Sunday, 16 October 2016

Structure is all about three words

Again, I am spending time again on thinking about teaching and preparing students for Question 3 on the new AQA English exam paper. In fact, I think I have spent so much time on it that I have forgotten to pay bills, respond to emails and feed my own children. They are looking a bit feral at the moment. All this for one question. And, it is only worth eight marks.

This week, with a group of Year 9s I looked at Stevie Smith’s ‘Come on, come back’. We have been looking at dystopian fiction and I thought I’d look at the poem through the GCSE exam question prism. Did I mention poem are great examples for Paper 1 practice? Anyway, we worked through the questions. Find five things that show this a dystopian world. How does the writer use language for effect in this section? How is the text structured?

I have worked with students across KS3 and KS4 to get used to sketching three key images from a text, when looking at structure. I am, very simplistically, getting students to see the text in terms of start, middle and end. Draw the beginning, the middle and the end. In fact, my mantra is always, when looking at the structure, start, middle and end. What is at the start? What is in the middle? What is at the end?

Yes, it is simplistic, but it helps students to see three separate entities. It also helps students to structure their responses. Point one: beginning. Point two: middle. Point three: end. When students have that clear view of the text, then we can add additional questions?

When is the setting introduced? When is the character introduced? Where is the atmosphere created?  

These are all important questions when looking at the structure of the text. Why reveal the character at the start, middle or end?

A character introduced in the start might suggest the story is focused on this one character.

A character introduced in the opening might show that the story is focused on feelings / emotions and the journey this character experiences.  

A character introduced at the end of an extract might be because the writer wants to build up to the character.

They are choices. Why did the writer put that character there? I recently used an extract from ‘Great Gatsby’ and it was interesting for the choices about character. The start and the middle were all focused on Gatsby. The end of the extract referred to the narrator and what was happening to them. This structural choice reflected the narrator’s obsession with Gatsby. Three quarters of the text was dedicated to this one character. Then, when you explore the structure further, you see that the character of Gatsby is introduced, but only through his house and the activity in the house. Seeing the extract from a character perspective, helps us see the way the text is structured. A reliance on feature spotting undermines the overall structure of a text.  

If we look at ‘Come on, come back’, the structure is interesting. The start – a girl is introduced. The middle – the girl drowns. The end – a sentinel calls out to her. We see that the focus is on the character from the start. She introduced to us at the start. Yet, the character is killed off in the middle. It is like ‘Game of Thrones’. Storytelling tends to have death at the end or start of writing, because it tends to be strong way to start and end things. Nothing is more finite. Yet, the writer (poet) has the character introduced at the start and killed in the middle. That means her death has some significance. The aftermath of her death has some meaning so the writer has continued the story after her death. It could be to be poignant. Here is a lonely girl and at the end she isn’t alone, but it is too late. Or, it could be about desire escape the events of the conflict and that her only way to escape is death. The sentinel at the end is a reminder she cannot escape.

Looking at the poem you see that the setting is continually referred to throughout, but, in my personal opinion, it is more noticeable at the point of drowning, which could show us how the landscaping is consuming her. We could even say there is a sense of repetition with the start. The water consumes her as did the world she escaped from.

Of course, you can start throwing in terminology and refer to the third person perspective, which add to the sense of distance and emotional detachment of the character. We are emotionless as too is the ‘girl’. This detachment is a repeated motif in the poem.  All this started with the three words ‘start, middle and end’. However, we took this a bit further. We tried to summarise the poem’s structure with three words. One for the start. One for the middle. One for the ending.

This is what we came up with:

Lost – escape – fail

Scenery – feelings – death

Death – feelings – death

Before – death – after

Inside – outside – inside

Story – feeling – death

Past – present – past

Darkness – light – darkness

Loneliness – escape – company

Information – emotive     

The great thing is that with each suggestion students had to justify their idea with reference to the text. We also looked at the connections between the words used for the opening – lost, scenery, death, inside, past, darkness, loneliness. Students were able to confidently talk about structure and meaning at the same time.  

Regular readers of the blog will note similarities with my ideas about ‘inference words’ and that is on purpose. If a student can sum up a section of a text, they will be able to effectively comment on the structure of the text. You can’t teach structure without focusing solely on specific texts. No two texts are ever going to be alike. Teaching students to spot common things and techniques is dangerous. That’s why I like this approach of empowering students to comment on the structural choices themselves. See the text as three separate components. Then, summarise the different components and then look at how they are connected together.  You can then refer to other technique, but always have the disclaimer attached to a method or technique: not every writer uses this approach. In fact, only a few do.

I have found these three words so helpful when exploring structure. A starting point to engage with the thinking.

All this for eight marks on the exam paper.

 Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 2 October 2016

How I teach 'An Inspector Calls'

For years, I have been teaching J.B. Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls and, for once, I thought I’d share how I go about teaching it. This isn’t a scheme of work or a massive opus. This is simply just a collection of things I do with the play. Nothing fancy. No frills. All about the learning.

The Rules of Edwardian Society

I always start with these statements to help students learn something of the attitudes of the time. I often keep testing these again and again. Throughout the reading of the play, we revisit the simple PowerPoint list and make references to it. What rule is being explored at this point in the story?

       A poor person has no manners / class / sophistication / education.

       A poor person cannot ever become wealthy / rich.

       The poor and the rich should never mix – friendships / relationships / work.

       A poor person should be grateful for all that the rich help to provide them.

       The rich didn’t want to see or hear the poor; they just needed them to do a job.

       The rich employed the poor.

       A rich person could sack or punish a poor employee without consequences.

The Message

At the start of the play, I introduce one of the play’s messages:

The play is about the relationship between the poor and the rich.

I tell students that if there is one thing I want them to understand and remember is this message. This then becomes a mantra when reading, but then after reading it I then ask the question: Is the play just about the relationship between the poor and rich? Often, this generates many responses.  

The Servant’s Entrance Downstairs

I love a metaphor. One metaphor I like to use with ‘An Inspector Calls’ is the way a person enters a house in Edwardian times. Often students think that there were parts of society where rich and poor met, like doorways. The servant’s entrance is a very strong image. To extend student’s understand with clips of Downton Abbey and/or Upstairs Downstairs. Both highlight the system of two worlds in society.

Another metaphor I like to use for this play is the ‘poverty cliff’. Eva Smith is on the poverty cliff. Each encounter with the Birlings pushes her closer to the edge. A nice metaphor to explore when studying the play.

Titanic Microcosm  

As part of the learning, I make students watch the three hour long film. Joke. I don’t. No, I think students need to know some interesting ideas about the Titanic.

·         It was seen as indestructible.

·         It was expensive.

·         It was seen as symbol of prosperity, strength and wealth.  

Then, you have the iceberg and the sad sinking of that ship.   

·         The sinking could have been prevented.

·         Both rich and poor died as a result.

·         The rich were more likely to survive as they were nearest to the life rafts.

The Titanic is a microcosm of Edwardian society. An event, an iceberg or war, tore a hole in that society.  

Tracking how characters / language changes over the play

I am a big fan of this approach. I do it to death with the play. I like taking sentences or quote out of the play and look at the changes between each one. Take the following examples from the play.


       Yes, go on, Mummy. You must drink our health.

       It’s the only time I’ve ever done anything like that, and I’ll never, never do it again to anybody.

       Why – you fool – he knows. (Gerald)

       Just what I was going to ask!

From the above example, a class came to the idea that Sheila matures over the course of Act 1 and Act 2. She starts of childish and frivolous and becomes hard, cynical and incredibly sarcastic. The choice of ‘mummy’ and ‘fool’ helps us to see that change. As a result of this finding, we, as a class, explored why Sheila stops being emotional. We came to the idea that she is saturated with emotions so she become dismissive to things in the play. Simply put: she can’t cope with any more emotional torment.

The beauty of this approach is that I am constantly looking at quotes and revising quotes. I do this as I am going along and I do it at the end of the play. It is great to explore how the language changes from act to act.
Mr Birling

Act 1

‘….perhaps we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together…’ 

Act 2

‘I must say, Sybil, that when this comes out in the inquest, it isn’t going to do us much good. The Press might take it up.’

Act 3

‘Now look at the pair of them – the famous younger generation who know it all. And they can’t even take a joke-’

To help students along with the analysis, I get them to:

·         Pick out the most effective word.

·         Look for changes in tone / mood.

·         Look for evidence of the following: polite /rude,  direct /indirect,  positive/negative, emotionless/ emotional, fluent/stilted, serious/joking

Who is on stage?

Without the support of a stage version of the play, I find this document helpful with tracking entrances and exits. Students colour in when a character is on stage. Then, you can see how the play is structured around the characters being on or off stage.


I find with plays students and teachers forget that the most important things are characters and relationships. It is far better if a student explores the development of the characters and how their relationships change than track the plot. The plot you can cover in three sentences. For that reason I break each act down to five section and as we read a section we jot down what a character is thinking and feeling. For each act, we have a separate A3 sheet and students constantly make notes about the characters and their relationships.

I enjoy working through the play this way as it helps make students see the subtle changes in mood and tone between pages of dialogue. Plus, it saves me loads of planning and work.

Human emotion

Every person is a handbag full of emotions. However, when students explore drama they reduce the complexity of emotions to one simple emotion.  A character is angry. A character is ashamed. I find it helps to get students to see emotions as complex and contradictory. At any given moment, a character is feeling X, Y and Z.  Sheila feels angry, pleased and jealous at this moment in the story.

Like / Dislike

A student’s opinion is very important when studying a play. They are, in effect, the audience. Frank, what do you think of the opening? It’s a bit boring, sir. Yes, why do you think the audience is supposed to be bored at this point? To make us hope that something interesting will happen, next.

These simple questions are important, because they all relate to the audience and their reaction. Of course, the ‘why’ is key here.

Who do you like the most here?

Who do you dislike the most here?

Is this moment interesting for an audience?

I am sorry there isn’t a single ‘Top Trump’ card activity or ‘Tension graph’ in sight. #gimmickfreeteaching

Thanks for reading,