A good thing

 

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This thing happened and it was good.

There are times when something spontaneous happens in the classroom and the results are so unexpectedly cool that it is hard not to stop and enjoy.

We have had a big push on reading with our reluctant KS3 readers over the last couple of weeks. You know the kids I mean. These aren’t the bright, top set kids – who are reading Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man at the age of 12 – these kids are the ones who declare proudly “I’ve never read a book” or “I’ve only read one book ever – it was George’s Marvellous Medicine in year 3”. My personal favourite: “I hate reading.”

This is my class in year 8. Unsurprisingly they are mostly boys, mostly the cheeky ones you see cutting in the lunch queue, mostly the ones who haven’t made much progress.

It became obvious, when I picked this group up, that our KS3 curriculum wasn’t going to cut it. We needed to read, read, then read some more and then read and keep reading. At first most were struggling to read a sentence fluently. Some were unable to read words with three or more syllables. Remembering what we read from one week to the next was an issue. Trying, and learning to keep on trying, even when it got tricky and embarrassing, was as important as learning how to do the reading thing.

So far this year we have read two novels. I won’t bore you with which ones; nothing fancy, books had been sitting in our book cupboard for a few years. Chosen to meet the criteria of being just hard enough to aid learning and with a storyline that was relatively easy to hook onto and remember. After that we read a translation of Grendel and now we are reading non-fiction texts.

I won’t sugar coat it. Reading extended texts with this class is still tricky. Decoding, comprehension and inference skills are improving, but reading has never felt fun in these hours. Reading is still hard. Very hard.

Fast forward then to last week and World Book Day. We start every lesson with 10 minutes of silent reading – most are doing the Diary of Wimpy Kid thing, some have borrowed from my extensive collection of Horrible History books. They are reading though. Not just holding the books and daydreaming. Eyeballs move. Hands go up – “what’s this word Miss?”. Spontaneous comments “This book is funny Miss”. They are reading.

The non-fiction text of the week explained how chicken nuggets are made. Yep, it caused a stir. We tackled the vocabulary – consumption, tempura, raised (as in chicks raised in factories for consumption) etc. Yum!

I then posed the challenge. “I have never eaten a chicken nugget. Can you create a clear argument that would convince and persuade me to eat a nugget?” After the horrific realisation that they were in the same room as a vegetarian, we looked at writing an argument.

The kids wrote. We peer marked. I have worked hard with this class to develop their basic literacy skills through peer marking. We have a set of criteria and use it every lesson, it has numeric scores (i.e. if they have started every sentence with a capital letter, award them 5 marks) and the boys seem to like the clarity this presents. We champion improving on previous scores. They usually get house points if they are in the top 10%.

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Here’s the thing that happened. It was World Book Day. I had been showing off some books that we had been sent and whooping generally about reading. Cheeky Billy piped up “Miss, I want that book. If I get top marks today, can I have it?”

My response was “Heck yes!” After all, what else was I going to do with these books?

Eight other voices called out – “Can I have one if I get good marks?” Affirmative from me.

And so the writing was on. The focus in the room was a notch higher than usual. Muttering could be heard “I need to use an exclamation mark”.

Writing done, peer marking completed, attempts to exploit the marking criteria were batted away and four books were handed out.

The whole class crowded around the box, giving their opinions on each option, helping the lucky four make their choices. Cheeky Billy lost out. His frustration was good humoured “I’ll give you my World Book Day voucher.” Then inspiration struck “Can I earn one tomorrow Miss?”

I grinned and nodded, booting them out the door to lunch and forgot about it.

The next morning, I was on gate duty, four of my gang of boys arrived after the bell shouting “I’m gonna earn that book today Miss.” And so last lesson on Friday afternoon arrived and the remaining gaggle of 11 kids proved themselves desperate to earn a book.

At the end of the lesson, there was pushing and shoving over the last two copies of Cuckoo Song by Francise Hardinge.

Let me repeat, these boys – self-declared haters of reading at the beginning of the year – were pushing and shoving over a book. A book. I could have wept with joy. My job is the best job in the world

Today a whole week later, they are still talking about it. Still telling me what is going on the books they are reading. Still telling their mates that I gave them a book. Still telling their parents that they earned a book at school.

This thing happened and it was good.

Isn’t that when a man dresses up as a woman?

It was Friday, lesson 5.  The first week back after the holidays was a scorcher.  Our rooms go from pleasantly warm to Primark sweatbox by lunchtime. Children and adults alike are ‘well-done’ by the end of the day.

Added to that Year 11 are on the big countdown. You can’t walk down a corridor without spotting a member of SLT carrying out a Year 11 intervention. I know that my Year 11 lessons are going to be ‘checked’. Not because I am a worry, but to ensure the children are taking the exam prep as seriously as us grown ups are.

Thank the good Lord that no one came into my lesson p5 yesterday.

In the world of checklists, tick boxes and interventions it would have been an epic fail.  The LO was “How do I study an unseen text?”

The starter task was – can you define the following terms:

  • Feminism
  • Sexism
  • Misogyny
  • Gender equality
  • Gender stereotypes

We were going to read the Emma Watson speech – analyse the persuasive techniques and look at the various responses.  This is the text we were due to read that lesson.  Gender – Emma W

We never made it that far. We did not get past the starter task.  This year 11 class is small, 11 students, 8 boys, 3 girls.  Absence is high. Motivation to succeed is also high – now. But knowledge and skills are still being developed. They are weak and slow readers. More often than not, they misunderstand what they read and they understanding is coloured by misunderstandings of the world as a whole.

This class thought that feminism was when a man dresses up in women’s clothing.  So that’s where we started. Here’s what came next.

The history of gender in England – from chattels and the value of virginity, through to 1970s feminist thinking.

We talked about why women were treated differently and why it still happens. Many of the boys openly recognised their own biases, but also admitted they had never considered whether it was wrong for a newspaper to print images of topless women.

We talked about sexism in school, in the workplace and in society. And they learnt the word ‘discrimination’ which they had all heard before, but thought it meant something to do with crimes.  Which, now I think about it, it kind of does.

Then we talked about the oppression – new word – of women in different countries. About FGM, which they had never heard of and were horrified by. The age of consent and inheritance via the male line. We discussed activities that are considered female and why that is.

How to tackle the problem of people’s attitudes and thoughts, when something has been that way forever. We learnt the phrase ‘status quo’.

We talked about misogyny and how it’s funny that men can have such cruel thoughts and ideas about women, and still want them sex (and cooking!).

And we asked ourselves if sometimes we have thoughts and ideas that are sexist or discriminatory.  Then we talked about how unfair it is to label other people.

After watching this, we discussed whether it’s important for men to take action as well as women.

We finished with the word “they” and how it is perhaps one of the most dangerous words in the English language.

One hour later and I hadn’t helped them get ready for their Exam, but I am hoping that I helped them get a little bit more ready for life.

 

The writing’s on the wall

Writing on the wall

(Errr – don’t watch this if the sweary offends you).

I’m from a very religious family.  My step-dad is a former RAF Chaplain (and served in the Falkland Islands) and is now an itinerant vicar (which is not the same as what George and Lennie were); my brother is a vicar.  I grew up steeped in religious tradition – from churches were the communion wine is golden to ones where they play guitars and dance.  One of my best friends from university now runs a church, in fact many of our good friends run / lead churches.  My husband is somewhat of a philosophical theologian.

Whilst my own personal beliefs have become more confused and contrary with age, I am enduringly grateful for my upbringing.  Not least when it comes to teaching literature.

You see – I can spot a biblical allusion at 50 paces.

*The purpose of this introduction is to contextualise some of mild irreverence below.*

Kids these days…

Have no clue about the Bible and why should they? Yet, this absence of knowledge results in pupils often struggling to identify and understand many of deep running threads in literature.

king arthur

I often describe the need for deep subject knowledge as being like a tapestry – it is complex and interwoven, creating an overarching picture with mini-scenes within.  Threads are drawn upon as needed but always remain embedded in and attached to the big picture.

Yet – if this tapestry is English literature – then much of what we study (if not all) was written in a time when religion and religious ideologies were key to moral and ethical outlook, social norms, thoughts on the creation of wealth and society and the nature of life and death itself.  Rightly or wrongly identity itself, for much of history, was shaped by religion.

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Some may disagree – but I would argue that religion was the predominant ideology of English Literature right up until World War I.

Thus over 700 years of written literature is interwoven into a tapestry where life and religion were twisted threads.

Therefore, to study, understand and enjoy literature – knowledge of religion and the religious texts, such as the Bible, is essential.

How should we manoeuvre this camel through the needle’s eye?

It’s easy, as with all things historical context based, to bolt this knowledge onto a unit of work.

You’re teaching Great Expectations – you paraphrase the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The Lord of the Flies – well, that’s just one big Biblical allusion, although you could just summarise beginning of Genesis and then skip to the New Testament…
The Handmaid’s Tale – same.

Whilst this approach works for individual texts, it doesn’t allow students to develop an overall bank of knowledge that they can rely on. It robs them of the cultural knowledge that is part of our history, as well as our literature.

I like what ED Hirsch has to say in The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy:

No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible. … All educated speakers of American English need to understand what is meant when someone describes a contest as being between David and Goliath, or whether a person who has the “wisdom of Solomon” is wise or foolish, or whether saying “My cup runneth over” means the person feels fortunate or unfortunate. Those who cannot understand such allusions cannot fully participate in literate English.

Ref: See the link to the Core Knowledge website below:

But this piecemeal approach is not enough

Religious imagery (both positive and negative) pervades culture still.  By only teaching what is needed to tackle one text, we are not weaving the tapestry.

My long goal is create specific units of work that study ‘allusion’ in KS3, knowledge units that study Biblical knowledge as well as mythology from Greek, Roman, English heritage. Not just studying the stories but also studying representations of these stories, characters and ideas throughout literature.

I’m awhile away from being able to do that, so here’s the stop-gap:

At the moment, I teach these as explicit, out-of-context starters in year 9.  Whilst I am aware this isn’t ideal – I do feel that some knowledge is better than none, for now.

Teaching Biblical characters who have become literary “clichés”

Here’s the list of biblical characters and stories that I teach, with some examples below:

Old Testament:
Adam and Eve
Satan…
Abraham/Isaac
Cain and Abel
David (and Goliath)
Jezebel
Job
Joseph (and his cheerful coat)
Lot and often more importantly Lot’s Wife
Moses
Noah (and the Flood)
Solomon

New Testament:
Jesus
John the Baptist
Judas
Mary (mother of Jesus)
Peter (the rock)
Paul (Saul)
Pontius Pilate
*The Holy Spirit*

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Top Bible stories to know:

Old Testament:
Creation – Genesis 1 and 2, Adam & Eve, the apple, the snake, the Garden of Eden etc
Cain & Abel – the first death, the first murder
The Flood – the rain, the boat, the animals, the rainbow, the dove.
Jonah and the whale – I didn’t put Jonah as a character above because his story isn’t really all that without the whale. It’s a great narrative about rebellion, trust and redemption.
The Tower of Babel – the arrogance of man and the birth of language.
Moses and the Ten Commandments – what happens at the top of the mountain and what happens when you get down again.
Job – misery loves company.

New Testament:
The birth of Jesus – rather than the nativity itself, I tend to focus on King Herod and the baby genocide, the astronomers and following a star and then idea of the birth of a new humanity and the age of harmony with God.
The story of John the Baptist (or ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride)
The Beatitudes
The Good Samaritan
The resurrection of Lazarus
The Parable of the Prodigal Son
The “Let he who has no sin cast the first stone” story
The betrayal of Judas
The Crucifixion and Resurrection – tend to look at nature imagery and Christ figures.

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Famous phrases

Well, this is a list too far.  I really like the list of characters, stories and phrases gathered by the Core Knowledge team.  It can be found here along with some wisdom on why we should teach Biblical knowledge.

Also because Biblical allusion among other things is tested under the AP Literature curriculum – there are loads of fabulous sites that have lists of biblical phrases etc.  This is one is quite good for common Biblical phrases and I like this PDF because it has a bunch of useful literary, biblical and historical allusions.

What to test your knowledge of Biblical reference and allusion? Have a go at this BBC quiz!

I’d love to hear how you teach Biblical knowledge and allusion, please do let me know.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

It was implied

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Are inferred meanings and implied meanings the same thing?

On face of it, these two definitions are pretty similar (or in fact, the same).  It’s the old “read between the lines” mantra we use so much in English.

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inferred

But perhaps they aren’t exactly the same.

An inferred meaning is a conjuncture or a theory – it could be that more than one idea is inferred.  We use deduction from the evidence available to draw a conclusion. We may disagree. We may be wrong. Or right.

One of the problems with inference in literature is that most of the writers we study are dead and so we can’t ask them if our deductions are accurate or not.

Take Curley’s Wife for example:

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Steinbeck describes her as ‘a girl’ – the different theories about what can inferred from this include her innocence and contrastingly her immaturity.  Our choice of which theory is correct is shaped by our own person bias.

Depending on our reading of the rest of the paragraph (or novel) we may create conclusions and stick with them.

We don’t know for a fact what John Steinbeck was implying. We can infer an idea. We cannot state a truth.

Implication seems a little more solid than inference.  Implication hints of facts and truths, of rights and wrongs.

Take Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. It often prompts much debate. Is the governess mad or are the ghosts real? If you’re looking for a text that is ripe for inference – look no further than this crooked tale.

Yet, when asked about the different theories, James himself only ever referred to the story as ‘a nice little potboiler’.  He never outright declared allegiance to either side, but the truth is implied by this statement – he needed to make money, and quickly after the disaster of Guy Domville, The Turn of the Screw served its purpose.  The implication being that James did not consciously take the time and thought needed to design a complex psychological tale.

That’s one of the reasons why I love him – his genius was as repressed as the rest of him.

Back to inference and implication – it’s not trick of fate that my example for implication was real-life.  Implication – being intrinsically linked to fact – is more likely to be needed with real-world texts.

As I tackle more and more non-fiction in my classroom, I find myself asking “what is the implication here?” not “what is inferred?”.

Yet I don’t, or least wasn’t, teaching it.

When reading and studying non-fiction texts we often read them at surface level for fact alone and skip forward to spotting rhetorical techniques.

Take this example from the CIE Paper 3 in June last year.

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The Directed Writing paper expects top band students to be able to tackle the facts of the article and its implied meanings.

The facts presented here are clear – extinction of some species is expected, and it can be avoided, in part, by protecting these species in zoos and safari parks.

What are the implied meanings here?

This is a little more tricky – the writer mentions sabre-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths which became extinct due to the Quaternary extinction event, not caused by humans. Actually I’m not sure that’s what happened to sabre-toothed tigers – but I’m in an exam hall and can hardly google it.

One implication could be that in the past animals have become extinct due to natural causes (survival of the fittest), whereas today, the increasing demands of the human population are causing early or unnecessary extinction events (survival of the fittest mark 2).

In addition to that, the comparison between the protection of species in zoos and visiting them in their natural habitats again seems open to us drawing some kind of conclusion.  Perhaps that the suggestion within the text seems to be wholly focussed on the human experience and does not value the needs to wild animals to live in the wild.

You can see how hard these conclusions are to draw. Particularly in one hour in an exam room and on a subject that you have little or no knowledge of.

So, how do we teach students to find the implied meanings in non-fictions texts?

There is no magic bullet, there doesn’t need to be. As soon as this became a conscious need – it shaped my questioning and the quality of tasks that I set.

Yet the outcomes were immense, a quality of understanding and interpretation of non-fiction that exceeded basic factual knowledge. A thoroughness of thought.

The pace of my lessons reduced though.  This is the kind of thinking that hurts the first few times. Hurts a lot. But that’s good.

Here are some of the ways we look for implied meanings in my classroom:

  1. You can’t fault a thirst for knowledge. Encourage a real passion for knowledge of the world we live in.
  2. Get doing it. Together first.  Exactly the same as inference in fiction – short extracts, modelled time and again.
  3. Set non-fiction texts as reading homeworks, looking for implied meaning.
    Again – initially with guided questions, then with no prompts at all.
  4. Watch the news, listen to the radio, speak to your friends – communication is full of implied meanings. Get finding them.

Ok, here’s your homework. Implied meanings?

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It turns out the sometimes semantics can make you a better teacher.

I will upload some of my starters after the weekend.

Thank you for reading.

Slaying the dragons we can’t see

slaying dragons

We had our final parents’ evening of the year this last week. Year 10.

My year 10 class is small. Just 19 pupils, with FFTs ranging from B – D. We have the luxury of three ‘top’ sets this year, which means my set, set 4, isn’t overcrowded. For a number of reasons, this was and is important. For the kids themselves it mattered.

We started the academic year with a piece of coursework on Romeo and Juliet, an analysis of Mercutio’s character – comparing the play and Leo’s film. It was the perfect beginning to the year – subject content that was gripping and slightly controversial, paired with a tricky outcome. At the time, that comparative essay felt like a Herculean labour.

When I gave marks back to the class, I saw only two reactions. One was “Yes Miss!” the pride and jubilation displayed by male pupils. They deserved to be proud and I celebrated with them. After all, we had slayed the dragon.

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The second reaction quieter and less certain. The female pupils in my class had been equally successful, but their success produced a type of shock that made me deeply unhappy. It was an undeserving, anxious surprise. One that meant they needed to check that there wasn’t a mistake.

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I have seen this reaction time and again this year. When studying modern drama, poetry and imaginative writing. The girls seem so uncertain of their own abilities.

My year 10 girls have a difficult road to navigate. They are not top set nerds. They are pretty and popular. Their social life matters. Yet they are hard workers, the grafters who write everything you say down because they might need it sometime. They check repeatedly the requirements of a piece of coursework or an exam. They read and annotate the mark scheme. They copy up notes to ensure they are neat and orderly.

Why then is their success a surprise?

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At parents’ evening I tried to tackle this issue. I ended up having roughly one of two conversations. Here’s how the first conversation went:

Me: Your daughter is an excellent student, but I am worried that her lack of confidence might end up hindering her. She seems so surprised when she does well.

Parent: She’s always found English hard though.

Me: She doesn’t find English hard – some bits need more time and planning, but I don’t have any concerns about her. In fact, she got a B on her last piece of coursework.

Parent: A ‘B’? Wow. I hated English at school. She’s doing better than me.

Me: Do you ever ask her about what we are studying? Her ideas in lessons are really clever.

Parent: She said you did Shakespeare, I hated Shakespeare at school.

Me: Please do encourage her to tell you about her work. It is excellent. Perhaps you could have a look at her book sometime?

Parent: I wouldn’t understand it, would I?

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The second conversation went a bit like this:

Me: Your daughter is an excellent student, but I am worried that her lack of confidence might end up hindering her. She seems so surprised when she does well.

Parent: She gets really upset and worried about everything. She just wants to do well.

Me: She is doing well already. We are half way through year 10 and she is already writing at a B grade. She shouldn’t act surprised when that happens.

Parent: She doesn’t think she is clever.

Me: I wish she wouldn’t feel like it’s luck or a one-off thing. It is all down to her. She needs to develop more trust in herself. She does everything we expect of her so of course, she is going to be successful.

Seeing my class again after parents’ evening, I was more determined than ever to see if I was in some way helping or hindering these girls.

What did I notice?

  1. At the front of their exercise books, my class have a sheet of everything we cover in year 10. They tick off the subject content and reminders about mark schemes and exam percentages. To this I have added a checklist of skills in Literature and Language (for example – close analysis of language). At the end of each lesson, students tick off the skills we have used or worked on. Although in itself this is pretty meaningless, I can use it as a visual for the girls later – ‘Look how often we have studied this skill, you know what you’re doing. Trust yourself.’
  2. I found that I was instinctively more inclined to take answers first from the ‘more confident’ boys and the girls were happier adding to the boys’ answers. I am starting to warn the girls in advance about the question I would like them to answer. The boys then had to build on their ideas.
  3. The girls always wanted to check with me first, before doing something. I was their ‘built-in’ approver. So now the girls have to write their idea or sentence first and then tell me what is good about it or what they think still needs work.
  4. We have a whole school boy/girl seating plan policy. So every unconfident girl is sitting with a generally more confident boy. This means again the more confident boy is often shaping the conversation and discussion. Now I have moved the girls so that they are seated within range of other girls that they can turn and talk to. I need to monitor the success of this before I can say whether it’s effective or not.
  5. I circulate this small class often. My circuit has tended to go via some of the boys who have other needs first. Now I go to the girls first, check they are confident in the task and what is needed, before I move on.

It’s funny how often I was unconsciously feeding their lack of confidence.  I am so much more aware of this now.  I am absolutely determined that these girls will stop seeing their success as a fluke or an accident.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Thanks for reading

 

 

 

 

Don’t panic – 100% exam

blog 1Exam prep getting you twitchy yet?
Yeah me too.

I have a bunch of exam classes this year, one however is causing me to pause and think.

My top set year 11 English class are doing (essentially) 100% exam for Language and Literature.

The decision was taken in late September that they would take (in addition to the planned CIE iGCSE Literature qualification) the 80% exam version of CIE iGCSE Language.  The 20% being the S&L that remains with this qualification.

I don’t want to get into the whys and wherefores here.  Yet – it continues to make me pause.  Their exam schedule will go something like this:

  1. Language Extended Reading paper – 3 questions on 2 unseen texts
  2. Language Directed Writing paper – 2 questions based on unseen 1 text
  3. Literature Prose and Poetry closed text – 2 questions, 1 on Literary Heritage text and 1 on a collection of poetry
  4. Literature Drama open text – 1 question on a Shakespeare play
  5. Literature Unseen – 1 question on an unseen extract or poem.

Rather than preparing for this over two academic years, we have had just one.  In that time we have read Jekyll & Hyde, the CIE poetry collection – Songs of Ourselves and The Tempest.

As a result, being exam ready is taking on a whole new meaning for me.  The sheer volume of material to cover for the Literature means I have had to teach the Language elements implicitly whilst teaching the Literature.

Last Monday evening, I delivered a staff INSET session on practical approaches to exam readiness.   Below is a brief summary of my approach – which is inspired by Doug Lemov’s Practice Perfect (which I highly recommend).

Slide1

1. Encode success – content is king.
It would have been very easy for me to rush through the knowledge content of the course.  Knowing that you have 6 months to prepare students for 5 exams and read 3 texts, might result in a pressure kick.  Whilst I do believe in ensuring there is time for revision, I could not rush the teaching.  It took us from September through to early December to read Jekyll and Hyde.  December and January were dedicated to the 15 poems and now we re-reading The Tempest in its entirety.

Slide2

We revised and tested our knowledge as we went.  Writing essays, summarising, creating revision resources along the way.  They will be no time for in-depth revision later.

2. Analyse the game and embed the process

Slide3

Yet this is not an exercise in intelligent curiosity.  Pupils are studying for a purpose and as broad ranging as my class discussions may be, their examination answers are the end product.  We must be realistic about the hoops that examiners asks pupils to jump through.  Know them and show them.

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Within this is instilling confidence with exam questions and answer processes.

The wording of individual exam questions is predictable.  There is often a rubric used, so that the given content of a year is almost the only change.  It seems logical to share this rubric with students.  Have them sort it out, internalise it and remove the fear.  To give them an extract and have them use the rubric (aka exam question generator) write an easy exam question, a tough one, one they would love, one they would hate, the left-field one, the one even Mrs Enstone would hate.

Hand in hand with this goes the rubric process of answering a question.  Mark schemes don’t change year on year and as such we should be able to help pupils articulate and internalise the process of answering any question.  “Question 1 Miss? I need to do this, this and this. So first I’m going to…”

3. Isolate the skill

Slide5

The skill of memorisation cannot be championed in the classroom enough.  My students are fantastically knowledgeable about the texts we have studied.  Yet their ability to apply sophisticated technical literary terminology is still emerging. It’s only through dedicated classroom time to memorising can I ensure that this vocabulary is confidently secured early.  Linking texts and ideas to critical terminology makes sense.

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Literary terminology can be like stacking dolls – once you remember one term, they kind of unstack around you and suddenly you’ve remembered 15 clever words.

Those triggers are easy to identify and pounce on – I use bits of the examination hall as the triggers. A photo of the door, the lights, the clock.

A photo of the stage in our examination hall reminds us of: Stagecraft > Caricatures > Facades > Duplicity > Repression > Social norms > Stereotypes > Gender.

Each of these terms links to moments in the texts we have studied. Each idea can be unpacked precisely and in detail.  Each will trigger a series of single word quotations.

4. Make a P.L.A.N

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We don’t have time to create and learn different approaches to essay planning. The questions and mark schemes are too varied.  I don’t want my pupils to have to pause and search for a different plan for each question. I trust they know the content and are prepared – the PLAN strategy works for each question on every paper. P.L.A.N was suggested by the very lovely Mrs S (@HeadofEnglish) – it hasn’t failed me yet.

5. Plan with marks in mind

Planning with marks in mind means I must tackle the hard questions now – or even way before now.

Do we know how to gain full marks?
Could we write a full marks answer in exam conditions?
Is this true for every question on every paper?

My class is an A/A* group – I must be able to answer yes to these questions, otherwise what am I doing in my classroom?

Slide7

Being an examiner helps (though not in a literal sense as I don’t teach the exam board I examine for), yet it’s the research that counts. Reading examiners reports, studying exemplars, recalling papers, writing answers myself and having them marked.

6. Plan to the last minute

I’m pretty confident now with the CIE exams. I know where the strengths and weaknesses lie. Now students can play these to their advantage.

Slide8

Why not answer the questions in a different order?

If pupils have internalised all the knowledge and processes needed beforehand, the mystery and fear of the paper is removed. The last step is ask the question ‘which is my best route to full marks?’ For some this maybe answering the questions in a different order.

7. Think aloud

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You’ve probably heard of a walking/talking mock. I don’t exactly know what they are and have never used this strategy.  But I do like to do a Think Aloud answer.

This goes back to my point about being confident that I could write a full marks answer.

It’s a simple process, outlined in the picture above. The essential key is that I say aloud my every thought. As I am thinking, planning and writing – I am verbally modelling for students my thought process and how I go about writing.

Sometimes I put students in charge of listening for different AOs, writing down only key words or counting quotes etc.  They can write a P.L.A.N as I talk or just write the thesis statements.  For the language papers – they often give me the Reading marks as we go, they work out how well I am ‘using my own words’ or when I move up a Band on the writing marks.  Then it’s their turn.

As I said at the beginning, these are just a few of the key strategies I am using with year 11 this year.  I’m hoping that they are fruitful for this amazing and resilient class.

Thanks for reading.

Louisa

Teaching restraint in descriptive writing

What does good descriptive writing look like?

L6 writing

This was written by one of my year 7 students last week. It reads:
Bottles lay on the ground, infront of an unused bin. A small dark melancholy cat sat on the cold stone ground looking around for any sign of food. There was an eerie silence. Drops of water flushed out…

It continues in a similar vein for several paragraphs.

This is the picture the student was describing:

descriptive image

Most students arrive in Year 7 with the understanding that good writing is technique heavy.  The overuse of adjectives and adverbs has replaced writing that demonstrates subtlety or sub-text.

When we being writing, we begin with simple sentences: The boy ran.
We develop these to add visual imagery – The boy ran quickly.
Later we add more precise adverbs – The boy ran sluggishly.
Modifying adjectives and verbs: The overweight boy staggered painfully.
We introduce different openers: Late again, the overweight boy staggered painfully onwards.

Vocabulary work adds:  The corpulent man-child blunders unseeingly onwards into the grimly lit darkening streets.

When I ask my pupils what good descriptive writing looks like – this is what they seem to think I want.

The curse of “show and don’t tell” has meant that pupils as writers are spoon-feeding their readers on a whole new level.  Don’t show and don’t tell is perhaps a better maxim.  (A side note on this – when we teach students techniques like ‘show and don’t tell’ remember they internalise language and I end up marking GCSE exam papers that read “The writer’s use of show and don’t tell suggests…) As I said, don’t show and don’t tell is sometimes better.

It is disheartening to have to unlearn these skills but pupils must.  Laborious descriptions that are laden with adjectives, adverbs and literary techniques (CRASH! BOOM!) are not good writing. Nor will they ever be.

On becoming writers who read

The literature that we study at school is only worthy of study if we have to study it.  The reader’s interaction with the language of text – gleaning meaning where it is hidden is what we do when we analyse.  It’s not easy to write an essay paragraph using the quote “He slammed the fork down angrily” as there is nothing to infer.  The writer has set it out for us.

Pupils arriving in Year 7 though have been taught that when writing themselves, they must create such a vivid image for the reader than we have no work to do.  Their writing is filled with subjective emotional language, but by placing this into the text, they have robbed the reader of their own reaction.

Writing as detectives

I am teaching a scheme of work studying Mystery and next week we are due to start reading Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue.

In order to get into the mystery swing of things – this week I wanted pupils to pare back their writing, by writing description as detectives.

The lesson began with this extract from The Road by Cormac McCarthy (at this point I would like to thank Dr G for championing McCarthy endlessly – and finding me this extract):

descriptive writing 2

As detectives, pupils identified all the nouns and then explained what exactly was being described.  I then asked them to remove all the grammatical words to force their focus on to the nouns and noun phrases.  Finally we identified the adjectives.

By focussing on the nouns – students were more able to understand the ‘mystery’ in this extract. It almost sounds counter intuitive but this literal description allows for detailed inference – “the sagging hands”.

Students had to explain this forensic, scientific approach to writing, that did not use any emotional, subjective language. They described McCarthy’s landscape as realistic or ‘true’ as the students named it.

This image then required a detective’s eye to describe.  We started with nouns – precise and detailed.

descriptive writing 3

A few we listed were:
– a man, wearing a overcoat and hat
– a shuttered door
– four windows with six panes
– a building with high eves

Next I asked pupils to describe these nouns in the most scientific way possible and I asked why the sentence below is not forensic.

The shadowy, mysterious path went up to the crumbly, ancient building.

It was this part of the lesson that resulted in the most discussion and debate among students.

“You can’t use ‘eerie’ since when would a detective say it was ‘eerie’?”
“Gloomy is out – right Miss?”
“How can I say the building is old without exaggerating, it’s not ancient.”

By giving students the vocabulary ‘subjective’ and ’emotional’ they were able to critique their own ideas. Often writing down and then removing words that were weak.

The final 15 minutes of the lesson was spent writing just 10 sentences of scientific description.  Here are some of their attempts:

“Walking towards the light, a man alone digs his hands into the pockets of a long overcoat.”

“Stretching away to the left, the uneven cobbles absorb the black and grey of night.”

“Four, six paned windows reflect the streetlight exaggerating the darkness beyond”

“Darkness to the left and to the right. Light cuts threw the centre”

On the face of it this ability to show restraint in writing allows students to write in a manner that is more ‘true’.

Subjectively, I think this writing is closer to ‘good writing’ than writing that is created via a checklist of word types, sentence types and techniques.  It would certainly uphold more analytical scrutiny.

Thanks for reading

Louisa

Article of the Week #3

Body image pic

 

Here is this week’s gathering of non-fiction articles and questions.

Body Image is the topic: with one article on criticism of the Obama girls’ fashion sense and the second extract an NHS fact sheet on body image.

As ever I have included new GCSE style short and long answer questions, a comparison question and two transactional writing tasks.

Download here: Body Image – Obama girls and body image

Have a great week.

Louisa