Sunday, 18 June 2017

Turning the indicators on

Exam marking season is finally upon us. As I type this at my own pace and inclination, I know that there are several hundred teachers waking up to marking. They are in the process of marking hundreds and hundreds of scripts and probably regretting the decision, when they look out of the window and see glorious sunshine.

I have no desire to mark.
You could try to persuade as much as you like, but this man is not for turning…yet! One job I’d happily do with glee is to write the indicative content for exam boards. I’d happily do that job. I’d do it with aplomb.

The new GCSEs has changed my way of presenting assessments to staff and students. To get my head round the new GCSE, I have created indicative content sheets for all the assessments students have sat and I have loved every minute of it. But, it has made me realise that we do undervalue indicative content in lessons in English.

For years, I have walked into a classroom armed with a blank text and mined it for interesting nuggets of information and language devices. I walk in armed with a few things to point out. Usually, we have my ideas and several ideas from the class mixed together. The pace of this can be slow. It is, however, an organic process. We layer one idea on top of another idea.  Things snowball and combine. And, at the end we have a text annotated in detail and some reasonable points.

What if we utilised indicative content more in lessons? What if it was a regular part of the teaching? What if we are more transparent about the range of ideas a student could provide for a question?

Take this question I am using with a class tomorrow. Students are going to be given the extract and the question. They will have 5 minutes to bullet-point ideas.

How does Shakespeare present Romeo’s love for Juliet in the extract?
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!  

Indicative Content

·         Beyond the physical realm

·         Perfect and  pure

·         Obsession

·         Glorification

·         Monomania

·         Opposite of everything else

·         Unique / special  

·         Sexual

Language Features

·         Metaphor – ‘light through yonder window’

·         Metaphor  ‘Juliet is the sun’

·         Contrast of ‘sun’ and ‘moon’

·         Contrast of  adjectives ‘fair’ and ‘envious’

·         Light and darkness imagery

·         Disease imagery

·         Repetition of ‘envious’

·         Repetition of ‘O’

·         Repetition of  ‘It is my …’

·         Repetition of pronoun ‘my’

·         Repetition of noun ‘maid’

·         Starts and end with exclamations

·         Use of imperatives

·         Structured with a question followed by an answer to the question

·         Sentences shorten when confident

·         Reference to Goddess Diana

·         Reference to sexuality – vestal livery

Of course, there will be more and I will add to them over day. When I have taken some of the students’ ideas, I will reveal these lists and develop their understanding and knowledge of the text.

Indicative content isn’t about making the student feel stupid because they didn’t find something. It is about branching out and opening the synaptic pathways, making them see things and the possibilities. The danger is that students see indicative content as a tick list, so that is why it is so important we stress that indicative content is about possibilities. To develop the range of points a student covers in their analysis, we need to develop their experience of points.

A student becomes a better reader by reading more. Therefore, providing student with more content will provide students with more content for their future analysis of texts. If I show students that they could refer to the repetition of a pronoun in one extract, they will recall it when they refer to another text.

Shakespeare is tough, but rewarding. So, it is important that we help students become better at analysing it. Yes, we could focus on one technique at a time and help them that way, but by the GCSE course they should be able to cope with multiple techniques and multiple ideas. We need them to see multiple aspects and have a knowledge of those multiple aspects. We need them to develop their knowledge.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 11 June 2017

I digress. A lesson on digression.

Phew! I am glad that election is over. The endless talks from politicians highlighted how very few of them get to the point. Many of them spend their whole time deflecting the question. How many ‘more important questions’ have been raised in response to an interviewer’s question? No wonder Paxman can’t stop bullying people to answer the question, when a person tries to actually answer the question.  

This is a lesson I did with a bright group of students on developing anecdotes. They told me some pretty woeful anecdotes. So, I thought hard about what they needed to do to improve. The problem for them wasn’t the story. The story was fine, but like all comedians tell you, the story is only part of the act. The problem wasn’t the delivery too. Actually, it was the sense of drama. They jumped to the narrative too quickly. There was no build up. There was no digression.  

To get the idea across, I used the idea of metaphor. Well, two actually.

1: Somebody pushing the camera away when something bad is unfolding whilst you, the reader, try to push the camera back to see what is happening.

2: A person walks before a TV screen as you watch it.

I then explained the following to students:

Digression – moving away from the main story

  1. Introduce an unrelated topic
  2. Describe something unnecessary in great detail
  3. Introduce another story
  4. Introduce something the reader might know

Together, we explored the purpose of digression and the benefits of using it.  

·         To create a sense of tension

·         To build us suspense

·         To make the story for interesting

·         To convey a sense of atmosphere

·         To add humour to a humourless situation

Then, I provided students with a dull, collective story. Every class has that story they can share with the teacher. The time Sophie spewed her lunch over the desk. The time Tom farted when laughing. The time the teacher actually said a word that added the letter ‘h’ when asking a student to sit down. Ours just happened to involve me trying to give an Ofsted inspector a set of books. You had to be there at the time – the students thought it was hilarious. On paper, it is pretty dull.

Version 1:

The day Ofsted visited.
The class were studying Macbeth and we had started the lesson by focusing on an aspect of a key scene.
I was keen to impress the inspector, so I offered him a set of assessment books.
He ignored my offer.
I then repeated the offer.
He refused.
I then tried again.
Then, he refused, again.
Finally, a look of panic appeared on his face: he was in the wrong room; he wasn’t supposed to be observing me.
He made his apologies and left.
I still had the books in my hands. 

I instructed students to add some digression on the page. Now, I laid it out with one sentence on each line so that students could see the different opportunities, places and chances for digression.  

One version.

The day Ofsted visited. The dreaded moment every teacher waits. In fact, I think I’d rather have to teach a whole class of Alans than have one simple inspector observe me.  

The class were studying Macbeth and we had started the lesson by focusing on an aspect of a key scene. We had just Jenny’s Oscar winning performance of Lady Macbeth shouting at her husband. Well, Oscar winning performance is probably an exaggeration. An exaggeration in the same way that a candle is a bright as the sun. In fact, acting probably, at that one moment, decided to pack its bag and spend a long vacation in a different country.    

I was keen to impress the inspector, so I offered him a set of assessment books. They were lovingly presented. Only a doily could have improved on the presentation.

He ignored my offer. Having regularly taught teenagers, I am used to being brushed off or ignored.

I then repeated the offer.

He refused. I then started to worry. This was my one way I thought I could prove

I then tried again.

Then, he refused, again.  Had he spotted Alan dozing asleep? Alan seemed able to sleep through wars. Surely, Alan could last a twenty minute visit from an inspector.

Finally, a look of panic appeared on his face: he was in the wrong room; he wasn’t supposed to be observing me. He hadn’t spotted Alan.

He made his apologies and left.

I still had the books in my hands. 

Because this was a collective anecdote, students were able to put little in-jokes and comical asides, which will be lost on you dear reader. But, the results of this generated some really interesting digression. One student went around the bushes and hills and mountains at one point explaining a point. One student gave us another anecdote within the main one that over shadowed it. Another student decided to digress by exploring the inner workings of my brain.

Finally, I got students to revise their own anecdotes.  All too often student think that writing more is the secret to making better stories. Yes, you could make the writing more interesting by adding figurative language. But, interestingly, a story can be made better with a healthy bit of digression.

Sorry, I digress: so the election. What an interesting result, don’t you think?

Thanks for reading,