Saturday, 28 May 2016

Not another blog about the KS2 grammar test

Every so often, I like to go against the grain, fight against the tide and, metaphorically, hit my head repeatedly against a brick wall. I like to look at a current issue and look at it from the opposite point of view and develop a reasoned argument. I could easily follow the crowd and surf the waves of popularity and, possibly, common sense, but I like to think about all aspects of an issue before I pick up my pitchfork and flaming torch and storm the castle.

The recent grammar test for Year 6s has caused lots of publicity. We have had teachers boasting they couldn’t answer the paper. We have had famous writers saying that they couldn’t possibly complete the paper. We have had headteachers writing letters to students openly critiquing the tests. We have had teachers making students write letters to the Prime Minister to abolish the tests because of the stress it has caused them. I think it is fair to say that there is no love for the test. I have, however, sat and read all the articles and listened to all the discussions and they have been all one-sided. Everybody is in agreement it is rubbish, but I am not so sure.

Point 1: It is stressful.

One argument that has been paraded around by novelists and writers is that it causes stress. The test apparently causes stress for the children at a time they should be enjoying life. This week I have seen Year 11s sit their GCSE exams for English and Maths. The exams could be described as a very stressful time as their future is dependent on the result of their performance. The path they take will be influenced by that one paper. There are high stakes involved. As teachers, we help them manage with that stress. As a head of department, I speak to students before and after the exams. I cajole and reassure before and after an exam. This week I had to support a student who felt they had underperformed in one particular exam. I metaphorically picked them up and helped them place a bit of perspective on things. A student feeds off a teacher for emotions.

Exams and tests are stressful in nature, but it is the teacher’s reaction to the test and the consequences of the testing that are important. What is making a grammar test so stressful? Why is it more stressful than a writing test? Or a reading test? Are we, as teachers, transferring our stresses onto the students? For teachers, we know there are high stakes for schools. SATs are an accurate or inaccurate measuring stick of teaching quality in a school. But, what does the test mean to the student? All students want to do well. I can see how a student might be worried about this fact. They want to do well. They want to please their parents. They want to please the teacher. They want to show off. But, what makes this test more stressful than other tests? What do the students think will happen if they do badly with this one grammar test?

I’d like to know why a headteacher wrote a letter to students, because the question I’d be asking is: what is the real cause of the stress? What will happen if the student does badly in the test? Nothing much. Secondary schools will use the data in some way or not. But it is not clear and concrete as to what the outcome of the tests are likely to be. Stress is like a disease. It spreads and mutates. A stressed headteacher means stressed heads of department which means stressed teachers which results in stressed students. Students don’t get stressed in isolation. They must have something around them signalling that this is a stressful situation.

Point 2: It is difficult and it spoils a love of reading.

One of the common arguments thrusted in the debate is that the test will put off students from reading. Interestingly, the people putting this argument forward are novelists and writers. The fear is that the test and the focus on the test will have a detrimental effect on a love of reading. Where is the evidence that a focus on SPaG reduces an enjoyment of literature? Rarely, have I heard students moan about the teaching of grammar in lessons. They moan about writing, but not the grammar necessarily. In fairness, the amount of time dedicated to reading might be affected. This is a valid point in the argument, but again that is dependent on how the school wishes to treat SPaG.

I fear that the grammar test focus is only one little crack in the dam. The problem is getting students reading and keeping them reading. Some students have no books at home. Some students have no role models around them reading. Some students have no opportunities to read or borrow books. Some students have nobody to guide them towards reading. Culturally, students aren’t reading enough independently. Mr Gove’s comment about students reading fifty books is right. They should be reading more. That will make them better. Getting more books in young people’s lives is important. Books are good enough on their own to get students to love reading. We should be working on making more opportunities for students to connect with books and that doesn’t mean in the classroom.

Stop the closing of libraries. Stop the closure of libraries in schools. Make sure teachers have loads of books for students. Make sure students have access to books everywhere. A small exam booklet will not fix or break the world.   

Point 3: It isn’t necessary.  

The grammar paper has done one thing. It has raised the profile of grammar and grammar terminology. We are all talking about fronted adverbials now. The language in the classroom has improved and become more grammar focused. However, I don’t wash with the argument that some have given: I can write really well, but I didn’t know about the rules. When students don’t read enough to learn the rules, we need to be more explicit with the rules. It is interesting to note that all the people spouting off about how they weren’t taught grammar at school, yet they can write brilliantly, are big readers. Could it be that they taught themselves to use grammar through their reading experiences? Our students are not reading enough and so they need explicit grammar teaching. They are not subconsciously learning the rules of language through exposure to good texts that follow or play around with the rules.  We need something in place. Either we have enforced reading in schools for one or two hours, or, we combine reading with explicit teaching of grammar concepts.

Furthermore, would you teach science without explanation? No. What would science lessons be like if you never explained why things happened? Today’s lesson is about the sun. Ohh, isn’t bright? Isn’t it hot? End of lesson. You would explore what makes it hot and why being hot is important. Teaching reading and writing needs some explanation. Grammar is the explanation. It is not necessary for appreciation, but it is necessary for copying and recreating. The term fronted adverbial explains what the bit is at the start is for. Your life might not be radically changed, but you will understand the construction of the sentence better and you might use it again.

The problem with grammar is that people get bogged down with terminology. There is a fear of grammar, and, terminology is just another block to stumble over with when facing this fear. Yes, I didn’t know what a fronted adverbial is before, but now I do, and I can teach it. Knowledge should be passed on and shared. It might not be necessary, but it could and will support or help someone. People may have used them in their writing before knowing the term, but they will be more likely to use them more often now they know of it. Before, it was random chance. Now, it is an option.

I think the problem with the grammar test is that we weren’t consulted about what grammar terms should be tested. That is where the problem lies. It was decided for us. However, the learning of grammar terms appeals to some students. The ‘wishey-washiness’ of English has been a problem. Things are occasionally too abstract at times. The concrete rules of language (when we decide what the rule is) appeals to some students. I can spout hundreds of technical terms associated with the early special effects of Doctor Who, such as C.S.O. I liked the technical aspects as a child. I can bore you to death with the special effects of 1970s television.  As a school, we have been setting all KS3 students a grammar test and it is interesting to see how the students respond to it. The boys, in my anecdotal experience, are quite positive towards it because it is clear, concrete and either right or wrong. Grammar could be the aspect that motivates some boys. There is a type of student out there who loves the cataloguing and naming of aspects - it was me as a teenager.
I also think it is necessary because it is another way to teach writing and reading. There are a number of ways to teach reading and writing and there is no one consistent method. This way, at least, there is some sense of consistency. Until we have a clear, sure-fire way of teaching students to read and write, then another strategy is better than none.

I love primary teachers. I really do: I married one. She’ll probably punch me after I have typed this. Anybody who teaches students several different subjects in a day with a wide range of abilities in one class has my utmost respect. This blog isn’t about undermining the hard work primary teachers do daily. It is about providing a bit of balance to one-sided argument so far.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. No students were harmed in the writing of this blog and no student has been made to write a letter to the Prime Minister requesting for more tests. Like all things, I don’t think we should include students in our political arguments. It only adds to their stress.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Really short stories

This is a bit of silliness. I have a large bank of extracts and novels to pick from when looking for texts to analyse, but occasionally I like to have complete texts, so that I can teach students about how texts are structured. The problem with extracts from a novel is you usually have to provide some context to the extract. Now, this extract is from a book. The book is about a sexually confused blind dragon who lives in a repressed society where fairies are the only creatures with power. I know that is the beauty of texts and novel. You get to teach students about dragons and how dragons have feelings like us too. However, every so often I’d like students to experience whole texts without endless backstory and gap filling. I want stories that are contained in about a hundred and fifty words.
One thing I have particularly enjoyed this year is forcing students to make connections between texts. Only this week, I had one student make a connection between the opening of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Cinderella’. This led on us to looking at the features of a fairy tale and the use of fairy tale tropes. We discussed whether Jane Eyre is a fairy tale story. Also this term, I have had Year 8 students making connections between ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. Unintentionally, we looked at various types of madness and discussed if Miss Havisham and Lady Macbeth were examples of monomania.   
Therefore, in my attempt to develop and build up the knowledge and skills of students when analysing texts I have written some minitexts. Or really short stories. Not really, really short- just really short stories. They should be able to stand on their own and involve very little background knowledge. They should have something interesting about them structurally or technically. They should have an opportunity to allow students to explore inferences. If possible, the texts could be used to link to another text.

Here’s two I made earlier:  

Story 1
Number 213 started to open the pod. Slow and steady movements reflected the pace of life for each person in the room. A life of control and perfection. A world without flaws, imperfections, mistakes.

Number 213’s green eyes watched his hands move over the smooth, clean and flawless pod’s surface, searching for a way in. Across the table, several people had already accessed their pods. 315 started to ingest the contents of his pod in a slow, steady and methodical way.

Number 213 finally opened the pod. One hand ready to scoop the nutrients. The other hand holding it open. Empty. A mistake.

A smile broke the perfectly still face of Number 213.

Story 2
A dark stain covered the grass. Patches of sunlight broke through the stain. A tree moved in the breeze, making the stain spread and pour itself amongst the blades of grass.  

Tom put the book down. The exam was tomorrow. The book was half read.

A lawnmower started up. Its dull, rhythmic hum broke the stillness of the lazy afternoon. Dandelions, daisies and the odd weed prepared themselves for the inevitable.

Tom had one thought. A simple thought. If his teacher died, would the exam board take pity on him? Would they see his inability to answer the question as a sign of his emotional distress?

He picked up the pristine copy of the book and attempted to follow the story’s thread. He caught up with it: the characters were toying with the idea of shooting a dog. It was, after all, very, very old.     

I’d love it if others had a go at producing a really short story. Then, we could share them and they could be used a short starter or as part of a lesson. They could be used for preparation for GCSE questions or as a way to develop skills at KS3. But, let me know when you have produced one.


Sunday, 15 May 2016

What a carry on!

Romeo and Juliet is the new ‘Forever’ by Judy Blume

Let’s play a drinking game. I have never been to a football match. I have never been to America. I have never broken a bone in my body. I have never watched a ‘Fast and Furious’ film. I have never watched an episode of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’.  I have never taught ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Yep, that’s true. I have never taught it in any form. That is until this term.

And, what filth! I now keep thinking back to all the teachers who recommended it and gushed over the play and quoted endless lines of the smutty stuff. I always prefer to teach a roman or history plays or something bloodthirsty. Little did I know that next door the literary equivalent of ‘Carry on Verona’ was taking place with naked weapons and cockerel’s stones aplomb. Only this Friday, I had to discuss breastfeeding, weaning and wet-nurses to a group of teenage boys and a few girls. The girls silently rolled their eyes as boys giggled in glee. One said: ‘We know when we get to a rude bit, sir. ‘Cos your voice starts to change.’ But, it is endless. Reading ahead, I have read the Queen Mab’s speech and contemplating glossing over the whole thing, switching to being a PE teacher or hiding in the cupboard. And, it will only get worse as we progress through the play.

A couple years ago, we had a lot of fuss over a drawing of a knife in a poetry anthology. Wait for the Daily Mail to get an idea about what we are teaching.  Our Year 10s are talking about it in the playground and priming others for the saucy snippets in future scenes. Who knew that information about smut in Shakespeare would be passed around the school like some literary black market?     

Anyway, this term I am teaching ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and I still obsessed about structure. More so, than before. We, or I, want students to be constantly looking at structure. It might only be worth eight marks on one exam paper, but it means a lot to me. So with question 3 on the AQA exam in mind, I decided to make a PowerPoint slide with structure in mind. I was that lazy I couldn’t be bothered to include pictures, or even change the font. In fact, I was that lazy, I couldn’t even be bothered to change the colour or the font. Therefore, I only bothered to make a basic slide. On one side of the slide was the themes. On the other side of the slide was a list of events in a scene. Nothing earth shattering. A bit like this.  

The discussion it generated was very good indeed. Students picked up on the following points:

·         Starts and ends with two men from a particular family talking.

·         The Prince separates the two halves of the scene – the Capulet half and the Montague half.

·         Focuses on the ‘children’ then we see the adults. It is how people view things. Look at the children first and then look at the adults to see what made them that way.  

·         Starts with hate and ends with love.

·         Quickly changes from one emotion to another quickly, reflecting how love and hate are closely linked.

·         Follows the pattern of conflict, resolve and a different conflict (Romeo is a bit sad). Ends on a conflict.

I then did exactly the same with the next scene and the next one and the next one. Not only does it revise the key points of the play, but it helped students talk about the themes from the start. It made it a common point for discussion. Just having the list next to the breakdown of the scene meant that students engaged with the themes confidently. And, because I am lazy and hate making displays, I am printing each one and sticking them to the wall. I will have a selection of sheets for each act with annotations and I might even use coloured paper for comic scenes. However, that might be too much work for me, bending down and adding colour paper to the printer.

The great thing about this, for me, was the ability to look at the beginning, middle and end of the scene and look at where is the turning point. Then, we compared the scenes as we went along. Look, the last scene ended with a conflict, but the next scene is just a digression away from that conflict. We are constantly looking for patterns or making astute observations. And, because, I have recently been a bit obsessed with Voltas in poetry, I have been trying to get students to look at the same concept in plays. How could they describe shifts in drama? For poetry, we have all these types of Voltas:

       Ironic – Makes a point before and then knocks it down

       Emblem – Describes the object / Meaning of the object 

       Concessional – admitting the problems or issues

       Retrospective / Prospective – moves from the past to the future

       Elegy – grief to consolation /refusal /even more grief

       Dialectical Argument – Argument/ Opposing argument / Combination of the two

       Descriptive Meditating – Description / Memory or Thought / Revised Description

       Mid-course – a sharp, radical and unsurprising turn

       Dolphin turn – A shift into unexpected areas 

Source: Wikipedia

Hopefully, by the end of teaching the smut-fest that is ‘Romeo and Juliet’ I’ll have some possible suggestions and ideas about turns in drama. A student’s understanding of the structure of texts goes beyond a simple eight mark question. It helps and develops a student’s understanding of the plot and the writer’s ideas. For too long, we have glossed over structure and placed emphasis on techniques and language choices. I feel now that students are getting to understand texts better and engaging them more. All down to a little bit more attention to the structure of ideas presented in a poem, novel or play.

Right, I am off to plan another lesson on ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Let’s see what filth Shakespeare has to offer up now. I feel that English is becoming a PSHE lesson.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 8 May 2016

Last few bits and bobs before the final exams

As a school, we teach English in sets and with each new year we get a different ‘kettle of fish’. Last year I had a shiny, deluxe kettle with salmon in it. This year’s kettle is somewhat different. Still, a great kettle with unique fish. Just a bit different. They are in that difficult place of hoping to secure a C based on their controlled assessments and their exam result. Some lack drive. Some lack speed. Some direction.

It is always the saddest thing with Year 11s that some only start listening when the exams get close. The same messages I have been repeatedly saying for the last few years only starts to be heard to. when weeks away from the exam. And boy have I tried. I have said the message in a high voice, a low voice, a fast voice, a shouting voice, a sarcastic voice, a friendly voice and various other voices, including the voice of doom. So, some of them have switched on and there is still hope to make improvements.

Moving from a top set to a lower set has meant that I have seen big differences between what our top and other students do. Therefore, this year has been to look at mimicking the behaviour and approaches top set students do and seeing if they could apply things to their work.

1: Think of complex ideas  - this but this

Curley’s wife is fragile, but strong in her behaviour and attitude.
Lennie is caring, yet unknowingly cruel.

Our students when explaining an interpretation they tend to focus on one, sole, aspect. For example, in ‘Of Mice and Men’ we often get students describing Curley as a bully. Then students spend their time explaining when and where he is a bully. The problem is that limits their understanding of a character. Characters are full of contradictions. They are never one thing. Yet, students focus on one thing. Therefore, the lovely conjunction ‘but’ or ‘yet’ helps to get students to subtly extend their interpretations in a more detail.
Curley is an aggressive yet gentle character. He’s aggressive towards men, but he keeps his gentle side for his wife. This is reflected with his gloved hand. The two hands show the two different sides to Curley.

2: Build up the interpretations in layers

Sheila shows us how the young in society don’t understand the consequences of their actions.
Sheila suggests to us how children copy the behaviour of their parents.
Sheila symbolises how parenting is partly responsible for a lack of change in society.

Originally, I used the shows/suggests/ symbolises structure for exploring pictures in the AQA English exam. However, it developed further when a student used it in an essay on ‘Of Mice and Men’. The great thing about it was that it made students actively look at the text in three different ways and it actively moved students away from literal readings of texts. But, it didn’t negate a literal reading of the text. What happens is important, but the subtext is more important.  Some students have experimented with this structure and inverted it. It worked for them.

3: Focus on sentences
Less able students often drown in texts. They spend either too longer finding a quote or the sink under the text by simply retelling things. The best students often zoom in on one aspects and make connections to other parts. Therefore, I have been teaching students to pick a sentence and use that as your starting point.

They have done this with the poems, non-fiction texts, novels and plays. It narrows their focus and it is amazing how original their thoughts and idea are. Bright students are especially precise with their ideas. When looking at the non-fiction paper, I get students to pick a line in the opening, middle and closing paragraphs. It gets them on track quicker and faster than before.
Below is an approach used with ‘An Inspector Calls’. It is always hard for students to comment on the presentation of a character as there is so much to choose from. Students were able to make some perceptive observations based on three quotes for a character and they were able to spot how the presentation of the character changes.   

Mr Birling
Act 1
‘….perhaps we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together…’ 
Act 2
‘I must say, Sybil, that when this comes out in the inquest, it isn’t going to do us much good. The Press might take it up.’
Act 3
‘Now look at the pair of them – the famous younger generation who know it all. And they can’t even take a joke-’

Mrs Birling
Act 1
‘Now, Arthur, I don’t think you ought to talk business on an occasion like this.’
Act 2
‘ Secondly, I blame the young man who was the father of the child she was going to have. If, as she said, he didn’t belong to her class, and was some drunken young idler, then that’s all the more reason why he shouldn’t escape.’
Act 3
‘Well, why shouldn’t we?’ [carry on]

Act 1
‘Oh – it’s wonderful! Look – Mummy – isn’t it a beauty? Oh –darling.’
Act 2
‘It means that we’ve no excuse now for putting on airs and that if we’ve any sense we won’t try.’
Act 3
‘But you’re forgetting one thing I still can’t forget. Everything we said had happened really happened.’

Act 1
‘Mother says we musn’t stay too long. But I don’t think it matters. I left ‘em talking about clothes again.’ 
Act 2
No dialogue – only enters at the end of the scene
Act 3
‘I don’t see much nonsense about it when a girl goes and kills herself. You lot may be letting yourselves out nicely, but I can’t. Nor can mother.’

Act 1
‘Wouldn’t dream of it. In fact, I insist upon being one of the family now. I’ve been trying long enough, haven’t I?’
Act 2
‘All right – I did for a time. Nearly any man would have done.’
Act 3
‘Everything’s all right now, Sheila. What about this ring?’

Inspector Goole
Act 1
‘It’s the way I like to go to work. One person and one line of inquiry at a time. Otherwise, there’s a muddle.’
Act 2
‘Do you want me to tell you – in plain words?’
Act 3
‘This girl killed herself – and died a horrible death. But each of you helped to kill her. Remember that. Never forget it.’

4: Micro quotes
The most able students tend to pepper their writing with quotes. Less able students tend to pick one big quote and leave it smack in the middle. Therefore, I have been getting students to use micro quotes or single worded quotes. We all know Mr Birling refers to the ‘Titanic’ and being in a time of ‘prosperity’. In one sentence, they can integrate points from different parts of the text quickly and it is so easy to do. Think of five micro quotes for Lennie – bear, paws, mouse, behind, shapeless.

5: Linking techniques
Weaker students tend to feature spot, or technique vomiting, as I like to call it. Better students show how two things combine to create an effect. Discussions in lessons have been around what two things create a particular feeling or sense. Therefore, when writing, I’d expect them to say: ‘The writer uses X and Y to create a sense of …’

6: Structure    
 It sounds silly, but students struggle with structure and we can easily rectify that. The new GCSE specs have made me go structure mad, but simply teaching students to write points in a logical structure of how the text is presented in the text.

Take ‘An Inspector Calls’:
Point 1 Act 1
Point 2 Act 2
Point 3 Act 3

It’s not rocket science, but giving this structure helps some students to explain how things develop across a text. At the start…. By Act 2…. By the end…. This structure ensures that they address the structure of the text implicitly. Look at the presentation of a character. How is the character introduced? How does the character develop? What does the character learn at the end?
The same applies with the themes. Each stage is looking at how the aspect develops. Weaker students just look for examples. Better students explore how something develops across a text. This approach allows for some students to do this.

7: Get them talking in abstract nouns
The more a student uses abstract nouns the more abstract and complex their ideas will be. Getting students comfortable with using more abstract words in lessons has been my goal this year. Only this week, we were applying ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ to aspects of the language example. We were exploring how the writer shows their thoughts and feelings in a text.

8: Adverbs are your friends
Emotionally, physically, mentally the poet is exploring the consequences of war. Unusually he uses exaggeration to covey feelings of frustration. The challenge is for the students to use the most appropriate ones to use. But giving students the words ‘emotionally’, ‘psychologically’, ‘physically’ and ‘mentally’ can help students to comment on presentational aspects of a text. The words ‘surprisingly’, ‘disappointingly’ and ‘unusually’ allow students to subtly evaluate the text or aspect.

Aside from all these things, nothing replaces knowing the texts well. With only a few weeks before the final exams, I have a few lessons and in those lessons I am being precise, simple and clear about what they need to do. Their brains are cluttered with a lot at the moment. Now that some of them have decided to listen, I am hoping that my message is clear. Learn from the best. Do what the best do. You might be a D, but you can copy what an A does in their writing. Aim higher.

Time to put the kettle on. First, I’ll just check that there are no fish in it.
Thanks for reading,

Monday, 2 May 2016

Blogsync - Orange juice poetry

This small blog is in response to April’s #blogsyncenglish. The month’s focus was on poetry.
I think poetry is overly complicated by incorrect attempts to make it engaging. I think poetry is engaging without the need for gimmick or highlighters.  At the centre of every poetry lesson, is the poem. An uncensored copy of the text. I think if you can’t do anything with a single copy of a poem, then get out of teaching. Yes, you could use a video. Yes, you could use a picture. Yes, you could use a funny cat video to explain a complex concept concisely. But, simply a copy of the poem is the starting point for any poetry lesson for me. I don’t try to blindside them with topical or TV references. I go for simply the poem, in all its glory.

Recently, I taught part of Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’. I struggle with the idea of teaching a poem, because I don’t teach it as such. We experience the poem and I just teach them how to read it. They tend to do the rest. Anyway, I piled up all the tables in one side of the room. I borrowed a boat from the local harbour and then every student filled their water bottles up, so we could imitate the splashing of the lake on the boat. One lad made bird noises and I turned the light off. Okay, I didn’t do any of those last things. We got the poem on the paper and we read it. Things went in this order: This isn’t how I approach every poem, but it is one approach.
Before reading a poem, students need some knowledge if the experience isn’t one they have witnessed or experience. I remember one poem being called ‘In the can’. The can referring to being prison. Without that one simple bit of knowledge, the poem is meaningless. A teacher has to provide the knowledge to engage the poem. The poem ‘The ‘Prelude’ is just about a man in a boat to the casual reader. You need some knowledge to make its meaning explicit.

[1] Introduce / revise the concepts of ‘Industrial Revolution’ and ‘Romanticism’.
We might make reference to these ideas:
       A focus on emotions
       A focus on the individual
       A glorification of the past
       Tends to focus on the importance of knowledge 
       A glorification of nature
       Against ‘Industrial Revolution’
       Nature in control
       Man felt small and helpless
       Tend to see a focus on one of these emotions awe, apprehension, terror or horror

[2] Discussed the Victorians' exploration of nature as being something beautiful yet dangerous – Frankenstein / Dracula.

[3] Explored the concept of ‘The Sublime’
       Definition: of very great excellence or beauty
       Or, man lost in the immensity of nature – without God, control or help 

We discussed where we too have experienced this same feeling – that provides students with an individual way in. It’s amazing how many students find waterfalls as something sublime.

[4] Read the poem.

[5] We worked out what is happening at the different stages. Here meaning is clarified, as a class, and any words students are unfamiliar with are provided with definitions. The gist of the poem is important. What’s going on in the poem it is central to building any further understanding. Knowing what the poem is about is important, before any analysis can take place.

[6] Then, we looked at what was suggested and implied in the poem by using inference words. Students have to find examples of the following: 
Inference words: perfection, secretive, isolation, uncertainty, magical, beauty  
One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cove, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light.

Inference words: struggle, fear, no escape, inferior
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own

 Then, students suggested their own words to describe what was happening in the poem.

[7] After, exploring the feelings and ideas in the poem, I tend to get student to explore feelings in the poem. In particular, we look at where feelings change and how the feeling is created. I usually give students the following:
       A sense of magical and mystery
       A sense of fear and foreboding
       A sense of immensity and awe

Students then find examples of these in the text. But, in finding it, they have to explain what the writer has done, and what devices or techniques they have used to create that feeling. As an add-on, I ask students to offer these own feelings.

[8] We then explored what the writer is teaching us:
What is the writer’s view of the world / society?

What are they teaching us?

Some students make connections to the previous aspects of ‘sublime’ and ‘The Romantics’. If not, we revisited the concepts. 

[9] At this stage, usually, students don’t have some of the high-level concepts floating around their thoughts to enable some complex understanding, so I provide them with the following aspects or similar words. Complex thought needs complex vocabulary, so as students are growing ideas, it isn’t always easy for them to make their ideas clear. Therefore, we tend to get the default retell the teacher what the plot of the poem is.

inferior vs superior
reality vs dream
beauty vs ugliness
light vs dark
masculine vs feminine

Then, I got students to re-evaluate their original ideas of the poem or what the poet is saying about the topic.  

[10] Finally, I get students to look at the structure of the poem and look at how the message or idea develops over the text. Once students have an idea of a concept like masculine and feminine themes in their head they can see how the whole text is shaped.
At this point, I looked at the start and end of the poems. If that wasn’t fruitful, I looked at turning points or changes in the texts. Depending on the group of students, I might explore the form or use of syllables and patterns.

After all that, we will write down five different interpretations of the poem. Then, students have a starting point for their own writing and analysis. They then have to explain an interpretation based on their analysis of the poem.

One copy of the poem. Five PowerPoint slides. Loads of vocabulary.

I always liken poetry to orange juice. It is a condensed form of a text. It is reduced and boiled down to something complex and meaningful. Every word, line, syllable hold some form of meaning to a reader. We could list hundreds of questions to get students to work out the meaning of the poem, but I like to structure the exploration so that instead of question after question, students are given tools to make concrete what is abstract. Vocabulary is important to building a student's understanding of a poem. Vocabulary for meaning. Vocabulary for concepts. Vocabulary for emotions. Vocabulary for techniques. Vocabulary for the writer's ideas. At each stage of studying a poem, I am developing a student's ability to articulate complex ideas into concrete writing.
Thanks for reading,


P.S. Oh my goodness. Did you know how many different types of Volta there are? I do now and I might write about it in a future blog.