Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Teaching a novel part 2

Reading a novel part 2  
I hate word searches. There, I’ve said it. It is out there. I’m sorry if I have offended you with my venom for word searches, but I cannot stand them. For me, they are up there with whistling, novelty socks and olives. Writing the words ‘word’ and ‘search’ together makes me shudder. Anyway, I have two daughters, identical twins, and I often think about their future. Already I've planned, in my head, a future conversation I might have relating to vetting a future boyfriend. It goes something like this:
Dad: (sternly) So, you wish to date my daughter, do you? [Optional: holding a cat and sitting in a chair ]
Boyfriend: (nervously) Yes….yes.
Dad: (aggressively) Do you like wearing novelty socks?
Boyfriend: What? (pause) Ummm..I don’t know. Maybe?
Dad: Interesting. Do you like to whistle?
Boyfriend: Sorry? Yeah. I mean no. I mean - I have never really thought about it.
Dad: Do you prefer Pinter or Ibsen?
Boyfriend: Who? What? (pause) Are they a band or something? My dad likes them, I think. Haven’t they just reformed?
Dad: (without emotion) Do you like word searches?
Boyfriend: Pardon. Word searches? Like in a book? Circle them? Yes, I think.  I’m sorry – I only wanted to ask if I could have a glass of water.

My daughters are only four years old, but I am prepared for the future. Why have I got this irrational dislike of word searches? Simple: it is all down to the next question.

What do I want them to learn from this novel?
In my last blog I described some of the mistakes I've made when teaching a novel. I left the worst experience out – and it is terrible. It was so bad that I haven’t taught the book since. The book in question sits on my shelf like an unwanted toy. It looks at me all sad, lonely and abandoned. The book is Roald Dahl’s ‘Boy’. A fantastic book. But, I messed it up big time.

I taught the book by reading the book and doing a number of different tasks. Seems straightforward, so far.

Unfortunately , I had to no idea where I was going with the learning or teaching of the book. Mainly, I taught the novel by focusing on what I wanted to do rather than focusing on what I wanted them to learn. There was no real planning or effective thinking. It was the class going from one ‘nice’ activity to another 'nice' activity. Yeah, there may have been some learning somewhere, but I had lost sight of the big picture. They were reading the book and doing some superficial activities that didn’t push them or stretch them. Where was the embedding the learning or building on a skill and making it better? I taught ‘Boy’ like that – with no connection between lessons. No glue. No overview. No big picture. A series of random actvities with the story connecting each lesson together.

I was too busy looking outside the window admiring the view and laughing at the sights, when I should have been steering the car carefully on the road. Metaphorically, I had driven the car into a ditch. Nobody was harmed, but we didn’t get to our destination on time.     
That is one of the big problems with teaching a novel: there are so many different things you could do with it. That is what is so great about teaching English. However, I’ve seen people take their eyes of the road several times in my career. They focused too much on the nice things and forgot to think about the endgame. I trained to be a business manager before I became a teacher and one of the things they taught me was about 'helicopter thinking'. To be successful, a manager needs to think of the team, task and result all at the same time. A manager, for example, would imagine he/she was a helicopter in their role and land on a station, like the task, explore it and then fly up and see the bigger picture.  Now, this might seem obvious in teaching, but it isn’t and it wasn't for me; I made that mistake many years ago with ‘Boy’.

My main advice with all planning is start from the end and then work your way backwards.  I am working on ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and my first point is the essay question I want them to answer for Controlled Conditions.  Now, I am in the process of deciding what they need for the journey to get them to that end point – the essay.
Back to word searches. Word searches are simple. They tend to focus on the skills of finding and locating information. Not that intellectually taxing really. For me, word searches represent this 'frivolous approaching to teaching' that I got and get sucked into. They are easy to make. They keep students absorbed and engaged for ten minutes.  They are fun to do. Unfortunately, they don’t really stretch a student or develop a skill. They might help reinforce key words. They ‘might’ help with spellings, but do they really push them up to the next grade or level?  No.  Rest assured, I will not be saying in my lessons: “Right class, we are going to do a word search on prepositions”.

Chess is more my kind of thing, but I can’t see people using chess to teach the complexities of a subordinate clauses or pathetic fallacy. [Be my guest; give it a try.] Chess reminds me of planning; it is all about strategy and organising things well before the end of the game. Put your pieces in place and the game is won. Your opponent might out manoeuvre you, but you are ready to solve that problem quickly.


I could, and I did with ‘Boy’, skip through a novel and set frivolous tasks with no real foundations for learning or any direction for progress. Before, my lessons included a diary entry from a character, mock newspaper story and a word search. Several years later, I plan my schemes of work like a game of chess. I think of tasks in terms of pawns, rooks, bishops, knights, a queen and a king. I rank the activities. I decide what tasks are expendable, but fun – the pawns. I decide what task is important to do the main assessment well – the king. I think you get the picture.
Next academic year, I am going to teach  ‘Skellig’ to a very able Year 7 class. How might I plan it? This should give you a rough idea.
Final Assessment: create a piece of writing similar to Almond’s description of Skellig in the garage.
Create a telephone conversation between Michael and Mina exploring their feelings and thoughts
Read the poetry of William Blake
Write a letter to school complaining about an issue
Explore how tension is created in different parts of the book
Look at some examples of descriptions of setting written by different authors
Look at some examples of descriptions of creatures / monsters  
Analyse extract from book commenting on how language is used for effect
Transform the description in the garage into a positive one
Comment on how they transformed the description

Write a draft copy of the task

This isn’t the whole SOW, but it is just a starting point. I haven’t been specific about AFs or the techniques I want them to develop, which I will do later.  Mainly, I have prioritised the activities.  I have my endgame in sight, before I even start teaching or planning in greater detail. I know what I want to do. I know what is important. I know what isn’t so important. I know what to leave out, if I want to take a different path. What I have done is some ‘joined-up-thinking’. Horrible phrase, I know. Chess can be, if played well, a slow and methodical process, and the winning move can be planned well in advance of the ending. Chess is the game I would expect gods to play. Tactical. Thinking. Moving people and crafting the future to come.
One day, I will return to ‘Boy’ and teach it. However, it taught me so much about planning and how to plan. I always plan backwards and decide on the relevance of the task I am setting. And, I do enjoy doing stuff for the fun of it, just not word searches. However, crosswords are a different thing!

Thanks for reading.

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  1. I like your chess planning idea. I do use wordsearches for 2 reasons. One might be as a revision of important terms, but rather than listing the words underneath, I'd miss them out and they'd have to remember the terms they might be looking for. Then, at the end of term, I sometimes create a wordsearch for my form with all their names in it and they have to find each other. This goes down very well! I use to make a wordsearch in 2 minutes. It's a very handy site as it does crosswords too, perhaps a better learning tool!

    1. Word searches do have some value, especially learning vocabulary. They are just not my cup of tea. I understand why people use them, but I want us to think more about why we use them. They can be a good revision tool and they do have some value. Love the tutor activity. Another idea, I will steal / borrow from you.



  2. I really like this approach to planning, especially the notion of 'expendable' parts. I'll be bearing this in mind as I start planning my lessons for next term.

    One variation I'll be trying is to allow the learners to choose and devise their own final artefact. This is something I've been developing for a wee while now, and allows the learner to demonstrate and share what they have learned i a more authentic manner. As a result of this, I've received videos, songs, graphic novels as well as 'traditional' essays submitted at the end of texts.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. I love the variation idea you suggest. I think would probably have this as a queen or knight task. You can clearly judge understanding from the things suggested, but I think I would struggle with assessing the skills they are using, in relation to the rest of the class. Drawing vs song writing. Video production vs essay writing. I would just keep the main assessment /task and use this 'own choice' task as an additional task to the main and use it in the build up to the overall assessment.

      This 'own choice' idea is brilliant and I will certaining come back to it in another blog.



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  4. Thank you for another helpful and thought-provoking blog. Coming from a primary background, I have seen (and sometimes been guilty of) this approach far too often. We're using a lot more cross-curricular learning now and that can be great for giving learning a meaningful context, but there's a real danger of just looking for activities that fit the theme and losing sight of the big picture of what we actually want the children to learn.
    Removed this comment previously because it was posted as 'Unknown' author and wasn't trying to be anonymous, but can't find a way of not being unknown!

    1. You are welcome. I agree about primary cross-curricular aspect. You do it a lot better than we do sometimes. I think in secondary it is difficult to see the bigger picture. Too many subjects. Changing teachers all the time. I have only started to get the grasp of it in English, and I have been teaching for several years.



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