Monday, 28 December 2015

Vocabulary: The Knowledge Awakens


My family and I talk and talk. There are very few times in the day when we don’t talk. The conversation ranges from probing questions about the nature of fairies and their purpose in the delicate harmony of the universe to wondering if our house will be hit by lightning one day. Sometimes, there is a small conversation that gets me thinking. One such conversation was over fears. One of my daughters has a fear of her hair falling out – she doesn’t have to worry about that happening. The other daughter realised this was a bit of a crazy thing to worry about. In my attempt, to reassure my daughter, I introduced the idea of rational and irrational fears. They got the idea and then we explored this in more detail. Are there other types of fears, dad? By the end of the conversation, we had discussed rational and irrational fears, phobias, different types of phobia, stress, worry, anxiety. Oh, and she still worried about her hair falling out! My daughters, in the space of fifteen minutes, had learnt a new set of words to describe fear and worries.

The interesting thing for me was how we moved from one word to another rather than explore one word in great detail. My approach to vocabulary has always been, I think, traditional. If there is a word students don’t know in the text, I do the following things:

1: Ask if a student know what it means.

2: Ask students to see if they can work it out from the context of the extract.

3: Ask students to see if it looks like another word.

Then, I’d tell them what the word means. If I have a little bit of background knowledge of the word, I’d might dazzle students with the origin of the word, or how the meaning of the word changed due a historical event. I often repeat the pattern in my lessons. I find defining a word becomes my verbal digression in a lesson. Depending on the text we are usually studying, I might give students a glossary. And, this is the problem, I think it is limiting. The whole approach is based on learning one word at a time and on that basis we might be learning six or seven words a week in lessons. I get the principle: it is better to learn one thing really well than several things badly. However, is that really how we learn words best? Does the spending of twenty plus minutes really embed or enlarge a student’s vocabulary?

Take the word ‘gingerly’. It is the adverb / adjective (depending on context) that I often have students use in their writing. I think there is a whole primary school lesson devoted to it, but students tend to use it with aplomb, when it comes to creative writing. There is no doubt about the effective learning of the word and its use, but it isn’t a very useful word – just my opinion. The context for using it is fairly limited. I have read millions of students’ work and I see it crop up only when a character is nervously walking. The context taught has limited the student’s understanding of the vocabulary. They know that if they use the word ‘gingerly’ instead of ‘slowly’ it is better. They don’t see how the word could be used in different contexts. For example:

Character X gingerly accepts the friendship of Y in the novel.  

Therefore, I think the way we approach vocabulary can be limiting and hinder understanding. To fix this, we could explore the different ways to use the new word. However, again this could be limiting if you understand how we learn to speak in the first place.

Anybody who has taught child language acquisition or who has raised children will know the rate at which a child learns new vocabulary is phenomenal. Research shows us that children aged 6-8 learn between six and seven words a day and children aged 8-12 learn approximately twelve words a day. If we apply a bit of logic to this idea, a teenager (12-16) should be learning twenty four words a day. Now, they might be learning through reading and other stuff that happens during a school day, but do we support this and develop this. I don’t think I have; I have actually been working against this.  I have been teaching vocabulary like a snail or as if students were six or seven – one or two words a lesson. Maybe, I need to be quicker and faster. Or, perhaps, I need to think of vocabulary in a different way.

Take MFL departments. They love their vocabulary. They are experts at teaching new vocabulary to students and, I think, they have the right approach. I think any MFL department will be able to give you a good indication of how quickly students can retain new words. They compartmentalise words according to topics. They will teach students vocabulary associated with hobbies, shopping or parts of the body. But, what is interesting about the vocabulary choices, is that they are variations of the same theme. They all fit the same context. Students are learning the vocabulary for weather so they can describe the different types of weather. Students learn how to say it is raining and to say it is sunny. They are probably using the same phrase but they are subtly, or not subtly, changing the meaning of the phrase with their choice of words. That is how children learn language.  They learn the word and then the different meanings or possibilities of that word when they get it wrong.

What if we adopted the methodology used by MFL departments? What if we compartmentalise vocabulary and taught groups of words or words with similar meanings, but with slight differences? All too often, we tend to load students up with tier 2, 3 or higher words, if such a thing exists. Here are some ‘WOW’ words or words an A* will use so use them in your writing. What if we developed a student’s vocabulary through association and links with other words? When I select a word, when I am writing, I will think about all the possibilities and select the best one for the job. I might, for example, weigh up how one word creates a particular tone better than another.  In my head, I have linked words together or I have in a way compartmentalised them together. That’s why I can think of twenty words to describe the temperature of a room as being cold. Or, fifty words to describe a hangover.

At the moment, I am planning for next term and especially homework. I think revising and learning the meanings of words should be a regular pattern. Surprisingly, a weekly department wide spelling test has been very successful. Why? Because, it forms patterns of learning. The regular pattern of learning has helped us, as teachers, to be organised but it also has helped the students form regular habits in their learning. As a result of this approach, I want to expand what we do to learning vocabulary. Twice a term students are going to be given a set of words like this.  

 Secluded:

Sheltered or hidden from view


A V
Isolated:

Separated from other persons or things 

A V N

Desolated:

Deprived of inhabitants


A V N

Solitude:

Living alone



N
Confined:

To shut up or keep in


Reclusive:

A person who lives on their own, usually for religious reasons

N

Rootless:

Having no place in society



A

Alienation:

Being an outsider or the feeling of being an isolated by society

 Withdrawal:

The act of retreating or removing a person from society
N

Quarantine

Isolation is enforced by the government


N V
Privacy: 

Being away from people or hidden from view



N


Insular:

Detached or standing alone




N
Aloof:

Having different feelings to others or not sharing feelings with others

A Av

Retreat:

Withdrawing for safety or privacy




N V
Segregation:

Separating one part of society from another



N
Concealment:

A way or place of hiding


N


Sanctuary:

A place of safety



N

Detachment:

The act of separating


Partition:

Something that separates two things

Disengage:

To free a person  from something 



    

The groups of words are going to be linked by a theme or an aspect. The one above is for loneliness and it is for Year 10s as they study ‘A Christmas Carol’. I am also looking to doing the following:

·         Year 7 – Animal Farm – Power

·         Year 8 – Macbeth – Madness

·         Year 9 – Lord of the Flies – Savagery

The students will have a lesson on the words. In that lesson, we will explore the differences between each one. We might even draw a picture to represent what each word means. Then, the students have a week to learn the meanings of each one. During the week, we will have a quick test on them and relate to ongoing work in the lesson. Finally, students will have a test (multiple choice) on the meanings of each word. At each stage and interim lesson, students will be guided to use them in their own discussions and writing.  

The plan is to have an ongoing focus on vocabulary rather than an ‘odd word here or there’ approach. I do intend to keep helping students to learn words, but it is to be hoped that this approach will make a more logical and sensible approach. I am teaching new vocabulary but presenting it in a way that might help students better with retaining that information. We want students to regularly learn new words, but I have always struggled with the idea of word banks. This way students are looking at learning words in a meaningful way and not a random selection of words. It is to be hoped that we will have a bank of words at the end of the year so we can recycle them or repeat them in future years.  

The above example given helps to understand ‘A Christmas Carol’ better. The theme of loneliness is a regular theme in the novel, but often the problem students have is defining loneliness. By providing students with these banks to learn, I am making them build mental lists around a concept. But, this time around I am making them explicit. For the next set of words, I might look at greed. All too often in the past students have repeated the word loneliness when trying to explain the theme. Take some of the words and there meanings is clearer. Scrooge’s behaviour is a way for him to partition himself from others and increase his segregation from society. Teaching students to see that there are different meanings and words attached to one idea helps to open up a different level of understanding. Without the word or idea, students struggle to form meaningful points. The big difference between the most able students and other students is often their vocabulary, but how they use their vocabulary.

Going back to the conversation about fear with my daughters. What surprised me the most was the snowball (seasonal reference) effect of the vocabulary. Understanding that there were subtle differences between words helped them understand difficult or abstract ideas. For them, knowing what is a rational and an irrational helped them to categorise fears. Knowing the difference between a worry, fear and a phobia helped them to see how scared a person is of something. I have always though that teaching students new words was a case of chucking a load of new words and hoping that something will stick. This idea of exploring twenty alternatives or nuances of the same words actually makes more sense. Link from the start.

The great thing about resourcing this is that all you need is a one little book: a thesaurus.
Thanks for reading,
Xris

Saturday, 19 December 2015

What I want teachers to know about a parent with a child with a disability


Before I start: I don’t want sympathy; I want you to understand.  

I am a parent and a teacher. In this modern age of teaching, I think it is getting harder and harder to do both successfully. Often the school holidays are the time where I make up for my neglected parenting during the term time. Yes, we might have a good number of holidays, but often I am neglecting my own children for other people’s children and their future success. But, I am one of a few parents out there who have an added aspect to consider. As a family, we live with a disability. We live with cerebral palsy. Today, I can celebrate the fact that we have cerebral palsy in our lives, but that hasn’t always been the case. I think only now I can be quite open about things.

Seven years ago we noticed that there was someone not quite right with one of our daughters, a twin. She wasn’t sitting up. Her twin sister was sitting and moving about with some dexterity; she sadly wasn’t sitting up and she only moved on her tummy. These concerns led us to a doctor. The doctor, without battering an eyelid, told us that he suspected that she had cerebral palsy and she will probably never walk. Stunned, shocked and worried he guided us out of the room. We had no explanation, no support, no guidance. He diagnosed our daughter and left us to it. The discovery of something medical is usually guided by a leaflet. Oh dear, you have asthma – here’s a leaflet. We had nothing. Nobody offered us a warm smile or suggestion the future would be positive. In fact, you probably have more warmth and kindness when you put your car in for its MOT. We had discovered our daughter’s life would not fit the ‘normal’ pattern we had planned in our rose-tinted minds. A child is unfulfilled potential. In the pregnancy, we predict and plan a life for them. We know the future is unknown but we optimistically know it is going to be full of good things. When life puts a pin in the balloon of life, you look at everything differently.  

As a parent of a child with a disability, I am shocked and angered at how things are set against you. If the treatment of the diagnosis was tough, I wasn’t prepared for the experiences we had over the next several years. What I thought was a doctor acting professional and with an emotional detachment was actually an issue in society. We have a lack of emotional empathy. Our experiences have been tough and have been angering, but they haven’t, I hope been born out of malice but born out of ignorance and a lack of understanding.

I have accepted that my daughter’s life will be different in some ways to her sister’s, but it will be very close to the life she wants. To do that, I have had to fight. Metaphorically, I have had to toughen up and ask the difficult questions and force my case. There have been several occasions that have led me to be a fighter and being forceful in life and in schools.



Rejection

If I thought a class of thirty Year 11s was tough, I wasn’t prepared for what I would face in the name of rejection. My wife and I have had one or two friends drop us at the drop of a hat. We have become the ‘elephant in the room’ and people didn’t want to be associated with us. You’d think we go around wearing black and constantly crying about our circumstances; we don’t. A disability is like having your own ‘shallowness’ detector. It seems people didn’t want to be associated with us because they couldn’t play the hidden game of constantly comparing offspring. Tarquin could walk at one. Tarquin slept through the night from the first nights. We are so lucky.  

The rejection has occurred in other ways. Parents in parent group events haven’t engaged with us at parties and other events. It is like the ‘Mean Girls’ replicates itself in the adult years. Having a child with a disability, clearly doesn’t help you with the cool stakes.

Rejection has helped us to see the people worth knowing.



Time

There is a false myth that people hold about disabilities: things will get better. When we first informed people of our daughter’s diagnosis, we got everybody telling us that things will get better. It is a nice thing to say, but people do actually believe it. Cerebral palsy doesn’t change, but things can make living with better. The problem is that time is important. The quicker you can train a child to use a wheelchair, the quicker they master it for life. The sooner a child gets physiotherapy, the better their movement is.

We have had to wait months for boots and in that time my daughter has outgrown them. Time goes even quicker for children and it is important that things happen as soon as they can for a child with a disability.

Of course the obvious thing for a parent with a disability is the morbid fact that my child will outlive me. As a parent, I am conscious that my child needs to be independent. It is a tough world out there, and, sadly, it is even tougher for people with a disability. I know that time is limited. They need to be more prepared than other children. Life is designed with able-bodied in mind. Yes, it might be tough for them, but it will not be as tough for those with a disability. That is why I am keen to act and react on things now, because there may be a time in the future when I can't.  

Time makes me determined to get things done quickly.



Equality

This is the paradox of disability. Life decided that a person is going to be different. However, we all want, and deserve, to be treated equally. This is something that is always floating in our minds. We want our children to be accepted by their peers, but that’s hard to see happen when they always have to wear a helmet on in the playground.

There are schools across this country that do not accept students with disabilities. It is only a handful but I have had reports of parents being told that a school will not be the best place for them by a Headteacher. Inclusion is an important part of modern society and sadly there are a large number of people feeling that it shouldn’t happen.  Or, that the data is more important than the individual. To make a cohesive society, we need an active agent to build cohesion. Sadly, the media works hard to make society divided.

Disabled students should do all the same things. My daughter can’t walk well, but she should do PE with her peers. They should be kept with their peers in lessons. A child’s identity, like our own, is formed on those around them. If a child isn’t around their peers, then they are not going to identify with their peers. It seems such a silly statement, but it is true.  

We all want to feel part of something and for that we need to feel that we are seen as equals.  



When you deal with a parent of a child with a disability understand the rejection, understand the time and understand the equality issues they have experienced. Their journey as a parent has been different. Parenthood is full of worry, but they often have more worries and different worries. Show them you understand by listening to them. Don’t lump their worries and fears together with other parents. They don’t have the same fears and worries as other parents. I have different fears and worries to other parents. I am a different kind of parent, but you need to understand why there are differences.  



I am a very happy person and I have learnt so much from these experiences - but I am a fighter! My daughter can walk, but for only short distances and it takes her ten times the effort to do it. To be honest, I wouldn't change a single thing.


Thanks for reading,

Xris  

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Chimera Measurements: will somebody please tell me what a good or outstanding in teaching is today?


First they focused on the lesson observations

and I shouted out because the focus was on showing progress at all times in a lesson.

Then, they focused on marking in books

and I screamed because the expectations from teachers was to triple mark everything.

Next, they focused on pupil opinion

and I swore at them because I felt the need to.



We have a problem with monitoring teaching. I am realistic and I know that we should have something in place to check the quality of teaching our students have. I am a parent and I want to know my children are getting a good education. I don’t want my children to be bored and put off learning for life. However, I am concerned, gravely concerned, about where things are going. We seem to be on this endless quest to judge learning in a classroom and to find one stick to measure everything on. In the future, it looks like the temperature in a lesson could be measured as it has been proven that good quality learning occurs in a room with a temperature of thirty-two degree. Above and below that temperature and the learning is awful. Sack the teacher now.
Learning and teaching is complex. The proof is usually in the pudding: the results. How teachers get to the good results vary? Some do it well. Some might even cheat to get there. Ideally, we all want good or great results. We all want to know how to get to those good results and we want to know that those who get the good results gained them fairly and humanely. The results are only one part of the learning process and that’s why there is still a need to visit classrooms.
I didn’t like it when Ofsted announced they were not going to grade lessons and the reason for this was simple: what is going to replace it? There needs to be a judgement somewhere, even if it is simplified to pass or fail, but somewhere, you need a stick to measure against. I have seen over a short space of time the focus move from teacher to progress, to students concentrating in a lesson, to work in a book, to marking and to student voice in five years. Assessing teaching and learning has become a Chimera. The head is your results. The body is your marking. The feet are your neatness of books and the student’s response to your marking. But, this is the sad bit, there will be a different Chimera next week, month, term, year, political term, decade.  
Adjusting to this Chimera of judgement is problematic. I have known and know of fantastic teachers who can dazzle in a lesson observation. I have known and know excellent brilliant detailed markers who can dazzle in a books scrutiny. I have known and know of superb teachers who foster great relationships with their students who can dazzle in a student interview. The view of greatness is ever changing. If what is 'good' is hard to define, then so too is getting there. If the system focuses too much on one aspect, then the teacher would place more emphasis on that aspect.  I see nationally endless teachers, head teachers, middle-leaders feeling insecure because the system is insecure. It spreads and seeps into all we do. We all want improvement, but first we must know where it is we want to aim to. If the top of the mountain is covered in clouds, then how are we going to get there.
Teaching is a combination of what the teacher does, the marking, how the student responds and the student’s attitude. Ofsted should be looking at all these areas and triangulating a judgement. This is, what I think, most Ofsted teams do. I’d be quite happy if this is what happens. A healthy opinion is formed on the basis of several things. The problem is there is no tick list for this. Like medicine, there is isn’t a tick list for treating a patient. Each one is different. But, one thing is clear, you can easily judge the wrong way to treat a patient for an illness. Therefore, we know what a bad lesson looks and feels like (guilty, your honour). What if Ofsted instead of pedalling this golden ticket of an outstanding school and lesson actually said what makes a bad school / lesson? What if Ofsted said complex assessment policies were stopping good quality teaching? What if Ofsted said that nobody checking uniform was a sign?  
Mastery seems to the ‘in thing’ at the moment.  We have this idea that the best work should be visible in lessons and students should copy / learn from it. Ofsted seem to have had this idea at its core for a while now. We had have this idea of ‘best practice’.  But it works both ways. An idea of the worst work should be known too. Recently, Ofsted produced a document about KS3 and commented on it as being the ‘wasted years’. I think it was very helpful. It said: don’t do this; think about this; and definitely do this. It was more use to me than any ‘good practice’ document I have seen. It focused on the worst things first and then looked at solutions. It models the way exam boards mark. They start at the bottom and then work their way up through the mark scheme. I feel, in the past, the model for lesson observations and school judgements have been on the top down basis. It can’t possibly be outstanding because…
I have been observed and I know that I have been judged on the basis of the top down method.  You usually get the following phrase: ‘It would have been outstanding, but you didn’t do this.’ One thing stands between you and greatness. Doh! If people are insecure about what ‘outstanding’ is, then they are more likely to select things for improvement just to prove they know what ‘outstanding’ is to other people. I suspect this has happened to many people. I am not bitter…much. What if we start at the bottom? What if we started with the idea of working from the bottom? Does this lesson have the basics of an acceptable lesson?
How do I teach students to write? I start with the basics and then when students have mastered the basics, then I get them to look at subtle and more complex things. Ofsted and its top down approach doesn’t focus, for me, on the basics. Wouldn’t it be better if Ofsted focused on the basics in all schools than looking at this ‘outstanding’ title? All teachers want to teach and improve. I have yet to meet one person in teaching that doesn’t. The obsession partly caused by Ofsted and partly cause by SLTs on the ‘outstanding’ lesson has meant that the basics have been forgotten. Worryingly, the focus on the one golden nugget that will push a lesson to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ has meant we have lost sight. Take progress, for example. That warped everybody’s view of lessons. Tasks were planned around showing progress. Books were marked to evidence progress.  It influenced our teaching and learning. If instead we focused on the basics, such as students do not talk when the teacher is giving instructions.
If we had a clear idea of the basics for lesson planning, teaching and marking we will have a consistent education system. Sadly, we don’t have this basic model. So, how can we have a clue about what outstanding is when we don’t even have an idea of what the basics are? We need leadership. We need to be told. We need a point on the stick to be measured against because, if we get the basics sorted out, then we can truly sort out what is good and what is outstanding. If the basics were clear then any teacher could go into a classroom and see if the lesson fits the expectations of a lesson. However, when the basics are in place, you need a subject specialist what makes a good or outstanding lesson. This has, in my opinion, always been the flaw with the education system: A science teacher, for example, will judge my lesson on metaphors and they will tell me how I can teach metaphors better to students. It is a huge flaw in the system. I can’t tell a Maths teacher how to make their lesson outstanding. I might, as an English teacher, be able to tell an English teacher, but I couldn’t really do it for another subject.
I am in favour for the return of lesson observations, but I want it adapted and made relevant to teaching. The alternatives are turning out to be far worse and more demoralising to the profession. We have had a problem with how observations were used in the past. If we followed by these rules, I think we would certainly have a greater level of autonomy and clarity, and dare I say it, quality:
  • Judge lessons for a set number of basic qualities
  • Judge learning on several factors and not one overriding aspect
  • Teachers of a subject can only deem a lesson good or outstanding
  • Assert that SLTs should only judge for the basics and subject specialists should judge for the good and outstanding aspects.
Just call me Doctor Faustus - I have made a pact with the Devil, or Ofsted. We need to keep Ofsted. We can’t let it go and disappear. We should question it and make it accountable, but we should never let it go. Why? The alternative is much worse. A system based on data and only data. That’s why we need it and we need to keep it. We need an opportunity to show inspectors what is going on and the real story. The problem with judgements based on a number is that we can never tell the true story.     

Thanks for reading,

Xris

Thursday, 3 December 2015

If your conscience needs haunting…. Just call Rentaghost!


This is a continuation of my blog about 'A Christmas Carol' here. The idea is to develop a student's critical thinking by providing them with an article that promotes a critical viewpoint.

Stave 2: If conscience needs haunting…. Just call Rentaghost!
The Ghost of Christmas Past is possibly the worst ghost since the beginning of time. I am even embarrassed to use the word ‘ghost’ around it for fear of upsetting ghosts and tarnishing all ghosts with the same opaque light.  Charles Dickens starts his ghostly journey with a typical ghost with chains and the sins of their past haunting it, the ghost, into the afterlife. Jacob Marley is the image of a classic ghost. He may not wear a white sheet from his mum’s laundry cupboard, but he has all the other trademarks. He makes lots of noises. He says lots of cryptic things. He is even see-through. The Ghost of Christmas Past is the antithesis of Jacob Marley’s ghost.

If you look at the history of The Ghost of Christmas Past in films and TV, you will struggle to find two or more versions that look the same. They are all different. Some present the ghost as a woman. Some present the ghost as a man. Some present the ghost as a child. The text causes most of the problems: it is purposefully contradictory and vague. It is neither young or old and neither male or female. Yet, the default method of presenting it is as a candle based on the following lines:

But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.

Maybe it is our taste for sequels and bigger and better returns that makes the second ghostly visit so surprising. You’d think that a writer would make the second ghost scarier than the first. You could imagine every other writer thinking, well if you think that is scary then wait to see what we have next. But, a candle. A candle that is genderless and ageless. It isn’t even powerful. On arrival, it fails to scare Scrooge with its big flaming eyes. Now, imagine The Ghost of Christmas Past played by a Ken doll. A face fixed with a smile as it highlights some of the dark moments in Scrooge’s childhood. All it can do is smile. Instead we get an early version of Lumiere but without the singing.

The Candle is a metaphor. It can only be used for limited amount of time and the more you use it, the closer it gets to being not useful. The candle is a reminder of Scrooge’s own mortality. It is no surprise that it carries an extinguisher. Scrooge’s life, or candle, can be put out at any time. The candle is a reminder of the fact that we all die and our life has a finite length. A candle shows Scrooge his past, but like melted wax or the candle wax that has evaporated into the atmosphere, all we have is a thought of what the candle used to be. However, we cannot touch or see it.  The candle provides Scrooge with thoughts about the past, but he cannot touch or interact with it.

Maybe the clue to Dickens’ use of ghosts is in his titles to the staves. In the main body of the text, the ghosts refer to each other as ‘ghosts’. However, the stave titles call them spirits. What is the difference between a spirit and a ghost? Aren’t they the same thing? Maybe they are. What if a ghost is purposefully designed to scare and shock and a spirit is to…ummm…change you spiritually? Then Marley is definitely a ghost and The Ghost of Christmas past is a spirit? For the candle with no fixed age or gender is designed to emotionally and spiritually change him. It is supposed to enlighten his soul and change it for the best. Interesting fact: Dickens uses the word ‘spirit’ approximately forty-one times and the word ‘ghost’ over a hundred times.

So why did Dickens call them ghosts and spirits? Well, he wanted a ghost story in name only and here it is in name only too. The way the ghosts are structured in the story are interesting: we have two friendly spirits sandwiched between two creepy ghosts. Dickens shocks Scrooge into facing the reality of his situation. He then warms his heart up with two ghosts. Finally, he gives one last shock to make sure Scrooge has the message. Still, a candle makes for the least convincing ghost in the world. At least, it isn’t a pantomime horse. Now, nobody would consider that for a minute!     

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Learning to love the humble multiple-choice question

There is something that is very frustrating in English lessons. It isn’t something that, we, English teachers talk about, but we do have to deal with it day in and day out. It is the student with the ‘scientific brain’. Or, maybe that should be the ‘logical brain’. It is something that all English teachers have to deal with in their lessons at some point. You can’t be a ‘proper’ English teacher until you have had a student state that they cannot see the deeper meaning of a poem. It might be prefixed with the following comments:

‘How do I know what the writer means? I didn’t write it.’
‘I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.’
‘How did you get that from the poem? I don’t see it.’

They just don’t get it. Often, in English lessons or in parents’ evenings, I have had to justify the complexity of my subject. You see, Mr Curtis, our Cuthbert prefers Science. He finds things tough in English. I think this all boils down to the fact there are no right or wrong answers in English lessons. Well, there are blatant wrong answers: I think the poem ‘Futility’ is about aliens. Wrong. The rest are just shades of grey.

I used to think that this ‘right or wrong’ mindset was a gender characteristic. It makes sense that girls enjoy multiple meanings in a text because they are attuned to looking for meaning and emotions in how people speak and act. Therefore, it makes sense that boys prefer facts, clear answers and things devoid of ambiguity. But, over the years, this has proven to be all ‘a pile of pants’. These ‘logical brains’ are everywhere and they can be either male or female. I am also separating this from autism and the autism spectrum. Yes, most people can fit on the spectrum of autism and demonstrate autistic tendencies, but I see this as a phenomenon separate to autism.

Anyway, these ‘logical brains’ struggle when faced with a poem or text and they have to hunt for meaning. Moving from literal meaning to figurative meaning, is a rocky road for them. Why? Well, it could mean anything. These students could probably tell you what a metaphor is, but explore the meaning of one and they start to go all sweaty and start breathing heavily. I suppose, English is full of abstract concepts. Other subjects, apart from RE, deal with quite concrete aspects and you could say that knowledge plays a part in this. They have something tangible to prove its existence in the real world. Look, here are two chemicals and this is what happens when we put them together. Let’s measure them. I’d probably go so far to say that if a subjects used measuring equipment, then it is probably a ‘concrete’ subject. There might be some ‘abstract’ thinking, but generally the learning focuses on clear, concrete knowledge. 

Take these two questions:

What is faith?

What is the effect of the simile in the poem?

They are difficult questions. There could be a number of different answers and the teacher, when marking a response, will use their knowledge and understanding to decide on the appropriateness of a response. Reading mark schemes in English are hilarious. They tend to focus on skills and any possible answers are provided, but there will usually be a little comment: other similar answers can be accepted. Across the different exam boards, there are lots of variations of this one sentence. Open an English textbook and you see how publishers have tried to make English a concrete subject. There seems to be a clear right answer and no opportunities for different possible interpretations or meanings.

Recently, I have been working with developing students’ memory of key texts for exams. Over the last few weeks, I have been making it a habit to make a multiple-choice quiz for each chapter in a book studied. This is partly inspired by the great Joe Kirby and his team at the Michaela School. It was while I was producing one set of multiple-choice questions that I had an idea. Usually, my questions focused on plot, character’s thoughts and key quotes. Students had to select the correct ones. Then, I thought about how this could be adapted for other parts of English and, in particular, the analysis of texts.

My Year 8s are currently reading ‘Great Expectations’ and they are analysing extracts from the novel. Recently, they completed a comprehension style task on Pip’s second meeting with Magwitch. Their answers were pretty weak. They are an able group, but something about their answers was lacking. They wrote short, superficial answers. When feeding back answers, they saw the error of their ways, but still they struggled with the next tasks. There seemed to be a gulf between their verbal responses and their written responses. They can insightful and detailed explanations when talking, but put pen to paper and they struggled to even answer the question. Step forward, Miss Havisham.

I gave students a series of quotes about Miss Havisham. Under each quote, there were four possible different interpretations. Of course, I started with a silly one to get the ball rolling.



The students then discussed for a lengthy time each one. As a class, we decided which one was the most likely interpretation of the line. The great thing about this was that students were using evidence from other parts of the whole extract or novel to justify their point and their ideas.



The next part of the process involved students working on creating their own multiple-choice interpretations. I gave students a blank grid and they had a go at producing their own set of interpretations. This made for some interesting discussions. One pair looked at the possible meaning behind Miss Havisham’s prayer book:

[a] She was raised a Catholic.   

[b] She is constantly praying for something.

[c] She feels she has done something bad so she wants to pray for forgiveness.

[d] Faith is a strong part of her life now.

It did take a long time for students to make their own interpretations.  It wasn’t that it was too hard, but more a case of students wanting to discuss at length. To make students feel at ease, I did say that if they couldn’t think of four interpretations, they could invent a silly one. Often, this wasn’t necessary. The class engaged with the ideas and discussed things at length.



The potential for this, I think, is endless. Getting students to explore, the different meanings of a line, effect of a word, thought / feeling of a character or writer’s purpose. It opened up the dialogue. We were not limited by a right or wrong answer. We were focused on a more likely or least likely answer. A slight difference in interpretation.

While the students were creating their multiple-choice sheet, I asked them about the process. They said that it helped them to think. We discussed what the next step would be and one lad suggested that for comprehension the teacher should set it as multiple-choice answers, meaning that there are four possible answers to the question set. So, finally, I set students the following task for homework:

I crossed the staircase landing, and entered the room she indicated. From that room,
too, the daylight was completely excluded, and it had an airless smell that was oppressive. A
fire had been lately kindled in the damp old-fashioned grate, and it was more disposed to go
out than to burn up, and the reluctant smoke which hung in the room seemed colder than the
clearer air--like our own marsh mist. Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimneypiece
faintly lighted the chamber; or it would be more expressive to say, faintly troubled its
darkness. It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing
in it was covered with dust and mold, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was
a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house
and the clocks all stopped together. An ├ępergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle
of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite
undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its
seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies
running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public
importance has just transpired in the spider community.

I heard the mice too, rattling behind the panels, as if the same occurrence were
important to their interests. But the black beetles took no notice of the agitation, and groped
about the hearth in a ponderous elderly way, as if they were short-sighted and hard of hearing,
and not on terms with one another.

These crawling things had fascinated my attention, and I was watching them from a
distance, when Miss Havisham laid a hand upon my shoulder. In her other hand she had a
crutch-headed stick on which she leaned, and she looked like the Witch of the place.
“This,” said she, pointing to the long table with her stick, “is where I will be laid when I
am dead. They shall come and look at me here.”
With some vague misgiving that she might get upon the table then and there and die at
once, the complete realization of the ghastly waxwork at the Fair, I shrank under her touch.
“What do you think that is?” she asked me, again pointing with her stick; “that, where
those cobwebs are?”
“I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”
“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!”

For each question, give four possible answers.

1.      What four thoughts / feelings are going through Pip’s mind / heart here?
A




B
C
D


2.      Why has Charles Dickens used the beetle image here? Give four ideas. 
A




B
C
D



3.      Why does Miss Havisham want her body to rest in this room when she dies?
A




B
C
D


4.      What is the purpose of the extract?
A




B
C
D


5.      What four things here link to the theme of death?  
A




B
C
D


6.      How does this extract link to other events / things in the novel?
A




B
C
D


7.      Create your own question and give the possible answers to it.
Question:
A






B
C
D


We are indirectly narrowing our students’ understanding of texts. Look at all comprehension tasks. They are based on having one clear answer. When we look at essays analysing a text, we are happy to accept a variety of ideas. We aren’t joining the two approaches together. On one, we are promoting a limited view of responses and interpretations; and, with the other insisting on having multiple interpretations.  

If we want students to explore layers of meaning, then we, as teachers, have to build that explicitly into our teaching. We need to show students in all things we do that there are often several meanings behind a text, line or word.

What is the purpose of the blog?
Old Style: To inform.
New style: [a] inform [b] describe [c] entertain [d] persuade.

Thanks for reading,


Xris