Sunday, 26 February 2017

Starters and the three part lesson - R.I.P.

I remember a time when the most important thing for me in teaching was the starter. I’d spend hours, days and weeks thinking of ways to start a lesson. Ways to hook students. Ways to engage with students. Little did I know, decades later those starters would be redundant, useless and pointless. They’d sit gathering dust in cupboard somewhere. Common sense raised its head and people started to see that ‘engagement’ shouldn’t be a driving factor behind education.

For years now, I have worked on getting students to pull knowledge from one lesson to another. The great thing about knowledge organisers is that they do this explicitly. In a few conference talks, I have mentioned the need to ‘pull’ the knowledge learnt between lessons. Revisiting the knowledge learnt again and again in lessons, for me, is important in learning. During one conference, Andy Tharby explored the use of questioning and the use of different types of question. I like the idea, so I started playing around with it and I made some interesting discoveries.

One approach of Andy’s was the use of precise questioning. Here’s an example I used for ‘Bayonet Charge’.

  1. What colour is the hare?
  2. What kind of material was he wearing?
  3. Who is he fighting for?
  4. What ‘c’ is the shape the hare runs in?  
  5. What ‘r’ is numb?
  6. What ‘f’ is used to describe the way the hare moves?
  7. What alliteration is used?
  8. What is the last word and image of the poem?
  9. What is personified in the poem?

This started as ‘starter’ with my Set 6 out of 6. The class had studied the poem in the previous lesson. As a class, we had been studying four poems from the Conflict and Power anthology. I decided to group the poems together around an idea or specific aspect. In English, we are working on student knowing a poem for an exam. They are expected to memorise and recall the poems.  

Anyway, verbally we answered the questions. Not everybody in the class could answer the questions on the first round of questioning. However, at least one person could answer each question. The rest of the lesson was spent looking at a different poem, ‘The War Photographer’. At the end of the lesson, I then revisited the questions again. Students could answer more than one question now. Then at the start of the next lesson, we attempted the questions again, and, as you would expect, the students were able to answer more questions.  In addition to these questions, I tested students on another set of questions linked to ‘The War Photographer’.

  1. Where does the poem take place?
  2. What colour is the light in the room?
  3. Name three places the War Photographer has been.
  4. What ‘r’ is how the poet describes England?
  5. What ‘g’ is how the poet describes the person in the photograph?
  6. What ‘s’ is where the pictures will be published?
  7. What metaphor does the writer use to describe the photographs?
  8. What contrast does the writer use to show us how lucky we are?
  9. What religious reference is made in the poem?

Alongside the poems I questioned the students on these questions. And I repeated it over several weeks. The start, middle or end of a lesson would contain these questions. Sometimes we’d do one of these sets of question. Or, we’d do all of them. We answered the questions verbally rather than through their writing. The questions were repeated and repeated. I never named the questions, so the first thing the students had to do was identify the poem based on the questions. Sometimes, I’d even as students to recall the questions based on the poem.

Here are some more of the questions I used:

  1. How many people were in the Light Brigade?
  2. What did the soldiers ride on in battle?
  3. What ‘v’ is where the battle took place?
  4. What ‘c’ did the enemies have that the Light Brigade didn’t?
  5. What ‘H’ is the way the writer describe the place where the battle took place?
  6. What ‘s’ did the soldiers have instead of guns?
  7. What is repeated at the end of every stanza?
  8. What body part is used as a metaphor to describe the place?
  9. Give an example of repetition in the poem.

  1. What is the poet’s connection to war?
  2. What animals celebrate when the soldiers head back to war?
  3. What is the weather like in the poem? 
  4. What ‘n’ is repeated in the poem several times? 
  5. What ‘g’ is used to describe the soldiers?
  6. What ‘i’ is used to describe their eyes at the end? 
  7. What punctuation mark does the writer use to make things seem so slow? 
  8. What kind of sentences does the writer use to create a sense of never ending torture? 
  9. What pronoun does the writer use to show us that the speaker isn’t alone?

Over several weeks we kept revisiting these questions again and again. Now, here is the crux: we spend time generating questions upon questions in lessons; we spend hours planning what questions to say and when to say them, hoping to develop the learning.  What if we just asked the same one question again and again? There is an assumption that questions must be getting progressively harder to enable progress. What if asking the same question again and again supports learning better than asking hundreds of questions with different answers? Now, I could have changed the questions or I could have asked some more challenging questions at the end of the lessons; however, what I did with asking the same few questions again and again was build up the knowledge and ensure that the knowledge is stored and retained. How many times have students given us the wrong answer and we have just told them the correct answer? We consciously or subconsciously feel that the student will make a metal note of that mistake and learn from it. In truth, they don’t.

By revisiting the same questions again, I was building the knowledge up explicitly and with the students onside. The great thing about this was the time it saved. One slide on a PowerPoint. That one slide was starter and / or plenary for several lessons. Five minutes planning time became thirty minutes of lesson time over the course of a few weeks. Those questions will be used again and again in Year 10 and Year 11. The questions will be where the knowledge is stuck to the sticking place.

Tomorrow, as requested by the class, they want to be tested on all the questions in the format of a test paper. They have spent two weeks answering the questions, so they feel ready to complete a test on it. They haven’t seen it as boring and pointless. In fact, they have enjoyed it. They have enjoyed testing the knowledge again and again. Plus, it is going to take me ages to create the test paper. Umm… no it won’t. Copy and paste it.

We have always tried different methods to ensuring knowledge is retained. We often reword the question or we have presented the question in a different format. We expect possibly too much from students if we think that them making a mistake on one test fuels them to not make the same mistake on another paper, when the question is reworded or presented differently. What if we asked the same question again and again and ensure that they get the answer right? What if the memory of the question is equally as important as the memory of the knowledge of needed for answering the question?

So, when I think about my planning of lessons for the next group of poems I am studying with the class, I will not be thinking of how will I start and end lessons. I will be thinking of the 9 questions I want students to know about each poem in the group. What is the starting knowledge I want the students to have for each poem?   

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Subject of Sentences

The new AQA English Language GCSE has a bullet point on Question 2, Paper 1, suggesting students might want to comment on sentences. Well sentence forms, if we are going to be pedantic about things. It is a small bullet point, so it might be easily missed when students franticly write an answer to the question: How does the writer use language to describe…?

I have a lot of problems with asking students to write about sentences. I love a good sentence. They are squishy and joyously fun to squeeze and poke. I love a crisp, brief sentence like Susan Hill’s sentences when she isn’t writing horror stories. I also love crammed sentence like the one’s Dickens uses. Go on, just add another clause. The problem I have is that we are often so basic when talking about sentences.

In fact, part of the problem comes from the language we have to describe a sentence. The basic terms of simple, compound and complex actually hinder expression. I have seen students crow bar the following phrases into their analysis.

The writer uses a simple sentence to show how simple his thoughts are at the moment.

The writer uses a complex sentence to show how complex his thoughts are at the moment.

Sadly, the words simple, complex and compound are very misleading to students because of the terms alone. If a student then has cottoned on that you could replace simple, compound and complex sentences with long and short sentences, you then get sentences like these ones:

The writer uses a long sentence to create atmosphere and slow things down.

The writer uses a short sentence to create pace.

The problem is that students have, at this point, not said anything precise, or even meaningful about the texts. In their heads, it might sound good, but in reality they are pretty bland and meaningless. Part of the problem is the terminology. Another part of the problem is the fact that students view sentences as something to be analysed in isolation. All sentences have hidden tendrils. They link to the sentences before and after them invisibly. Therefore, any discussion on sentences must focus on the rest of the sentences. Take this example extract from ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus. It isn’t likely to be in the actual exam, because there isn’t enough for a student to talk about in terms of techniques; but it is enough for looking at sentences. Along as you have more than three sentences, you can say something meaningful.

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

Source: The Stranger by Albert Camus

So, what can we say about it? Well, it has lots of short sentences, so the writer is building up the pace of the story. The sentences are mainly simple, so this shows us that the narrator has simple thoughts about the death. Wrong! You can see how meaningless these terms can be.

I think students should know what the subject of a sentence is and be able to spot the subject in a sentence. Look at the extract and you see the following subjects.

1: Mother

2: ?

3: I

4: That

5: It

Sentences two and three are a little bit more complex, so I will come back to those later. What is interesting for me is the fact that the subject changes across the extract and more importantly the first sentence refers directly to the mother and the last sentence indirectly refers to the mother.

The subject of the last sentence refers to ‘it’ which creates a sense of distance compared to the first sentence which refers directly to the ‘mother’ and her death.

The first sentence has the ‘mother’ as the subject to reflect the shocked the narrator had to the event. The lack of any other words describing the subject highlights a lack of connection or thought. The voice doesn’t refer to her as ‘my mother’ or even use a more personal noun to describe her like ‘mum’ or ‘mummy’ suggests there is a level of detachment.  

Now, sentence two is quite interesting, because it is a grammatically incomplete. It should be a continuation of the first sentence joined by the co-ordinating conjunction ‘or’. The telegram message as part of sentence three is full of broken sentences, but that’s the convention of telegram writing.

The writer uses a grammatically incomplete sentence to create a level of informality and make the writing seem conversational. Therefore, the reader develops a personal connection to the narrator as they are speaking to them personally.     

The ends of the sentences are interesting too: today, yesterday, tomorrow, yesterday.

The writer tends to end sentences with a reference to a time which adds to the sense of confusion of the narrator and highlight a level of obsession.

In our teaching of the language questions, I feel that we need to be especially cautious with how we present it. Students need some clear structured teaching. Simple terminology will not work alone. In fact, I’d actively work against students use the words simple, compound, complex, long and short. I’d use these questions instead.

What is interesting about the way sentences start/end?

What is the subject of each sentence?

What is the connection /changes between the subjects?

How are the sentences structured?

Are sentences complete or incomplete?

How are the sentences linked?

From that starting point, I feel you come to most interesting points when talking about sentences. Then, you can add relevant terminology. However, there is nothing better for sentences than identifying the subject of each and every sentence. Then, look at how each sentence is linked.

It is interesting to note that identifying the subject of a sentence is directly supporting the structure question (Question 3) on the paper. My advice for teaching questions 2 and 3 on Paper 1 is focus on subject, subject and subject. Understand the subject of the sentences and extract and the rest follows.

No sentence is an island, so let’s stop treating them as discreet islands of meaning. Students, in fairness, only need to say one meaningful thing about sentences for question 2.  We just want that point to be meaningful and thoughtful. They can only be meaningful if students can see the trade routes in and out of that island.  

Thanks for reading,