Saturday, 12 January 2013

Modal verbs, confidence and writing to explore

 
'Nay it is; I know not 'seems.' Hamlet
 
I would love to say I am a confident person, but I am not. It has cause me ruin many times during my short time on this planet. Once I failed big time. This was when I worked for a year in a call centre. I had the ‘delight’ of selling car insurance and I was bad at it. Exceptionally, bad. So bad that I never earned commission or won any prizes. Part of the problem was my confidence. I couldn’t sell car insurance, partly because it was overpriced car insurance, and partly because I couldn’t confidently sell insurance. My voice would wobble and I would hesitate and stumble often in conversations.  There would be lot of awkward pauses and I didn’t exactly exude confidence about the company or the product.  I think I may even struggle to sell chocolate, if I had to.

My confidence levels go up and down. For some things, I am a bumbling fool.  For other things, I am confident as a smarmy TV presenter, which a cheesy grin and catchphrases. Therefore, it is interesting that confidence plays a big part in the classroom. The seas of faces before the teacher are often a mixture of confident, arrogant, uncertain and doubtful students. The process of learning is tracked by the level of confidence a student has. Students start off being uncertain and then develop to being confident at a skill. We even have the vocabulary in marking schemes that have this inbuilt ‘confidence’ aspect. As a teacher, I have to comment on whether a student is secure or insecure about a writing skill. Often, I hear myself say that I want students to be ‘confident’ so when they leave school they can blah and blah and possibly become a blah blah. This confidence is steeped in the classroom language and psychology of students.

However, I would like to raise an interesting point: is there a stage after the confident stage? Do we really want out students to be very confident? Personally, I think there is an extra stage in this process of learning: The Confident Plus Stage. Or, as I like to call it, The Doubting Thomas Stage. In English, for example, there is a time when students have to explore a text for ‘layers of meaning’. This is when they stop asserting themselves. They start doubting themselves. Nay it seems; I know not 'it'. It goes something like this:

The writer is showing us how love is inconsistent.

The writer might be showing us how love is inconsistent.

The first sentence is confident. The second isn’t so confident. It has the ‘Doubting Thomas’ factor. It teases out meaning. It shows that the student has a greater understanding of the text and how there is much more going on in the lesson. It shows that the student has understood that this text is complex. But, interestingly, it lacks confidence.
 
Over the last few years, I have taught the language of exploring texts / ideas by referring to tentative comments. However, it is almost as if I am teaching students to write like they lack confidence.  It is under the term of ‘exploring’ that we do this, but some of the things I teach them are the following. I thank Geoff Barton for the inspiration initially.

Modal verbs like
Might
Could
May

(Main) Verbs  like
Seems
Suggests
Hints
Implies

Adverbs like
Perhaps
Maybe
Possibly
Probably

Obviously, there are a lot more examples than these, but they make a good starting point.  

Perhaps, the writer suggests to us how love is inconsistent.

Maybe the writer could be showing us how love is inconsistent.
 
Then, to make them seem even more doubtful and lacking in confidence, I get them to add another point by using a structure like this.

 Maybe the writer could be showing us how love is inconsistent or the writer might be...
 
On one hand the writer could be showing us how love is inconsistent while on the other hand the writer might be suggesting to us that…

Overall, I help students return to the state of uncertain they once started off with.  It is a funny journey.  It is almost as if I am teaching them to be 'unconfident', except that we call it ‘exploring’ or ‘teasing out layers of meaning’. I think this has applications for other subjects, especially when you are analysing a text.  We often don’t want students to say one thing about some data on a graph or a geographical feature and its causes. We want them to explain in detail and offer more than one suggestion or idea. In fact, we want them to be a bit doubtful so that they offer all the possible ideas. Therefore, we need to teach them the grammar of being tentative.

 Erm… ummm.…erm…maybe, we have a case for teaching our students to lack confidence. That, however, wouldn’t look good in the eyes of some newspapers:  TEACHERS SHATTER STUDENTS’ CONFIDENCE.  Somewhere there will be a  dubious reference as to the reducing of a student’s confidence being an attack on the nation’s pride. Perhaps, we should just call it being tentative or being a ‘doubting Thomas’ , Tim, Jenny, Henry or any other name of a student in your class.

 As I am a Cyberman, I have bypassed the emotional aspect of this topic because human emotions are illogical and a weakness. I am only joking. This blog is devoid of emotion because it might cause a bout of uncontrollable weeping from me, which will only lead to me writing a lengthy anecdote about how I had my confidence crushed by a teacher a long, long time ago.  Or, maybe, I am a Cyberman.

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