Sunday, 9 May 2021

Creative Writing – More Pixar than Eastenders!

Oh what a crazy time it is. I think all of us are in this blur of quickly teaching, quickly assessing and quickly marking work for Year 11s. We decided to end our time with Year 11s by focusing on creative writing and speaking and listening. Two areas, at least, students enjoy and so, hopefully, they will end with a positive experience of English than us battering them over the head with a Paper 2 exam.

Anyway, here are a few things that I have found useful in teaching Year 10s and Year 11s.  

Nuanced Storytelling

My mantra with Year 11s this year has been: emotionally complex and structurally simple. Or, more Pixar than Eastenders. A lot of students tend to veer to spectacle rather than emotions and relationships and that’s why I place emphasis on Pixar. Whilst I know that the stories can be complex, but the driver for the storytelling is emotion. I admit – there isn’t a Pixar film yet that hasn’t made me go all misty eyed and emotional.

To get students thinking of emotionally complex and structurally simple stories, I show them two short films, ‘Dear Alice’ and ‘The Present’. Two simply structured stories. A girl drawing on a bus. A boy receiving a present – a puppy.



 CGI Animated Short Film: "Dear Alice" by Matt Cerini | CGMeetup - YouTube




The Present - OFFICIAL - YouTube







Often students rely on multiple characters in multiple settings experiencing multiple events. Starting with these two stories helps to show students that less is best. The story stems from one simple event. We discuss how the emotions of the character and how they change over the course of the story. The AQA reading extracts model the kind of writing students should be aiming for. Structurally simple but emotionally complex. A teaching finding a brilliant piece of work. A shop worker being insulted by a customer. A daughter dealing with a controlling father. The emotions are borne out of a small event but that have many consequences.

To take things further, I use the short film ‘Pharoah’ to explore subtext and symbolism. The story tells of a girl taking on the role of Pharoah and challenging existing attitudes towards punishment. I like this film because on one level it is a about a girl dealing with power, but on the other hand it explores the idea of challenging old beliefs and systems. Students are then able to see that storytelling can be political and exploring parts of society, whilst telling a personal story at the same time.


CGI Animated Short Film: "Pharaoh" by Derrick Forkel, Mitchell Jao | CGMeetup - YouTube

 





Structuring a story

Students get caught up with structuring a story. They either narrate a story so simply or they try to include every trick in the book. Flashforward. Flashback. Multiple narration. Dual perspective. All in the first paragraph. Two films I like to show for structure are ‘Snack Attack’ and ‘WiNDUP’.  Both stories have interesting reveals of the reality of the situation. The reveal in ‘Snack Attack’s’ happens at the end and makes us evaluate the whole story. It challenges our, and the old woman’s, perspective on young people.  The reveal in ‘WiNDUP’ happens within the first few minutes and is shocking, because it simply changes the genre of the story. We are not watching the film we expected in the first few minutes. I like both stories because they use ‘this isn’t what you expected to be’ in different ways. They use it to change our feelings. They are not used simply to shock but to change our feelings. That control of feelings isn’t really used much by students. It is part of the reason ‘it was all a dream’ is problematic.

‘WiNDUP’ serves another purpose. It helps students to see how you can structure a dual narrative without the need for hundreds of characters and events. A girl lies in a coma and her dad plays a musical instrument to help her wake up. The girl in a dreamworld is trying to find her father. I say again: emotionally complex by structurally simple.


Snack Attack - YouTube







WiNDUP: Award-winning animated short film | Unity - YouTube

 





Feelings and symbolism

Controlling emotions in writing is something students have problems with. They often sound like that Facebook friend when writing as each line expresses an emotion of some kind: I walked through the door, nervous, bemused and worried. I heard a sound and then felt worried for my life. A lot of bad writing I have seen from students is this kind of thing. The overly emotional style of writing. Every event produces an emotion, which the student feels the need to articulate. Largely, this happens because feeling writing like dialogue is largely easy to do, but difficult to master.

I have recently been looking at Clare Wigfal’s ‘When the wasps drowned’ and this extract resonated with this particular problem.

We heard her screams from inside. I was standing at the sink, barefoot on the lino, washing up the breakfast dishes, soaping them lazily as I watched the light play on the bubbles. Tyler was curled under the kitchen table pushing a toy truck back and forth, smiling at the rattle of its metal wheels. Her screaming, the way it broke the day, so shocked me that I dropped a glass, which smashed on the tap and fell into the dishwater below. She was running in circles round the garden, shrieking, a halo of angry wasps blurring her shape, her pigtails dancing.

For the first few moments I just stood, mouth agape, watching her through the grime of the kitchen window not wanting to go anywhere near Therese or all those wasps. As I ran to the back door, Tyler rose and toddled after me. I remember him laughing as I turned the hose on her – he thought it all a joke. Dripping with water, her sundress clinging to a polka-dot of red welts, Therese continued to scream into the afternoon. Around her on the grass, wasps lay dark on their backs, legs kicking, wings too sodden to fly.

When the Wasps Drowned by Clare Wigfall

In the hands of most students, this would have emotions all over it. In fact, it mentions shock but then mentions very little else. No ‘I thought she’d die’ or ‘I froze with panic’. Wigfall’s extract is great for me because it is on the right side of the emotion dial. Students need to learn how to use emotions effectively and not chuck them everywhere.

 

Character

Students largely tell you everything about a character in the first paragraph: Ted was a balding, acholic whose life left him for a younger model after he didn’t want kids. Plus his favourite crisps as Wotsits. Frontloading of character detail is so common. It is like the character detail is superfluous and the plot is the most important thing. No matter how much emphasis on the importance of character it is still told in blocks. That’s why I like the story ‘Umbrella’. The tale of a refugee boy whose father leaves him at an orphanage. For me, this story shows you how to drip feed characterisation throughout the story. We see why the boy is angry and upset over the course of the story and not in the first scene. In the hands of some students, we see: The orphan boy snatched the umbrella because it reminded him of his father who abandoned him.  


UMBRELLA | Award Winning CGI Animated Short film - YouTube







Another film I love for character 'Hair Love'. This starts with a more likeable protagonist but we see towards the end her motivation and the causes for her behaviour. Both 'Hair Love' and 'Umbrella' follow a similar structured style. 


Hair Love | Oscar®-Winning Short Film (Full) | Sony Pictures Animation - YouTube





Finally, a last thing I get students to think of is three images for the mind’s eye in the story. What are the three things you are going to describe in the story? I think over time we have devalued imagery in storytelling because of the easy task of drawing a storyboard of the text. Poetry creates images for the mind’s eye easily and quickly. In fact, poetry is largely based on one image and uses that image to make us think or feel something. That’s why I get students to think of the three precise and visual images to tell the story. Often, these things are symbols or objects, but they can be an expression or an action.

We looked at one story together as a class. It was about a boy running away from home. His sister catches up with him and tries to convince him to stay. We picked out three images to tell the story: a shoe, a silhouette of them against the sun, a hand being offered. These images become anchor points for the story telling and characterisation. They also become the focus for the writing. These are the images that need foregrounding above the rest.


A lot of these films I use for the reading section of Paper 1. I especially use them for exploring structure and make the starter for lessons. We then discuss based on three screenshots taken how the director structures the story. What is the focus? Why has the director focused on that thing then?

  

Thanks for reading,

Xris


Sunday, 25 April 2021

Unseen poetry – developing mental models of writing styles

Some forms of writing come naturally. We are wired to tell stories and that shows itself when students write stories. Other forms of writing are not so natural. Language analysis doesn’t come naturally or automatically and it something  that has confounded many a teacher and, still to this day, we are collectively trying to solve it.

I have discussed before that there are generally two modes of writing in schools. Creative writing. Explanation writing. Students will flip between the two throughout the school day. Explanation writing tends to be the dominant form of writing and largely a student’s default. That’s why when getting students to write something in a different genre the result becomes either a narrative or a very dry explanation. Take a newspaper report. Often, we get a story or a dull explanation of an event.

As English teachers, we continually fight against this type of explanation writing. This beige writing. I can recall my school days and I was an expert in beige writing. I could endlessly write pages without much thought and construction. One reason … Another reason… Therefore… However …. In conclusion. Students become fluent with explanation writing but don’t shape their thoughts or ideas. It is simply plucking an idea from their head and explain it. They ramble and ramble, hoping that some of it might be interest.

The problem with the exams is that, in English, the questions dictate a different style of writing. For example, for question 2 you need to summarise and then question 3 you need to explain choices. For each one there is a different style for writing.  The closest equivalent for this is asking a singer to sing in different styles. German Trance[Q2]. Jazz[Q3]. Folk[Q4]. Heavy Metal [Q5]. I can just imagine Kylie singing a set with all those styles.

The exams don’t rely on simple explanations. And, that is the problem for students and teachers. It is the reason  why students struggle so much with the current GCSE exam papers. They are a messy chimera of writing styles. We are expecting students to go from Disco to Country and Western in seconds. That’s why they default to common mode of writing: explanation.

As teachers, there’s a lot we do to help students get a mental image of a particular style of writing. We give them model examples. We collectively write a response. We give them sentence openings. Even after all that, the first attempt at getting the writing style response is pretty rubbish. In fact, I’d be bold to say that the first time a student attempts something shouldn’t be marked. It goes without saying: it will not be good. We don’t, after all, judge a person’s driving based on their first driving lesson, so why do it for the first piece of writing?  Oh, look you got 2 out of 8. That’s really good. Most people get 1 on their first go.

We are stuck with these messy exams so we have to work with them. That’s why I have been working on establishing a mental model for particular writing styles that aren’t natural, or automatic  for students. This is an example I use. I photocopy a load of these and students complete them in a lesson.

 


The idea is give them a stronger mental picture on how to write rather than default to beige explanation. Each lesson, they are reencounter the model and format with the idea that it is committed to memory. Then, after a fortnight of completing these they have written an independent response. I have been impressed with the quality of responses from students when filling these little sheets. The level of understanding has been great and sadly this has been hidden previously,  in some cases, by a student’s inability to articulate thoughts using ‘beige explanations’. The ideas are there, but the form of writing hindered expression.

I have found the process useful because it helps shape the structure of an idea. All too often, when we give students sentence openings, there is very little cohesion in the writing. The sentences are bolted on rather used to build and develop an idea. This process here works to instil a clear structure beforehand so that when write independently they have the skeleton to work with and then confident to move away from it when necessary.

Practice is a funny concept in English lessons. Practice often amounts to redoing questions. Practice often involves a large amount of marking. Let’s all practise Question 2 everybody. Oh goodie – I now have a massive pile of marking which students will not get for a week and I will be hesitant to give them more because of the amount of marking. What if the practice was practising the thinking and the model image of the writing rather than writing a response? Yes, English is a subject with a massive amount of marking, but writing doesn’t always need to be marked. In fact, I’d say that familiarity and fluency are more important. What can I do improve a student’s familiarity with a writing style? What can I do to improve their fluency? Of course, reading lies at the heart of this; however, the writing in the exam isn’t one that occurs naturally in the wild.  Unless you plan to get students to reading thirty example responses for the exam question, then we need to look for another way. 

We need to help them build a clearer mental model of what they need to write. The writing style of the exam questions are vague and bland so we need to work harder to make sure students have an idea of what the writing we are expecting them to recreate looks like. 

I have added a copy of this sheet to my Dropbox where you will find more of my resources.

Thanks for reading,

Xris