Sunday, 2 December 2012

Great Expectations or Bitter Disappointments

I got a new title this week to add to my current list of dad, husband, teacher, blogger, hopeful optimist and second in department.  Now I can call myself the ‘Co-ordinator of Literacy Across the Curriculum’. Already I have had a few people pass me in the corridor and joke with me that I am going to have my work cut out helping them with their spelling.  I will share with you later my ups and downs as I settle into the role.

Anyway, I am standing on a large precipice: will I live up to expectations? Or, will I be an utter disappointment? It is quite relevant that I am teaching ‘Great Expectations’ to Year 8 at the moment. I am that nervous Pip worrying about whether I will grow up to be a fine gentleman or remain as a blacksmith for the rest of my life. Rather than dwell on me, I thought I’d share a few things I do when teaching a novel written by Charles Dickens. 

This is quite surprising, but I have met a number of English teachers that have never read Dickens. They have never opened a book by him, or even watched an adaptation. Now, this is understandable from a teacher’s point of view. When have we got the time to commit to a large novel like ‘Our Mutual Friend’? I’m tired. I’ve had enough so if I am going to read, I am going to read something fun or ‘light’.  I know I might have a ‘diet-Dickens’ like ‘Harry Potter and the  ….’ or a modern novel as they are much more sprightly. But, I feel that reading Dickens has added so much to my teaching and my understanding of Literature that I often bring Dickens to the equation when teaching. ‘How would Dickens do this?’ is often my mantra. I have used him in my teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’ and with Shakespeare. As a writer, he was, and is, such a stark contrast to many writers today that he makes a great point of comparison. Plus, I’d like some students to write a bit like him too.

However, at this point I must add that I haven’t read every one of his novels, but I have read a fair few of them. To be honest, I got interested in him because of the modern novel. I got fed up of open-ended endings that most modern novels prefer. Rather than tie up the ending of a story with a big bow and a little gift card, the modern novel tends to have an empty space. It all ends up a bit flat.  On numerous occasions, I have invested hours or days reading a novel expecting a massive climax and then being disappointed to have a huge and undeniable anti-climax. It is like starting a novel off with a murder mystery and then by the end of it not revealing who committed the murder and featuring an extract from an ancestor’s diary, because it is 'so' clever. Dare I say it  -  McEwan prefers to do this as do quite a few modern writers. Don't get me wrong - I thing they are great writers, but annoying in terms of storytelling. In frustration I visited ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and I bloody loved it. So much that it has become a regular present I give to people. Every chapter has a lesson on language and writing skills. Oh, and it is really short.       

Right, back to the teaching stuff!

Uriah Heep  
I have set the homework of finding ten facts about a writer, subject or novel many times. The work you get back is usually of very little merit. Oh, you have managed to copy and paste ten random bits of information. Well done! I got bored of this a couple of years ago and experimented. I had heard whispers of other departments using something called ‘Barter Markets’. Simply, students are around the room and they have to barter to get relevant information about topics. I will give you a reason why workhouses were common in the Victorian times, if you give me a law that was introduced relating to poverty.  To me, this sounded like a fun and an interesting way of sharing knowledge. Sadly, I couldn’t see how I could get it in English.  I couldn’t see students bartering their similes or opening sentences, so I put it back in the draw to be used at a later date. That is until I revisited this homework again.   

Students are given the same homework: find ten ‘interesting’ facts about Dickens. The inverted commas are intentional, as my ‘interesting’ might vary from theirs. At the start of the lesson, students, on their own, score each fact they have collected out of ten. They will now have a score out of one hundred. Then I challenge them to improve that score by bartering their good facts with other students. They are to replace low scoring facts with high scoring ones. However, they must always have ten facts. Now sadly, in this day and age, students don’t know how to haggle or barter – what is the world coming to? – so I have to teach them and off they go. It makes for some funny conversations as they cheat, lie, haggle and barter for the facts that are close to a ten in our interest scale. If a student forgets to do the homework, they are given a blank piece of paper and they have to find some way to get ten facts. These naughty students often look bemused but I can guarantee that they get a few facts through stealth and cunning trickery.
Finally, students add up their new facts and work out their new score. No class yet has achieved the ultimate one hundred marks, but it has been close a few times. Then, as a class, we share the ten out of ten facts and write them on the board. With these facts we try to relate these facts of his life to the novel being studied. I have had some interesting suggestions. Some suggestions are accurate and others are not so accurate.  One student suggested Charles Dickens’ near death in a train crash made him focus about death and things dying in his novels.  Overall, the whole experience turned that dull homework into an exploration into the influences behind the author’s ideas.

Mr Sowerberry
I was on a Teachology course recently and one of the items was on grammar. My eyes lit up at that particular talk and one thing inspired me. It was so good that I used in a Year 8 lesson the following week.  

My students were given a picture of Miss Havisham.  They then had a period of twenty minutes where they wrote different phrases about her. I directed them as what the phrase had in it – adverb, preposition, etc. Each phrase was different. Then students wrote out their best one and left it on their desk.

The next phase used ‘Musical Chairs’. I played a bit of music and students sat down at a desk when it stopped. When they had sat down, they had to write a feeling they had when they read that phrase. They would circle the word that gave them that feeling. The music would play again and they would repeat the process for about three or four times.  Next students would highlight things that were hinted at in the phrase. Again, they would write something down and link it to a particular word or phrase. This was repeated again three or four times.

Finally, students had a piece of a paper with their original phrase, several feelings and several inferences. The students then turned that into a paragraph explaining how the line works. The results were impressive. Each student described the language in such an analytical way that there was no need for my sheet of banned phrases like ‘it stands out’ or ‘it makes the reader want to read on’. One student explained how he used ‘lonely’ twice in a line to emphasise how lonely she was. Another student sheepishly apologised for writing it in the third person and referring to himself as ‘the writer’. Praise was heaped on this lad’s shoulders.   

Bradley Headstone
This is a quick one but several years I made a sheet, and, for the life of me, I can’t find an electronic copy of it anywhere. Otherwise, I would put it on here to share with you. The sheet just gave students a list of possible reasons as to why a technique is used. A few years ago, I hit breaking point as the level of analysis I wanted to see did not match what I actually saw in lessons. I felt the need to step it up, so I made a sheet which gave three possible reasons as to why a technique is used by a writer. Here’s an example:


Repetition is used …

to make something seem worse than it really is - exaggerate
to show that there is a lot of something
to draw our attention to a particular piece of information


So that the reader thinks  / feels ….

I repeated this for several techniques and gave it to students when analysing a text. It meant that I gave students the language to analyse a text, rather than me wait and wait until someone came up with an idea. Students were able to say why the technique was used and then I could help them build and extend their analysis. Oh, and it meant I didn’t have pupils saying that things ‘stand out’ all the time.  

Miss Havisham
Today, I am marking my mocks in my dusty and cobweb filled study. The clock is broken and I have nothing on my feet. My white t-shirt is pale and old. I sit still and look at the crumbs of a half-eaten cake. My heart is broken. Some haven’t listened to my advice, when preparing them for this exam. I sit here frozen in time.  Do I become Miss Havisham? A bitter, pessimistic, sad figure of torment who wants others to share her fate. Or, do I become Magwitch? An optimistic and grateful figure who only wants the best for Pip. Bitter Disappointments or Great Expectations?

Magwitch it is then.

Thanks for reading and thanks to Cruickshanks for the images,



P.S. I haven't marked the mock papers yet, so that last bit is all in my head. Putting things off, as usual. If you can’t be bothered to read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, then check out the description of a barrel breaking on a street.  

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