Jul 1 2019
Arriving at an Enquiry Question: Beacon Fellowship Blog

The Beacon Teacher Fellowship is a fantastic and fascinating project to be part of. Our weekly readings open up new avenues of research, enquiry and learning that allow us to understand, share and discuss our responses to TIDE Keywords (which is a brilliant resource), literary and historical documents as well as artwork on the weekly discussion board. The monthly meetings have been inspirational sessions that have given us the opportunity to learn from experts and teachers to develop our knowledge and teaching approaches.

As an English teacher, the term and process of planning an enquiry question was new to me. Dr Jason Todd, Lecturer at Oxford University, provided some excellent resources which explained how to build an effective enquiry and challenged the robustness of the enquiry I had begun to create.

Working on the Black Tudors Teaching Project with the amazing Miranda Kaufmann as well as Jason Todd and Martin Spafford, two of the brilliant Beacon experts, I created English lessons that have been successfully delivered to over 1,000 students with the following approach and considering these important questions:

  • 1) Why is it important that students learn about this historical event?
  • 2) What is their existing knowledge in this area of study?
  • 3) What existing units of work are being taught now or in the forthcoming term?
  • 4) How can I link and develop history and English skills?
  • 5) What will the final outcome be?

I will be presenting my findings about the Black Tudors Teaching Project at the SHP Conference at Leeds Trinity University in July, however, for this project I needed to consider the focus of TIDE and the Fellowship: the teaching of migration and empire.

Taking all of these questions and areas of focus into consideration, I have been able to plan an area of study that creatively combines my own personal identity, my enthusiasm for the study of history, and my passion for poetry and the teaching and learning that is central to my students’ success and engagement. My enquiry question is:

How does Antrobus explore the identity of mixed-race ‘Jamaican British’ people?

This answers all of the planning questions. Firstly, my Year 7 students will be studying ‘Poetry from Other Cultures’ and my Year 10s will be studying ‘Unseen Poetry’ in the short half term immediately after Easter (central to the Beacon Fellowship timescale), which addresses question 3.

Areas of enquiry:

The ‘How’ in the question is a familiar term for my Year 10 students, alert to the GCSE English Language questioning in which they must analyse the language, form and structure of a text.

Raymond Antrobus’ collection The Perseverance was the PBS choice, as well as the winner of the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize for ‘Sound Machine’, alongside which the collection won The Guardian poetry book of the year 2018 and the 2019 Ted Hughes Award. He is a young, modern poet who will be new and appealing to my students. Antrobus is a deaf poet and during his readings has someone to sign his words or interpret the audience’s question, therefore, this enquiry question can be inclusive in many ways.

Students can ‘explore’ Antrobus' experiences and investigate his connection to his dual heritage.

Identity’ is an important term for students to consider who or what a person is, different parts of one’s family/heritage and having a sense of belonging.

The term ‘mixed-race’ is the currently acceptable term to describe someone, such as myself and Antrobus, who have parents of different races or ‘different ethnic backgrounds’. This would be an opportunity to question and challenge the term as well as bring in other historical texts and people from the past. For example, Jason Todd presented the fellows with his lessons about Dido Elizabeth Belle. Other questions to consider could be: How and why do people migrate? What other movement/migration was there through time and why? David Olusoga, Akala and Afua Hirsch all explore the term and their experiences, so extracts from their books could form part of the prose study.

Jamaican British is the title of the poem that first drew my attention to Antrobus’ poetry. He was born in London to his English mother and Jamaican father – the connection between Jamaica and Britain is central to the teaching of empire and migration. In their exams, students must analyse extracts, so historical documents will develop their knowledge of key historical events which I feel are important for them to learn (question 1) and improve their analytical reading skills, therefore addressing question 4 of my preliminary planning questions.

Once I had established my enquiry question, I reflected upon Malachi McIntosh’s inspiring words at our first session regarding the name of the Fellowship. We are to be Beacons: a light, if you will, to lead the way and shine a light on the best teaching practices.

However, I started to question the delivery of my enquiry. My own Jamaican-British, mixed-race identity would be scrutinised in my classroom – was I prepared for this?

This reminded me of Anthony Anaxagorou’s brilliant Out-Spoken poetry editing masterclass at the Poetry Café last year, in which a speaker delivered an impassioned poem about a deeply personal experience. Anaxagorou encouraged us to consider how finished or successful a poem is if it can not exist without the poet there to deliver it. A poem, and therefore a Beacon lesson, should be able to exist beyond the page, a lesson PowerPoint and my personal passion. Would this enquiry work beyond my teaching of it and my personal connection to this poem?

This led me to consider alternative enquiry questions. As a newly appointed acting Second in Department I am in a unique position to rewrite schemes of work, purchase new texts and revamp existing plans. Therefore, I immediately purchased The Tempest for our Year 7 students to study in the final half term of the year. This led me to a second potential enquiry question.

However, the Unseen Poetry unit that my first plan would slot in to comprises of two questions: a single poetry analysis, followed by a comparison with a second poem. If my first enquiry question is to fit in with the scheme, I must source a second poem. John Agard’s Half-Caste is a perfect comparison to Antrobus’ poem and is also an example of how a poem, with my personal and Fellowship focused areas of interest, has been successfully taught across the country for several years and used as part of KS4 anthologies.

Taking all of this into consideration and realising that I would not be able to teach poetry to any of my classes after half term, last week I took the plunge and taught Lesson One of my enquiry question - it was brilliant! The students were suitably impressed as the week before I had been to see Antrobus perform at the Tate in London and told him that I would be teaching his poem. During the Q&A Antrobus very kindly answered my question about teaching poetry and suggested creating my ‘own canon’ of poetry. I feel that this enquiry question and the Fellowship has allowed me to do that.

I started the lesson by asking students what they already know about Jamaica and Britain. My students select their options in Year 8, so beyond age 12/13 many children stop their study of history – which I believe is detrimental to their study of English. The few Year 10 history/English students in my class quickly began to make connections between slavery and the British Empire. They also recalled jerk chicken and roast dinners! My students were completely engaged in the lesson and the words of the poem, making insightful comments and creating their own interpretation of the words, proving to me that the lesson can live beyond me. They knew a little about my mixed-race heritage so despite my concerns, there was a respectful tone throughout the lesson which I appreciated, especially in these turbulent times.

After they had annotated the poem, (some had identified the subtleties of Antrobus’ poem, such as the use of the comma to separate ‘Jamaican, British?’ with the question mark that serves to deny and question who and what he is) I asked them to write a response to the poem. This worked well because it linked to the existing GCSE requirements of a single poem analysis but is also important to develop their initial investigations for the enquiry question.

Next week they will compare the poems and I will begin to introduce the prose texts and historical documents which I hope to source, presenting them with Language Component 1 and 2 style questions, thereby preparing them for their mock exams but also building upon my historically worthwhile enquiry question.

Sadly, our final Fellowship session is fast approaching. I’m incredibly grateful to Nandini Das, Sundeep Lidher, Roger Christofides, Haig Smith, Jason Todd, Martin Spafford, Malachi McIntosh, Robin Whitburn, Andrew Payne at the National Archives, and all of the TIDE team for their organisation, inspiration and recommendations. The other fellows are also experts in their own teaching, and it has been great to connect with them. During the final session we will present our lesson plans. I aim to use this session to develop my second enquiry question which can be taught in the final half term. Following this, we will share our lessons and findings with our schools and the wider teaching community to shine a light on migration, empire and belonging.

Wendy Lennon