creating an interview for one of the developers to ask them why they’re doing it and trying to persuade them not to. So they’re all exposed to that, even though they’re in one group because they’re later going to present it to each other. Actually, as we go along, we stop and share bits of our writing. They’re all exposed to a whole range of ways of writing. So I think they’re getting a lot of breadth from that, from just one theme. I think that’s another big advantage.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, and that’s ultimately what this is. It is a writing unit, it’s just that it’s got a much clearer focus and a better real-world application.
CURRELL: Yes, yeah.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. So what our main goal today is to sort of teach people how they can do this themselves. So we’ve worked on getting sort of a step-by-step process, and you’ve written a blog post that’s going to have these steps in them also, so that if people are listening, they can go over to the website and find that. But we’re going to walk people through it right now. What would be the first thing a teacher needs to do if they’re thinking, yeah, this sounds great. I would love to do this kind of thing with my own students.
CURRELL: Well, I think you need to look ahead at the term ahead and what’s coming up and see what are the themes or topics that you could, that lend themselves to a campaign. Is there something that naturally has a social justice angle that you could draw out? For me, it was the deforestation topic but it might be if you were doing a space topic, who were the first female astronauts? Or who were the first Black or people of color in space? So you can choose which lenses, which critical lenses you looked through really, but looking at the theme ahead, where is a natural fit, really, so that it is not too forced for a campaign? And then [they’re? 0:21:15] drawing up a list of that. If it’s writing that you want to come out of that, then connecting it to possible activities that could go with that.
CURRELL: So I think that’s the first step.
GONZALEZ: And then after that, so you’ve sort of got some rough ideas of curricular connections, what’s next?
CURRELL: Then I think you need to clarify the focus. I chose that we would do it on deforestation, that it would be an environmental issue, and it was my first campaign. So for me, that felt safe, but you don’t necessarily have to do that. You could pinpoint short lists, two or three different issues, and actually have the class vote on which one they want to do. Either way, you need to pinpoint the campaign focus or discuss it and vote with your class so that you know exactly what your issue is going to be.
GONZALEZ: Okay. And you and I have done a little bit of talking ahead of time about, No. 1, the value of choice in general in an activity, and then really where to place it. At a certain point, I thought, well it would really be nice if students could choose an issue that they are passionate about. But then again, there is an argument for the first time they learn about this type of writing, putting the structure in of let’s all do it on the same topic. But then you allow the choice in this specific sort of sub-genre, whether it’s going to be a placard for a demonstration or a speech or a commercial, an ad, a video or something like that where there’s different ways. But with that same kind of topic at least then you can have research materials and that sort of thing and not have it be so divergent in that very first exposure to that kind of writing.
CURRELL: Yes, and I think also it’s about knowing your class and knowing what you’re ready for and what they’re ready for. And if they’re older and they’ve done several campaigns before, and they already have their passions, then it would definitely fit to give them that choice right from the start, yeah?
GONZALEZ: Right. Okay. So you’ve got, in this first round especially, you’ve got your topic. You’ve kind of got the theme. Everyone understands. Then what is Step 3? What do you do next?
CURRELL: I think for Step 3 you need to start pinning down the resources you need so that A) they start to understand the theme. So in my case, that was we looked at videos about deforestation in the Amazon. I wanted them to understand what was happening and why and the impact of that. So helping them to understand both the theme but also grasping the concept of what campaigning is. So then we looked at clips and of course from climate justice demonstrations, there have been a lot of children on those, a lot of young people on those demonstrations. Helping them to understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and what the impact might be, yeah. Really pinning down your resources so that you’ve got a way to hook them into the theme, understand what campaigning is, and then all the time you’re developing the vocabulary that they’ll need, so introducing, having those resources ready as well so that you can introduce them to the technical words, things like deforestation and climate change and all that side of it but also persuasive language and the words that they’re going to need to use in their writing.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. And I’m thinking everyone listening, the word that should be continually firing as they’re listening to this is interdisciplinary, because this is really where this becomes an interdisciplinary type of project. It could be done in a science class. It could be done in a history class. It could be done in a nutrition class. I mean really, whatever it is you’re studying, those concepts could be transferred over to a certain type of persuasive writing. This is where you’re really building that content knowledge.
CURRELL: Yes, yeah.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Okay. And so once that’s, those resources have been collected, then what’s the next step as a teacher?
CURRELL: So I think then you need to be identifying the types of writing that you want your students to develop and practice. So you might do that again yourself, but actually that part of the process, I gave back to the class. You could either do it in advance, or you have your ideas, and then you toss it to the class. And it was the class that came up with, from watching the clips and talking, they knew you could make a placard or you could make a song, write a song about it or create an interview. So identifying and knowing exactly what you want to develop in them in terms of writing.
GONZALEZ: I’m thinking at this point too, especially depending on whether kids are really even familiar with this type of thing, showing them models of different types of campaigns, and it seems like it would even be valuable to look at one specific campaign that maybe a company or an organization is doing, and look at all the different ways they’ve tried to reach people with the same message through different mediums. Whether it’s even just like a social media post or video or television commercials or whatever it is, to see how they take the same message and it’s parsed out into different kinds of end products.
CURRELL: Yes, yeah. That’s a great idea. The ones that we’d had going on around us were Extinction Rebellion. We looked at their ways of demonstrating, but you’re right. There’s a great opportunity to go abroad or what else were they doing, yeah.
GONZALEZ: Right, right. Almost even how they would change their messaging a bit depending on who their intended audience is. So okay, the kids have been exposed to the topic. They’re looking at different types of writing that they can do, so then in the planning of this unit, then what happens next?
CURRELL: Then I think you need to think about the groups and how you want to manage the logistics of that. So in some situations, you may be wanting certain children to be with other certain children. But I again gave that completely to them, and I think that choice was really crucial for them. So having together seen the different types of writing we could do, then they were looking at that list and thinking about which one do I want to do? And of course there’s always a bit of so-and-so looking at their friend across the classroom, and all those dynamics going on.
CURRELL: So they make sure they’re in the same group. But to a lesser or greater degree, hopefully they’re looking at the one they want to do, and then they move physically into those groups. Put tables together, sat around. As I went around the class and they selected, inevitably there’s some children who can’t decide, by which point you can see your groups and I didn’t want groups more than five. I kind of capped them at five, and then I could put those last children, give them some choices around it’s this one or this one, and feed them into those groups. Eventually they’re all sitting at different tables.
GONZALEZ: Okay, so they’re in the groups, and then really the rest of it is sort of just basic lesson planning in terms of putting this unit together and planning out the kinds of lessons that you might need to do, the kinds of differentiation. What else do we need to know about the rest of this unit? Because it’s kind of a writing unit from this point forward, like a writer’s workshop almost.
CURRELL: Yes, yeah. I think you want to have a progression in mind. For me I did it over two weeks, so I had for those 10 mornings or sessions, having an idea of what you want to be happening in each of those sessions. And what you want to be happening but also what you want them to be learning from that specific day. So you can pinpoint, for example, on the first day might be selecting the topic but further down it might be, today we’re going to start. I’m going to work with the different groups and model different types of sentences with them so that each genre gets to see some sentences and then try out their own. So you have a plan over the number of lessons you’ve got of what you want them to get out of it and what your aim is and work towards that. Of course it will adapt as you go, but I still think it’s good before you start to have some kind of picture of what you’re going to aim for.
GONZALEZ: And you also sort of looked ahead and planned for differentiation?
CURRELL: Yes. Because of the special needs in my class, I had two other adults in there, so I actually, I did time it for when I knew they would be in there because I knew the dynamic of children being at tables meant that some children would struggle with that and would need adult help. That would be one thing to identify. When do I have all my adults in the classroom so that I can put them with the groups that will need it? Oh yes, and then also in terms of differentiation, checking that you’ve got any equipment you might need. If some children need a scribe or to be recording their thoughts rather than writing and all that, the support and scaffolding that they might need, just that you have that ready.
GONZALEZ: So as they, as the students were working together, you also had them do some sharing between the groups of the writing that they were working on?
CURRELL: Yes, yeah. So I think that they’re talking together, but those moments in the class when they read out extracts is just, it kind of deepens the whole experience because of the vocabulary they’re using. Other children are going to catch those concepts. So hopefully the persuasive words are sort of being spread around and where some students are struggling, it will raise their game eventually. That’s the idea.
CURRELL: My class, I find children absolutely love presenting. They do not hold back. They just love using their voice, so I think that’s also a good opportunity. They feel heard when they share their work.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Especially at that age, 9 and 10. I feel like sometimes when you get a little bit older they start to close off a little bit more. I’m thinking 9- and 10-year-olds, I could see them being very excited about sharing what they’re doing.
CURRELL: Yeah, they love it. They love it.
GONZALEZ: It’s a great age.
GONZALEZ: So how does the whole unit end? How does it wrap up?
CURRELL: Yeah. I think it’s really important for it to culminate in something. So they all then presented it. We sort of made it a little bit more formal at that point. We sat so that we could present it to each other. Each group went up and we clapped. Then we had a class photo, and then we used lots of the pieces of work to make a display in the corridor so that others would see it. Looking back, I think I think it might have been nice if we’d done some kind of march through the school with our placards or maybe something a bit broader to bring in. They’d have loved that, you know, to other classes or around an assembly, done in an assembly, something like that. But definitely culminating in something because it’s quite a rich sort of experience you’ve had together. So I think it’s really worth celebrating at that point.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. If you were to do this again, the next time you do a campaign unit, what will you do differently?
CURRELL: I think one of the things is having the confidence, so let them choose the course. Having done it once, another time to give them that choice right at the beginning. Another thing would be, could I connect it to an authentic purpose? Would there be a charity or some kind of social action that we could actually do in the community outside the schools or with parents or some other connection within the community so that it isn’t just like a practice run. That it is actually connected to some real context, whether it would be writing the letters and sending them off, or if we connect to the real world, I think that would be a good next step.
CURRELL: Yeah, and then as I just mentioned, just creating a wider audience. So either presenting it as an assembly or going on a march around the school.
CURRELL: And making, connecting them in that way.
GONZALEZ: I know that my own listeners in the US will definitely want to find you online because I think some of the things that you’re doing, it’s great to be connected to people in the UK. Some of what we were talking about earlier, some of the social justice stuff, and I think some of us tend to only look at our own country. To realize that these types of things are going on in other parts of the world is just exciting. So how could people connect with you online?
CURRELL: Yeah, well I am blogging at passion4pedagogy.com. There you can follow my journey talking about critical pedagogy, which I call a pedagogy of the heart. So it is how to bring that social justice, how to integrate it into your work in the classroom, how to wear those lenses in the everyday. That’s what I’m passionate about. So you can read my blogs there, and I’m on Twitter, @JaneCurrell.
GONZALEZ: And that’s J-A-N-E-C-U-R-R-E-L-L.
GONZALEZ: Yes. Jane, thank you so much. This is a fantastic idea. I’m so glad it worked for you, and I hope other people try it.
CURRELL: Thank you. Thanks, Jenn.