Before I talk about the developments with my 'writing to persuade' project, I want to digress. I am a fairly young man, but I have accepted that I am getting older. Part of the ageing process, for me, has been not keeping up to date with the latest songs. I dip in and out, but I have accepted that I will never really be that cool teacher who listens to the cool songs and bands; hey, that’s life - you have to accept it. I do, however, know that some singers like Nicki Minaj have songs that would make the cast of a ‘Carry on’ film blush. Recently, I heard a song used, accidentally, in school and I didn’t have the heart to explain the real meaning of some of the lyrics afterwards to the member of staff involved. I told said member of staff: "Never allow a Nicki Minaj song to be played in school." Anyway, one of my daughters came home from school singing some rap song about shooting some caps… No, only joking! No, they both started singing this strange song. The only bit we could work out was the following line: “I’m slugsy and I know it.” We were both bemused. They couldn’t tell us where it was from or give us anymore of the lyrics; my daughters have clearly inherited my inability to recall any lyrics from a song, unless it is part of the chorus. In our naivety, we thought it was a simple thing about slugs, or we thought it might be strange twin thing. If the Brontёs can invent their own language, then maybe my daughters can. Maybe, I was seeing the start of a career in literature. It turns out that they were singing; “I’m sexy and I know it.” Thankfully, they don’t know the word ‘sexy’ and so they decide to use their own equivalent, slugsy. There followed a fun game by my wife and I replacing every song with the word sexy in it with the word ‘slugsy’. I’m too slugsy for my body. Let’s talk about slugsy. Slugsy healing.
Where did this all begin? Sexy sprouts. Well, when I wrote the first blog, I was just sounding out my ideas. I thought if I articulated it in the blog, then it might make sense. And, it did to some people. This week, the students have been writing up their persuasive leaflets and, wow, what a difference it has made to their writing. There has, in my opinion, been a big difference between the writing they are doing now and the sorts of writing I have seen in the past. If I am being honest, I think I can describe old persuasive writing in Year 8 as being beige with a few techniques here and there. Some pieces of work stood out from the rest; others did not. What I notice now is that the writing is crafted, whereas before it was average writing with a few showy things added to it. To be honest, I think that is a lot of English teachers’ approach to things. We try to craft. We try to guide. However, we end up with an average piece of work with few gems in it. The A grade students tend to be the students that craft texts naturally. The other grades always try to emulate the A grades, but the missing ingredient is the thought behind the shaping and moulding of ideas. Gosh, I am guilty of this too. Come on, John, squeeze a semi-colon in and the Examiner might think you are a B or an A. It has always been about what you can add and not really about what you can do with the writing. Effective writing is effective because it affects the reader. A rhetorical question is meaningless unless its effect is considered.
For me, the teaching of English is now about teaching the effect and the writing in tandem together. If I am writing, I am thinking about the effect created. If I am reading, I am thinking about the cause of the effect. This is how I am focusing on things now. I am actively working on building and strengthening those connections. Currently, I am teaching ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and I have asked students to write a description of the famous transformation. We are exploring the use of horror and shock in their writing. I have explicitly asked them to shock the reader. We will later explore the devices they have used and relate to Stevenson. Hopefully, by doing this, students see the novella as a writer and realise why he didn’t make the choices he made. It may even open the discussion of horror and how horrific you can be with a Victorian audience. Reading and writing are complexly linked, but for years, I had tended to keep them at arm’s length. I focused on them separately and now I am looking at clever ways to combine them, so that one area informs the other.
So what did my Scheme of Work on persuasive writing look like? Simple, really - I followed this structure.
2:Sexy / Desirable3:Sympathy
I am just going to give you a quick overview to give you an idea of how things went. But, I need to make clear that I binned a lot of my resources that I had always used previously. Below is a rough outline. I have also included some examples by students for you to get an idea of the writing produced in the lessons.
Step 1 – Disgust
Pure evil. The worst vegetable in the world. A soggy, watery parcel of smelly green goo. It is as if the worst of every meal is scooped into one place and boiled down into one small little ball. Eating them is like eating sick that has been left out overnight and has little bits of peas floating around in it.
Before I started the whole unit, I gave students a series of persuasive texts to categorise. Without telling them the groups, students tried to group the texts. Eventually, we arrived at the effect of the texts. The boys preferred to talk about techniques, while the girls spotted the emotion dimension to the texts. Then, I introduced the text above and asked students to identify how the writing made the reader feel disgust. Their response was brilliant. Lots of ‘the writer uses … to make us feel this’.
Step 2 – Sexy / DesirableBrussel sprouts handpicked by Scottish farmers. All washed in fresh, crystal clear bottled water. All the way from the waterfalls in the Scottish Isles. Feel the sensation as you bite slowly into the crispy, crunchy leaves of this round succulent wonder of the earth. These sprouts will lighten up any occasion. Be sure to indulge yourself on these green parcels of delight and joy.
As the students had a strong grasp of writing to create disgust in the reader, I asked them to turn it into the opposite. Make disgusting seem sexy. The writing they produced was effective and it was effective, naturally, as the students had the awareness already. I have always spent time teaching students about using certain techniques, when they used them automatically here. Why did I bother all those years with teaching techniques, when a lot of this comes naturally to students?
We looked at their examples and spotted the ways they used language for effect. Furthermore, we look at the lovely M&S food adverts and explored how they used language for effect. And, for a bit of speaking and listening, they had a go at narrating their own chocolate adverts. Cue lots of Year 8s speaking slowly and trying to speak in a deep voice.
Step 3 – Sympathy
How would you feel if you were walked past in the supermarket every day, with no one even thinking about buying you? Well, this is how Barbara and her family feel. They grew up dreaming of the open air, but when they finally got there, they were ripped and torn from their homes and were shoved in a tight, uncomfortable plastic box and stacked on shelves where nobody looks. Forgotten and unloved, Barbara waits.
A lot of my approach with writing for effect has revolved around the students writing a paragraph first and then looking at the features. This, for effect, works particularly well, as I ended up with thirty examples quickly and I could spot and share with the class the really effective examples. It made it easier to see what was and what wasn’t effective. Students were able to compare and identify what they had to do better. If I focused on teaching techniques, then students would be comparing a technique, which doesn’t make for great evaluations. Comparing one technique with another one leads to simple comments like: "I need to make my metaphors better." That isn’t too helpful.
After we had identified some of the approaches a writer could use to create sympathy, we then looked at a whole text. In this case, we looked at a charity letter from the RSPCA and we explored the different ways sympathy was created in the text. Additionally, we looked at how the sympathy changed over the text. It allowed us to explore questions like: Why doesn’t the writer write in a sympathetic all the time?
Step 4 – ShockAt 6 months old, they are ripped from the safety of their family and thrown into boiling water. Their skin melts and their leaves burn away from their body. Slowly, they suffer in pain as they die in the skin-blistering water. It takes 2 minutes for a sprout to die in boiling water. If they are lucky, they are chopped or mashed beforehand. The majority are not so lucky and they face this agonising death.
I am glad that I looked at this after sympathy as some students told me it was the same thing. Thankfully, one or two students were able to make a convincing case why they are not the same thing. To support this, we looked at some anti-smoking posters. All designed to shock. This created a great exploration into how you can make shocking writing. It was harder for them than they originally thought it would be. We had the blunt and emotionless efforts and then we had the explicit and violent efforts; all with the emphasis on sprouts.
In fact, a lovely moment happened after this lesson: a student returned from an assembly about poverty to tell me, with a lot enthusiasm, when the speaker was using sympathy and when he was using shock in his talk. The penny had well and truly dropped for one lad.
Step 5 – InterestNow, these sprouts are limited edition. One of a kind. They come in several shades of green. Select the best one for your meal. A light green for a light, healthy meal and a dark shade of green for a decadent, rich meal. They are so versatile. From cooking to eating, there’s so much you can do with these limited edition sprouts, which have been genetically engineered to be even tastier than the average sprout. But, stocks are limited, so if you want to experience something new, experience something different, experience something original, then pick up a bag now. Only £5 for a bag this special treat for a love one, a friend, or even to treat yourself.
I know what you are thinking: he is really scraping the barrel now. But, I think it is a genuine effect that we should teach. Most of the effects here are quite concrete and you can provide lots of examples, but I feel that writing to interest a reader is still quite a tricky thing to do. This is where I switched on QVC - The channel of constant excitement and interest in the smallest of things. After 5 minutes of watching the channel, which you can stream live to your classroom, we had the general sales patter down to a fine art. We then tried selling the most random of things in the classroom. One student tried selling a single glove. Another tried selling a broken umbrella. I felt left out so one student and I tried to sell another student to our imaginary audience. Only his best friend wanted to buy him in the end.
The EndFinally, I told the students to plan their own charity leaflet. This time I told them that they had to include a paragraph of each of the different effects. They could do it in any order, but they must have one paragraph that makes the reader feel the following:
1:Disgust2:Sexy / Desirable
During the writing and planning, I heard lots of interesting conversations. However, they were ‘writer-like’ conversations.
· I am going to start with sympathy first.
· I have mixed two effects together, because I think it is more effective.
· I am going to start and end with shock.
· I will use some facts to make it shocking.
· What name would you give a kind snake?
· I am going to use a before and after thing so I can be more effective with my shock writing.
· I think I will make the people attacking the animals my disgust paragraph.
When I think of the writing before, the students were always concerned with remembering to use a technique. In my experiments, I have found this emphasis on effect really meaningful, as it is the glue that ties things up in writing. Yes, they are persuading, but now there is a greater sense of cohesion between what they are saying and how are they saying things. All the comments made were comments that show students shaping and moulding a text to be effective and detailed. I hear the bells of A grade students ringing. This is what I should be doing more often in lessons.
Where next? I think I might try this approach with story writing and see if students can write to different effects. See, creative writing suffers with the same thing: the blanket approach to effect. Stories are either scary or dramatic. How can I change the moods in a text? Next step: helping students to change the mood in their creative writing.
I would like to thank that Year 8 class. They have been brilliant. They ran with this idea and they helped fuelled my passion for this idea and they helped me see it through.
Thanks for reading,
P.S. The title of this blog should now be called 'Bringing Slugsy Back'.