Sunday, 25 October 2020

What a teacher wants, what a writer needs

Like others, I have been working on getting students to balance ideas, discussion on language choices and the writer’s message or intent. For some, this comes easily and for others no so. The one thing that is quite elusive, for most, is the writer’s intent.  

A lot of the time, when we are talking about intent, we use stock statements. Dickens was challenging the status quo. Shakespeare is highlighting the different types if love. Those statements are handy and helpful in terms of joining the dots. But, I find the jump to the end point and conclusion. We force feed students these writer’s messages. We teach texts around these messages. We even punctuate lessons with socialism and equality when discussing texts like ‘An Inspector Calls’. We force this end point in terms of discussing the writer’s intent. We even add words around this to help jumpstart the process. The writer is either challenging, highlighting, questioning, or some other suitable verb, the idea.  We might even give them little titbits like ‘inequality’, ‘differences’ or ‘the relationship between x and y’ to help them form sentences that sound impressive but at the same time they are hollow and meaningless.

Student become obsessed with this kind of benign writer’s intent statements. They pepper their writing with them and rarely move beyond the superficial level of understanding. We see this when they struggled with the GCSE English Language papers. Exam papers where the focus is clearly on the intent. Yes, it does look at meaning and choices, but largely it is about the writer’s intent. Paper 2 has even got the word ‘perspectives’ in its title. Umm. That just means the writer’s intent. It’s just dressed up in a fancy word.  This where the problem lies. Because we have a simplistic approach to intent with literature, we then have this process fed across other elements. That’s why we get crazy statements from students when they look at the texts. The writer presents the boat in the way he does because he wants to challenge the inequality in society and the patriarchal superiority of the existing social structures. It is a boat. A thing that sits in the water. A big boaty thing. The poor thing just wants to be a boat. And play like the other boats in the wild.

The problem is counterfeit intellectualism. We saw something similar with wow words and vocabulary. They were the trappings of good writing, but that’s all they were…trappings. The idea that showing a few clever words and ideas in a paragraph is the instant key to successful writing. Added to this is the notion that there’s a set structure or even a check list that all Grade 9 students to is damaging to what we teach and how we teach it. We see this counterfeit intellectualism played again and again in English and I think it is largely damaging. Look at the obscure use of terminology in analysis. Some, if we are honest, that didn’t even appear in any of our undergraduate courses. There is a good argument for teaching some of these techniques, but it is the way that they are used that I have a problem with. I’d rather have a student who can tell me a detailed why Shakespeare did something rather than the student who can fit catharsis, hamartia, hubris, anagnorisis and peripeteia in one sentence and spell it correctly. For me it is the depth of understanding and I think we have to challenge this counterfeit intellectualism for what it is. Counterfeit intellectualism is about quick fixes, easy answers, quickly recalled things and shiny bauble things that looks good to a complete stranger. The more the better with counterfeit intellectualism.

This counterfeit intellectualism has a drawback. Engagement. We are not teaching students to engage with a writer’s ideas. We are not allowing that level of depth to grow naturally and in an explorative way. Students need to engage with texts on a number of levels and even more importantly on a personal level. I don’t think the new (can I still call them new?) GCSE have created the situation, but I think people have created this situation around the new GCSE. They’ve created elements of counterfeit intellectualism around what they perceive the examiner wants to see.

A really good answer sings in the ears of a teacher or examiner. There is a level of subtly and depth that you cannot mimic, copy or even bottle up. The melody comes from years of teaching and not just a simple ingredient added to the mix.  

Right, back to the writer’s intent. We have over complicated the writer’s intent to such an extend it is hard for students to engage in texts. That’s why this term I have, in my COVID regulation lessons, been focusing on building and securing my Year 10s knowledge and skills with poetry. Two simple questions have really helped and supported students when looking at the texts:

What does the writer want?

What does the writer need the reader to think / feel /question?  

They are rubbish questions, Chris! My ferret can produce much better questions than that when it sits on my laptop and does a dance blindfolded whilst listening to the Vengaboys!

In fact, I be bold to say that technical students only need the words ‘want’ and ‘need’. Why?

‘Want’ is a pure and simple way of addressing the writer’s purpose. It is a way of putting it simply to the students. What does the writer want? Dickens wants the poor and rich to work together.

‘Need’ is a something that students get easily. If you want something, you need something else to happen for this to occur. Dickens wants the poor and rich to work together so he needs the reader to understand that world where the rich and poor work together is much better than a world with them working against each other.

‘Need’ can incorporate feelings or thoughts or even questions. Dickens wants the public to understand the difficulties the poor face so he needs them to care for Oliver Twist and feel genuine concern for his plight.

I have been using ‘want’ and ‘need’ with my Year 10s and it has made a marked difference in how they explain poetry. Instead of trying to recall what the bloke at the front of the class, they are now forming more of their own ideas about the texts. They are talking about what Tennyson wants and want he needs the reader to think or feel. They have a much better understanding of the writer than they have done before. Plus, they are writing much better about it by just using the words ‘want’ and ‘need’. The interrogation of the want and needs allows for the depth, but they have a way in to exploring the writer’s intent without the need of those silly triplets (to argue, to advise, blah, blah) or prepared comments from the statement bank.

If we can get students to think about the want and needs in literature texts, then when it comes to non-fiction and boats they can discuss the writer’s purpose easily. They can say the writer presents the boat in the way because he wants to show how prepared they were as he needs the reader to understand they were delusional and overly confident.  The same applies to Paper 1 and the creative writer. The writer starts the opening this way because she wants… and so she needs the reader to feel…

So, let’s work on depth in English by working on how students interact with texts. Let’s make them interact with them. Let’s make them connect with them. After all, we all have wants and needs. Seeing a text from a want and a need perspective, makes the texts relatable. Students have wants and needs too. Those wants and needs unite us.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 11 October 2020

Losing my Revision

 You have a test next Friday so your homework for this week is to revise for this test.

You see systems and processes differently to teacher when your children are in a secondary school. You see the impact of the processes.  Revision is one such process I have seen differently. A process that is a largely invisible process in schools. We expect it to happen. We expect students to do it. We expect it to have a benefit. We expect students to have learnt it through primary school. We expect students to have a clear idea of how to do it . We expect all students to do, but it is an invisible thing. Hidden. Locked away. Secretive.

If truth be told, the majority of interventions in school are largely based on the principle that a student will not be independent enough to do the work at home. That’s why we have booster sessions. We have catchup sessions. We have mad panic dashes of knowledge, because the students don’t revise. We, in fact, have a constant cycle of topping up of knowledge when, all to often, the answer is the student’s relationship with revision. I’d be bold to say that when teachers compile lists for interventions it leads heavily on the underperforming and lack of revision. The lovely student with pastel coloured highlighters and a itemised plan of revision doesn’t get a look in. Really, you want to come to the afterschool session? But, you revise?

I also think Knowledge Organisers haven’t helped with revision. They have added to the over simplification of revision. All you need to do is revise what is on the sheet. Just revise the sheet. What we see as obvious and easy isn’t always so. The process is assumed rather than modelled. The assumption is that by giving students a sheet of people they will know what to do with and how to use it.

Our current situation has highlighted how important we get what students do at home right. Revision is even more important now than ever. But, we can’t expect to paper over the cracks with extra interventions. We can’t expect that students will pick up the knowledge through natural osmosis. Osmosis occurs when the student is in the room. That osmosis doesn’t happen when a student isolates for weeks. Thereby, revision is paramount and we have to look at how that revision looks.

This week I have set my Year 10s to revise for an assessment. They have been studying six of the AQA poetry anthology poems. Instead of giving them a simple instruction to revise and leaving all the complexities of revising to inference,  I have created a sheet for them to use for revision. Now, I don’t think it will change the world, but it is a staggered approach to helping Year 10s revise. See a picture of the sheet here:


I have based this on the principle of sifting and refining their notes. They are to give three bullet points for each box. Then, at the end, further summarise with three overall things to remember. The sheet will
show me they have revised for the assessment. I have even said to the students that I will collect the sheet before the assessment. The thinking is that if something goes wrong in the assessment, they have a back-up to prove they had revised. After all, the default reasoning in a poor assessment is that the student did not revise.

We need to make it clearer to students what revision looks like and we need to be explicit that it involves more than reading over their notes again and again. I think as teachers we should model the revision processes for students. Instead of telling students to revise, we model steps and approaches to do. Here, I am trying a ‘summarise in three’ approach. I am sure you could use questioning or dual coding for whatever you are doing.

I feel that we need steps in building revision into our curriculums. We have a note sheet system in KS3. Students can take one sheet into an assessment. That sheet is A4 in Year 7, A5 in Year 8 and A6 in Year 9. We are in the business of teaching our subject but we need to be better at teaching how to revise for our subjects. We might talk about how to revise and give some tips, but do we really check and study their revision? Or, do we just rely on it being invisible and intangible? The problem is: if we treat revision as invisible and intangible, then the students who really need to revise will also see it as invisible and intangible that they don’t have to do it.

Revise. A word that has so much packed in it. A simple command but a whole lot of untapped potential. Let’s change that! Show me your revision. Show. Me. Your. Revision.

Thanks for reading,