Sunday, 15 October 2017

Let’s get touchy feely about genre - AQA Paper 1

Recently, I have returned to teaching Paper 1 for the AQA, and, with each time I teach it, I try something different and attempt to get better. This year I am making a conscious effort to look at effect and developing that further in explanations.

A bit ago somebody, probably Mark Roberts, shared a paper ‘War of the Worlds’. This week I am using it with a class, but this time I am going to focus on genre, and, more importantly the effect of the genre. What are we meant to think when we read a science fiction story? What are we meant to feel when we read a science fiction story?
You might think that that isn’t important, because they are focusing on the story, but I’d disagree.

Here’s the type of introduction the paper would have:

An unnamed narrator has witnessed a meteor land in a field near his home. He is one of the first people to discover the meteor. 

When you read the extract, you’ll see that it is a piece of science fiction.
Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth--above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes--were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.

But, I think students need some complex understanding of the emotional impact of the science fiction genre to fully comment on the effect of the piece.
The genre of course is science fiction, but the subgenre is invasion. So, what is a reader meant to feel and think when they read a science fiction invasion story?

What are we supposed to feel?
fear / dread  / anxiety / nervousness / confusion / unsettle / a lack of safety  / unpredictable / disgust / horror

What ideas are we supposed to think?
The fear of outsiders – xenophobia

Question our safety and security 
When a student understands the idea that invasion stories utilises a fear of outsiders, they understand then how the level of disgust is typical of a person in this situation.  Then, students have an idea of the primary effect of the text. This then allows us to explore the secondary effects of the text.

The adjective ‘tumultuous ‘creates a sense of inferiority and abnormality of the creature in the way that this creature breathes differently to him, highlighting how unalike they are. This in turn makes the reader feel helpless as the narrator is inferior and possibly weaker than this creature.

Once a student understands the effect of a genre they can build an understanding of how the genre affects the writer’s choices and how that is complexly linked to effect.

What is the reader’s connection to the story?
Helpless observer  

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

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

What are the story rules for a science fiction story?
·         Must involve a discovery
·         Should contain a clash between human and inhuman aspects
·         Science should feature at some point
·         Must be some sort of prophecy  

A complex understanding of the genre is needed to fully understand the effect of any text. It is not enough for a student to spot a genre. No two texts and alike and so students cannot link every extract they read to a generic story telling structure of introduction, complication, crisis and resolution. After all, introduction, complication, crisis and resolution is so… emotionless. The introduction of thriller is different to a horror. The emotions are different too.
Back to ‘War of the Worlds’. When we have a better understanding of the genre, we can then look at the structure of the extract. Oh, look at the next question: it is about the structure of a text. And with a science fiction invasion story, the emotional structure of the story usual goes fear, shock, disgust and happy – after the defeat of the said creature. Looking at the extract from ‘War of the World’ above, we can see that the extract covers the transformation from fear to shock. Students can then be asked about where this extract fits in the story and the rules of the story. What are the storytelling rules after this extract? What should the writer do?

Across the land, there are schools teaching a dystopian unit or a horror unit. They will probably talk about the stock features and elements of the genre, but will they talk about the emotional content of a genre? Will they talk about the emotional structure of a genre?
I think with Paper 1 it is important to know the genre and its effect on the emotions of the reader. Students need to know the overall effect as well as the specific effect created by literary devices. That’s why with each paper I am doing with Paper 1 I am spending 10 minutes exploring the genre and thinking about its effect on the reader. They need to be better at spotting the different genres and subgenres and how those impact on the reader.

Thanks for reading,

More links to writing about effect: 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Daft drafting in the classroom

I think the concept of ‘drafting’ is possibly one of the most dangerous concepts in secondary schools. It is used with aplomb and glee abandon in the classroom. Today, we are going to draft a story. We are going to draft our assessments. Let’s draft our answers to this question.

We like to think drafting is a vital and integral part of the writing process, but time and time again drafting amounts to nothing much. Take the drafting process of coursework. I have read endless numbers of drafts and final versions. Every single one tends to carbon copy of the original one. In fact, drafting in some cases should be called human photocopying. The students just write up the previous version and change one or two things.

We have this romantic version of writing and drafting is right at the front of the writing process. Drafting does have its place in the world – I just don’t think it is necessarily in the classroom. You’d need a high level of sophistication and a good few months, or even years, to perfect a text. Writers draft over time and long periods of time. How long does it technically take to write a book? Hint – more than one hour’s lesson.

My main problem with drafting is that is focused on the end product. It is all about producing something and then thinking how it can be improved. The thoughts and thinking, we like to think, are post mortem. Once the text is written the student has a chance to think of improvements and ways forward. The issue for me is the thinking process. When would it help students to understand when they are doing things wrong? Is it so helpful to tell them after the car crash piece of work? Not really. We need to intervene some time before the crash.

Because writing is a process, it isn’t helpful to make changes to that process after the process has been completed. Take lesson observations. We give guidance and support to teachers after an observation, but at that point it is too late. The process has finished. It is gone. Wouldn’t it be better if we helped the teacher change course during the observation? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial if the teacher made the changes and saw (felt) how the changes improved things?

Driving lessons are another good example to prove this point. Did the instructor tell you where you went wrong at the end of the session? No. They did it during the process, so you’d learn and avoid making the mistake again. You were in the process of driving and it was relevant and pressing. At the end of the lesson, the process has finished.

The 200 Word Challenge has made me see the benefits of ‘course changing’ during the writing process. Every week, I speak to fifteen or so students about their writing. We discuss what they have done in previous lessons and their writing that lesson. I correct them in the process, when they need my input most. They need me to tell them they are doing it wrong. They need me to guide them.  I am in the moment with them. But, I am also doing something else. I am showing them how good writers work. They think in the middle of writing and change their course. They self-correct. They modify. They improve, during the writing. We seem to spend so much time getting students to plan, proofread and draft writing that we have missed the important part of writing – the thinking process, while they are writing.

My marking of books during the 200 Word Challenge session has had a bigger impact on work than 10 years of marking. Why? Well, I think it is because I am in the process. I am working with them side by side, but I am also thinking with them about improvements. I am modelling the correct behaviour. It is also a time where I can clarify things. What do you mean that my paragraphs are weakly constructed, sir? We assume that a written mark on work is understood and retained by the students.

Progress happens more often now than before because of the immediacy of the improvements. We want students to self-correct work, and, for this to be part of their writing process, they need to feel the benefits of the course correction. They need to see and feel the benefits of the changes. That is probably why drafting has failed for so long. They don’t feel and see the benefits immediately. When the instructor tells you that you need to go up a gear, you experience the benefits of the change. The distance between the process and the advice is paramount. If the advice isn’t immediate, they fail to see the benefits of a changes. I say ‘see’ but the word should be ‘feel. They need to feel a positive experience to enable them to adapt their behaviour.

So stop drafting this week. When students are writing, get them to sit next to you and give them feedback. See how giving students immediate feedback changes things for you and them. 

Thanks for reading,