Saturday, 23 February 2013

Handwriting is nothing to do with literacy – changing gear (Slow Writing Part 3)

When I was a child, I wrote like a child. I wrote with colourful crayons and big pencils. When I became a man, I put away childish writing implements and used fountain pens and tippex. I smudged my way into adulthood.

Tasked with the challenge of coordinating and improving writing in my school, I found what  direction to take difficult. What do I focus on? I can’t possible focus on everything at once, can I? As my previous blogs have highlighted, I am focusing on one aspect of literacy a year. This year it is writing. But, where do I start with writing? Do I go straight to spelling? Do I go for grammar? Do I go for comma splices (my personal Kryptonite)? Handwriting was at the bottom of my list. It usually is, if I am honest.

Why did my teachers make me write 's's like this?
As a teacher, I have always held the principle (correctly or incorrectly) that handwriting isn’t a problem if I can decipher it. The fact that the writing looks like it was produced during a very dangerous earthquake was never an issue, if I could make sense of 95% of the words. I might make a casual reference to the student presenting his or her work better, but my targets have always been about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of writing. I am always keen to highlight a misuse of an apostrophe or comma, but handwriting hadn’t even registered on my radar. For parents, handwriting is always an issue, as too is spelling. I think they have it right. I haven’t been objective enough. With my ‘subjective’ glasses, I have always concentrated on the finer details or grammar, construction, accuracy and techniques.  But I think parents have it right. They are the outsiders on the writing process, like a possible employer.  However, an employer will not pick you up after a night out, and they will certainly not give you a hug if you have had a bad day.  What are the initial things that an outsider will judge a piece of writing? Spelling and hand writing. When an outsider has formed opinions about spelling and handwriting, they will then focus on the grammar. Therefore, first impressions do matter.

Obviously, writing is a complex thing. It isn’t a tick list. It isn’t so easy to reduce everything down to a few bullet-points. Handwriting  is only one thing in a range of things that make the whole product. Previously, I have explained about ‘Slow Writing’ and focusing on the choices that writers make. Where does handwriting fit in with this ‘choices’ idea? It doesn’t, does it? Well, I think it is a choice.  I think it is a choice that we have to help students some more with.  There is a big chasm between the support for handwriting in primary schools and the support in secondary schools. It is almost as if we assume that they can write clearly from Year 7 onwards. However, that isn’t the case. What the students get is constant nagging and badgering to write clearly. Some improve. Some don’t.  Adding to the problem is the lack of one teacher having an overview of a student’s writing. At primary school, the teacher has an overview of a student’s output from every lesson. At secondary school, there isn’t one teacher overseeing a student’s work. This lack of personalised learning in secondary schools is a problem.  We know what a student’s writing is like in our lesson, but we don’t know if that is consistent for them, or if they can do better; or if they can or can't be bothered. I do think students can and do make a choice between writing neatly and writing scruffily.   

As an English teacher, I am seen as the demigod that can miraculously fix any students writing, but like other subject areas I have a curriculum to teach.  This year, however, I have taken some very drastic steps to improve things. It started off with me receiving a piece of work. The work was sloppily presented. The handwriting looked like it had been written by four different people and there were bits crossed out. I simply told the student that they had to redo it and improve it. They did. And, the funny thing is, they have made their presentation of work much better in lessons from that moment onwards.  It was one of those ‘is that all I have to do’ moments. Too many times in the past I have settled for having the work in and not bothering about how it is presented. Their mark will reflect that, I always thought.  Now, I have given the message to students that presentation matters. I have raised its status in a very simple way. But, it is these messages that are encoded in our teaching and lessons that could be the cause of the damage. It isn’t necessarily the fact that there are more teachers, but it is more a question of the messages we give. Do we really spell out how complex, time-consuming and difficult writing is? 

Do we start lessons by saying writing is difficult? Do we start lessons by saying grammar rules can be tricky? Do we start lessons by saying how silly the English spelling system is? We don’t. We often, and I am guilty of this, say: ‘You have five minutes to write things down. Just get it down’.  What messages are we giving to students about writing and the work we want? At the moment, there are a lot of teachers saying ‘remember to check SPaG’ to students, which is a bit of an afterthought to the work – write well from the start and you will not have to spend too much time checking your work. What are we saying beforehand about writing? What messages are we giving through our thoughts, actions and deeds in lessons?

I once came across a student teacher who wrote everything on a PowerPoint slide, including the date. The student was clearly worried (they had no reason to worry - very clever student) about their writing on the board, but the problem was that they were not modelling to the students what handwriting looks like on the board. The message being given in that lesson was that ‘handwriting’ is so old fashioned.  I write on the board. Sometimes it is scruffy; other times it is neat. I model handwriting. I use ICT too, but I do write on the board and that is important for students to see. To see the writing process, warts and all. I want them to see me make mistakes. I want them to see that if I rush things they can’t always read it. I want them to see what real writing is. If we rely too much on ICT, we neglect showing students what writing looks like. The leaps in technology have created some areas where students rarely see the teacher write. How many teachers go from one lesson to another without writing? Some? Most? All?  If we want writing to improve, we must show what writing looks and feels like. It isn’t a disembodied experience that just happens. It is an experience that takes time, thought and some choices.

This is what Ofsted and all their wisdom say of the attainment targets in writing:
Level 3 - Handwriting is joined and legible.
Level 4- Handwriting style is fluent, joined and legible.
Level 5 -Handwriting is joined, clear and fluent and, where appropraite, is adapted to a range of tasks.
Level 6 - Handwriting is neat and legible.

What have I done?
Where do I start to improve handwriting in a school? I started small. I took a group of very able students whose handwriting prevented them from making their meaning clear. I spent one hour with these students writing and writing some more. However, in that hour all the students made some amazing progress, as I was able to be specific about what they could do to improve. These are some of the directions:

·         Reduce the size of lower case letters so that they only take up half a line and capitals take up the whole line.

·         Keep words and letters on the line.

·         Write to the margin.

·         Reduce the space between words.

·          Separate letters in a word.

Now, these are not obviously earth shattering, but an hour of getting students to redo a piece of writing and improving the handwriting made some big improvements. Something I couldn’t easily do in lessons. There is the crux of the problem: time. I had the time to address this issue. These able students were able to make some progress with their writing because the time was invested. Next term, I will ask staff if they have noticed any improvements. One teacher has already noticed an improvement.

I also think that a focus on just handwriting helped them, as it meant that the focus was narrow. Handwriting, if we are honest, is usually like the distant cousin of writing in that we occasionally remember but we never send them a Christmas card. We do neglect handwriting because we are more concerned with them getting the content right and them using the right words in the right order. Feels like spinning plates.

As a result of this and some other things, we have now built in some time with Year 7s where they can work on their handwriting and develop some of these aspects. If they are writing clearly in Year 7, then they may have a better chance of writing better in Years 8, 9, 10 and 11. Set the message from the start.

What am I going to do?
I have mentioned previously that technology has influenced the way students write and read. I think handwriting is linked to this complex aspect. Handwriting plays a part in the ‘modern stream of consciousness’  writing that students have adopted. Writing, for most students, flows from their pens. It flows and it flows. In fact, it flows so much that students can write for pages and pages, yet what they write isn’t the best writing they can do.  Like a text or a tweet, the writing just happens and spelling, organisation and grammar aren’t invited to the party. Students write what comes to mind, rather than cogitate things over and plan and refine ideas. They blurt things out. Again, I am asking students to slow things down. This time it is all about handwriting. The demands of a subject doesn’t help, but I am hoping that some of these aspects will help. At the moment, these ideas are a bit ‘pie in the sky’ but we will hopefully see some results from them.

·         Writing speed

I am hoping to work on our understanding of what gear students need to be in to write. 1st gear will be a slow, steady writing speed where care and precision matters. 5th gear will be saved for quick responses to a task. We need to guide students about the gear they need to be in for writing. I am not just teaching them about literacy, I am teaching them about driving. The steeper the incline, the lower the gear needed. The harder the work, the lower writing gear they will need.


·         Explore what handwriting tells us about a person:

Sue Palmer in one of her many ‘Getting the buggers to (buy my)’ books has a section on exploring what a person’s handwriting says about them. I think this will make a great little starter into exploring how students write. Hopefully, students will be able to see how they write in a different angle. I have used it before but never with the angle of improving their writing. Furthermore, I might even make a quiz: guess the teacher on their handwriting. The prize: a new pen.

·         Praising students for neat handwriting:

I have made a blog and the primary focus is to showcase the best writing in school. However, it will also be a way for me to praise handwriting. The best handwritten efforts will get extra praise. Sorry, but there is something special about a handwritten piece of work. It shows more care and effort. It looks ummm… personal.

·         Showing students what handwriting looks like:

Long gone are the days of handwritten reports, handwritten letters to parents and handwritten worksheets. I will ask staff to model, where possible, some handwriting on the board. It can be simply writing the date on the board or the writing of key phrases, but this will show students the speed and care that good handwriting takes. Furthermore, I have a few teachers in the school who have beautiful handwriting and I might even get them to do a small master class video, teaching students how they write so beautifully.

I know that for some people these might be frivolous things, but I think for an integrated and effective literacy programme no stone should be unturned. Sometimes the big things like spelling and grammar dominate so much that we neglect some of the basic things we expect from writing.

One last thing before I start my planning for the week. I have taken to heart @LearningSpy’s  ‘slow writing’ idea and I see handwriting as another extension. Furthermore, I am constantly looking for new ways to slow a student’s writing down -  this is really sabotage in education terms. In my experiments, I came up with a new idea. It is based on the enslaved rowers on many boats in Greek history.  Back then you’d have a person drumming to a beat. Each slave had to keep in time to the beat. Today, I play jazz music and students have to write to the beat – no, not really. Instead, I pick one student in the class: a student who normally is the first to finish with their rushed ideas, and handwriting.  That student sets the speed of the writing task. When they have finished, the class has finished. Every so often I will ask them about how much they have written. The whole class know where they are in the journey of the task. It has been great because it slows the fast writer down and it gets all the class to slow down. If Bob has only written half a page, then I am okay with only half a page. It takes the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ to a whole new level. I have even found the lead writer to deliberately slow down even more so there friend can keep up.

If you would like to read some of my other blogs about Literacy, then check them out here and here.

Thanks for reading,



Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Woman in Black, The Lady in Red, The Woman in Green and The Pink Lady

During a dinner party, there is a heated argument between several ladies. One lady was dressed in black. Another was dressed all in red, while the two next to her were dressed in green and pink.  Which of the ladies won the argument? Why?

I awoke this morning to mist. Mist everywhere. It seems to be one of those ‘rimy’ mornings. There’s frost aplenty – well, from what I can see in all the mist.  The perfect environment to talk about ‘The Woman in Black’.  Several months ago I blogged about ‘Of Mice and Men’ and impressively it still gets views on a weekly basis.  I wanted to share some of the different things I did and do with the novel.  I assume I am like most people in teaching; I look for resources on Google and then create my own. In fact, I do enjoy the making of teaching resources, but I also look  at others for inspiration. I need a muse.

The problem I find with a lot of teaching websites is that they are geared to the quick resource. Need something for teaching spellings? Try this. Need something for teaching symbols in ‘An Inspector Calls’? Try this. Need something for teaching genre? Try this.  When I look for resources, I want ideas and not ready made lessons. Therefore, this blog is about inspiration and ideas for the teaching  of ‘The Woman in Black’.
Susan Hill uses pathetic fallacy by the bucket load in the novel and I have worked really hard to stop students constantly spotting this in the novel. The weather is bad, so it must tell us what is going on in his head.  Instead of tracking tension through the novel I have tracked the weather. You crazy man, I hear you say. Yes, I have turned into a weather man. Today, we will have some misty patches with a few sunny spells.  Personally, I think the weather in the novel functions on a number of levels and the class have embraced this charting of weather in the book. As a class, we come to the following ideas:

·         The weather helps to create tension. As the weather gets worse, there chances of something bad happen increases.

·         The weather relates to the key mystery. The main mystery is introduced to us in fog. You can’t see things clearly in fog like the mystery. The weather improves when the mystery is unravelled.

·         The weather challenges our expectations of  what is safe and unsafe. Scary and bad things happen on pleasant days. We see the ghost for the first time on a sunny day. We also have the horrific conclusion on a fairly pleasant day. The use of weather unsettles us. The connection between plot and weather isn’t consistent.

·         The weather links to Arthurs’s feelings and also the woman in black’s feelings.

If you have read my blog recently, you’ll know that I have gone a little mad on choices. In particular, the choices we make as writers and the choices other writers make.  Therefore, I started one of my lessons with the following questions about the narrator.

Why use a man?

Why use a young man?

Why use an old man?

Why have the changes in time?

Why use 1st person perspective?

Why use an outsider?

Why use an arrogant man?

Why use a rational / sane man?

Why use a sceptic?

Then, as a class we discussed how the story would change if we had a shy child narrating the story. Or, a Victorian woman who is a mother.  

Furthermore, how would the story change if it was told by a minor character. (@Gwenelope's idea)

I have had a nasty bout of man-flu and I had one of those days where I felt that I really should stay in bed and recuperate. I bravely soldiered on and taught.  Well, I say taught; I read the chapter ‘Across the Causeway’ with them, and instead of a dull as dishwater task of answering some questions, I got them to think of questions. During the reading of the chapter, I would ask them to think of a question and write it down. In a previous lesson, I had highlighted to the students that the exam question will either be about the presentation of something or about the tension or the mood of a section. Therefore, the students produced questions relating to these two possible areas.  The results were great. They all had twelve questions each and we ranked those in terms of complexity and answered them. Also, John Sayers' blog on questioning has been very helpful in developing complex questions.

 Film Posters
One of the problems I have found with teaching the novel is the question of genre. The recent film version of 'The Woman in Black' was a horror film disguised as a ghost story. It has some good bits in it, but it is simply a horror film. (It was even made by Hammer Horror Films and like a stick of rock it has ‘horror’ written all the way through it.)There is no better proof of this than the opening few minutes: three children die in a horrific way. For a lot of my students, they have a vivid memory of the film and that contrasts all the time with their reading of the novel. The horror elements beat the ghost elements in their memory. The ‘AHHHH!’ always beats the ‘Oh!’ when reading the book. I often hear a voice say: “It was much scarier in the film.”  We all know that the imagination is far more powerful for scares, but students often feel that the 'visual scare' is more powerful that the 'imagined scare'.

Even in my research of the novel, I found lots of contrasting views of what the novel’s genre is. Is it a ghost story? Is it a horror story? Is it a gothic horror story? Is it all three genres? I felt that I had to start with genre and the students’ understanding of particular genres. In the past, I have always referred to book covers and this has generated lots of ideas and discussion, but the problem with book covers is that they work in symbols, clues and hints. They don’t explicitly tell you the plot, genre or the experience you are going have. That’s why we have the old cliché: don’t judge a book by its cover. I have often read a book and found it to be something totally different to the one advertised on the cover. There is no correlation between the cover and the ending or resolution of a book. However, with film posters there is a correlation. Film posters are about selling an immediate experience. Come to this film and you will laugh. Come to this film and you will learn something about history. Come to this film and your wife will love it and you will hate it.  Wrapped up in one image is the story, the genre and the emotional experience you will get when you watch the film. That is why I started the discussion on genre by focusing on two film posters. The poster for a ‘Scream’ film and the poster for ‘The Woman in Black’ film.  Simply: What are the differences between these two posters? We came up with the following differences:
lots of characters vs. one main character

monster above the characters vs. monster behind the character

red and black vs. blue, grey and black

no setting featured vs. setting featured
Behind each of these choices lies meaning and the students inferred for themselves what each element meant. Focusing on one character means that you can get under the skin of the character and explore the psychology of events. Focusing on lots of characters could mean that the monster is picking off victims.

I then developed the understanding of genre with my own bullet points of genre features. I know that some of these are questionable and ‘genre’ is sometimes hard to define, but these on bits of paper gave students a starting point to develop their understanding of genre. Later, I add ‘gothic horror’ to the mix and see what they notice. If nothing else, they make a good tick list for the features. Now, I find students referring to the genre throughout their discussions. The writer could have used X but they didn’t, because that would make the story a horror story.

A ghost story

·         Features very few characters and the plot concerns two or three main characters

·         Concerned with the mystery of why the ghost haunts people

·         Explores the psychology of fear

·         Focuses on one particular fear. For example, the fear of loneliness or isolation

·         Plot will be slow to develop the atmosphere and build tension

·         Always a first person narrator

·         Suspense is used rather than tension – you know something is going to happen, but you don’t know what.

·         A story of mystery and solving the story behind the mystery

·         Features uncertainty and doubt

·         Usually takes the form of a character telling another their story

·         Focuses on fears caused by the mind

·         Will contain some element of madness

·         Features a character who doubts their senses or sanity

·         Will take place in darkness

A horror story

·         Features a group of characters who slowly disappear / die

·         Concerned with the identity of ‘the horror’

·         Focuses on blood or gore – body horror

·         Moments of tension are created by the audience’s awareness that something bad is going to happen to a character. Tension is created by the waiting for the obvious to happen.

·         Plot will be quite fast going from one shock to another

·         Can be a first person narrator, but often a third person narrator

·         A story of survival

·         Features unmasking or hiding

·         Focuses on fears about something happening to our body

·         Usually will contain some kind of warning and a character ignoring the warning or common sense

·         Might take place in darkness

Which actor for the role?
This is a thing from an old friend in another school. Find nine or so pictures of possible actors to play a role in the book. I chose nine possible actors for a new stage version of the book. In groups, students had to decide on which actor was the best for the role.  During the process, the groups worked out how the character is presented in the book.  Obviously, some girls talk about how fit one or two are, but after a while there were some clever discussions taking place. The group I did this with felt that the character for Arthur shouldn’t be geeky, naïve, too young and too attractive. Then, we explored further why we had these ideas.

As there is so much description in Hill’s writing, I think that the dialogue is easily ignored or neglected by students.  Therefore, I got students to write down bits of the dialogue and act these out. It helped them to see what was going on in the dialogue and see the language of the dialogue under a microscope.

A sequel

What would the class do with a sequel of the book? As I was planning this question with students, news came to me of a real sequel.

Miss Havisham is ‘the woman in white’.  Yes, there is the novel 'The Woman in White', but there is a clear nod to good old Miss Havisham. Students compared how the woman in black is presented in the book with the first description of Miss Havisham. It makes for lots of shocking discovery. The students felt that Miss Havisham was the woman in black. It wasn’t just inspired by Dickens; they thought it was copied from Dickens.   In fact, some words seem to have been lifted.

Scooby Doo
This started as a ‘thunk’ but turned into something else. I started showing the class a picture of the Scooby Doo gang and asked them how it related to the story. To cut a long story short, the gang became different aspects of Arthur Kipps’ personality. Each character represented a part of his personality and the students could even identify when Arthur went all Fred, or when he went all Daphne.  Freud eat your heart out. Why have the id, ego and superego when you have Fred, Daphne, Shaggy, Scooby Doo  and Wilma.

And in walks Susan Hill
I had a colleague several years who used to do this all the time. She would spend a bit of a lesson in role as a character. Years later, I always felt squeamish at the thought of pretending to be someone else in a lesson. This week I tried it and I was amazed at how successful it was. Students who usually remain quiet were scrambling to ask me, or Susan Hill, a question. We did laugh a few times, as I was given a few questions relating to my gender. As a woman, how do you think the novel would be different if it was written by man? Cue me fanning myself with a piece of paper and muttering the following in a style of Emily Howard in ‘Little Britain’, “As a lady, I think…”.  I didn’t really put a silly voice on or fan myself - honestly.

And finally…
I am surprised that there hasn’t yet been a fancy dress costume for the woman in black. It is a missed opportunity for Halloween. There is a bit of an appeal of dressing up in the aforementioned costume and hanging around churchyards hiding behind a gravestone. As soon as someone turns their back, pop out and stand there. As soon as they turn away, hide again.  Some frivolous japes.

Strangely, on Twitter 'David Walliams News' has started following me. I think I am starting to see why. First, pretending to be Susan Hill in a lesson. Second, suggesting that I dress up as the woman in black would be a fun thing.

Thanks for reading and thanks to @Gwenelope for your usual help,

P.S. I will add more to this list as people mention them.




Saturday, 9 February 2013

Gove’s hatred of Postmodern Literature

Getting Gove’s new English curriculum this week was like getting a reading list from university. I used to love getting the university’s reading lists. It often meant I had to search out obscure plays, novels and books on acting in tiny book shops hidden in dark Dickensian alleys. I remember getting ‘Shakespeare’s History Plays’ as one title and ‘Renaissance Verse’ as another. Having them in my bedroom, made me feel clever and witty.  However, my younger self couldn’t believe that these books could ever be interesting or have any staying power. They are still on my book shelf and occasionally they get used.

Gove’s new list is exactly like that. Two Shakespeare plays. Romantic poetry. Nineteenth century novel. The list is just what I want to read and study. Shakespeare – great! Love the Romantics. Dickens – such fun! But, is this a curriculum for a modern age? Is this a curriculum for developing reading? Is this a curriculum aimed at creating a love of reading? Do we really want our students writing like Dickens all the time?  I read Macbeth in Year 9, as a student, but that did not spark of interest in his work. In fact, it was only at University that I felt a passion stirring for good old Billy Shakespeare. The rest of the time I was indifferent. Is this new curriculum going to inspire/ create  a literate nation where adults freely read Shakespeare in their free time? Is it really going to raise standards?

Yes, the new curriculum is very academic. It is meaty. It is full of complexity, richness, and (to be honest) bloat and waffle. It is clearly focused on literature and not on language.  When looking at the new changes, two questions spring to mind when I look at the new curriculum:

How will these be assessed?

How will we fit these in and teach them well?

The problem with the announcements this week is that we know what we will have to teach, but we don’t know how it will be assessed. A perfect way to stop us teaching towards the exam. However, we need some idea of what we are teaching towards. What is the goal? What is the end point? It is like having a race, but not knowing the distance you are running. Oh, and of course, we have to have this in place for September.   

In fact, I was starting to like the new AQA specifications (still not happy with them over the GCSE fiasco), before all of these changes. Aside from the controlled conditions elements, there was a lot of interesting stuff. Complex and challenging stuff. In principle, it was very academic. It was stuff that I have taught at A-level. Often, the argument has been that GCSEs do not prepare students for A-levels and that there is too much dumbing down and spoon-feeding of knowledge. However, the new AQA specifications are academic. Compare one Shakespeare play with another or a novel. Write a linguistic analysis of a conversation in a particular workplace. Both tasks are things I have set and marked as an A-level teacher.  The issue lies in the texts.  

The use of modern texts ‘seems’ to be a sign of dumbing down. Not a sign of making subjects relevant to our students. Let’s insist on another Shakespeare play. That isn’t dumbing down.  Let’s pile on more Shakespeare. Really the issue lies, Mr Gove, in what is done with the text. More is not always best. I teach Shakespeare in varied and interesting ways, but reading a play from start to finish is like dragging someone over hot coals. It is painful. My wife, sadly, barely stays awake in most of the Shakespeare plays I drag her to. She manages to fall asleep at the most dramatic and spectacular bits. Cue snoring while Hamlet lies dying and Juliet wakes up to find Romeo dead. It is too alien for her and others like her. She is a bright and intelligent woman, yet she finds the language convoluted. I have tried my best, but she has a point. Does reading Shakespeare make me intelligent? Does it make me ‘academic’? It makes me part of an elitist group of people:  yes, I am one of those few people that sit in RSC theatres and titter when I hear a witty pun or play on words, but does it really make a good measuring stick for intelligence?

Shakespeare can be the English teacher’s answer to ‘The Da Vinci Code’. Come on class. Work out what this character is saying. What clues are there? How has the writer encoded the anger in the line? The usual response is based on guesses and a sea of bemused faces.  Most English teachers know that you select key scenes and work closely with those. You unpeel the layers and work things out together. It can work, but sometimes it makes academia seem like alchemy.

Let me make myself clear: I do not want Shakespeare removed from the curriculum. It teaches students a lot about life, history, drama and language use. But, I don’t think we should have more of it, when we could have been teaching another book. I want students to write more like some contemporary writers (probably not Will Self as his recent book has no paragraphs in it at all) and less like Shakespeare. I was quite hopeful when I heard Gove’s speech on the importance of reading. I want more reading in English. I want to read more than one novel a year with a class and the new curriculum suggests that this is the drive, but they have created another problem. The problem we face is that now we have less chance of them reading more, because of the need to fit more of these academic tomes of literature into lessons. I want students to improve spelling , grammar and accuracy, yet the texts we give them have dated spelling rules (Shakespeare) and convoluted and obscure grammar structures (Shakespeare and Victorian novelists). Students will learn better if we gave them suitable material that they can emulate copy or even steal. I’d rather they wrote like Will Self, but with paragraphs, and less like Shakespeare. A great English teacher will always link lessons to the large canon of literature and to the great writers, but we put modern writers in the window to entice customers into our shop.

Right, I am just off to plan my Year 9s lessons. We are just working on a topic bridging GCSE and KS3. We are reading ‘Middlemarch’. We felt it would help prepare them to read ‘War and Peace’ in Year 10.
Thanks for reading, 

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Slow Writing Part 2: Being Consistent (Literacy Across the Curriculum)

The Death Star edges its way across space. Moving closer to the planet....

Previously, I had discussed in a post how I wanted to make students aware of ‘choices’ in my plan for 'Literacy across the Curriculum'. Little did I know how much this would affect my teaching.  I am quite surprised with how I have never really been that explicit with 'making choices' in lesson. Yes, on a simple level, I have focused on which words are better than another set of words. Yes, I have taught the features of a text. However, I have never explicitly used the word ‘choices’ or even discussed the choices they could make. It has always been: “What do you notice about how this text is written?” Here are two examples from this week’s lessons:


I vs. he / she

thoughts / feelings / what happened  vs. what happened

facts vs. opinions

very descriptive vs. states what happened

The Woman in Black

 Susan vs. Susan Hill
audience vs. reader
I think vs. The reader thinks
'the woman in black' vs.  'The Woman in Black'

Now, as a resource, these are not mind-blowing. They are not even sophisticated. But, what they did (this week) was stimulate intelligent discussions about the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of writing. At the end of the discussion, we had a list of features, aspects of writing or choices that the students could use in their writing. There was less of that ‘just do it because I tell you to’ and more of the ‘why should I write like this’. Again, it is my attempt to subtly enforce the rules of writing. It is my attempt to slow the writing down in lessons. Ultimately, I want students to think for themselves. I don’t want them to repeat things parrot fashion. The best writing, for me, is when a student writes something in a new and original way.  We have all experienced a class using a word again and again, because you enthusiastically praised one student three weeks ago for using it.

Anyway, back to my adventures in Literacy. The date is Thursday 7th February 2012 and we are still writing the date in full. Personally, I feel that has been quite successful. I asked a TA today if the noticed anything different and they informed me that everyone had been writing the date in full. Great – success. In time, we will see the benefits of this, hopefully. Sadly, with Literacy you don’t see quick results. It isn’t something that is going to change results over night, but the culture of Literacy will be the one that improves results. The culture of improvement. The culture of writing. The culture of reading. The culture of wanting to be better. That is where Literacy comes in. Students want to improve. There are very few that I have come across that don’t want to. They often mask it with poor behaviour or a negative attitude. Everyone everywhere wants to be a little bit better – even me. Literacy is where students can make those improvements. If they improve their reading and writing overall, it will benefit every subject, and not just English.

One of my steps to improve Literacy in the school is to spell out some key messages I want all teachers to adopt. These are:






I have been in teaching long enough to see many new initiatives introduced into schools. The overall problem, I find, with them is that it is either all or nothing. People either go mad and put the initiative in every lesson and every assessment, or, they struggle to apply the initiative to lessons and therefore don’t try. I thought that if we applied these notions above to our focus on Literacy, we will have a workable approach.  Therefore, we will able to be consistent with the teaching of Literacy aspects. We will embed them into our lessons and work schemes. We will work to foster the habits of good writing. We will make links to other curriculum areas and build on the existing knowledge that students have. We will be explicit about Literacy in lessons.

One area that I have tried to focus on is consistency. Therefore, I have made several PowerPoints  to build a consistent approach to types of writing or purposes.




All staff has access to these resources. They are still in their infancy, but it is amazing what you can do with some hyperlinks. If you haven’t discovered them, do. They make some exciting PowerPoints. Very interactive. If a teacher is asking students to write a newspaper story, the teacher can use this resource and make sure they are using the same features as another teacher in a different classroom.

One of my main concerns is the messages we give out to students.  What is the message our school tells our students about writing? Is it a message about crafting good writing? Or, is it – quick because I have lots of information to cram in? Are we giving them skills for life? Or, are we simply jumping through hoops? Possibly, like most schools, we give out mixed messages. We just need to work on being harmonious. Therefore, one of the things I have brought in is a weekly focus on Literacy. Each week staff try to build an element of Literacy into their lessons.

Our school is not original with this approach, but I do think it has been a big factor in the consistency of Literacy in our school.  Each week I try to select something that teachers can build into their lessons easily. One week it has been a particular sentence structure. Another week it has been a focus on using the correct their/ there or they’re in writing. It has been beneficial for staff because it is about ‘short and intelligent’ approaches to using Literacy in lessons. This drip feeding of ideas, I think, helps with building opportunities into lessons. I have sat through numerous CPD sessions thinking, “How can I fit all of this in?”.  Staff, on a weekly basis, are trying to build Literacy things into lessons. Some work. Some don’t. However, there is less of that ‘crowbarring’ of something for the sake of it. We have all, at some stage, been guilty of crowbarring something into a lesson, as we have been instructed to. At the moment, this weekly approach is becoming a habit. Hopefully, when the tiny patter of Ofsted feet come this way, staff will feel confident enough to show them what they can do. They may recall one of the previous focuses, or they may even feel confident to do something new. Either way, they will feel confident.

What is the Literacy focus for next week? Grammar bingo! Staff are going to mark down every time they correct a student’s speech.

Thanks for reading,  


Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Autobiographies - Grammar Detectives

Another quick resource. My Year 8s are currently writing an extract from their autobiographies. During the preparation of these autobiographies, I turned the class into thieves. Grammar thieves. We looked at a number of autobiographies and copied out some sentence constructions which we thought would be good to use in their writing. I have found that these constructions have transformed their writing. 


By now I had ….
I have to …
From the time I …. , I have …
I knew … , but I still …
I would do anything to …
But by far…
For years after that …
By this time, I …
Little did I know …
Two weeks later, I …
That’s not to say that …
Eventually, I decided to …
Take my ….
When the … and the … had begun, I ….
For a reason I could never properly understand, ….
After it all…
After years of …
Soon afterwards
In the following …., I learnt …
A year later, …
At the time, …
Ever since I was a child, I…
But there was nothing I could do…
Shortly after,…
In fact, to be brutally honest…
It is strange that …
By the time this happened, I …
That evening, I …
People would …. but so and so would ….
To accomplish this, …
Then of course I …
Now, after year of waiting, ….
Towards ….. , the …… happened…

Speaking and Listening Record Sheet

I thought I'd share my resource for marking down speaking and listening results. The moderator seemed to like it when she paid us a visit.



GCSE Speaking and Listening Assessment Sheet 2012


Discussing and Listening
Role Playing
ÿ        Uses appropriate language
ÿ        Talk adapted for audience
ÿ        Talk adapted for different audiences
ÿ        Non-verbal techniques used
ÿ        Coveys information clearly
ÿ        Communicates complex and challenging information
ÿ       Talk has shape and structure
ÿ        Reflects on other’s ideas
ÿ        Challenges other’s ideas
ÿ        Engages with other’s ideas
ÿ        Develops ideas
ÿ        Expresses own point of view
ÿ        Makes a significant discussion
ÿ        Helps to structure conversation
ÿ        Creates a convincing character
ÿ        Creates a stereotypical character
ÿ        Reacts in a sensitive way
ÿ        Reacts in an obvious way
ÿ        Explores complex ideas
ÿ        Uses non-verbal techniques
ÿ       Shows understanding of a character
DVD – This student is most like
ÿ        Frederick (13)
ÿ        Mary-Jane (11)
ÿ        Zsofia (11)
ÿ        Melissa (9)
ÿ        Harry (6)
ÿ        Dann (3)
DVD – This student is most like
ÿ        Georgie (9)
ÿ        Lily (9)
ÿ        Hannah (8)
ÿ        Fraser (7)
ÿ        Sophie (7)
ÿ        Christina (6)
ÿ        Ginny (6)
ÿ        Colby (5)
ÿ        Richard (5)
DVD – This student is most like
ÿ        Frederick (14)
ÿ        Mary-Jane (12)
ÿ        Alvina (8)
ÿ        Tessa (7)