The Highwayman


I’ve just finished teaching a really successful unit on The Highwayman to my Year 5s.

We began by looking at just the first two stanzas of the poem – analysing the language and trying to visualise the scene. As we discussed what a “highwayman” is, I was pointed to this excellent Horrible Histories video: Lots of fun, and immediately engaging for the kids. (At the end of the lesson, I played them “Stand and Deliver” and “Prince Charming” so that they could hear where the musical style had come from)

They then drew their idea of what the opening scene might look like, using the metaphors carefully (ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas, etc).

The next day I resisted the urge to read them the whole poem. Instead, we had a “story bag” with props from the story, such as a red ribbon, a blood stained shirt, etc. (These were photos on the IWB but it just struck me that the actual objects would be even better for next year!) The children wrote down their ideas about how the objects might be used in the story and what the narrative might be.

Finally, in the third lesson we read through the whole poem, a stanza each, allowing children to opt in to read or opt out if they wished. I was really pleased to see some of the less confident readers earlier in the year reading beautifully! They then formed 3 still images of key points in the narrative. They performed these to the class and I took photos.

The next day, I showed the photos of the still images which I had uploaded to the blog the day before. I gave a bit of thinking time for the children to imagine what the characters might be thinking. We then set up the still images again and did “thought tracking”, where children come up to the characters, place a hand on their shoulders and speak their thoughts aloud. I had tried this before, but it hadn’t been very successful. However, this time it was great for a few different reasons. Firstly, I said that everyone had to say something for at least one of the scenes. They had had thinking time through seeing the photos, and there was increased engagement because I filmed the thought tracking so they knew their work would be recorded.  There were some very thoughtful interpretations.

At the start of the next lesson I showed the class the excellent machinima version of The Highwayman: They really loved it! We have watched it several times more since! I pointed out that an important part was missing – the scene with Tim the Ostler – and argued that this was the key scene of the poem. The children agreed – we had all come to the conclusion that Tim had told the redcoats about the Highwayman’s plans, and that if he hadn’t overheard none of it would have happened! One of the children suggested Tim might have had good motivations, and I invited her to come up and be hotseated in role as Tim. There were lots of excellent questions which she answered really well – such as how did he feel when Bess shot herself – did he try to rescue her – had he known she was meeting the Highwayman before or was this the first he knew. They had really thought about it carefully!

The final thing that we did with the poem was to write part of it in prose – the scenes from Tim’s point of view, using third person limited POV. Our class target is writing in paragraphs with links and topic sentences, so it worked well for this – there are lots of changes of time and place, and good ways to start the paragraphs. The stories turned out really well – some showing that Tim felt remorse when he saw the soldiers abusing Bess and that he tried to help, but failed. Others portrayed him as a coward who washed his hands of the whole thing. They all showed his feelings really well, due I think to their immersion in the drama techniques beforehand.

Even after we had finished this work, many children voluntarily chose to carry on work on this theme during self-directed learning time, making Wanted posters and rewriting other parts of the poem. I think it’s a great piece of literature and hope you may find some of these ideas useful if you are studying it next year!


One response »

  1. Great blog post with some ideas that I’ll definitely use next year. I studied The Highwayman very briefly with my Year 5s this year and they really enjoyed it. I did some hot-seating with my lot and it really got them engaged with the characters. Really looking forward to doing it again next year, especially now that I have some new ideas!

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