Sunday 14 July 2024

Whoa Camouflage - writing is never quite the way it seems

We never really talk enough about the complexity of reading and writing. And, we certainly don’t talk enough about the emotional complexity of writing or the psychology of writing (and reading). Instead, we tend to float around things. We tend to impose feelings we have to those we expect students to have. I love reading so you will love it too. Newsflash: the majority of the country loves football and not one speck of adoration has influenced me to watch a full match or contemplate watching the Euros this month. We transpose feelings or, worryingly, we impose feelings on students. That causes us to oversimplify reading or writing. It is because they don’t love it. It is because the task isn’t interesting enough for them. By assigning emotions, we undermine the real problem. 

Socially, we have this problem too. How easily do adults say ‘I’m not good at Maths’ or ‘I don’t like reading’? We frame things in terms of emotions and it is almost as if emotions become the buffer to the problem. I am not a bad writer but it is just that I don’t like writing. Look at how students rush to emotions when they struggle in a subject. It isn’t me - it’s just the teacher and I don’t get on. I don’t like their way of teaching things. These emotions are everywhere and they cloud what the real problem is. 

Take this following scenario which happens a lot in schools across the country:  A student who struggles in English. On a good day they could get a Grade 4. Most of the time they get 2s or 3s. They arrive for their final English exam. They write nothing on the paper. Not one word. They sit and fold their arms. Do nothing. Why does the student do this?  

They did it for some twisted logic. If they wrote nothing down, then they didn’t fail the exam. They just chose not to write. They were in control. It wasn’t that they failed the exam, but they made a choice. They had the power. The agency. Now, we all know that it is self-destructive, but in the student’s mind they have won. Won whatever battle they think they are facing in their minds. We could of course frame this in emotions. He was scared. He didn’t like the subject. He panicked. All valid but they don’t rationalise the logical choices made by the student. We view emotions as the cause rather than the consequence of things. 

PE, Art and Maths are subjects where proficiency is quite transparent. I chose those subjects because for me, at school, I knew I wasn’t so good in these subjects. It was clear to the world, it was clear to me and it was clear to my peers. Being picked last to play on a team in football doesn’t fill you with confidence in your abilities. Those three subjects had a clear view of proficiency. The first picked for the team was the best. The last one picked for the team wasn’t the best.  

Subjects like English struggle with that transparency. English is the subject where ‘masking’ I say happens all the time. A description from the National Autistic Society wrote this and I thought it was so apt for English. 

Masking is a strategy used by some autistic people, consciously or unconsciously, to appear non-autistic in order to blend in and be more accepted in society. Masking can happen in formal situations such as at school or work and in informal situations such as at home with family or socialising with friends.

Masking is sometimes referred to as ‘camouflaging’, ‘social camouflaging’, ‘compensatory strategies’ and ‘passing’. Research suggests autistic people learn how to mask by observing, analysing and mirroring the behaviours of others – in real life or on TV, in films, books, etc.


We have students who camouflage their writing and reading to fit in English. We all do it at some level, but I think ‘masking’ is the biggest thing we haven’t addressed in the subject. Students pretend to be doing stuff so their inabilities are not flagged to the world. Ok, so how do I see that masking? 

We see it all the time in reading because it is an internalised process. It doesn’t take much for a student to hold a book and look at the page. They are camouflaged in plain sight. It looks like they are reading so therefore they must be reading. 

With writing, I’d say that there are a number of things students can do:  

  • Manipulate their handwriting - make it small, big or so hard to read.

  • Detailed plans but very little writing  

  • Slow writing

  • Copy large chunks of a text out 

  • Ask lots of questions 

  • Writing really fast and being first to finish.  

Of course, there are many more things I could have included. Take the student who finishes first. Why do they finish first? Now, I have always assumed it was to please me. There’s me framing things around emotions. What if the student was finishing first to fit in with his / her perceived notion of normal? To camouflage themselves, they finish first because that signifies that he/she is competent in English. Look at me, I am not going to be picked last in the English team.  

Handwriting is another one. English teachers see lots of handwriting and lots of variations. I am always amazed when a student doesn’t heed my advice when I say they should make their writing clearer. Handwriting is camouflage. They’ve written clever ideas, but it is the teacher’s fault because they can’t read it.The problem is the teacher and not the student. Again, it looks like the student is competent in the classroom in front of their peers. 

I genuinely think we need to be talking about masking and camouflaging more in our subject. It is at the heart of a lot of problems we face and experience. Word soup in writing is a product of students thinking clever words can mask their work. If I use clever sounding words, then I will pass for clever in the subject. In fact, the best students don’t use those words. 

Writing is the biggest sign of ability in lots of subjects. It is where students are at their most vulnerable yet it is all too visible. That’s why they work on the ‘optics’ of things. They misbehave, because it avoids vulnerability. They do something to their writing so it looks like others. 

Rather than jumping to feelings first, maybe we should be thinking about masking and the psychology behind what students do and why they do it. 

Thanks for reading, 


Sunday 30 June 2024

I am ready for my closeup now, Mrs Writer (Part 2) - the special edition

I wrote on using film clips to explore structure and the structure question on the exam paper last year. Here is the link to the blog:

Students have a lot of background knowledge around film and storytelling, which we don’t employ enough in lessons. The sad demise of media elements of the English curriculum means that it feels naughty and decadent to do something that isn’t linked to the demigods of Literature. I like digressing every so often and showing a clip. Here are some that have a specific focus on structure. 

I tend to show the clip to students first. Then, I show them a range of the camera shots. I pick one and ask students to say why the director chose that moment to focus on that shot then. What does it symbolise? How does it link to other shots? 

The Others 

I love ‘The Others’ and I find this scene great for talking about ‘tense’ and ‘suspense’. Largely, students don’t know the difference between the two and it is quite important with stories. The relationship between what is inevitable and what is a surprise underpins stories. Ghost stories play with these two all the time. 

I tend to focus on the third camera shot. Nicole Kidman has her back to camera. The symbolism isn’t lost on the students. Something can see her, but she can’t see it. The thing is shadowing her. In the scene, there’s a lot of things at the edge of shots or just out of the frame. She’s close but just not close enough. 

Usually students obsess over questions in creepy stories like this. The reader is asking… The reader wants the question answered …  This story and others like it are about proof and reasoning. Take the Rosie exam paper. It features a woman spotting a strange child in her garden.  She has proof of something strange and she tries to rationalise it. Then, something happens to contradict that rationalising of things. The same happens in ‘The Others’.  


I loved ‘Ripley’ and could easily pick any episode and any scene, but this one I like because of the use of camera shots to frame the character’s thought processes. His back to Marge is an interesting choice. Most people would look head on during a conversation. He continues with his back to her. Plus, the use of objects is quite telling. He shifts from making drinks to cleaning a very heavy ashtray. I find this scene interesting because of the use of objects and body language. We are seeing the thought processes in Ripley’s head without hearing a word from him directly. I get students to focus on the last camera shot above and discuss how the director conveys the character’s inner conflict. 


Hitchcock, as I’ve said before, is a dream for exploring structure. ‘Sabotage’ is an example of playing with expectations and dramatic irony. A boy carries a bomb on a bus. We know it is a bomb, but the boy doesn’t. Modern sensibilities tell us that a boy will not be blown up in the story. And, especially, a boy playing with a puppy! This whole scene is playing with the idea. We are expecting him to escape, yet Hitchock doesn’t allow that to happen. It is a great clip for talking about expectations and writers playing with what we expect to happen. 

I also like this scene for the use of time imagery. Recently, we’ve seen a lot of extracts that deal with time. There’s a sense of urgency created not only by the bomb, but also the use of clocks. In fact, the director zooms in on the handle. That emphasis on time is increased as the scene goes on. Writers tend to be more subtle than Hitchcock when conveying time, but this makes a good starting point. 


This clip for me is interesting because it revolves around character discoveries. Jack stands up to peer pressure and bullies. He discovers the implications of his actions - the fight. That second to last shot is heartbreaking. He realises what impact it will have. That is also framed in Auggie’s slow discovery of Jack’s support of him. 

Lots of students see extracts as being tense yet they often forget the emotional journey of characters. All too often, the extracts in the exam are extracts around a moment of discovery or change. A character learns something that will change their perspective on things. The character at the beginning is different to the one at the end. Students need to see that. 

We don’t look at moments of discovery enough in stories. They often are the key drivers of narrative. If we look at all the past exam papers, they are character centric. They all, and I mean all, feature a character discovering something.  

 The Perfect Storm:

The Perfect Storm is a great example of using light imagery to signify meaning. I like to look at this scene and discuss weather and light in terms of symbolism. The opening shows the hope the men have. They think they have escaped from the worst storm ever. 

I also like talking about this scene in terms of ‘false sense of security’. Both the characters and the audience are lulled into thinking things are safe. That tricking the audience is interesting.  I don’t see enough students talking about the tricky of writers. The writer focuses on X so we don’t realise Y. In fact, we have this rigid view of writers presented to us. Writers are tricky things and they do mislead us and lie to us. Students need to explore when they are being manipulated and fooled in writing. 

Hidden Figures:

This scene is great for exploring how things convey meaning through the presentation of things. The middle shot is great for this. I simply ask: What do you notice about this shot? 

All the men are wearing the same colour. The woman is the only black woman in the shot. The woman is the only person wearing something different. She is positioned in the middle of things. The camera shot is looking down on her. Each one of those things holds a symbolic meaning. Not only is Taraji P. Henson’s acting is phenomenal, but the framing of the scene echoes the ideas being challenged. 

I like this scene because it shows how subtle choices have a greater level of significance. For example, Kevin Costner’s moving down a flight of steps indicates so much more in the context. As too does his destroying the bathroom sign. 

Thanks for reading,