Sunday, 24 September 2017

The Rules of Poetry

There was a moment this week when I was talking to a class about free verse and its benefits for poetry. During it, I had a thought. A thought about rules. How important it is to understand the rules of a particular poem? Whether a poem is free verse or not, there is still a set of rules guiding the writing. Not having rhyme is a rule. Not having a regular rhythm is a rule.

I have analysed ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ umpteen times and I thought I’d view it differently. I thought I’d view it from a set of rules. I started with a few rules and then things snowballed.


1.       Sound effects are repeated three times

2.       End each stanza with the ‘six hundred’

3.       Visual details are repeated twice

4.       All dialogue starts with ‘Forward, the Light Brigade’

5.       The last verb in first fours stanzas is ‘rode’

6.       Verbs are paired when action takes place

7.       Stanzas three and five repeat the same five lines at the start

8.       The first word in every line is stressed

9.       One word in the whole poem is three syllables long

10.   All words, apart from one,  in the poem are one or two syllables long

11.   Dactylic diameter used throughout

12.   The number of times the imperative ‘forward’ is used matches the number of times the imperative ‘honour’  is used at the end

13.   Exclamations are followed by questions at the start but this is inverted at the end of the poem

I could go on and on looking for rules. This, by no means, is an exhaustive list. But, when you have rules down on paper you can start exploring the meaning in greater detail. What is the significance of a rule? (Incidentally, you have some rules to help them create a poem.)

Rule 13 – Nobody questioned the orders until after the event. Therefore, the last stanza reflects that need to question first before action. The poem subtly wants a change in the structure of the military organisation.

Rule 9 – Battery is the one three syllable word in the whole poem drawing attention to the key difference between the light brigade and their enemy.

Rule 1 and 3 – Greater emphasis is placed on the sound effects rather than the visual aspects to give a level of distance and confusion. The events are heard more than they are seen. Reflects how the public experienced

Rule 12 – The poet replaces the officer giving orders at the end of the poem. His commands equal that of the officers in the event.

These aren’t definitive interpretations, but they present a starting point to enable a focused discussion of the poem. Tomorrow’s lesson with my Year 10 is about the Ted Hughes’ rules in ‘Bayonet Charge’.  

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 17 September 2017

Analysis in GCSE Literature and GCSE Language is a chimera

Historically, as a school, we have done better in English Literature than English Language. Surprisingly, this year we saw the complete opposite. Now, I’d like to partly blame the dodgy ‘Romeo and Juliet’ question, but there is more to it than first meets the eye. When reading the examiner’s report, it seems that the analysis was the problem for many schools and ours. For me there seems to be such a difference in the level of analysis expected and, more importantly, the type of analysis. Whereas analysis was fairly consistent before, this time it is quite different.

GCSE English Language
Paper 1

Question 2 – How does the writer use language to…  
Highly technical
Emphasis on terminology
Emphasis on effect
Closely analysing the extract on a word or sentence level

Question 3 – How is the opening structured?
Content driven
Low emphasis on terminology
Emphasis on effect
Whole text analysis  

Question 4 -  How far do you agree with the statement?
Content driven
Emphasis on terminology
Emphasis on effect
Whole text analysis

Of course, different papers and different questions have a different emphasis. However, what alarms me the most is how the types of analysis is constantly morphing on just one paper. Use terminology for this question. Don’t use it for this one. Refer to the content in the question here. Don’t mention it there. So, when you are trying to develop analysing skills, it doesn’t help when the exam paper isn’t consistent with a view of analysis. Analysis just doesn’t mean the same thing in all the questions.
Look at the GCSE Literature exam and you see a completely different view. The examiner’s report is repeatedly that the students’ analysis was too narrow and detrimental when the students analysed things on a technical level and identified the word class of quotes. According to the examiner’s report, the extract doesn’t need to be analysed in fine detail. In fact, it seems that the extract hinders students, reading between the lines of the report. Now, here’s what I am at odds at: on one GCSE paper the examiners want students to be technical and zoom in, and one paper doesn’t want students to be technical and zoom in. I am at odds with this, because we, well most of us, teach both GCSEs to sets at the same time and in the past there has been a bit of consistency. We could feel reassured when teaching one GCSE we were subtly supporting the other. At the moment, I am starting to feeling I am working with two different churches and two different belief systems.

I am having to teach students to analyse things differently and actively teach them to approach it differently. We are going Protestant for Literature and Catholic for Language.
So, what is my approach for Literature? Well, this is the one we are trying for this year. It is a structure for planning a response to a question. I present it as an inverted triangle. The point at the bottom being the extract.

Read the question – ignore the extract
1:  Big ideas – inferences / inference words / abstract concepts
2: Shakespeare teaches us ….
3: Elizabethans felt….
4: Whole play – start/middle/end
5: Scene
6: Extract – language

I should imagine thousands of students in the summer started their planning with the extract and there lies the problem. We you start with an extract first you are automatically limiting the level of thought. You are looking for the answers in the text and that, honestly, where the problem lies. The answers are not in the extract. Evidence is in the extract, but not the answers. In fact, I am getting students to ignore the extract. In lessons, I am hiding the extract until the end of the planning.

Let’s take this question:
Starting with this exchange, explain how you think Shakespeare presents the way young men view love.

1:Big ideas – life-changing / romanticised / perfection / unreal / beyond the physical realm
2: Shakespeare teaches us how young men see love as a spiritual experience which transforms them and dominates their life.  
3: Elizabethans were deeply religious and viewed their spiritual life as more important than their physical life.
4: Start – Romeo meets Juliet for the first time and refers to her as saintly and worshiping her
   Middle – The wedding is a spiritual uniting of souls
   End -   Romeo kills himself so his soul can be united with Juliet

As the play develops, we move from the physical world to the spiritual world.
5: Scene: In this extract from Act 1 Scene 1, Romeo explains his love for Rosaline to Benvolio.
We see how not all men behave in the same way. Benvolio questions this behaviour. Romeo is consists in his view of love. Similar approach with Juliet. Benvolio a foil for Romeo.

6 : Extract: Language
Well, in that hit you miss: she'll not be hit
With Cupid's arrow; she hath Dian's wit;
And, in strong proof of chastity well arm'd,
From love's weak childish bow she lives unharm'd.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold:
O, she is rich in beauty, only poor,
That when she dies with beauty dies her store.

·         Repetition of the idea that she isn’t attainable

·         Reference to ‘saint’

·         Linked to gods – beyond the mortal realm

Note: This is a structure for planning a response and not a structure for writing a paragraph, so do not get any crazy ideas like this could be a structure for a paragraph. That idea is hideous.

And, so far, so good. The key thing is hiding the extract. For years, we have started with the extract, but in the church of GCSE English Literature, you need to save it for the end, when thinking and planning. I know Vygotsky wouldn’t like it, but going from the concrete to the abstract hinders students with analysis, because they struggle to shift to abstract thinking when they have something concrete before them. Students see the extract as having the answers. Therefore, they’ll obsess over the extract. In fact, the extract is the least important thing.

Analysis means something different in every question.
Imagine if we expected a different method to solve algebra in every question on the Maths exam paper.

Let’s have a bit of consistency.

Thanks for reading,