Saturday, 13 July 2013

Sweating with style

There are two things in life I don’t understand. One: why schools don’t have air-conditioning? Two: why is it that English males insist on taking their t-shirts/shirts off if there is a mere glow of sunshine? The first thing is obvious: it is about cost. Timothy must eat healthily. Timothy must exercise lots. Timothy must have personalised learning. Timothy must have lots of support. What – give Timothy a comfortable environment to work in? No. No. No.  Mothers and fathers work in cool, air-conditioned offices, while their children work in the equivalent of a foundry. I took one class to read outside this week, as the heat rocketed and melted the crayons in the boxes in my classroom. Thankfully, my school is great and I work with people who understand these things; yet, I have worked in places where you have to K.B.O., or leave. It is all about cost at the end of the day, but I have sweated and sweated so much this week that I think students have wondered that the sweat patches on my shirt are a design made by shirt maker.  And, I didn’t resort to the second thing and take off my shirt, which I cannot fathom why people do. You could have the largest beer gut in the world, but there seems to be something coded in the English DNA that as soon as the clouds part, men take their shirts off and parade as if sunny Nottinghamshire is the hot Caribbean.
As I was perspiring my way through a lesson, I had a flashback to an incident that happened several years ago. It was one of those things that happened and left me stunned:

I was in a classroom made up of one hundred breezeblocks and a postage stamp of a window. The class were all sat in rows, melting as the July heat exuded from the walls. We had been working through some poetry and I was sat on a desk, reciting some lines of worthy verse. As the students were visibly wilting before my eyes, I left the door open, so that if any particles of air were floating in the corridor they might try to pop into our room, and reduce the temperature. The students were passive, but I understood, given the circumstances. Then, one student raised their head up like a sunflower in a row of withered weeds. The student’s eyes widened. My head turned and then it hit me. Water exploded across my back. Stunned, shocked and cooled, I froze in panic. I saw that a stranger was in the doorway, but I also saw that he had another water bomb. Like the Sixty Million Dollar Man, everything went slow-motion at this point. I moved to apprehend the water throwing yob, but he had released the educational grenade. My body flew through the air. If I was lucky, I would stop the bomb in time, sacrificing my dignity so that the students could be protected.

I failed.

The bomb circled over and over in the air as it made its way into the heart of the room. It flew over my head and carried on its destructive path. Did it hit the lad who was always making fun of me in lessons? Did it hit the student who never did as I told him to? Did it hit the student who thought he was the toughest in the class? No. It hit the sweetest student in the world. The student that had never seen a water bomb in her life. Nor even bought one. It exploded over the student who had worked so hard for me over the year. Her lovely workbook was a soggy pile of mush and her face was almost as shocked as mine.

Then, one clever lad shouts out to me, the soaked teacher, and the drowned student: “I bet it’s pee.” He was trying to goad me. He knew that the teacher had been humiliated in style and he wanted to add salt to the wounds. To which, I smelt my sodden shirt, and said: “Well, it is nice smelling pee, if it is pee’.    
The assailant ran off and my head teacher promised that it would never happen again. But, on a hot, scorching week like this one, I wish I had a water bomb chucked at me, just for a few seconds of coolness.  Anyway, I want to talk about style this week. My response to a comment about a water bomb being filled with wee lacked the style of James Bond. I don’t have the witty comments to throw back at people. I usually think of something clever to say a week later.

This week I have done something about style with Year 10s. Style is always an interesting thing. It is that next stage in analysis after the spotting of things. It is the looking for patterns in writing. In the past, I have always adopted the draconian approach of telling students what makes a writer’s style interesting. I have tried to get them to see style, but it always seems as if style is like a big chasm. They can spot interesting things, but a very, very, very large rope is needed, if they are to get across the Grand Canyon of thought and talk about the style.

I have also done interesting things, like comparing extracts between books, and playing spot the difference. I have even talked about clothes and how clothing and writing links to style. We wear roughly the same kinds of clothes, yet the clothes we wear are different colours, textures, sizes and styles; this is like writing. A writer dresses their writing according to their preference.  But, it is very hard to equate this to writing. Or, for students to get this notion independently. In reality, we are talking about patterns and spotting them. However, my years of reading and teaching means that I am attuned to this way of thinking. Your average student in the class is barely getting the plot and the characters, yet the teacher is expecting them to now approach the story like a ‘magic-eye’ picture. Like a magic-eye picture, you need to see the whole thing to get it, and often in English, we don’t always have the time to see the whole picture. I can spot Dickens’ style of writing, because my view of the picture is large. The students that come to our classrooms only see one corner of a picture. They don’t see the whole picture, but we expect them to.

This week I tried something that partly addresses this question about style. I don’t think for a second I have solved it, but in a sweltering classroom, I felt some students grasped the subtly of a writer’s style. At the moment with my Year 10s, I am teaching ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ by R. L. Stevenson and I am loving it. We are close to the end of the story now and I decided that I wanted to explore the style of the writing a bit more. We had already analysed a few extracts and made several pages of notes. Therefore, I wanted to talk about style, but what I didn’t want to do is tell the students what were the features of Stevenson’s writing style; I wanted them to find it out for themselves.  

I started by revealing this slide one line at a time. I told the students that one column described Steinbeck’s style of writing in ‘Of Mice and Men’ and the other column described Susan Hill’s writing style in ‘The Woman in Black’. They had to guess which is which. I made it harder for them by having quite a few similar.

After revealing the real answer to the enigma, the students then discussed if there were other things I could add to the lists.

BINGO! Finally, we played style bingo. I produced an A3 sheet of possible features of a writer’s style. It was double sided and included techniques, plot ideas, themes, imagery and other things. Hidden amongst them were some stylistic features of Stevenson’s writing. I then gave the class a blank bingo grid to fill in with some of the features. What was great was that to get a chance of winning they had to use the prior knowledge and some prediction at the same time.

Then, we read a chapter and as we were reading they ticked off the features as the spotted them in the writing, but instead of a tick they had to write the page number and a brief quote. For me, this worked as it meant that students were reading with a purpose, but they could also see that these elements of style are woven in the text and not just in the bits that I have printed out for them; the writer dresses their writing all the time and not when it suits them.  

One student on their grid wrote the following:

·         Exaggeration

·         Use of size

·         Dialogue

·         Use of setting

·         Contrasts

·         Lists

·         Personification

·         Slow pace

·         Violent descriptions

·         Use of the weather

I have talked about technique vomiting in the past (if you are not sure what I mean, then read this blog) and this, I feel, took this idea of spotting things to another level. To be honest, I still need to refine how I use this in the lesson, as I could have reinforced the writer’s style  more, and I will do this next week. However, it did step things up a bit. The students were deciding what the patterns were and they were looking for them, which I think is some clever stuff.  They will also be able to link the use of one writing choice with another made by the writer somewhere else in the text – that for me is much better, as it shows that the student has an understanding of the text as a whole thing, rather than isolated extracts and feature spotting.  


Talking of style, I am off to invent the armpitless long sleeved shirt. I think it will catch on. Yes, I know, what you are thinking – why doesn’t he wear a short sleeved shirt? Well, I am sorry but ties and short sleeved shirts do not mix; it’s just not my style. Tell you what: let’s make that three things I don’t understand about the world.  

1)      Schools that are not air-conditioned

2)      English men taking their shirts off

3)      Short sleeved shirts with a tie

Thanks for reading,


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