Saturday 29 June 2013

Blogsync 6: Pinging the elastic band of tension

Warning: no students were harmed in the making of this blog. Sadly, the same cannot be said for teachers.

This month’s Blogsync is an interesting one: it is about explanations and, in particular, the best examples of effective explanations used in the classroom. I have found this quite a hard thing to write about, as I do spend most of my time explaining things in the classroom. This experience is a bit of navel gazing: explain a good explanation. Is there one explanation that is better than another? I suppose if I am honest, I use several different methods to explain the same thing. I don’t just rely on one single approach to explain ideas. I should know; I am the father to two 5 year old daughters. Fatherhood, at this stage, is permanently explaining things to children. Why do dinosaurs eat meat? Why do we die? Why do cats poo in our garden? Why do you have a hairy nose? Why is that man over there really fat? Why are we leaving the shop quickly? Why have you got that angry look on your face?

I think, in response to the topic, I am just going to walk through a lesson about explaining tension. As with some parts of English, you enter ‘the clouds’ when you explain some ideas and concepts. Some parts of English are just naming concrete things like a technique. Yet, as soon as we look at things like the effect and the feelings created by a text, we fire our rocket to the stars and start to talk about woolly, ethereal things. We start using abstract nouns and adopt tentative phrases like ‘it could be’ or ‘perhaps they mean that’. It is the part of the lesson where the firm ground disappears and we are flying from one cloud to another. The clouds are indefinable and they constantly change and move and they often become something different.  Of course, this I used to refer as ‘the shades of grey’ aspect of English teaching. There are no clear yes or no answers, only better ways of answering questions. Sadly, ‘shades of grey’ has taken another meaning and now I daren’t mention the phrase unless I want a cacophony of sniggers and a set of awkward questions. The lack of concrete foundations in English is its strength and its weakness. The greyness, or abstract nature, is pure poison to the wannabe scientist or mathematician in the class, but to the creative and artistic child it is pure elixir.  Grammar and techniques give students this concrete foundation for the literal minded. They like the answers , the rules to things and grammar offers that to them. Personally, that’s why I prefer the bringing back of the explicit teaching of grammar. I love the English language, but I know there are students that need something concrete to work with. We had shifted too far to the abstract way of teaching and neglected some of the concrete aspects. Thankfully, we have moved to more concrete aspects in teaching. But, like most things we need a combination of the two. We need a balance.

The Explanation

A large rubber band
A pair of scissors
DVD of Jaws
Extract from the novel of ‘Jaws’
A teacher
A student

I think part of explaining things for me is making things ‘real’ or making things enter a student’s reality. I know I am, in effect, talking about Vygotsky and  his ‘zone of proximal difference’ here, but I feel that is so important when teaching. That is what I think Youtube was invented for - just so a teacher can quickly find a clip to highlight a point or show something as being real. 

Tension in texts is one of those abstract things. It is about the reader and their relationship with a text. Basically, tension is saying how scared you are about things in a text. But, sadly, this doesn’t always equate well when students write. I have read hundreds of essays with students saying things are really tense or that things aren’t tense. Tension just gets lumped with interest. The more tension, the more interesting a story is.  The less tension, the less interesting it is. The explanations from students are simple and might be explained further with a ‘because’ but they are on a losing track when they think tension is either on or off. A graph can help develop this further, but sometimes something else is called for.

Enter the humble elastic band. Make sure it is one of those thick ones. The thicker the better. Cut the band so it is a single strip of elastic. Ask one student to hold one end of the band, while you hold the other. I find it helps to pick a student that hasn’t always been helpful in class. Explain to the student that they have to hold on to the band very tightly. Then, I talk about tension. I ask the class what would happen if the student lets go of the band. The student does and it is not very interesting. This is when it starts gets interesting. I then spend the next 10 minutes playing a hilarious game with the class.

I play around with their expectations. They secretly want the teacher to be pinged by the elastic band so I play up to this. I make the student move away, so the band becomes strained and stretched.  The class love it as they are waiting for the pain to be inflicted. The student holds the power. I create more tension by adopting a ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’ bank of phrases. Are you sure you want to let go now? Sure? You could walk away now and be a happy person… Then, we try to stretch the piece of elastic as far as it will go. (Dear reader, I have never let go. I wouldn’t.) The class are then shouting for the student to let go. One student calls out: ‘He won’t do. Sir’s bluffing’. I then tease them further by moving closer to the student and a move away, again. Finally, with a little nod I indicate to the student that he can let go, when he/she wants to. Ouch!

We then, as a class, explore how tension was created and how we felt when watching the incident. They start to use words like ‘less’ and ‘more’ when describing things, because it is real. The band is a metaphor for the tension and you can see visibly what the result is when tension is increased or reduced. I had a colleague who taught tension with the idea of a toy car. The car would be wound up and then let go. It worked for them, but toy cars are not as cool as elastic bands and inflicting pain on a teacher. I certainly earn respect points by using this method. Finally, we look at a tense moment in text or in Jaws and relate the tension of the rubber band to it.  

When the lesson is finished, my tough manly exterior crumbles as I nurse my throbbing finger.

I do similar things with dramatic irony or suspense; I make them a real experience. I make them a transparent or a shared experience, which we can all comment and discuss. Each reader has a different experience when reading a book, so it is hard to explore tension and our reaction to a text as there are so many shades, perspectives and ideas.

Dramatic irony
This idea is stolen from ‘The Merchant of Venice’. I kick a student out of the classroom. Then, I put three boxes on a table at the front of the classroom. In one box, I put in a chocolate bar and in the other two I put a lunchtime detention or five demerits. The class all know where I have placed each item in the boxes, so when the student is invited to the room, they are hoping he/she gets the punishment. Is that your final answer? Are you really sure?

Three empty boxes with nothing in them. Don’t say what is in or isn’t in the box and get a student to bravely put his hand in each box.

Teaching is about explanations, explaining what the student needs to do, explaining what the student needs to know and explaining a student’s progress. Effective explanations aren’t about dumbing down and using teenspeak. Effective explanations are about reality and making things real.

 Thanks for reading,



  1. I do this as well, but with even cheaper resources by asking if any of the girls are wearing elasticated hair bands. There's always one, and it increases the tension even more, because they think I'm going to snap a child's property. Full concentration achieved!

  2. Brill. I hope Ofsted went well ; )

  3. Love it. I teach drama and I reckon I could use these methods aswell. Cheers.

  4. Fantastic work guys keep the good work like this thanks

    English Learners
    English Grammar Guru


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