Sunday, 4 November 2018

Keep calm and keep teaching ideas (A01)

Teaching is a strange thing and it is hard to define what makes things stick in a student’s head when other ideas leave the brain as quickly as someone drinking Sambuca shots - or the even faster way that vomit leaves the body after drinking all of those Sambuca shots.  What do we do with those ideas that really stick?

You can always guarantee that there is one student who tries to crowbar something you taught them once into everything they study. There are students who will direct every lesson discussion to oxymorons or relate everything studied to pathetic fallacy. It is like they cannot let go of that idea. You might be debating Brexit and still the student would pipe up and describe the Brexit as an oxymoron and cite that the change in weather is clearly pathetic fallacy suggesting out changeable nature.

It just so happened that I had one student who obsessed on an idea I had taught them. But, the idea carried on into every single text we taught at GCSE with quite a lot of success. She had developed an interpretation to all of the texts using this idea.

So, what was the seed? Well, the seed was the stiff upper lip. As a class, we were exploring Wilfred Owen’s ‘Exposure’ and I was exploring how the way soldiers were supposed to be stoic and not let events affect them emotionally and mentally. We were discussing the title and how it referred to the soldier’s exposure to the elements, but also the exposing of the reality of fighting in war, revealing what is behind the stiff upper lip. We explored as a class how the stiff upper lip has ingrained itself in our culture and how we compare with other countries. This in turn led to a discussion of Facebook and how we are more open to spill our emotions and feelings to others and how this contrasts to the Victorian attitude that was still ingrained in the soldiers fighting in WW1. We ended the lesson by exploring the significance of the war poets: they weren’t just attacking war, but attacking how society approaches dealing with things. They challenged and attacked the lies.

The lesson ended and so had, I thought, the idea. Then, we started to look at ‘A Christmas Carol’ and within the first lesson a student made a link to Scrooge and the stiff upper lip. She made the point that the imagery associated with Scrooge embodies the Victorian attitude to emotion: hard, sharp, closed and cold. The ‘solitary as an oyster’ got some battering by the symbolism bus too. The oyster’s shells are like the lips of the Victorian person: closed and hard to open. The student then went on to explore the significance of the ending. The cold Scrooge thaws and becomes a warmer, emotional character man. He transforms from businessman to friend. Work represents the place where we see the stiff upper lip regularly. The work and the money is more important than feelings and emotions. That’s why Dickens juxtaposes Scrooge’s business with the home of the Cratchits. Scrooge highlights what happens when we are stoical all the time. It isolates us. It makes us miserable. In fact, the whole story is about making Scrooge’s lips do something.     

We love a connection in English and this connection of ideas between ‘Exposure’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ was incredibly fruitful. But, we didn’t stop there. The student would pipe up during the teaching of these texts:

The Charge of the Light Brigade  - typifies the stiff upper lip

Remains – the damaging effect of the stiff upper lip on us and how it is still a way of thinking today

War Photographer – how we struggle to feel emotions for others because of our obsession on our own lives

Poppies – how it is more acceptable for a woman to express emotion

Kamikaze – how stoicism is part of other cultures

Bayonet Charge -  how we aren’t certain what to think and feel because we just follow orders or the common majority

London – the blind acceptance of a way of thinking

Ozymandias – how the ability to empathise and connect with people caused self-destruction

My Last Duchess – the fear of looking bad and presenting positive outlook on something bad

But, it wouldn’t stop there. When reading ‘Rosabel’ paper, the student would highlight how Rosabel’s behaviour at the start of the extract reflects her following the stiff upper lip attitude. Her journey on the bus with people reflects the common mind-set of the population. KBO. Yet, her desire to throw the hat at the red-haired woman is about her stiff upper lip wobbling. Her emotions are coming to the surface. She can’t repress what she is feeling any more.

We’d then got to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and then there it was again. The way the young people behave in the play reflect that the stiff upper lip is something that is learnt and we are conditioned to think that way. The young people are so spontaneous and forthcoming with their emotions – they gush over everything. This compares to the adults who tend to be a bit measured with their emotion. In fact, Lady Montague is so British she dies off stage. Talk about stiff upper lip. Every part of her body becomes stiff and she politely does it off stage. She doesn’t show emotion. Lady Capulet is another example of this. The men are slightly more different, suggesting that men could show emotion but women couldn’t.

Finally, we got on to ‘An Inspector Calls’. A play which is a whole metaphor for the stiff upper lip. It is telling that the play is set in the dining room. A place that is private and not visible. They can show their secrets, lies, true feelings and thoughts in that room, but they cannot show them outside the house. They must put on a façade that everything is good – great – superb. They must show a stiff upper lip and present a façade to the rest of the world. It is interesting to note that the most emotional characters in the play are Eric and Shelia. Two of the youngest characters. In fact, Eric is struggling to keep the façade up he is resorting to alcohol (Remains).  A connection with ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Young people struggle to be stoical, suggesting age and experience teaches people to control emotions, yet this is seen as a negative in the texts.

Through serendipity we discovered a thread through the majority of texts and, more interestingly, we had a readymade interpretation of the texts. Yes, there is a danger of a student crowbarring the idea in every text, but this made quite an interesting starting point when discussing ideas about the text. There are obvious themes across the GCSE texts we study, but what are the concepts that would help lift up their understanding of the texts. Some are obvious like ‘The American Dream’ for American texts but maybe there are some that we are not so clear and explicit when teaching a text. The stiff upper lip was just something I thought that would be a one lesson idea. However, it spiralled and thanks to a plucky student it kept coming back. It makes me think what concepts that aren’t so obvious that would help a student’s understanding of a text.  

I give it 5 minutes before the student mentions the stiff upper lip in a Year 11 lesson this week.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 28 October 2018

The dust has settled on AQA Paper 1

Now that the dust has settled on the new format for English Language GCSE, I felt it was time to share some things that have worked and helped me in teaching Paper 1. We always run the danger of exam fatigue with repeated exam practice. It is so easy to find papers and walk students through the papers, yet we possibly need to vary things. Yes, the texts might be different, but the questions are the same and that could lead to some predictable, monotonous teaching. We need familiarity with the papers, but we don’t need it to be endless repetition of the same thing. That’s why the following approaches refer to various texts and examples, because we can’t do them for every text, but they give a sense of variety when looking at the exam paper.

[1] The front of the booklet

‘The Tiredness of Rosabel’ by Katherine                Mansfield – 1908

We exploring the title of poems, yet I can guarantee that a large majority of students skipped by the word ‘tiredness’ when hunting for the exam questions. In fact, that ‘tiredness’ is a huge theme of the extract. Miss that and you could easily miss a valuable part of the story.

We spend a good ten minutes exploring the front of the booklet. What could Rosabel be tired of? What could cause ‘tiredness’ in 1908? Who is Rosabel? What do we think the issues facing a woman in 1908?

If you are lucky, the story might be part of an anthology and that gives us an extra title to source meaning from. An example even gives the genre of the text. An important aspect to know, if you are exploring the text and its meaning.

[2] Genre

I’ll be honest: genre is something we need to work on with students. There seems to be a lack of variety of genres in films and television today. We tend to get patterns of similar genres and very little variety. This is, in part, a result of consumer influence. A popular film influences the making of another. Students aren’t getting the variety they might once get.

Recently, we looked at ‘Glass, Bricks and Dust’ by Claire Dean. Before we looked at the story, we explored the fantasy and fairy tale genre. A great opportunity to show a trailer for ‘Labyrinth’ and explore the ideas and answer some of these questions:

What is the reader’s connection to the story?

Which one is more important to the genre character or setting?

What is the most important thing that the writer must describe?

What are the story rules for a fairy tale story?

It helps to have a good understanding of the genre before looking at a story. They see how important it is when a parent disappears. They see the significance of a man appearing.

A trailer for films helps students to get the understanding of genre. Therefore, I try to match a trailer to a story extract, so students can identify the features, but, more importantly, identify how a reader is supposed to react to the text.  


I can see people’s hackles rise already. Hear me out on this one. I am not a big fan of acronyms and in fact I hate them, yet I have used this one for the skills when looking at Question 2 and 3. I don’t use it to write paragraphs. That’s tosh. I use it to help students remember the skills they must use.

Spot it  - a choice made by the writer

Quote it  - a quotation

Effect it – I know, dodgy! How the reader feels  - a sense of …. Mood …. Atmosphere … a feeling of

Explain it  - explanation for the mood and commenting on the subtext – they feel this because…  

Link it – a connection to the rest of story or extract

Symbolise it – what’s the bigger picture here?

We use it to get students to remember that they have to demonstrate other skills when exploring the text. We stress that the SPOT / QUOTE / EFFECT are the basics. The non-negotiables. However, they get few marks for them unless they EXPLAIN / LINK / SYMBOLISE things. Plus, I teach students how they can start with any of them, but there’s no need to follow them in the particular order. In fact, I actively encourage them to start with ‘effect it’ or ‘symbolise it’ as it enables high-level thinking sooner in the writing.

Q2 Example

Spot it  - The writer uses the verb

Quote it   -  ‘oozing’

Effect it   - to create a sense of anger and frustration.

Explain it  - She is fed-up with her life and she wants something different and to escape from the world she is in.

Link it  - The attractive woman in the shop highlights how bad her life is.

Symbolise it – This symbolises the difference between the different classes.

Q3 Example

Spot it  - The writer changes the focus from the bus to the girl with red hair

Quote it   -  ‘eyes the colour of that green ribbon shot with gold they had got from Paris last week ‘

Effect it   - to create a sense of contrast and envy, suggesting to us the sadness Rosabel feels with her life. 

Explain it  - The girl represented what Rosabel wishes she had.

Link it  - The writer focuses on the woman to make us empathise with her situation. We see how she lives and then see how others more fortunate live.

Symbolise it – The drab, unpleasant bus represents her life and girl is the one attractive and pleasant part of her day. 


For us, it has become a planning structure. So when we give students a paragraph, we get students to write S Q E E L S in the margin and get them to think of something to say about the paragraph.

[4] The Subtext

A lot of students really struggle with the subtext of a story. They are obsessed with the obvious features of the story and don’t really address the heart of the story. You could spot a million similes, but unless you know the subtext of the story, you’ll not understand why one of those similes have been used. Therefore, we have been working on jumpstarting the thinking about the subtext.

We give students a list of statements exploring the subtext. Some true and some false. All on one PowerPoint.  Students then have to support these ideas with reference to the text.

Alex fears he is losing control of his life.

Alex is inventing things to worry about.

Alex is trying to avoid the reality of how bad things are.

Alex is struggling to control his life.

Alex has lost all hope.

Alex is fed-up of pretending everything is going to be ok.

Alex just wants to live a normal life.

Alex is fed-up of acting like the adult.

Alex feels he is shouldering the responsibility of a lot of the problems.

Alex has accepted she is going to die.

Alex is insecure and his mother’s illness has brought this to the surface.

Then, we think about anything missing from the list. Is it about something else?

I have really enjoyed this bit, because it moves the analysis to meaning and not choices. We, of course, talk about the choices, but only after exploring the subtext. What has the writer used to show us that Alex is struggling to control his life? A simile of a boat in a storm.

[5] Objects, places and people

Unless we get a really strange extract, the story will always contain objects, places and people. I have seen people offer so many different ways to address the structure question and a lot of them focus on drawing eyes, glasses or random symbols.

I feel it is better to ask students to spot the people, settings and objects in the text. They are the tent poles for the story. Then, they can explore the reason for that object, setting and person at that point in story. This also helps to develop the symbolism of aspects in the text.

This is an example I used with Rosabel this week and it generated the following ideas.

·         Start and end features a purchase of an object with different attitudes  

·         Juxtaposition of violets and egg highlights desires and needs

·         Egg symbolises the frugal and plain nature of her life  

·         Bus and carriage highlight the difference in class and how effortless things are for the rich

·         The red-haired woman contrasts with Rosabel’s brown hair and lifestyle – an impossible aspect to change

·         Jewellers represent a better life and a better job for her – the selling of hats isn’t glamourous – a functional job

·         The woman in the grey mackintosh coat represents the normal customer and making the red-haired woman unique

·         Colour is important in the story. Violets add colour to her life. The red-haired woman doesn’t need colour, as it is colourful enough, so she needs a black hat.  

Plus, when you look at the story you’ll see that the story follows the structure of objects, setting and people, which goes to show that the emphasis from the start is on materialism. The order will change depending on the extract. The more I think about the extract, the more I think the violets are the single, most important structural device in the story. They suggest her attitude towards life. She’d rather look at something pretty than eat a nice meal.

[6] Style

Looking at the style of writing is incredibly important when looking at the story and students needs to pick up in the change of style and explore it. Yes, the objects, people and settings change, but sometimes the writer changes the style to match that.

I get students to see if they can spot where the writing changes. If they can’t, then I offer them this. Then, usually they get the gist of the point. They then explore why the bus is described in such detail and why the conversation with the woman with red hair is featured in the story.

[7] Explain the answers

All too often we are starting with a blank slate with students. It takes time to get to an idea and we are constantly getting them to start from zero. I like giving students the possible answers to questions and get them to explain them verbally to the class. Explain to my why the writer used the word ‘lashing’ to create a violent atmosphere.

Question 2- How does the writer use language to…?

Words / Phrases

       Lashing – violence / dominant force attacking / pain

       Adrift -  helplessness / unconnected / distant / disorientated

       Adrift in a boat – caught in the centre / affected by things greatly

       Pushed –  hesitancy / fear of danger / nervousness

       Bulk – solid / security / strength / consistent / power 

       Spilling in furious waves – anger / hatred / destruction / power / lack of skill / unpredictable 

       Roaring – danger / uncontrollable / monstrous / animalistic

       Pounding – fear / danger / uncontrollable /

       Tangled – confusion / inescapable

In doing this, we help students to develop the language for talking about effect.

[8] The summary sentence

A boy has been struggling to fit in at his new school. His parents have moved from the city to a small country village on the Welsh coast.

The summary sentence of the extract holds lot of choices by the writer and some scope for inferences and empathy.

How would a boy find starting in a new school different to a girl?

What would a person moving from the city to the countryside find difficult?

These things need to be modelled to the students. A reliance on jumping in means that students fail to understand key aspects of the writing.

[9] A paragraph is enough

The boy resumed paddling.  He kicked only every third or fourth stroke; kicking was more exertion than steady paddling.  But the occasional kicks sent new signals to the fish.  The time it needed to lock on them, only an instant, for it was almost directly below the boy.  The fish rose.  Nearly vertical, it saw the commotion on the surface.  There was no conviction that what thrashed above was food, but food was not a concept of significance.  The fish was impelled to attack: if what it swallowed was digestible that was food; if not, it would later be regurgitated.  The mouth opened, and with a final sweep of the sickle tail, the fish struck.

Jaws by Peter Benchley

One paragraph is enough. There isn’t a real need to work through pages of prose. This paragraph has something to say on language, structure, subtext, effect, and even Question 4. Our Year 11s are preparing for their mocks and we’ve been giving them, as a starter, a paragraph and getting them to comment on language, structure and evaluate it.

[10] Finding stuff

Finding inferences can help students build up their understanding and resilience with texts.  We need to work on helping students make those inferences independently and some form of scaffolding is needed.

Rosabel would rather spend her money on pretty things than essential items she needs:

Rosabel cares about her appearance:

Rosabel finds the customers funny sometimes:

There isn’t a need to go through repeated paper after paper. We can be a little bit more creative with how we teach the papers and help students work through it.

Thanks for reading,