Saturday, 29 June 2013

Blogsync 6: Pinging the elastic band of tension

Warning: no students were harmed in the making of this blog. Sadly, the same cannot be said for teachers.

This month’s Blogsync is an interesting one: it is about explanations and, in particular, the best examples of effective explanations used in the classroom. I have found this quite a hard thing to write about, as I do spend most of my time explaining things in the classroom. This experience is a bit of navel gazing: explain a good explanation. Is there one explanation that is better than another? I suppose if I am honest, I use several different methods to explain the same thing. I don’t just rely on one single approach to explain ideas. I should know; I am the father to two 5 year old daughters. Fatherhood, at this stage, is permanently explaining things to children. Why do dinosaurs eat meat? Why do we die? Why do cats poo in our garden? Why do you have a hairy nose? Why is that man over there really fat? Why are we leaving the shop quickly? Why have you got that angry look on your face?

I think, in response to the topic, I am just going to walk through a lesson about explaining tension. As with some parts of English, you enter ‘the clouds’ when you explain some ideas and concepts. Some parts of English are just naming concrete things like a technique. Yet, as soon as we look at things like the effect and the feelings created by a text, we fire our rocket to the stars and start to talk about woolly, ethereal things. We start using abstract nouns and adopt tentative phrases like ‘it could be’ or ‘perhaps they mean that’. It is the part of the lesson where the firm ground disappears and we are flying from one cloud to another. The clouds are indefinable and they constantly change and move and they often become something different.  Of course, this I used to refer as ‘the shades of grey’ aspect of English teaching. There are no clear yes or no answers, only better ways of answering questions. Sadly, ‘shades of grey’ has taken another meaning and now I daren’t mention the phrase unless I want a cacophony of sniggers and a set of awkward questions. The lack of concrete foundations in English is its strength and its weakness. The greyness, or abstract nature, is pure poison to the wannabe scientist or mathematician in the class, but to the creative and artistic child it is pure elixir.  Grammar and techniques give students this concrete foundation for the literal minded. They like the answers , the rules to things and grammar offers that to them. Personally, that’s why I prefer the bringing back of the explicit teaching of grammar. I love the English language, but I know there are students that need something concrete to work with. We had shifted too far to the abstract way of teaching and neglected some of the concrete aspects. Thankfully, we have moved to more concrete aspects in teaching. But, like most things we need a combination of the two. We need a balance.

The Explanation

A large rubber band
A pair of scissors
DVD of Jaws
Extract from the novel of ‘Jaws’
A teacher
A student

I think part of explaining things for me is making things ‘real’ or making things enter a student’s reality. I know I am, in effect, talking about Vygotsky and  his ‘zone of proximal difference’ here, but I feel that is so important when teaching. That is what I think Youtube was invented for - just so a teacher can quickly find a clip to highlight a point or show something as being real. 

Tension in texts is one of those abstract things. It is about the reader and their relationship with a text. Basically, tension is saying how scared you are about things in a text. But, sadly, this doesn’t always equate well when students write. I have read hundreds of essays with students saying things are really tense or that things aren’t tense. Tension just gets lumped with interest. The more tension, the more interesting a story is.  The less tension, the less interesting it is. The explanations from students are simple and might be explained further with a ‘because’ but they are on a losing track when they think tension is either on or off. A graph can help develop this further, but sometimes something else is called for.

Enter the humble elastic band. Make sure it is one of those thick ones. The thicker the better. Cut the band so it is a single strip of elastic. Ask one student to hold one end of the band, while you hold the other. I find it helps to pick a student that hasn’t always been helpful in class. Explain to the student that they have to hold on to the band very tightly. Then, I talk about tension. I ask the class what would happen if the student lets go of the band. The student does and it is not very interesting. This is when it starts gets interesting. I then spend the next 10 minutes playing a hilarious game with the class.

I play around with their expectations. They secretly want the teacher to be pinged by the elastic band so I play up to this. I make the student move away, so the band becomes strained and stretched.  The class love it as they are waiting for the pain to be inflicted. The student holds the power. I create more tension by adopting a ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’ bank of phrases. Are you sure you want to let go now? Sure? You could walk away now and be a happy person… Then, we try to stretch the piece of elastic as far as it will go. (Dear reader, I have never let go. I wouldn’t.) The class are then shouting for the student to let go. One student calls out: ‘He won’t do. Sir’s bluffing’. I then tease them further by moving closer to the student and a move away, again. Finally, with a little nod I indicate to the student that he can let go, when he/she wants to. Ouch!

We then, as a class, explore how tension was created and how we felt when watching the incident. They start to use words like ‘less’ and ‘more’ when describing things, because it is real. The band is a metaphor for the tension and you can see visibly what the result is when tension is increased or reduced. I had a colleague who taught tension with the idea of a toy car. The car would be wound up and then let go. It worked for them, but toy cars are not as cool as elastic bands and inflicting pain on a teacher. I certainly earn respect points by using this method. Finally, we look at a tense moment in text or in Jaws and relate the tension of the rubber band to it.  

When the lesson is finished, my tough manly exterior crumbles as I nurse my throbbing finger.

I do similar things with dramatic irony or suspense; I make them a real experience. I make them a transparent or a shared experience, which we can all comment and discuss. Each reader has a different experience when reading a book, so it is hard to explore tension and our reaction to a text as there are so many shades, perspectives and ideas.

Dramatic irony
This idea is stolen from ‘The Merchant of Venice’. I kick a student out of the classroom. Then, I put three boxes on a table at the front of the classroom. In one box, I put in a chocolate bar and in the other two I put a lunchtime detention or five demerits. The class all know where I have placed each item in the boxes, so when the student is invited to the room, they are hoping he/she gets the punishment. Is that your final answer? Are you really sure?

Three empty boxes with nothing in them. Don’t say what is in or isn’t in the box and get a student to bravely put his hand in each box.

Teaching is about explanations, explaining what the student needs to do, explaining what the student needs to know and explaining a student’s progress. Effective explanations aren’t about dumbing down and using teenspeak. Effective explanations are about reality and making things real.

 Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 23 June 2013

What's that coming over the hill? Is it Ofsted? Literacy

Every baddie in a TV show has a catchphrase. In Doctor Who, it is ‘EXTERMINATE’ for the Daleks. For the Cybermen, it is ‘delete’ or ‘upgrade’. As I was visited by Ofsted a few weeks ago, I heard them mutter their own unique catchphrase. They obviously had their cloaking device on, but for a brief second I heard a voice utter their phrase of intent. What was their catchphrase? The simple word – Triangulate!

Yesterday, I wrote about my Ofsted experience as a teacher. Today, I am going to share my experience as someone responsible for ‘Literacy across the Curriculum’. As I had only started the job in December, I was panicking about the mere thought that Ofsted would pounce on me in an inspection. The less time I had, the less evidence I would have ready, the less I could convince them that we were a good school. The last eight months had been tough. Each week I had prayed that Ofsted wouldn’t come. Then, April arrived and I decided that I wanted to have them visit as soon as possible. Why? Well, easy – you cannot live in a constant state of fear. The fear of a visit was causing me sleepless nights and constant anxiety. There was constant second guessing by me. Wednesday became the new Friday, as by Wednesday you knew you could relax until Monday as they were not coming in. All this made for a poisonous atmosphere. We were working hard for something that could happen tomorrow, next week, next month or even next academic year. All jobs have ebbs and flows and productivity isn’t always at 100%. That’s why you have breaks. Yet, the constant worry of Ofsted meant that productivity was at 100%. I think some people did the work of a whole year in two terms.

The Call
When the call happened, all the staff were called to the staffroom and awaited the news. I sat there anxious, worried, scared, bemused, confused, uncertain and so many other things. We always talk about Shakespeare’s plays being cathartic. However, Shakespeare has nothing on an Ofsted inspection. I was purged of all the emotions my body could produce, just waiting to hear that they were coming. The Head arrived and informed us of the obvious: they were coming tomorrow.  Then, I was told: ‘They're focusing on reading; good luck, Chris’.

Why reading? Well, I think they had worked out that a lot of my work over the last eight months had focused on writing. They had clearly spotted our weak point. That’s what a good enemy does. Find your weaknesses first. Ours was reading. And, if I am honest, writing can be addressed with some quick fixes and strategies. Reading is the biggie. It is the one that is harder to address as it is often hard to define. If I was awaiting a call from Ofsted, I’d think about this. What are you doing about reading skills?

Anyway, I retired to the War Room, my classroom, and planned my case for the defence. If there is one thing I am pleased of, that is my evidence folder. Everything I had done in the role of co-ordinator had been collected in a folder and dated. I think somewhere in the back of my mind I had long ago thought that Ofsted was like going to court and being on trial. I had even watched endless repeats of Perry Mason to make sure I was ready with my final address to the jury. Furthermore, I had practised the following phrase several times in the mirror: ‘You can’t handle the truth!’.  I now had several hours to get my case ready. Panic!  Coffee and Red Bull aplenty.

The Meeting
This surprised me: I wasn’t called to a meeting. In fact, I tagged along to the teaching and learning meeting with the inspectors. It was primarily concerned with the teaching and I was left waiting for a space to start my opening speech. Nothing. I waited and waited and nothing appeared. I understand how conversations work and I knew I was in the wrong meeting. Mentioning Literacy at this point was like mentioning watching SAW III to someone during a hymn at a funeral. It has a tenuous connection, but it isn’t really appropriate. I left the meeting saying virtually nothing and being left frustrated. Therefore, I went straight to SLT and asked (demanded – depending on perspective) for another meeting, explaining that it wasn’t the right moment to discuss what had been done.

Luckily, I got another meeting. All that training in the mirror had helped. You do really have to fight. Not in an aggressive knives and guns way, but a words and arguments way. I had my meeting, which was very brief. This was mainly because it was towards the end of the inspection on the second day. They had, in my opinion, at that stage had most of their evidence. This is where I think inspections are making their opinions on Literacy. It is through triangulating things. They look at the teaching, the exercise books and the students, and from all these they then form an opinion. What the schools says is only one part of this triangle. This happens towards the end, so prepare your argument for the end of the inspection.

My second meeting was lovely. I know I am using the word ‘lovely’ to describe a meeting with Ofsted, but it was. I sat chatting to the inspector about what he had seen and the meeting was filling the gaps. It was about tracking improvements and about evidence. At the end of the failure of the first meeting, I had given the team a sheet with key aspects relating to our Literacy strategy. He knew the basics and I admitted the problems we had had. The main problem was that a lot of evidence with Literacy at the moment is anecdotal. The changes have been so sudden that getting evidence and data is quite hard. Thankfully, I had some data to support progress. We discussed the issue of reading and I told him the truth: we have a plan. This year’s focus was writing and next year’s focus is mainly on reading. I was honest and told him that it was still being developed. I told him the plans and what was currently in place. I felt that that was important for Ofsted visiting. They know that things may not be perfect, but they want to see action and plans and strategies. They don’t want a list of excuses.

The Result
The result was really good. I cannot say how pleased I am with it, but it was a team effort. Literacy is a team effort. The report featured lots of lovely comments relating to Literacy:

‘Students’ literacy skills have improved in most subjects because staff have well-thought out approaches to improving spelling and punctuation, specialist vocabulary and writing structures.’

What was the magic ingredient? What was the secret? To be honest, I don’t think there was one simple thing. No, maybe there is one: a culture of literacy. (I will in a future blog write about creating a culture of Literacy.) The Ofsted inspectors couldn’t escape literacy because it was in every lesson. It was referred to everywhere. It was constantly talked about. It was part of everyday conversations. It was something students were aware of. It was everywhere. There wasn’t one thing that everybody was doing. Each teacher was doing literacy in their own way. They were skimming and scanning. They were guiding students on how to form an argument. They had a little booklet of key terms. They had mats. There was a consistent approach to Literacy, but not a consistent way to how it was delivered in lessons. Teachers were seen to be thinking about Literacy rather than just doing it. Things were joined up in lessons and not just superfluous grammar lessons.

As with most things, we might have just got lucky and had a nice team. But, I like to think we would have got the same result with another team.

At a recent teachmeet, I was inundated with questions about the inspection and I think it is hard to give pointers and suggestions. These are some of the things I might suggest. I must add that my experience is isolated to one inspection, so I am hardly an expert. Below, are just a few things I would consider if it was me facing an inspection in the next few weeks.

1: Think of triangulating and the strengths and weaknesses of Literacy in the school.
What will the students say about reading / writing in lessons and Literacy?
What will their exercise books show?
What will the teaching show?
How will the inspector see that Literacy is a priority across the whole school?

2: What is your plan?
What strategies have you put into action?
Why did you use those strategies?
What are the problems you are working on now?
What is the plan for the next term or year?
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
What are you doing about reading, writing and speaking?

3: Where is your evidence?
What evidence have you got to show that the improvements in Literacy are working?
What data can you provide? 

I think the best piece of advice I picked up in the Ofsted journey is to have a ready made crib sheet. On one sheet, write down bullet-points about the key things you have done and have in place. Like a court of law, have your brief ready for the judge. Be prepared. In courts, juries are subjective and have their own set of prejudices and judgements. They may have their point of view, but it is the prosecution or the defence’s job to convince them. Ofsted may have some assumptions based on the school’s data, but it is our job to fight.  However, the key to any good fight is having done the preparation. We shouldn’t avoid the difficult questions, because you know sooner or later that is where Ofsted will focus on.

What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? Is it a monster? I don’t know if it is a monster, but all I can hear is, ‘Triangulate. Triangulate. Triangulate’. Like Doctor Who, the monsters I thought were really scary were in fact nice people (smaller than I thought) dressed in scary suits. We might have been lucky, but I do think that the process was fair. I might not like the process, the scrutiny, the extra pressure, but I felt it was fair. Oh, and it was quick. I just bloody wish they were more transparent about what they want to see. Where's the crib sheet, Ofsted?  

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 22 June 2013

The day a tiger came for breakfast, lunch and tea – Ofsted

Ofsteded – verb( past tense), to describe the process of an inspection in a school.

In case you missed it, I was paid a little visit by Ofsted three weeks ago.  The report was published finally this week and I can scream from the rooftops that our school received a good. This, I am incredibly happy about, as ‘good’ is like the new ‘outstanding’ in the new, harder, tougher regime of inspections. It feels like that the title of good was well and truly deserved. It was a team effort and everyone pulled together and proved our worth. So, how do I feel about the process?  Was it worthwhile? Was it as bad as I thought it would be?

The Process
Firstly, I am glad it is over, because the disruption it caused for two days was monumental. As soon as the call was received, the school turned into ‘Tracy Island’. The offices were moved. Paintings were moved so that people could access the emergency chute. The palm trees moved aside so the inspectors could park their sparkling and shining Audis. Surprisingly, they were all black, suggesting they like leaving and arriving under the cover of darkness. In fact, it reminded me of a poem, ‘Stop all the clocks’. I stopped eating, breathing, sleeping and being remotely human for a week.  I dropped my family from all my thoughts and worked hard. Ofsted became my North, South, West, East, my everything.

In fact, that is the problem with the inspections: we know we do a good job, but the chances of seeing it in one lesson is reduced considerably, when you know a lot is depending on the outcome of an observation. I’d love to be the type of person that thinks, ‘I am going to teach how I normally teach.’ But, I am not, because actually I care and I know that Ofsted are observing. Let me just repeat myself: they are observing. The key word is observing. They want to see things. I did teach a normal lesson, but it had the Ofsted veneer. I made explicit the things I do implicitly in a normal lesson.  I am subtle with some things in lessons, so I don’t advertise that I am checking progress or doing some AFL, but with the big O I made those things explicit.  For a start, I used the words or terms, when teaching. 

The planning is the worst thing, I think. I can teach reasonably well, but as soon at Tracy Island got the call and the pictures started flashing in the Head’s office flashing, my brain starting to download an unnecessary file and ran a full virus scan. A lesson that normally takes me 20 minutes to plan took me several hours. Why? Because the pressure is heaped on to one lesson.  You know there is a very good chance they will see you.  However, there is no guarantee that they will see you twice.  If they saw me twice, then there is a greater chance of me demonstrating my full potential. See me once and  then everything is focused on one lesson. I procrastinated so much that I started to doubt my own name. Will this work? Is this too hard? Is this too easy? Have I differentiated enough? Will they show progress in 5 seconds?

The Lesson (Year 8 last lesson of the day)
You are on edge and so are the students.  During the whole process, it struck me how good the students were in this kind of situation. I started the lesson and waited and waited. The students were furtively looking at the door, checking to see if we expecting an inspector. I was staring furtively at the door, hoping that the inspector had the wrong number for my room. It was tense. Will they come in?

Simple overview of the lesson planned

Objectives: To explore different types of persuasive writing

Starter: Students guess what links four pictures together. They are all adverts.

Task 1: Students are given a pack of persuasive texts or extracts. They have to rank them for effectiveness.

Task 2: Students put the texts into different groups.

Teacher discusses how persuasive texts have different effects.

Task 3: Students identify the different effects and then list the features on A3 sheets of paper stuck around the room.

Plenary: Students, in pairs, make a small advert for a new chocolate bar, but they use an effect given to them.

They did come in. Well, she did and she had a clipboard – nothing quite says power like a clipboard. The lady walked in and I pointed out a chair at the back of the room. She sat and observed and remained silent for the whole time. She watched. And she watched…. and she watched so more. I am a little pushy, so I didn’t want her to just watch. I wanted her to do more. If I am going to fail at something, I am not going down without a fight. In fact, I was prepared to fight. Before the lesson had started, I placed the exercise books from each class near the Ofsted position / chair.  As she was watching and watching and making notes, I walked up to her and said: ‘please, feel free to look at the exercise books’.  And, she did. So she stopped watching and started reading the exercise books.   

Then, the inspector walked around the room, looking at displays and listening to the students’ work. She didn’t talk to the students once. (Some lessons they did: some lessons they didn’t). She just listened and listened.  She watched and watched. She even picked up a feedback sheet I had to help students from a wall display. Shockingly, the inspector nabbed it. Not only did this lady watch and watch, read and read, listen and listen, but she stole and stole – right from under my eyes.  Finally, she walked and walked. Thankfully, she walked out of the classroom. The whole class, including me, let out a sigh of relief as the door closed.

For the next day, it was back to the first paragraph of this section – waiting and waiting.

The Feedback from the Lesson
I always think a ‘thumbs up’ would be great as an observer leaves. As a teacher, you know how important instant feedback is. Sticking a thumb up would reduce my stress and relax me a bit more, but no, I had to wait in line for my feedback. The lines I had seen throughout the day looked like the lines to Madam Guillotine.  I joined a line and waited for my turn. During the day, I had heard good and bad things.  If you weren’t a teacher, that line would be the best place to sit and knit, as you could see people being crushed or praised.

I have debated whether to share my feedback here, because I am quite reserved. I have never shared the grades of my lessons with anyone, apart from my wife. But, I feel it necessary in this case and, please, do not think I am boasting or showing off. Believe me: I have buckets of humility. In fact, I could probably bottle it and sell it off.

I got an outstanding for the 20 minutes the inspector saw of my lesson.  I was ready to challenge and attack, but the wind was taken out of my sails. I sat there speechless. I had heard so much about how things were tougher and I was expecting to fight, but I was completely taken aback.  She mentioned the following:

·         The displays supported the learning – even though she nabbed a bit of one

·         The students were engaged  and the relationship between students and teacher were positive

·         The planning

·         The students were independently learning

·         They were using talk to develop their learning

I walked away happy and then replanned every lesson for the next day, based on this feedback.  Things just happened to go well in that lesson. Sadly, this is the luck of the draw. I don’t think I would be lucky a second time around.

The Result
Everything about Ofsted is too subjective. The inspector observing me liked my style of teaching. If I was observed by another inspector, I don’t know if I would get the same result. I’d like to be pleased with the result, but part of me doubts things. The inspector in question wasn’t an English teacher, so would an English teacher give the same grading? I know, I should be grateful for what I got, but part of me wonders if it is better to be observed by a subject specialist or somebody from a different subject.

They also, in my opinion, went into a lesson looking for something. They knew what they wanted to see. I happened to show it. Maybe, they were looking for independent learning when observing me. It is hard to do everything in 20 minutes and that's why I think I got lucky. I don't feel too good about the result, as I think it may have more to do with luck, than anything else. I did the magic thing that they just so happened to be looking for. That's why lesson observations are a case of hit and miss. I could be an inspector looking for reading skills, yet the 20 minutes observed in a practical aspect of a Science lesson and there is no reading involved. Does the teacher get marked down? Who knows?

Anyway, Tracy Island got a good. We had ‘good’ across the board in the report.  Literacy did really well too and I will blog about it next.  The whole experience was draining. It was physically and mentally draining. It has taken me the two weeks it takes for the report to be published for me to get over the whole experience.

Secretly, the main thing we are all bothered about is: How long until they visit us again? Thankfully, they will not visit me for a while. Now, I can get back to doing what I want to do: teach.

Good things can stem from bad things. One of the most positive experiences from Ofsted is how teachers are pulling together. I have seen teachers supporting others over the experience. Schools are sharing their experiences of having a visit from Ofsted. I am sharing my experiences so that collectively we can work out, what on earth, they want to see.  The more we talk and share, the more we know. Let’s be honest; they are not going to produce a fact sheet about how to get an outstanding grade in a lesson observation. They are too secretive. Tell us what you want and we will do it. The mystery and secrecy surrounding Ofsted is causing the big problems in teaching. Let’s talk, teachers. Talk about lessons. Talk about what went well. Talk about what didn’t go well. There’s a greater chance of people getting good or outstanding schools, if we know what one looks like.

Please, please, please share your Ofsted experiences with other teachers. Let's help those who still face the scary call when the tiger visits for tea.

At least the visit was better than the old style inspections. The stress was reduced to fewer days and we didn't have several days waiting for their arrival.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. I will be blogging about Ofsted again, but next time I will write from a Literacy Coordinator’s point of view.   

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Sexy Sprouts – why I think we need to stop teaching persuasive writing

It saddened me recently to hear that Iain Banks had passed away. He has always been one of my favourite writers and death is a big loss. His writing, for me, is playful, skilful and varied, and it isn’t as flowery as others. In fact, I am proud in my teaching to have introduced ‘The Wasp Factory’ to a group of students. Before you panic, it was to a group of Year 13s and not Year 7s; however, I’d love to see the reaction it would create. Anyway, I taught the book as part of a comparison in A-level English Literature. My colleague was teaching a Dickens’ novel and I was teaching the modern novel. Side by side, I was able to see how good these two writers were. It was the oddest combination, but it worked.

I was a young teacher at the time and I had selected ‘The Wasp Factory’ mainly because I wanted something different and partly because I wanted something challenging. The lessons with that group were hilarious. It was a group of 15 girls and me being a young, shy English teacher didn’t help. There came a moment towards the end of the book, when one of the students asked a question relating to a major plot development. The student asked: ‘Sir, penis envy, yeah? Why should a woman be envious of a penis? What’s there to be envious of? Tell us’. I turned red. I am always prepared for a difficult literary question, yet a question like this flummoxed me. The sea of female faces all looked at me, as if I had the secret answer that men keep hidden away from lady-folk since the dawn of time. Ummm…errrr…ummmm. I couldn’t answer the question. I lacked the confidence to say: ‘It allows you to wee standing up’. All the girls stared at me, looking like sharks that had sniffed blood. Ummmm…errrr…errrrr….ummmm. The bell went and I was saved. Today, I am a bit more careful with ‘challenging’ books, but I am glad I taught it. Going against the grain is something I like doing occasionally, but maybe I should leave the difficult parts for a cover lesson and let the supply teacher deal with those difficult questions.  I am a wimp and proud of it.

If there is one thing that ‘The Wasp Factory’ does well, it is shock. The novel has the power to shock readers with its ideas, characters and events. At the moment I am teaching persuasive writing to Year 8s and I am teaching it in a different way for the first time in years. I am teaching it from the perspective of effect and not from the perspective of purpose.

For several years, I have taught persuasive writing in a fairly similar way. First, I revise different persuasive techniques and then I read a few persuasive texts. Finally, the students write their own persuasive text. This year, I felt that all of that was a bit pants and I am now trying something different and something new. I am teaching persuasive writing around the different effects such as desire, shock, guilt and impress. Students write a piece that makes something desirable and we explore the choices they make as writers and then compare those choices with how other writers have made products sound desirable.

"Brussels Sprouts" by Bill Longshaw
Personally, this approach has worked for me, as I think I am doing something new. The problem I feel that we have in schools is that genre, audience and purpose are visited again and again in KS2 and KS3 and KS4; we rarely introduce something new into the mix. Yes, I know English is recursive and students forget things, but are we really developing our students to write in a sophisticated way? I put myself into the shoes of a student and I thought about the concept of writing to persuade. The word ‘persuade’ conjures up very little emotionally. It just makes me think of getting people to do something. It doesn’t really cover the how to get people to do something. In English we are interested in the ‘how’, yet the language we use in teaching that doesn’t help students. If I said to students that I want them to persuade people to buy a paperclip, I might get some good responses and I will certainly get techniques to persuade, but is it really effective? If I said make a paperclip desirable to people, then I think students engage better with the emotions of the reader and concentrate on the desired effect. Desiring is much better than buying.

Sadly, writing in secondary school is limited to silly writing triplets (argue, persuade, advise) and genre, audience and purpose. I am guilty of using them too, but I think we need to be more sophisticated with how we teach writing. Instead of genre, audience and purpose, have genre, audience, purpose and effect. Teach with the effect in mind. We do it with creative writing and fiction all the time. Write a creepy description. Write a funny story. Let’s do it to non-fiction writing: write an opening to a letter that will shock. Write an ending to a blog that makes the reader feel guilty. If we approach writing from an ‘effect’ perspective, it will only help our analysis of texts later. The relationship between writing and reading needs to be stronger in lessons. An Ofsted inspector recently in a conversation said:

‘Read like a writer and write like a reader’.

Yes, I know, I am quoting an inspector, but it is true. The relationship between reader and writer is paramount in English, yet we treat writing and reading as two separate entities at times. We may do a bit of writing when we read a book, or we might read something when we are writing, but are we drawing attention to the relationship between the reader and the writer?

Recently, I have been using role play to develop a student’s understanding of a writer’s choices. It focused on one student being a reader and the other being a writer. They had to explain their thoughts and feelings towards a choice made in a text. If they become better readers of texts, they become better writers of texts. So, let’s use ‘effect’ more when getting students to write.
Persuade: desire, shock, guilt, impress
Advise: reassure, convince, relax

So, why the title ‘Sexy Sprouts’? Well, that was a lesson I did this week:

I gave students this extract from a piece another student had written.

Pure evil. The worst vegetable in the world. A soggy, watery parcel of smelly green goo. It is as if the worst of every meal is scooped into one place and boiled down into one small little ball. Eating them is like eating sick that has been left out overnight and has little bits of peas floating around in it.

What is the effect of the writing here?

What does it make the reader feel / think?

How does the writer make you think /feel this?

We then discussed what we could do to make it sound desirable.
How can you make your writing sound desirable?

You could ...

You might want to ...

You could ...

You might want to ...

You could ...

You might want to ...

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Then, students had to make the sprouts sound sexy or desirable. And, dear reader, they did. One student described the ‘biting slowly into the crisp succulent shell and into the warm centre inside’ and another described it as a ‘parcel of heavenly delight’. The writing produced was very effective and more effective than them trying to use every persuasive technique in the book.   

We then watched the infamous M&S food adverts and discussed how the makers did similar things to our writing. Finally, I got them to make their own commentary to an advert that I had made about a new box of chocolates. We left the room feeling very hungry, but they understood the effect of a text and how writing can be adapted to make writing sound desirable. Plus, it was much better than a lesson on the features of a persuasive text. Next week, we are a looking to shock, but I will be keeping away from ‘The Wasp Factory’.

So, I am ditching the emphasis on the writing purpose and focusing on the writing effect. For secondary school teachers, the groundwork is done in KS2. We should be developing and extending that knowledge and understanding in KS3 and KS4 and not just repeating it again and again. Furthermore, A grade students write effectively because they have a desired effect in mind and they are not just persuading. They are shocking, impressing and making something seem desirable.
Thanks for reading, 

This blog is sponsored by Sprouts Are Us.  

Friday, 7 June 2013

Sense and sentences

I am sorry if this is the second time you are reading this, but I felt I needed to tweak this a bit, given the great English teachmeet in Leeds yesterday.

This week has been a busy week. Last Friday I had my back sliced open to remove a large mole. It hurts. Then, on Tuesday I was notified of Ofsted's arrival to our school. The following two days included one observation and two meetings with an Ofsted inspector - I will blog about this later, when I can. Then, yesterday I visited my first ever teachmeet and gave my first presentation. Today, I am a knackered mess. But, what a day yesterday! It was a great experience, but weird at the same time. Meeting people for the first time you have only conversed with over Twitter is very disorientating.  You feel you know people, yet you don't quite know them. Or, they know you and chat with you as if you are a long lost friend and you are staring at them thinking, 'Do I know them?'. Either way, it was fun meeting all these people, if a little strange. It was like having a pleasant out-of-body experience that allowed you to collect a few resources along the way.

Anyway, this week I am looking at sentences. I know, again. But, I think there is quite a lot to do on sentences, and, if I am honest, it has been one of weaknesses in the past. It may not be a strength now, but I teach them much better than I did in the past.

Below are some links to some of my other blogs on sentences.

I feel before I tell you what I do now with sentences, I need to tell you about the different stages that occurred in my journey to teach students the different types of sentences. Warning: I taught them in a boring way.

 Stage 1
I taught explicitly what a compound, complex and simple sentence was. Students were then able to spot these types of sentences, but only the most able were able to use these effectively in their writing. Look here is a compound sentence. Isn't it exciting? Why the blank faces people?

Stage 2
I taught specific structures when teaching students to write a particular style of writing. This was partly successful, but students didn’t use these sentences when writing in a different style. They kept that type of sentence for one style of writing only.

Stage 3
I taught sentence structure by giving stems and getting them to fill in the blanks. This was the best approach so far as it made students use a variety sentences very quickly.

My journey to teach sentences effectively hasn’t been successful and I think that the role of sentences plays a complex and difficult role in lessons. Teaching sentences effectively can unlock the ability to articulate ideas effectively and clearly. Yet, I feel that in the past I haven’t always done it so well. Yes, I think I have taught paragraphing, specific techniques and other aspects effectively, but teaching sentences has always escaped me. To be honest, it is the one thing that pushes students up in their writing. A technique or an effective word is showy, but a complex structure is subtle and clever. That’s why I think it has taken me quite a while to get a handle on it. Note, I don’t say master it, because at this stage I don’t think I have mastered the teaching of them. I just think I am starting to use the teaching of sentences more effectively in planning. I owe a lot to Alan Peat, as his book ‘Writing Exciting Sentences‘ fuelled my thinking and set me on a better path. You can buy it here.
Indirectly, I feel that Peat unlocked an idea in my head. He unlocked the idea in my head that writing is about choices and importantly choices in sentences. Too often I was narrowing the choices that students make in their writing. They would write boring things because I insisted that their writing must include a particular type of sentence. I wasn't showing them that there are lots of different sentences that you can use for lots of different reasons. Rather than teach one type of sentence now, I focus on showing how you can make lots of choices in your writing. Why pick that one dull sentence, when there are 50 more interesting alternatives to choose from?

If we look at how we teach aspects of writing, you notice that we tend to do a lot of obvious things. I teach students to include the obvious features of that type of writing and I get them to include some obvious sentences as well. This is a major problem. Examiners want understanding of a genre, but at the same time they want creativity. Yet, as teachers, we focus on the obvious and neglect the creative element. Take advice writing. I always teach students about using modal verbs, conditional sentences and starting sentences that start with the word 'you'. But, this is all obvious. These are the conventions of that particular style of writing. B-O-R-I-N-G. Is it any wonder that I am disappointed when I see their final pieces? They always lack that flair. That creativity. That variety.

I have spent ages teaching the conventions of text types again and again over the years and I think this hasn't helped me or my students. KS2 and KS1 spend a lot of time teaching the conventions of text types, so why should I be doing it in KS3 and KS4? They should have the conventions ingrained in the brain by the time they get to us in KS3, but why do we keep them on that carousel of spot the features of a text type and write the text type in a lesson? Do we really push them on? Maybe, we should be doing one lesson on the conventions and then the rest of the lessons of a SOW on playing around with the convention or just showing them that there are other things you can do that are less obvious. I should be teaching students about how writing is about making the best choices and not just necessarily the right choices. I should be teaching students to see writing as being a palette. You don't just use one colour all the time. You mix. You blend. You experiment. You shade. You fill. You mix everything together and the end result is the masterpiece.

This palette approach to writing is one I am working on at the moment.  Teach the conventions and then work on showing them all the different varieties you could have. My new approach has worked as I am starting to see grade C students use complex sentence structures in the most surprising of places. The students have the structures ingrained in them so much that it has become a natural thing for them to use a variety of structures without thought or direction from the teacher. I feel that by doing some of the following things, my students are getting much better at writing sentences and becoming more articulate with how they present their ideas.

 1: Have fun exploring the use of different structures

I often have a sentence structure lesson when writing fiction or non-fiction. It usual is made up of one of the following methods:

1.       Stuck on each desk is a type of sentence and students, in pairs, move from one table to another, writing down a sentence using that given structure. The trick is making the writing flow, while using that particular structure. Students could revisit a sentence again, if they felt the writing needed that sentence for that moment.

2.       Stick up on the walls around the room, A3 sheets of paper that each have a different type of sentence or example. Students go around the room and write a silly sentence that matches up with that type of sentence. I also make this relevant to an aspect in lesson by making the sentences link to the topic or thing we are studying.

3.     This idea is borrowed from Teachology's 'Outstanding Literacy' course, but it works brilliantly. It is a bit like a teaching ‘Simon Says’. You get students to write a type of sentence in their book quickly and then after 2 minutes they write another one after your instruction. Do this several times and they will have a variety of sentences.

4.       The folding sheet of paper game – get students to write a sentence and then fold it over and get another pair to write a different kind of sentence.

These have worked for me several times and students tend to love them, because it is about getting their hands dirty and playing around with sentences. I think the reinforcing of the different structures is important. At the end of each activity, I will ask students to articulate in some way what the different structures are.

2: Be detectives

I have changed the way I read books because of my search for new and different types of sentences. I am always on the hunt for an interesting sentence that I can use or teach within a lesson. At the moment, I am reading ‘Somnambulist’ by Essie Fox and here are just some interesting examples:
He had to think of what was best - best for Cissy, best for the child - the child rocked in her new mother's arms, her tiny mouth opening wide in a yawn.

Everywhere were the sounds of water - the sucking and glugging of drainpipes and gutters, the tapping of branches and leaves against windows.

Before writing now, I get students to look at books and find examples of sentences or sentence openings that they could use.

By now I had ….

I have to …
From the time I …. , I have …
I knew … , but I still …
I would do anything to …
But by far…
For years after that …
By this time, I …
Little did I know …
Two weeks later, I …
That’s not to say that …
Eventually, I decided to …
Take my ….
When the … and the … had begun, I ….
For a reason I could never properly understand, ….
After it all…
After years of …
Soon afterwards
In the following …., I learnt …
A year later, …
At the time, …
Ever since I was a child, I…
But there was nothing I could do…
Shortly after,…
In fact, to be brutally honest…
It is strange that …
By the time this happened, I …
That evening, I …
People would …. but so and so would ….
To accomplish this, …
Then of course I …
Now, after year of waiting, ….
Towards ….. , the …… happened…

By doing this before their writing, I am getting them to think about variety and the different types of sentences they can use. Plus, subtly I am getting them to see that they can steal and that I am OK if they steal a few sentences. I always tell GCSE students to have a look at the reading texts in the non-fiction exam. There are three texts that use a range of structures and words to get their ideas across. Use it as a springboard for their writing.

3: Use sentences structures in everything you do

Every lesson is an opportunity to teach a sentence structure. Recently, I have been preparing students for GCSE Literature exam and during that I experimented with using sentence structures.  After reading Simon Armitage’s  ‘Out of the Blue’, I asked students, as a plenary, to write me five sentences using the following structure.

The sentences they produced were brilliant and very clever. I had sentences like: the less confident the voice is, the more the poet repeats words. Now, I admit in the past I have neglected focusing on grammar and sentence structure when analysing a text, because I just wanted them to say something clever. Surprisingly, by using this sentence structure they were able to say something clever quickly and without much input from me. I then realised that actually, if I use different sentence structures I can make students do some clever things:

If the writer used the word ________ instead of ________, it would make the reader feel…

By using ____________, the poet makes the reader feel ….

Towards the end of the ____________, the _____ changes to show …..

The more the writer uses .... , the more the voice shows .... , the more the reader thinks ....

 I am still experimenting, but I will, as a starter or a plenary, get students to write four or five sentences using a particular structure. The more they do, the more natural it gets for them to use it. Hopefully, I am moving away from this superficial learning and developing a deep learning of these types of sentences. I have certainly seem a difference in some of my C/D students. Their writing has improved as I can clearly see these sentences being used and they are not being used because I told them to use it. It is becoming natural for them as it more natural for me to talk about sentences and sentence structure, even when we are not focused on writing skills in lessons.

 4: Ban sentences starting with the words ‘it’, ‘the’ or ‘this’.

Enough said, really. I am not the only one to say this. Check out the David Didau's blog.

And finally…

Every lesson is an opportunity to teach a sentence structure. Whether it is through speech, writing or reading, everything I do now has got me thinking where I can weave in a particular structure or type of sentence.  Best line from the teachmeet: "You really do look like your picture!".