Saturday, 11 May 2013

Lists, acronyms and MOTOWN

Teaching is a constant sea of acronyms: “Remember to use AFOREST when writing and ARTWARS when looking at poems, and always check your SPaG. And, don’t forget to PEE, PEER or PEEL”.  Basically, these acronyms are lists in a short-hand form. I live by lists. Each day in my diary is a list of things to do, or try to do. I have a list of things to do this term. I have a list of things I need. I have a list of things I need to remember when Ofsted pay a visit. I have a list of things for virtually everything in teaching. Students who are on target. Students who are not on target. Students who have brought a permission slip. Students who have paid. Students who have not brought their homework. Students who are gifted. Students who are on pupil premium. Therefore, I feel a little sad that I am not challenging or changing this reductive process with students; I am spreading these lists on to them. I give them lists to revise. I give them lists of things to write. I give them lists of things to include in their writing. In fact, I need to write a list of the lists they have to remember in the exam.

I am a man and my childhood revolved around lists. I used to have a little book that listed all the Doctor Who books I had read and all the programmes I had watched. Furthermore, I would collect Doctor Who memorabilia and tick them off a big list. It seems ‘lists’ were ingrained in my genetic make-up.  Lists were my way of making sense of a chaotic world. As a teenager, everything was changing and unpredictable; at least, I have my little book of lists to combat this sea of change – my little book doesn’t change, even when my voice changes. Even as an adult, I have a little book for lists: a list of the books I have read. But, at the moment, I am getting a little fed up of lists. Why? Because writing cannot be reduced to a simple list of a few components.

The KS2 SATs are the epitome of this ‘component’ or ‘feature-led’ writing. I have taught Year 7s for several years and each year I have always been faced with that awkward comparison between Year 6 and Year 7 levels. I have stared blankly at a piece of paper like a magic eye picture, thinking how did this student achieve a level 5. I have also had the awkward conversation explaining to parent how things were assessed ‘a little’ differently in KS3 and that is why their child isn’t getting the same levels they did in Year 6.  Recently, I had a Year7 class produce a piece of creative writing as their first piece of assessment. It was incredible to see what they did. In fact, they virtually all had the same features and the same techniques. It was like they had the same list in their head. The same sentence openings. The same words. It was the equivalent of ‘beige’ writing. They were writing some good things and it just lacked that something special: creativity.

Primary teachers have the hardest of all jobs in education. I know as I am married to one. I don’t blame them at all for this problem. For me, it always about the system. The system is the problem. There will always be a problem if writing is assessed on features and components. If it means you get a higher level, put a semi colon in it.  The SATs preparation process became a set of constant revisions of texts to include specific features. Students would write endless versions of texts and each time have a tick list checking what techniques to include. They would have to remember those key words and phrases like VOCAP, WOW words and Punctuation Pyramid.  It seemed that writing had everything apart from a …soul.

I don’t think there was ‘soulless’ writing going on these classes. There probably wasn’t, but I think the end result was a ‘soulless’ style of writing. It was writing for the examiner, and, boy is that examiner dull. This week, I have started telling students to show me how intelligent they are through their writing. They have been practising writing some responses for the poetry comparison exam. I didn’t give them a checklist, but I said I wanted them to ‘think’.  I wanted them to show me how clever they were/are and it has produced some great results. They were proving their worth, rather than regurgitate a list of things I told them to do. In the past, I have given out lists and cried when I have seen students try to crowbar something in, because it was on the list of things I gave them. Endless sentences of ‘the writer used rhythm to make it sound good’ or ‘the poem is structured so it shows that there is a structure’. Writing is about choices. Making the right choices is important. I’d rather have a student decide on whether something is appropriate, rather than put it in because in one lesson the teacher had a funny acronym that was quick and easy to remember. A rhetorical question is great, but in the right place. Isn’t it? Writing isn’t about putting everything in and hoping that it is effective. Writing is about picking the best tool for the job. A simile in the wrong place can change the whole tone of a piece of work like an unwanted turd on a freshly cut lawn.

Recently, I had a go at having some more soulful writing in lessons. I asked my Year 7 class to write a blog entry about some 'One Direction' news. They could make up the news, but it had to be interesting. They could decide whether they were positive or negative. The result was hilarious as the girls were excited to tell us some gossip about Niall or what ever he is called. The boys, and the occasional girl with taste, responded with these sarcastic news blogs about the band's inability to sing. The group connected and produced some interesting and varied writing, and not a single tick list in sight. For my sins, I'd read a hundred spoof news blogs, than thirty 'beige' pieces of work that have the same features, content and sentence openings, because they had a tick list.  I want them to think and articulate their thoughts effectively. Not produce the same piece as everyone else.

The exam boards agree with me. Numerous reports have said the same as me: avoid formulaic responses to tasks. There are changes afoot and I think these changes are going to stop some of these quick-fix methods. Terminal exams in English will mean that students will have to write well - full stop. I am hoping that the changes in primary schools will help with this; however, I am not too convinced by the grammar and spelling tests next week. Only time will tell if they are good, effective or just simply a PR stunt to show education to be doing something ‘tough’.

Let’s have soul in our writing. Writing that is varied, interesting and communicates ideas intelligently. Writing that is effective because it has been shaped, moulded and crafted to have the greatest impact on the intended audience. Let’s make writing interesting and fun for the writer and not just for the intended reader. Let’s write for an interesting person who will laugh at our jokes and cry at our sad anecdotes. Let’s not write for an examiner who is only looking for a ‘marker’ of Band 4 or Band 5 writing. Let’s grab the reader in the first sentence and show how we are witty, clever people. Let’s have a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T and find out what it means to me and let’s give it to the writing process.

Thanks for reading. I am off to paint my placard: ‘Ban the List – Have Flair like my Hair!’. Sorry, my list told me I had to fit some rhyme into my writing.


P.S. My list for this piece of writing:


A simile                                tick                                                                         like a magic eye picture

Repetition                           tick                                                                         Students who have paid. Students

A rhetorical question      tick                                                                         Isn’t it?

WOW word                        tick                                                                         epitome

Rhyme                                  tick                                                                         Have Flair like my Hair

Extended metaphor       cross


  1. As a fellow teacher of Y7 who happens to have taught the same children as taught by my partner in Y6, believe me I know this story!
    Even now we have Teacher Assessment at KS2 I don't see any imminent change, because primary teachers have been overwhelmed with ticklists in the form of APP and the like. Actually if you go back to the National Curriculum levels, those broad statements seem to do a much better job - but nobody bothers any more!

  2. Oh, yeah, APP - yuk! Hate it. At first I thought it had potential but then realised it reduced the whole English language to a tick list. Good to hear it isn't just me ; )

  3. I'm in the process of deconstructing the list. Provide the lister students write to formula then critically evaluate it removing a tick box that is not needed and remove the crutch