Stained glass window essay plan

I recently attended two TeachMeets, #TMEng organised by the amazing @Xris32, all the way in Derby, was a fabulous opportunity to meet some English teacher friends made via Twitter. I was surprised by how important it was for me to see these virtual friends face to face.  I also attended (and organised – more on that in another post) #TMLiteracy.

The problem (and joy) of these events is presenting your own teaching ideas or activities.  Whilst not mandatory, this grassroots movement only works with a level of participation from all.  As a I result, I find myself thinking up even more wild (or outlandish – to quote one colleague) activities to ensure I have something interesting and new to share.

This is how the stained glass window essay plan was born.

It started with this picture on Pinterest (, I look at it every now and again and think it would make an excellent visual map for how ideas in a text connect.  I have columns in my classroom and I imagined it would look marvellous.


So this idea has been growing mould in my mind for a while now.  But never really getting clear enough for me to do anything with.

At the same time, as I have previously mentioned, I am busily working with my year 12 students on developing some deep independent analysis skills for our exam and coursework texts.  The next point on this journey is how to turn all of their thinking into something that would benefit the whole class and become a structured piece of writing.

It seemed the ideal time to get all web-like and sticky.  Unfortunately my sixth form lessons are taught in a science lab (!) and therefore my web needed to be portable.

stained glass 1

Backing paper and double-sided sticky tape (thanks Poundland) fixed up an almost perfect copy.

Students then in groups worked on one theme in our comparative texts (Streetcar and On Chesil Beach).  They drew together all their independent analysis and created the flow of an essay paragraph on different colour pieces of paper:

stained glass 2

  • Blue = idea
  • Yellow   = comparative thesis statements
  • Green = quotes from both texts
  • Purple = critical viewpoints
  • Red = context
  • White = critical / scholastic terminology

The challenge was then to bleed / blend one idea into another, so linking power (top left) with gender (middle left) with identity (middle right) with history (bottom right) and love (top right).  We still have some way to go, there are more connections to make – for example between power and love or history and love.

stained glass 3

Given the coursework essay choices (see below), this proves to be a comprehensive and useful working document for us.

Option 1:
“A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.”  (Oscar Wilde)
Explore how gender differences are portrayed in On Chesil Beach and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Option 2:
“The entire course of life can be changed by doing nothing” (Ian McEwan)
Explore how time and place shape the characters in On Chesil Beach and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Option 3:
“Love is a risk, not always worth taking”
Explore the ways in personal tragedy and relational tragedy are portrayed in On Chesil Beach and A Streetcar Named Desire.

If you try this activity, please do let me know how it goes!


Reinventing the wheel #2

Sometime ago, I wrote a post on reinventing the wheel  for our year 7 literacy lesson.  I was determined to pick up these ‘left behind’ students and see their love of reading and writing increase rapidly, as well as their ability to analyse and explore different texts.

I am now 8 weeks into the new plan, so here’s an update.

Firstly, a little context.  The class I am working with (one of 4 similar classes in my school) has about 25 students, mostly boys.  Their reading ages range from 5.8 years to 9.8 years.  They openly admit to never having read a chapter book themselves.  They might have been in the room, at primary, when a book was read.  But they did not do that reading.  These are the students who drift off 2 mins into class reading and never catch back up.  In addition to my literacy lessons, these students also have 3 hours of English (with me – wooo), paired reading with a prefect and if at the lowest end Lexia / Ruth Miskin from our specialist HLTA.

So what I am I doing?

Getting excited about books

So, how to get students excited about books and reading.  Taking them to library is a definite plus.  Our library is amazing and the kids love it in there.  Rewarding reading, not just reading skills.  For every 30 mins read, students gain an award point.  For every book read, they gain a house point.  If every student in the class, reads a whole book by Christmas, the class get a ‘starbucks lesson’. Yes – it is what it sounds like, and no, it is not healthy.  Hot choc, marshmallows, cupcakes, muffins, bean bags, cushions: sitting around in my classroom chatting about the books we have read.

So, we went to the library, we all chose a book (of at least 150 pages and slightly beyond our current reading age). Then we started reading.

we love reading

Every student a different book

The idea stems from the desire to see students demonstrate independent reading skills.  Not relying on someone else’s answers or knowledge to help them.  So having decided to build a scheme around students reading different books, required a different approach to lesson time.

If your interested in this concept, I would highly recommend “Trust Me, I Can Read“, this practical guide from a number of high schools in the US, outlines the approach to teaching real reading skills to disillusioned students.  They champion a choice based curriculum, where the teacher presents mini-lessons on an idea and students demonstrate this in application to their own book.  This book covers so much more, parental involvement, thematic schemes, encouraging independent analysis.  I have only just begun really.  So, below is an example of a mini-lesson as I start out with this class.

The concept is funnel based – the teacher provides the generalisation, the students funnel this and provide specificity and detail.  So for a 20 minute period I teach, front and centre, chalk and talk style.  Students apply my generalisation to the sample text, which is most often a youtube short film.  This is followed by the ‘read-anywhere’ slot.

mini lesson

This part of my lesson was structured and ordered.  What followed was less so.

Read anywhere

Being painfully aware of the students’ lack of experience and confidence in reading and also wanting myself and the 2 support teachers for this lesson (yes, I am spoiled) to hear students reading aloud.  We went for a read anywhere approach.  read away

Given the freedom to sit on the floor or window sill, lie on the desks, students read for 30 minutes. During this time they had to complete a task based on the mini-lesson and some would read aloud to myself or my support staff.

I cannot believe how useful this was…

Firstly, as an English teacher I tend not to read during class for extended lengths of time because it’s pretty dull for students and they tend to drift off.  Also, I very rarely have students read to me for an extended period, because it can be slow and laborious and they find it hard to follow a narrative if they are panicking about how to say that word 3 lines down.

So listening to students read out loud to me was useful, partly because a number of students admitted problems with reading (like the words moving around on the page etc) and partly because it is amazing how the weakest students were some of the more fluent readers.  It also flagged very quickly the students who had chosen books way above their reading (Kathy Reichs uses a lot of technical language which can be very hard) and how students can read a complex book (The White Queen) and then only be able to say – it’s about kings and queens.

I have all the evidence right in front of me now.  All I need to do is work out the steps from A-B.  What is that I should expect from these students after 8 weeks of reading?  Greater fluency, more confidence, more independence, better vocabulary, analysis of ideas and character?

If you would like to see my scheme of work for this 8 week independent reading unit, I will be sharing it over the next week or so.  So keep an eye out.