Writing thematic knowledge units

titanic fail

When I first joined my school last Easter, there was a scheme of work in the Year 7 folder dubiously titled “Titanic Leaflet”.

I was asked to teach it.

On further investigation it turns out this unit was exactly what it advertised to be.  Several weeks taken watching the Titanic film, reading bits of the Titanic book (based on the film) and then writing a leaflet for the Titanic voyage.

To cut a long story short – I didn’t.

Thankfully the new KS3 curriculum and new GCSEs gave me enough ammunition to dispose of leaflet writing, without me actually coming out and saying – this is possibly the biggest waste of time ever.

Easter 2014 feels a long time ago.  My opinions have come back to bite me, as I now take lead on the KS3 curriculum.  Remember that – opinions equal more work.  The upside being saying a hearty farewell to the Titanic unit without ever having touched it.  Yay for me.

Our new Year 7 English curriculum looks like this.  Our main aims were to:

  1. Put in hard stuff.
  2. Build up knowledge (and skills) from a logical point A to end of the year.

KS3

All of our units are heavily literature based, especially the writing ones.  I am firm believer in the idea that “the more you read, the better you write”.

So, this holiday I find myself planning a thematic unit.  Our students will look at the mystery (crime / detective) genre and write their own mystery story.  Sounds ok. Just.  But our students don’t deserve ok. They deserve something that has meat on its bones. Whilst that’s easy to achieve with Shakespeare or Dickens, a thematic unit can make it tricky.  Jumping from one thing to another, one text to another can result in students losing knowledge rather than retaining it.

So here’s how I’ve gone about creating a thematic knowledge unit.  Btw Joe Kirby has written excellently on knowledge units. Read his stuff.

Thematic unit based on knowledge – what do they need to know?

Content:

  1. The history of the mystery genre – all the way from Cicero to John Grisham.
    Students need an overview of the whole mystery timeline and specific moments that are vital (see texts).
  2. The conventions of the mystery genre and all its derivatives.
  3. The language and vocabulary of mysteries. There is a lexis, we need to study it.
  4. Mystery writing – applying the above to own writing.

Doesn’t seem like too much for a whole unit?  Perhaps not. Yet each text provides a new opportunity to studying and using the conventions.  What are the clues here? How are they set up?  Where are the breadcrumbs this writer is leaving us?  What are your clues? How should you set them up?

Our learning here is in a spiral or a cycle. We learn something and then come back to it again and again, with the same text, with different texts and with our own writing. Each and every time.

Texts:

The texts are perhaps the most tricky – you navigate the fine line between those that are worthy of study as readers and writers and those that are popular.  My unit is heavy on the ones worthy of study (although I understand why some would challenge that on ACD).  Yet I do include as starters, plenaries, homeworks a variety of exemplars including John Grisham and that one about Da Vinci’s maths book.

  1. Key mystery texts worthy of study for genre conventions and beauty of language, style, technique:
    Poe – The Murders at Morgue Rue (other works by Poe are studied in short story units later in KS3).
    Conan Doyle – A Study in Scarlet
    Christie – extracts from Murder on the Orient Express (1934), And Then There Were None (1939) and A Murder is Announced (1950)
    Bradbury – The Utterly Perfect Murder
  2. Other texts to study for genre conventions and developing genre knowledge:
    Radio Drama – The Death House Rescue – The Shadow 1937
    Hitchcock
    Sterling’s Twilight Zone
    Historical non-fiction eg Roanoke Colony mystery
    2 Minute Mysteries by Donald Sobol (for starters and plenaries)

Here is what the SOW looks like.  Depending on the classes involved students will either write a short mystery (800 words) or extracts from a mystery – the setting, the denouement.

mystery 1

Whilst this new unit is by no means perfect, it certainly provides for more and greater learning than writing a leaflet.

It does tick a number of boxes:

  1. Students are studying hard stuff – we aren’t watching films or TV versions. We are reading Poe and others, borrowing their language, studying their techniques and using them for ourselves.
    We aren’t writing essays but we are reading as writers.
  2. Students are exposed to a wide range of good literature over a short period of time.  Short stories are great for this, as are extracts.  After all, the new GCSE is all about the 400 word extract.
  3. Reading and writing go hand in hand. Reading and then writing imaginatively immediately is an excellent response to reading – especially when you are challenged to use the writer’s language, techniques and structure. Rather than writing a newspaper article based on the story – which is about as useful as a leaflet advertising the Titanic.
  4. While I doubt the new GCSE will ask them to write a mystery text in the exam, my students will know and understand the conventions of this popular genre and this will aid their study of unseen literary fiction.

After all, who’s know what will come up on the 2017 exams?

Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!

Louisa