Looking Ahead to September: some initial thoughts for History Subject Leaders

As the strangest start to a new academic year is upon us, every best wish to everyone from the HA team. OBHD is grateful to Hugh Richards, Head of History at Huntington School, York, for sharing his thinking as term starts…

This blog aims to give History subject leaders, especially those new to the role, an idea of the kinds of things I am thinking about in the lead-up to September. It will hopefully reassure experienced subject leaders and other teachers too! Thanks to the ever-wonderful Emily Folorunsho for encouraging me to write this down.

Here are the key things the department and I, as subject leader, are going to think about in the next couple weeks. The first two are not unique to History, but bear thinking about nevertheless. 

This term will put Subject Leaders’ operational management skills to the test.

There will be more things than usual to smooth out to allow my team to teach as brilliantly as they can. If you are new to the role, I would recommend you make this your top priority! To reduce potential potholes in our teaching days, we will:

  • Predict as many snags as we can, especially using the wisdom of colleagues who are used to moving between rooms.
  • Fix anything we can in advance. For example, our PCs take forever to load the first time a user signs in. One task for the trainings days next week will be to tour rooms and log in to smooth the first lessons.
  • Get the resources management right. Which rooms around the school now need GCSE textbooks? Sets of highlighters? Having saved a bit of money on printing last term, can we spend some of it to help smooth the teaching days of the team?
  • Work out new departmental systems where needed, for example moving from paper textbook sign-out sheets to an electronic equivalent.
  • Check and double check teachers aren’t doing anything extraneous and unnecessary. Continue to anticipate snags, share problems  and find solutions as we go.  

We’re going to miss the department workroom.

With reduced-capacity offices being used by anyone teaching nearby, we won’t have the break time and lunchtime catch-ups which form a vital part of our intra-departmental support. For example, we will lose whiteboard reminders of deadlines for the term and chatting over lessons and groups. To help with this, we will:

  • Check-in electronically with the team via WhatsApp or email.
  • Find regular spaces where we can casually meet before and after school to see each other and have the normal chat and laughter.
  • Once a week send out a reminder of any deadlines, after-school events etc that are on the horizon.

We’ll need to double check our decision making regarding Years 11 and 13.

We’re not going to start with any form of ‘catch-up’ or ‘recovery curriculum.’ We’ll start new units in Year 11 and 13 for several reasons, but we will need to double check our July decision-making still holds water at this end of the summer. Here’s where we got to in July:

  • Starting by going over remote learning will mean students are coming from very different starting points. If we review the lockdown learning after the school-wide catch-up programme has time to kick in, more students will be at similar points with the lockdown work.
  • We are not going to assess the learning from lockdown – yet. We already know from completion rates who has (and hasn’t) even attempted to learn anything. Thus setting assessments at this stage gains us little and would be actively detrimental as the immediate marking load will reduce teacher capacity to adapt to the new school environment.   
  • It may make our most vulnerable students feel very behind – lots of conversations about what they should know, or should have done remotely, might be problematic for those students who had a very difficult home situation in lockdown.
  • We may yet end up with remote learning again, so the more new material we can cover in class the better, leaving consolidation and revision for any future school closure.
  • It’s more fun, and more ‘normal,’ to teach fresh and interesting History. This should help with re-setting out classroom culture and be more enjoyable for all.

New curriculum planning will take a back seat for a while, and that’s absolutely fine.

Note this doesn’t refer to existing resources that we’re teaching for the first time, but rather significant new curriculum changes. This summer has seen incredible online CPD, the Black Lives Matter movement and some time to think about changing the curriculum. This Autumn therefore will bring a distinct and frustrating lack of time to work on our curriculum as a team. For example, we are desperate to make our curriculum more representative and incorporate more diverse voices, but any attempt this term will go badly wrong. We won’t have enough knowledge and we won’t have time to plan things collaboratively. There is simply too much else to think about. Therefore, I am going to:

  • Wait until after Christmas when we are used to things. In the spring we can start to think about curricular improvements and commence subject knowledge development, ready to design and resource changes for Year 7 in our summer gained time. We will implement these changes in September 2021. The slow pace will make the final product thought-through and based on a solid knowledge base within the team. Consequently it will be taught better but it will, unfortunately, take a little longer than usual.
  • We will however change our curriculum sequencing, especially at GCSE. As our normal first Year 10 unit is a site study requiring a trip to Fountains Abbey, we will kick that topic into the long grass for now and teach classroom-based units. Secondly, we have a full suite of remote resources from last summer for the Year 10 Nazi Germany unit, so we will hold off teaching it in case we are forced to close again and can re-use the resources.

Teaching within mitigation measures will need tweaks to our planning and pedagogy.

We will be teaching from the front more and moving around the class less. We will minimise, and possibly eliminate, collecting in exercise books. Before term starts, we will therefore think hard about:

  • Starter tasks. If students are in the room before we enter, what starter tasks can be set up to allow us to log in and set up? One I often use is a single line on the board with start and end dates, which students draft into a timeline of the course so far. We will build a repertoire of these as a team.
  • Glue sticks and equipment. How can we reduce the need for resources? For example, colour coded tasks could be replaced, on the spot, with a symbol code, reducing the need for highlighters.
  • Our remote learning platform will continue in use for homework and quite possibly assessments. What do we need to think about here in terms of our history teaching? (See ‘opportunities’ below.)

Without going overboard, a rough plan for a second school closure is worth thinking about.

Aside from the first bullet point below, I won’t burden my team with this unless some form of school closure is on the horizon, but I will have a think in broad terms. It is futile to make detailed plans, only for the situation or government advice to change, but I will start to think about:

  • How do we get the balance of assessments right? For Y11 and Y13, it feels like we should prioritise more timed essay writing in case CAGs are needed again (although it’s hard to see how that could happen following this summer.) However, I think quality not quantity is what matters here. For example, unless requested from the SLT, we will not be doing any more practice essays than usual with Year 13, but we will ensure they are written in tighter conditions, so they form more robust tracking data should we need it. However, at the same time, we must teach them how to write and build up skills gradually, otherwise they will not be as well prepared for the final exams. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and one for discussion with the team.
  • The team are better trained now, but is there anything we really didn’t master last time? One colleague was on maternity leave, and will need bringing up to speed before any new closures.
  • What were the most effective remote learning resources?
  • Can we set up an easy-to-adapt template which can be used to convert our classroom resources? We have already done this, you can see and download our template here. If the school closes, we will divide up the planning and have workbooks ready for KS3 very rapidly.
  • Can we plan to reuse resource from last summer with a bit of adaption to curriculum sequencing?

What are the opportunities presented by this situation?

It is possible that this situation will provide us real opportunities to move our practice forward. At the moment, these two are the easiest to forsee, but others will surely emerge along the way:

  • In some ways, given the amount of time spent discussing curriculum, it will be nice to re-energise our thinking on pedagogy. For example, our sole CPD focus as a department this year will be on historical writing. We will develop our modelling, metacognitive teaching and feedback strategies. Whilst this is catalysed by rules on collecting books, we can embrace it as an opportunity to pick up on a pedagogical area we haven’t focussed on for a while.
  • Additionally, we have been slow as a department to fully utilise online learning platforms, however we are now exploring ways to combine classroom practice with what we learned during the school closure. At the very least, hosting homeworks online might preserve my print budget and save a tree or two.

I am sure there is a great deal I haven’t thought of, and even more that will emerge over time, but hopefully this might start some conversations about what we can do, as history teachers and subject leaders, to get ready to teach well this term. Perhaps we could use #headofhistory to share some thoughts? By all means ask me questions on Twitter @HughJRichards – or better yet improve the thinking I’ve done so far!

Finally, the very best of luck for the forthcoming term and stay safe!

Whatever the year ahead, the HA will continue to provide a space and place for history teachers to gain and share support, resources, ideas and challenges. Watch out for news of the HA Online Conference in November! Meanwhile, follow @histassoc to keep up-to-date and check the website for updates.

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