Sunday, 28 December 2014

Nurture 2014 /2015

It’s that time again when people on Twitter go mad for post Turkey dinner reflections. I have crammed my face full of After Eight chocolates, and, to cope with the sugar rush, I have sat at a computer and typed these words. I am hoping that my typing will not wake my aunty up.


This year….

1.       My daughters learnt to read fluently. This has been a real joy for me this year as I have played a big part in it. I have endured tonnes of ‘Biff and Chip’ books, but they now read with joy and aplomb. In fact, as I type this, they are reading all the Christmas cards on the wall. I just need to work on their handwriting now.

2.       The family. They are all healthy and they are my rock.  

3.       I still have a full head of hair – just. See the entry below.

4.       I have made it through one year as a HOD. I have survived. There have been ups and there have also been downs, but for the most of it I have enjoyed the experience. I won’t dwell on it too much as I am saving it all for my autobiographical novel ‘Carry on Head of Department’. It is still in draft form at the moment, but it does contain a lot of slapstick moments.

5.       Putting things into perspective. I think this year I have got better at taking one challenge at a time. Teaching is full of problems. In fact, one of the key descriptors of any teaching job should have ‘ must be good at solving problems’ at the top. This year, I think I have limited the phrase ‘We are all doomed’ to just a few times.

6.       I got published in three books this year. I suppose it is everyone’s dream to be published and I am no different. I’d to publicly thank Lisa, David and Alex for including me. It made me endlessly happy this year and provided colleagues lots of amusement. Chris, I need some INSET on Literacy! Me: 'Shall I just pass the book around?'

7.       I talked a bit. This year I attended numerous teach meets and spoke at the brilliant TLT14 and the fantastic Pedagoo in London.  Finally, I spoke at a conference in London. All events were a fantastic experience and I am indebted to the people who offered me the opportunity to speak. At every event I was incredibly nervous. I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be doing this sort of thing when I started teaching. I still have to pinch myself.

8.       I have blogged moderately. I think in previous years I had blogged too much so this year I have tried to balance things out. I blog for myself really. That’s why my entries are so diverse. However, this year I tried to reduce the amount I blog so I can relax more at the weekend.

9.       I have reduced the time I spend on Twitter. I haven’t fallen out with anybody. Nor, have I been insulted or blocked – I think. I found that I was spending too much time on things on Twitter and avoiding things like putting the rubbish out and brushing my hair. I now have brushed hair and the rubbish is outside.

10.    I said last year that I wanted to read lots of books about education. I failed big time on that dream. I read a lot of blogs and a lot of the ideas of said education books are filtered down to me that way. This year, instead, I read lots of books about writing. Crazy or what! My particular favourite is Roy Peter Clark. I have picked up one of his books and it contains about a hundred separate English lessons.

11.    People have been very nice to me.  I write in isolation; therefore, I don’t test the ideas out on my daughters, or my wife. So, it is very nice to have people come up to me at events and say nice things to me. It makes me want to keep blogging and talking about things.



This year, I want to…

1.       Crack the new GCSE specs. Still getting my head round them.

2.       Stop looking at emails. Teaching has become a twenty-four-seven thing. People can and will contact us at all times of the day. I long for the days when teachers would only be contacted during school hours. Now, I am being contacted all times of the day. This year: I am going to stop looking and responding to emails at 7pm. Any email after that then can wait for the next day.

3.       Get the ‘Slow Writing’ ebook finished and out there. It is slowly taking shape and I hope to share some news about it soon.

4.       Read some more non-fiction. I admit that I am a bit phobic when it comes to non-fiction texts. Give me a novel any day. Give me a non-fiction text and I will run a mile. I think this year I am going to start reading other types of text for pleasure. In the past, I have dipped into the odd autobiography, but this year I want to start reading other types, especially travel writing.

5.       Get through ‘Breaking Bad’. I have missed the boat on this one a long time ago. I have seen all of ‘The Killing’, ‘Game of Thrones’ and various ‘boxset shows’ TM. I feel it is time to get on the bandwagon for this one.  

6.        Get another English Teachmeet of the ground. I keep threatening it, but something always lands on my plate.

7.       Learn the art of delegation. I’ll get you to teach me that skill.

8.       Work on developing the culture of learning in students. Fight the endless war on apathy in students.  

9.       Clean the cupboard / draw I keep meaning to tidy.  

10.    Oh, and I want to stop chewing pens.

TThanks for reading and I wish you and your family a happy and prosperous New Year,



Sunday, 21 December 2014

Punctuate or not to punctuate

Here’s a simple question: When do you punctuate a piece of writing? Before, during or after the writing process.

I know, people are thinking: Duh! During the writing, of course. I think in punctuation, Chris. I live and breathe semi colons, mate. However, I think it is a bit more complex than that. Maybe a mixture of all three. Do we consider all three in how we teach writing? Or, do we focus on one more than the other?

People will know how I have obsessed over sentences. How I have revelled in teaching them. How I have explored and shared novel ways to structure a sentence. How I have taught students to develop writing by teaching an explicit structure. Most of the time, the punctuation in a sentence is mirrored in the writing the student has produced. The explicit teaching of sentence structures has helped students to see where punctuation goes. It has a comma after this word, so I must make sure it has it in my sentence.

Primary schools have and have had the ‘Punctuation Pyramid’ and students, before they started writing, could see what piece of punctuation could get them in terms of a level. Move over commas – I want a sexy colon in my writing. This aspect of punctuation teaching I have always struggled with. The idea that all bright people use semi colons and colons is ludicrous. A systems for assessing writing based on single features is, in my opinion, flawed. It is simplifying the writing process without asking the important question: does the use of this punctuation change and improve the meaning of the sentence? All too often, punctuation is used in its basic form. How many times have I read a piece of writing with fifty exclamation marks in it? Ask the student why they used the equivalent of the GDP of small country’s worth of exclamation marks and you will usually get a blank face. We all know that an exclamation can shout, can shock and can impress something on us. But, teaching a student to use it just once, makes the shock even more effective. It can heighten a serious issue, or raise the tension. However, we tend to say: don’t forget to use a range of punctuation marks. What if we said one of the following things in our directions at the start of teaching?

Use just one exclamation mark to draw attention to the most shocking thing you are saying.

Use just one exclamation mark to highlight your disgust at an aspect you are writing about.

Use just one exclamation mark to raise the tension in the dialogue.

Use just one question mark to show sarcasm.

Use just one question mark to make the reader doubt what they are thinking.

Obviously, you can go to town on this and insist on three questions in a row to shock the reader. This, however, makes the writer clear about the explicit function of the punctuation and it avoids the meaningless spattering of punctuation like my neighbour has placed his Christmas lights on his house.

I seem to spend a lot of my time getting students to explain why something is used in a text. Maybe a narrow focus like this in teaching writing will help students to explain why other writers do things.

Recently I have been marking mock papers and two students had planned before writing. One of the used AFOREST – groan! The other used a list of punctuation marks and I like that one approach. The student in question ticked off the punctuation as she used them in her writing. But, isn’t that like the ‘Punctuation Pyramid’? Yes and no. Yes, it assumes there is an ideal pattern for excellent writing. Use all of these and you will be an A* student. No, because the student ticked off the punctuation as she used it. She only used a punctuation mark once and only once and not fifty times.    

Thanks for reading.


Sunday, 7 December 2014

Comprehensive comprehension questions

I have always had a sense of cynicism about comprehension tasks. I suppose it stems from my mistrust of textbooks. My PGCE course subtlety trained me to start from scratch every lesson. Therefore, textbooks always seemed like cheating, when they are far from it.  Likewise, comprehension tasks had always nestled in the forbidden zone of my teaching toolbox, due to their close association with text books. I might have occasionally used them in a moment of weakness, but I had always insisted that students wrote longer, lengthier pieces of responses to a task. Respond to this question. Find an example of this.

Recently, I have been playing around with comprehension tasks and… have started to really appreciate their usefulness. I take my hat off to you, if you have constantly used them as the foundation of your teaching. My previous wariness has been caused by a fear that I am practically guiding students too much in their analysis. At times, I have thought that if I gave students a comprehension task it was like me writing the whole thing for them. I always thought it as akin to an Art teacher giving a student a colour in by numbers sheet or a Music teacher giving a student a karaoke DVD.

I have been preparing some classes for the GCSE English AQA paper. On the higher paper, the questions are like mini-essays. Getting students to find the right style and approach to each question is difficult. Less able students often struggle with the vast nature of the task. The vagueness of the question doesn’t really help students to write precisely too. In fact, you need a number of different thought processes in your writing at once. One single question doesn’t help you.

Take question 2: Explain how the headline and picture are effective and how they link to the text.

Students read this question and often zoom in the word ‘effective’. The following answer becomes an experiment of how many times the word ‘effective’ can be used in a short space of paper so that the word loses all sense of its meaning. Unfortunately, the question needs more from students – some of it not even hinted at in the question. The most able of students do this without any fear, but the less able struggle. Enter the comprehension task.

1.     List three emotions the reader feels when reading the headline and subheading. (3 marks)

2.     Pick two words from the headline that the writer has chosen to interest the reader. (2 marks)

3.     Give a reason as to why the writer chose one of those words. (2 marks)

4.     Find three quotes in the text that show that the Tyrannosaurus is fearsome or something to be feared. (3 marks) 

5.      Explain why the writer chose that picture to go with the headline. (5 marks)


Start your writing with the sentence: The writer selected the picture to show…

6.     What do the following things in the picture show / suggest / symbolise?  (6 marks)

a.     The people

b.     Teeth

c.      Bones

Use the phrase: The ----- suggests that …

7.     Explain why the writer did not use a cartoon dinosaur for the main picture. (2 marks)

8.     Pick a quote from the article that best sums up the picture. (2 marks)

9.     Explain why the quote from question 8 links to the picture. (2 marks)

10.                        What words best describe the tone of the article? Pick three words to describe the tone. (3 words)

11.                        Describe what the reader is supposed to feel / think during these three points.  (6 marks)

a.     When they see the headline and the picture

b.     When they read the text

c.      After they have read the whole text

This example refers to the exam paper about Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex. The great thing, for me, about using this with students is that I can see what aspect of the question they struggle with most. In fact, they can see where they struggle the most, because each question links to a different part they have to include in the final ‘big’ question. Usually, I give them the exam question and watch them get it wrong. Or, I give them a great example and show them what it should look like. Both are difficult for students.  

I used the above with a class recently and I found it very interesting. All the class got to question ten and then they struggled or stopped. Why? Well, they had found the idea of a newspaper having a tone difficult. Then one student piped up: What words can I use to describe the tone of a newspaper? I usually have to look at the carnage the whole class produces before deciding on what to teach out of the long list of things they all got wrong. It is like Pandora’s Box: once you start the task you are working to constantly fix everything.  This approach to the question helped me from the start to pinpoint the weaknesses and strengths. Plus, I didn’t need a silly APP grid to spot that they had issues with offering suggestions about the lack of cartoon or how the struggled to see the symbolism of people in the picture.

The next task with these comprehension questions is to turn the comprehension answers into a full exam response to the question. Students are going to turn that into a piece of writing. They have the components and now their skill is to weave them together. Or, look at how other students have weaved things together.  The comprehension task is part of the planning which necessary for students to have the meat on the bones in their writing. I am planning on using this ‘comprehension then write’ approach for essay writing on a novel. Too many times we plan the majority of writing for students. I am all too guilty of saying the following: Of course, you can plan it whatever way you want, but, if it was me I’d plan it this way. It is to be hoped that this approach allows me to direct the thinking without actually providing the content.

What is the defining moment in the novel?

What lead up to the moment?

How has the writer presented the moment in a dramatic way?

What does the writer want us to think as a result of these consequences?

At a recent conference, someone asked me about getting students to think for themselves.  All too often I have used collective planning for writing. I have shared ideas. Students have shared their own ideas. Then, students have been able to plagiarise the ideas. In fact, I think there are large swathes of students that plagiarise their way through school, because things are handed to them on a plate. And, maybe, I have been part of that problem. I am certainly going to use comprehension tasks to build original ideas and thought. If students know that they have to comprehend first, then write second, they might just build into independent thinkers. If they don’t get a point, then the questions point that out to me and I can direct my teaching.

Things to think about with comprehension questions:

·         Start with a find question first to engage students. It is usually easy and it gets the students to read the text.

·         Pepper the list of comprehension questions with several find question throughout. It provides students with several questions they can do and it avoids the usually thing of questions getting harder and harder.

·         Manipulate the question so that there isn’t a clear gradient. Think about how students will approach things. If they know things get harder, they will probably stop completely when they get to a hard question. However, the opposite is the case with very able classes. It becomes a challenge to them.

·         Start with precise question and move to general questions, so you move from concrete thinking to abstract thinking.

·         Reflect the complexity of the question in the marking and not in the position of the question in the list.

·         Allow for a general mop up question. An opportunity that allows a students to point out something else they might have found and you haven’t thought of: What else is interesting about the extract?

·         Provide opportunities for students to offer opinions.  

·         For less able students, offer example sentences or phrases to help develop their explanation.

·         For less able students, write how many sentences needed for the answer.

·         For less able students, use a PowerPoint slide for each question and help students to time their thinking and writing time.

Oh, and on a final note. Look at the answers students provide. The following is a question I used for some revision of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. To ensure students revise the book at home, the class are having a weekly reading test. A quick comprehension task based on the weekly reading at home of five chapters.

What is the first item found in the tree by the children?

Answer: two pieces of chewing gum

Incorrect answers: a toy, a marble

I have always stressed to students that they must examine the writer’s choices, but that one comprehension question has allowed me to explore the writer’s choices with the class. Two pieces of gum highlights how Boo wants to be friends with both of them. The gum relates to the mouth and it can stop people from talking. Gum is often disliked by parents so it is slightly rebellious. Look at the other items suggested by the class. Why didn’t Harper Lee select those items? They are all items that a child can play with on their own.

Talking of Harper Lee, I must plan a lesson for tomorrow.  

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 22 November 2014

Making errors and spotting where the plain socks are located

Making mistakes is just a part of life. I have made mistakes and I still do make them. I put my hands up. Once, in my youth, I bought a yellow canary coloured shirt once. My ‘friends’ ridiculed me constantly the one time I unveiled the shirt as the latest fashion choice that I never wore it again. In fact, I have a complete aversion to the colour yellow now. I have been mentally scarred by the whole experience. I’d like to think it was a colour-blind phase I was going through; but it wasn’t.  At university I purchased a lime green shirt. Then, a few years ago I bought a red shirt. The reaction to the colours often makes me understand the mistake I have made. I learn my mistake after the purchase. Then, I change my whole perspective on the whole thing. What felt like a good idea at the time becomes, on a reflection, a terrible mistake. There is almost an ‘eye of the storm’ aspect to making mistakes. We don’t see them at the moment of doing it. It is only when I have left a shop with my purchase and put on the shirt and then been ridiculed by family and friends that I realise: maybe, bright yellow isn’t my colour.

Yes, this is a blog about fashion tips for men in teaching. No - although maybe that could be a possible series of blogs - I am interested about mistakes and the nature of mistakes. The clues is in the title of the blog. It is interesting how we seem to have two ends of the spectrum: students that fear speaking in a lesson or endlessly draft work to avoid making a glaring error; or, students that make a mistake every word or line and accept them as a part of life, like breathing or blinking. We, teachers, traipse a tightrope between praise and punishment. Between highlighting and correction. Between frustration and ignorance. The problem often is time. There is never enough time. This is a result of our curriculums. The emphasis on content leads us to often have a crammed curriculum with no time for dealing with the mistakes head on. What if the content of curriculums was reduced to the ten lines? And, the overall focus was on making better readers and writers?

I have seen endless blogs about proofreading, DIRT time and taxonomy of errors, but their existence highlights a need for this issue to be addressed. Does the juggernaut of the curriculum actually hinder progress? Do we spend enough time looking at the errors? Or, do we feel the need to teach new things, just to appease the god of progress? Or, are we teaching students to learn that mistakes are tolerable as long as their ideas and the content of their work is good? Maybe, our obsession with getting students to the next grade is making us neglect helping students to secure their current grade. Oh look this C/D student is using an A grade skill!

Of course, marking is at the heart of the mistake conundrum. I spot mistakes. I comment on mistakes. I get students to act on the information. I hope they learn to not make the mistake again. I mark again. I spot the mistake again. I comment …. You get the idea. As a teacher, I will think: is it me? Am I teaching them correctly? Do I need to do more? However, I think at the heart of the problem is the unwritten philosophy of teaching. New is better. Old is worse. The new teachers are often popular. The old ones fade into the background. A new concept in a subject is sexier than on old one. Look commas are dull as dishwater. They are so last year. Pathetic fallacy sounds sexy. It sounds exotic. It is sounds so fresh and clever. As it turns out, the student learns to use pathetic fallacy, but cannot use a comma correctly in a hostage situation.

I recently bumped into a student I used to teach and we had a conversation about what he is doing now. Interestingly, he is studying A-level English. I asked him: ‘Does your English teacher nag you about using quotes?’ The reply was in the affirmative. I was saddened by this response. It was great to hear that he is studying English, but the fact that he hadn’t learnt from that one constant mistake he used to make in my lessons saddens me the most. At one stage, when I was teaching the student, I wrote the word quote 50 billion times on his work to help him get the message.  A great lad, but he didn’t get it.

Is it our student’s mindset?  Or is it teachers’ mindset? Do students think that a piece of work will be good if it has great ideas and basics do not matter? What makes our students learn from their mistakes? Teachers? Students? Both?

I started making some posters for students, identifying three key things a student would do in their work at a particular grade. However, in my planning I was focusing on what students should add such as paragraphs or a variety of sentence structures. I wasn’t focusing on the basics, so I came up with this:

A* - One error in the whole piece or free from errors  

A – A few basic errors throughout the whole piece  

B – One basic error on every page

C – One mistake every few paragraphs

D – One mistake a paragraph

E    - One mistake a sentence

Now, I expect people would look at this list and think it is too negative. Show a student this and it focuses on the negative aspects of their writing. But, doesn’t our obsession with seeing the positive sometimes cloud our perspective on the basics? The focus on APP made this apparent. Look they have the spelling of a Level 7, but their punctuation is Level 3. Let’s give them a Level 7.  You could dress anything up to be an outstanding piece of writing, but without the basics, it cannot be an outstanding piece of writing. Rather than upselling writing, let’s look at the basics. Let’s focus on the basics. Let’s explicitly talk about the basics. Let’s make the basics the core of what we do and make the ‘lacy’ or ‘sexy’ new stuff be secondary to the basics. As long as the sexy new stuff takes priority, the old basics will drag everything down.

If only clothes shops had these lists, then I wouldn’t make so many fashion mistakes. Then again: shops want us to fail at this so we buy more from them. They are forever shoving the spangly and garish new items of clothing in our faces. But, where are the plain socks? The item of clothing you need, in this country, every day. The basics are neglected. They are hidden away. They are neglected. They probably sell more yellow shirts than socks to people like me.  

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 15 November 2014

Pinstriped Intervention

There’s a new swearword in schools. Sorry, I mean buzzword. Often, I get the two things confused. It is intervention. Intervention this. Intervention that. I have heard how other schools intervene. I have read what other counties are doing for intervention. In fact, I have intervened in my interest in intervention and actually blanked parts of Twitter.

Yesterday, I attended a conference and the brilliant Geoff Barton was there talking. In his talk, he mentioned about this incessant wave of invention obsession that seems to be spilling into our schools. He described it as being ‘men in pinstriped suits taking students out of lessons to discuss with them how to improve in lessons’. I have to say: I wore a pinstriped suit to that conference. Aside from the pinstriped suit comment, I think he is right. We have an obsession on meetings. We meet for this. We meet for that. We identify students for intervention in a meeting. We discuss the issues with the student in a meeting. We track the progress of the student in a meeting. We review the progress in another meeting. For good luck, we invite parents to a meeting to discuss those meetings.  

As I progress in schools, I have noticed the amount of meetings have increased. In the first few years of teaching, I only had one meeting a term and that was generally to see how things were going. Now, I have meeting after meeting. With great power comes lots of meetings. I do sympathise with headteachers. The amount of meetings they must have to deal with daily puts them closer to sainthood.

Of course, meetings are about communicating information. They can be very important, but they can also be very futile. A simple answer to the question what. Or, the solving of a problem. Mostly they simply focus on a lot of whats.

What is the problem in the subject?

What is it you need to do to improve?

What are you going to do?   

Those questions can be applied to both a general meeting in education and to a meeting with a student for intervention. Or, the questions are asked of the teacher - wrongly in most cases.

What if we spent more time on acting on things rather than discussing things? This was something Geoff alluded to. Acting rather than meeting. He has a very good point. My frustration with a lot of interventions is that they focus too much on the teacher. What has the teacher got to do to for intervention? I don’t mean to sound silly but isn’t the word teaching just another way of saying constant intervention? Yes, I think there should be a dialogue about what we can do to help improve a student, but the emphasis of intervention tends to focus heavily on how the teacher should modify their behaviour. The modifying of a student’s behaviour almost seems an afterthought.

I understand that a student’s needs are very complex and there are lots of variables to explore, consider and ponder. However, I worry that teachers are working harder for students who are working the same they did before any intervention.

So what am I doing? For each year group I have identified several students to track. Instead of meeting them I am going to do some work. I am going to request the student’s exercise book. I am going to see what story it tells me. I have faith in the teachers in my department; I know that they will have interventions in place. I will analyse the student’s work. As HOD, I want to see what the story is from the exercise books and assessment. Then, I am going to write a comment, describing my observations and what I expect the student to do. I will also put a sticker saying: 'Big Brother is watching you!'. Maybe not that, but something along the same lines.  At the end of the term, I will request the books again and I will expect to see changes. There might be a need to meet, but that will be up to me and I will not do it for every student. A meeting is good to tell a student that we care or that we have noticed they are not pulling their weight. But, my starting and ending point will be the work they produce in their exercise books. I will be expecting to see them acting on my direction. I have intervened in a quiet and subtle way, but it is to be hoped that it is more effective than the loud and, clearly, visual for SLT approach of a meeting.

Plus, I will not be taking any students out of lessons.

I now have to organise a meeting to discuss the meeting about what to do with my pinstriped suit.

Thanks for reading,


The Literacy Journey

The Literacy Journey

Here’s a list of links to the various literacy pages on the blog:

An overview of my approach

Guidance to parents


Slow writing


What are the problems with writing?

Is texting the problem?

Sentence structures in lessons


Exploring writing choices

Deep reading

Developing high level reading skills

Developing confidence at reading longer and larger texts

Reading comprehension

The purpose of reading

Getting students to read

The importance of the library

What are the barriers to reading?

Whole school events


Sunday, 9 November 2014

Essays Part 3: Making students think

The question that I often asking myself when marking is: ‘Why don’t they think for themselves?’ Thinking, or more precisely, original thought is gold dust in lessons; yet, it often rarely seen. That’s not without me trying. Try as I might, they rarely seem to step-up to the next level. At the recent TLT, someone asked me: ‘How do I get students to think for themselves?’ Again, I go back to A* essays I have marked and go all misty eyed. If only I could bottle what they do. Bottle it! I’d inject it daily. Or, inject them as my starter. Bring back daily milk too. I’d put it in that.

I often say to students that English is thinking. They look at me slightly bemused and a bit agog. Some get it. Some don’t. The problem we have with English is labels. The subject’s name, English, means students label the subject as reading stuff and writing long stuff. Rarely do they see reading as exploring how other writers think. Rarely do they see writing as showing what they think. English, for me, is the communication of thinking – I know, it doesn’t have a ring to it. But, the lesson is about thinking. What I think? What they think? What others think? What a Victorian lady thinks? What a repressed Edwardian man thinks? What their partners think?

Why don’t student see it as thinking? Could it be our insistence on analysis all the time? Could it be our insistence on labelling things? Could it be the pace at which we teach? Look at the English AQA GCSE paper, there is only one question that addresses thinking. What is the writer’s attitude to blank? The rest of the reading questions focus on spotting and picking apart things. It does focus, in part, on some thinking – what the reader thinks – but its starting point is always techniques. The exam paper isn’t really focused on thinking. It is about spotting language points and then talking about the reader’s feelings. Things have a knock on effect. The percentage time in lessons spent on thinking is reduced due to the insistence of students looking at techniques.

But thinking is hard to teach, isn’t it? I mean it is easy to teach a technique. They learn its definition. They comment on its use. They spot more examples. They have a go at creating their own example. In the terms of progress, it is great, because an outsider can see that a student has learnt said technique. Well, they didn’t know that at the start of the lesson. Brilliant, they do know it now. In fact, they know it so well they can even use it themselves. Outstanding progress.

Now, apply that to thinking. Observing lessons for thinking is a totally different ball game. The fruits of a lesson cannot be seen at the end of a lesson. They might not be seen in the next lesson, or the week after. Sometime, it might not show itself until one time it pounces out and shocks you. That’s why I struggle with non-specialists observing lessons. I admitted to a friend if I observed one of his lessons I wouldn’t know if it was outstanding or not. I wouldn’t, because I don’t know that subject. There might be some markers like students listen attentively and do the stuff they are told, but I wouldn’t really know whether it was outstanding or not because I am not an expert in how students think in that subject. Just as much as he wouldn’t be able to do the same with me.

An essay is a symbol of a student’s thinking. It shows the depth of their understanding and application of an idea.  The problem is knowledge and writing style get in the way of a good essay. A student’s insistent on copying everything off Google makes an essay focus on telling rather than explaining. A student’s insistence of impressive vocabulary, connectives and techniques clouds a clear point. Essays have been morphed into something else. They have moved away from being about detailed thought and moved to being these strange chameleons. Gaudy pieces of writing that repeat obvious and benign things.

How did I learn to write an essay? I think A-level English taught me how to write an essay. My teacher would give a weekly or fortnightly essay to complete. The teacher would give it back marked and I would then do the same thing again with a different essay title. I cut my teeth on writing essays with repeated exposure of essay writing, not explicit structures or approaches. I don’t even think my teachers referred to plans, example essays, connectives or any other gubbins.  Just write one essay after another. They were appalling at the start, but after a time I improved. I learnt how to form and develop an argument over time. My wife joked that she hated English and that she only did well with her essays because she learnt a formula and stuck to it.

Here’s the crux for me: Does drafting the same essay make us better writers of essays? I can understand drafting pieces of writing when the impact is important. Let’s make this horror story even more atmospheric. But, when has an essay ever been written for impact? It hasn’t. It is about clarity of thoughts and ideas and not about impressing the reader and ‘making them want to read on’. Drafting as a process is important, but is it misguided with essay writing? Essay are about writing down thoughts into a logical argument. Drafting often involves changing, adding or removing things. Yes, it can be used to clarify things, but students don’t see it as that. Drafting is about making things better, not about clarity.

Recently I have tried my ‘A-level days approach’ with a GCSE class. Before a big assessment, I, for several weeks, got them to write a two page essay on an aspect relating to the text being studied. I wasn’t drafting their final assessment. I was getting them thinking about unrelated aspects. Each essay focused on a different aspect. Was Shakespeare racist? Does Shakespeare define good and evil clearly in his play? Each subsequent essay showed progress. They got better. In fact, they were much better than the old way of drafting GCSE coursework, which amounted to copying things up and fixing the spelling mistakes. Now, I have always done this thing with A-level teaching, but never with GCSE. I have always printed off a sheet of common problems and great ideas to share with students. Has my obsession with the end product (coursework) at GCSE lead to me not using this approach? I think: yes.

Could also the problem be two-fold? How we teach essay writing. And, how we teach thinking in a lesson. A lot of teaching in English is towards the end product. Tasks are leading students along the merry path to writing a decent essay at the end. Along the path they pick up some ideas from the teacher. They also pick up some ideas from their friends. In effect, the student hasn’t had to do too much thinking, as I have merrily led them to some ‘answers’ without them having to apply their own thinking. Their writing is just a filtering of good ideas and great ideas. They cherry pick their ideas. We are teaching students to plagiarise ideas. We like to think this is them thinking, but it isn’t. Some will think. Some don’t.  You could say without others they would struggle to write anything. True. But, without them attempting to think, they will never think for themselves.  I mentioned in a lesson how some critic suggested Don John in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ sounds like the word ‘dungeon’. I know almost every student will try to crowbar that point in because it sounds good to them.  

Essay writing can be a tool for a teacher to see how a student thinks independently. Without the teachers input. Without their best mates input. A blind essay, an essay the teacher hasn’t prepared students for, could help us to understand their thinking more. Without putting chances for students to independent thinking in lessons, we will not create independent thinkers.  Maybe, our insistence on verbal discussion of ideas has neglected the emphasis on an individual’s thoughts. Good things can come from group discussions, but surely students must come up with their own ideas first.

We have so much discussion about skills and knowledge over the last few years that it is easy to see how thinking has slipped through the cracks. It is a fine balance we tread every lesson between skill, knowledge and thinking. Perhaps, we need to build more independent ‘thinking time’ to lesson. Not a daft starter, but real time dedicated to problem solving without getting your mate to do it and copy off them.  Possibly put more problems in a lesson for them to solve rather than a glut of differentiated resources to alleviate the difficulty of a task.    

Why don’t they think for themselves? Maybe I am part of the problem rather than the solution.  My fear of them doing badly has meant that I have protected them from failing. I have structured the writing too much for them. I have given them ideas through discussions. I have offered some ideas to them. I have done everything, all designed to help them, and then I am expecting them to think for themselves.

If I want them to think, I need to be prepared to let them think in lessons.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Exploring the presentation of a character in a play

I have been working on exploring the presentation of a character in 'The Merchant of Venice' and 'Othello' with a group and I thought I'd share a resource.

The students are comparing the texts and looking at how the characters are presented in the plays. There were 4 slides in total. On each slide there are six questions. . Each student ( in a group of 6) has to take responsibility for their question and then at the end of the 10 minutes they have to, as a group, feedback link ideas to the coursework question.

Slide 1 - Presentation: Staging

1.When are they seen in the play?

2.Is there a pattern in the way they appear in the play?

3.Are they in the opening and closing scenes?

4.Are they part of the main plot? Or are they part of the subplot?

5.Who usually features in the scenes with them?

6.How does the character actually interact with characters?  Soliloquy / dialogue with one character / dialogue with many characters / speech to many characters

Slide 2 - Presentation - Character Development

1.Do they learn something by the end of the story? When?

2.Do they change over the course of the story? When? Why?

3.Does the character’s presentation differ at the start to the ending?

4.Does the character behave in a ‘predictable’ manner?

5.Does the character’s development in the story link to another character? The misfortune of one is highlighted by the fortune of another character.

6.How does the play show the changing of a character’s thoughts and feelings?

Slide 3 - Presentation - Construction

1.How does the writer portray the character through actions?

2.How does the writer portray the character through dialogue?

3.How does the writer portray the character through behaviour?

4.How do other characters interact with the character?

5.How do other characters make this character look better or worse?

6.How does this relate to the audience? Can they empathise with them?


Slide 4 - Presentation - Critical Views

1.How realistic is the portrayal of the character? When is / isn’t it realistic?

2.Is the character a stereotype? How? 

3.Is the writer consistent with his portrayal of the character?

4.What is the character’s function in the story?

5.What is the character’s symbolism in the story? Society?

6.What are the flaws in the way the character is presented on stage?

The nice thing about this approach was the results. The discussion my class had with these questions was very good. They were able to explore the presentation of a character really well.