Studying unseen fiction (part 1)

 

garden-gnome-523380_640One of the real pleasures of teaching CIE iGCSE Literature this year was preparing students for analysis of unseen prose fiction. Unlike the Language counterpart – the prose fiction selected by Cambridge have always unusual, interesting and challenging.

The new English Language GCSE sticks unseen fiction back in the game from this September and whether you have chosen a board that does contemporary or old, it will be something to tackle.

It’s a bit different, but the same as well.

different

Prose extracts whether they are from short or long fiction provide a unique opportunity to test students independent inference and deduction skills. After all, we aren’t in the room to clarify plot, character, themes and purpose. Nor is there the typical Unit 1 shouty headline and garish picture choice to help guide understanding.  Students are presented with part of a text, rather than a whole. They are literally in medias res.

How did I work it out?

Culture of strong readers

Now is this time – more than ever before – to look at the culture of reading in your school. It is clear that students who are strong readers – whether they read extensively for pleasure or not – will be more successful than those who aren’t. I have written before about the importance of developing readers who are confident. In this new exam, we cannot risk students who stumble through sentences struggling to decode individual words at the loss of whole passage meaning.

But how, here are a few things I have tried:

  1. Talk a lot about what I read. I don’t just mean the obligatory Miss L is reading posters. I have used whole school assembly time to talk about reading, struggling with reading, about books.  I regularly start my lessons with a book review, a mini-read (the bit just before the oh-shit moment is always a good one to read), a book trailer. Talk about books a lot.
  2. Article of the week. This is something else that I have written on before. The idea from Kelly Gallagher was first implemented to build cultural knowledge – to get students to think about current issues, to help them understand the world they are growing up. For part of the year – I did this. It resulted in some of the best classroom conversations I have ever had. See here for one.
    The idea is that each week you set an article for a homework task and students respond to it with some reflective writing. This can work just as well with prose fiction extracts and in fact, although I loved the discussions that resulted from the non-fiction articles I set, I loved even more the learning that resulted from the prose extracts.

Teaching unseen prose fiction – what, how and maybe why?

The process seemed pretty simple to me, at the beginning. We need to be able to pick up any extract and say what was going on, how the writer created these goings and why.

So working out what is happening in an unseen text is the first port of call. Basic comprehension seems obvious enough. Yet we don’t often tackle it in KS3 anymore, not cold, without any surrounding prior knowledge. In terms out that actions and events are easily misinterpreted.

Here is the process we came up with (minus the exam question hoo-ha):

  1. Read the text. Read it again. Read it a third time.
  2. Write a bullet summary of the WHAT covering – characters, events, relationships.  WHAT the writer is doing.

Seems simple enough doesn’t it? I challenge you to try it – perhaps even with this CIE old exam paper. Unseen lit paper – example 1 It’s amazing what different versions of the conversation between Dr Aziz and Mrs Moore I got. Were they arguing, were they flirting, are they friends, strangers?

We spent more time than expected get good and accurate at reading the WHAT in unseen texts.  This is where my prose fiction article of the week came in useful. But also 100s of paragraph long extracts as starter tasks.

Next came how – HOW is the writer are doing the WHAT?

    1. We would always start with dialogue for prose fiction, CIE are pretty reliable at choosing an extract with good dialogue.
      How does the dialogue reveal character, relationships?
      How does the dialogue move the action forward?
      How does the dialogue reveal history, background?
    2. Setting is another one that students can get their mitts on with relative ease – how does the writer bring the place to life?
    3. Mood is less easy if you haven’t done prior work on it. Mood in prose fiction is often connected with those awful vague adjectives like gloomy and eerie. I think mood and reader’s reaction are also sometimes confused.   This blog does a better job of explaining it –  I use the list of mood words here to study sentences and short extracts before we tackle longer ones. I have some lesson resources to share on mood shortly.
    4. Language, form and structure come more naturally – they are ingrained in our curriculum and students tend to be happy finding techniques. The above groundwork should ensure that they have something to say once they have found them.
    5. Themes and ideas can be another tricky one – while it might be possible to identify the theme of mortality or death in an extract concerning a funeral, it would be very difficult for a student to infer where the writer might be going with that idea.  We don’t have a long view.  We can hedge our bets “The writer might be suggesting” but before we go this far, we have to ask what are the expectation of analysing themes in an unseen text? It is not the same as looking at science and religion in Jekyll & Hyde.

Why – why is the writer up to all this?

To adequately look at themes and ideas, we must tackle the WHY. And if I’m honest – this was the area that I found most difficult. We are used to teaching the writer’s purpose, intention. After all every text has a message – we know that.   So tricky was the why, that it deserves it’s very own blog post. Soon, promise.

Thanks for reading

ps. You may want to ignore all of the above after results day next week.

 

Advertisements

Espresso Yourself

We heart school1

The first few hours or days back at school in September are hectic. While most schools encourage a full pelt return to hard learning – the sheer amount of admin that needs to be sorted means this isn’t always possible.

We are busy: sorting out seating plans, handing out new books, sorting out target sheets and stickers, homework schedules, SEN and TA resources.

Sometimes we just need a little bit of time.

For my new older classes – I like to gain 10 minutes or so with a few easy ‘get to know you’ activities.  But so I can muddle through the register and seating plan – I need this time to be quiet and calm.

Here’s one that I use for with my new Year 9 and Year 10 classes.

Espresso yourself blog

If you would like to use this – please help yourself: Espresso yourself

 

Book review: Raising Achievement by Caroline Bentley-Davies

Raising Achievement

The Teachers’ Pocketbook series is designed as handy overview of some the key areas of interest to teachers and school leaders. Raising Achievement does just that. Although it is easy to forget it is a pocketbook at all – so vast are the areas that Caroline Bentley-Davies manages to cover. At 128 pages including the myths of achievement; relevant research; metacognition; countless practical tips and a self-audit. There is nothing reduced or curtailed in this overview of raising achievement. Brevity and precision focus on the topic are what Caroline Bentley-Davies achieves and this is to our benefit.

The view here is holistic, there is no miracle cure for raising achievement – it cannot be done at the snap of our fingers, yet Caroline Bentley-Davies brings a lot of hope in her clear, strategic and practical approach. She covers honestly the issues for classroom teachers, students themselves, support teams, SLT and parents. The practical tips cover everything from first teaching strategies, to feedback, to revision. Sutton Trust and John Hattie are neatly segued into her practical thinking, as is Dweck’s Growth Mindset. While the case studies may be slightly obvious, Caroline Bentley-Davies highlights the gaps and errors we all make when we are hurrying through our curriculum.

Raising achievement is a thing, even in schools where results are good. There are always groups who are underachieving, they might not be pupil premium or able lazy boys, but they are there. It’s easy to think that if we just get on with good teaching then these groups should make progress like everyone. Right? No. It is clear from reading this book that I can look again at how I deal with the graffiti girls and sporting heroes in my school. But the best thing is – I don’t feel that crushing dread at the thought of tackling this issue, because now I have an overview of the ins and outs and some practical tips to try. I really like the idea of family learning – that’s first on my agenda.

I can honestly say I would never pick up a book with ‘raising achievement’ in its title. But I am glad I did.

I was provided a free copy of this book by the author in return for a fair review.

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.

Slide4

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.

blog 2

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

Slide6

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

Slide9

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

Article of the Week #5 – Gender

Gender

Two articles prompted by the #HeForShe campaign for gender equality.

As ever with a set of questions and two transactional writing tasks.

PDF file is here: Gender – Emma W

Huge thanks to my very excellent colleague, Dr R, for providing sourcing these.

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

Article of the Week #1

matter of factI am growing more and more aware that my current repository of ‘go-to’ non-fiction is not good enough.  The selection is too narrow and too old.

Each week I am will upload a non-fiction article and accompanying questions for use in the classroom.

These articles will be aimed at Year 9 + students so will be suitable for GCSE preparation or using in new 2017 GCSE units of work.

If you spot any great non-fiction as you are reading – do tweet it to me!

Here’s the first one.

Article of the Week – January #1

Why it’s time to let it go – Guardian – 17/12/2014