Saturday, 18 April 2015

Flexible, bendy creative writing and fixed, rigid newspaper writing

If I am honest, there are some types of texts English teachers are experts on teaching. I’d admit, even though I have taught A-level English Language, my bag of tricks mainly applies to creative writing and essay writing. Teach someone to write a story. Simple. Teach someone to write a blog. Ummm. Errrr. Fancy writing a story instead?

I think half of the problem lies in the idea that there is often a set list of common features for a type of text. I don’t know who invents these lists but they pervade all aspects of English teaching. Here’s a list of features for a blog. Here’s a list of features for newspaper article. Therefore, the starting point for writing texts tend to be spotting the features. I know let’s jazz it up for a change and come up with own list of features. I know, for instance, that in primary schools one approach was, or is, to dissect a text for its features and then create a text using the spotted features.  Spot and write.

If there is a list of common features for text types, why don’t students produce better work? If it is a simple case of using said features, why aren’t students producing some outstanding film reviews, news stories and blogs? It is because there is something else. A story isn’t just a story because it has a setting, plot and characters. It is because there is something else that holds those ingredients together. Some might call it magic. Others might call it glue. But, there is something else. When I am guiding students to write a story, I am always open-ended with my suggestions.  You could use this? You could use that? Yet, with other texts, it is always, ‘You must use this?’ Again, it boils down to this insistence of a set list of features. Is the format of a newspaper article really so rigid? No it isn’t. In fact it is far more complex than we let students know. Look at a newspaper. There are far more differences than similarities between articles. Yes, they are written in columns, but how they are written and structured can vary so much.

We have all been there, writing an exemplar text because we can’t find an example that doesn’t have the key features of the genre.  Because we can’t find an example, we create one to suit this rigid version of the genre. It must that this feature, so I will create an example that has it. I am reminded by the common ‘some / most / all objectives’. Our insistence that texts must have all features of the text undermines the complexity of the original genre. It is the ‘some’ and ‘most’ that we should not concentrate. Look at how people mark and use their lovely tick lists and you see how we are reinforcing this ‘all’ model of a genre. Find me a news article today that has all the features of a newspaper story and I will find you one that doesn’t have any or at least only one or two.

From a primary school perspective, I think it is important for students to have a basic understanding of what makes these texts different from other texts. But, then, I think, secondary schools should then build on this and teach the idea that some and most follow these rules; however, and that’s is a very big-listen-to-this-now-however, not everybody follows the rules and the effect the text is trying to achieve dictates the use of these features and not the genre.

So, how do I go about teaching students to write newspaper articles? Well, here’s a brief overview of something I have recently done with a Year 7 class.

[1] To start off with, I introduced the story thanks to some old footage and an eyewitness account of the infamous account. There are some good bits on Youtube.

Then, I gave students the following example news story.
The Siege of Sidney Street

There was a siege in Sidney Street yesterday as police fought against a gang of criminals. The gang had stolen jewels and were hiding in the house.

The police were informed the gang were hiding in the house so they started firing at it. A policeman died as a result of it.

After the siege, the gang burnt the house down. All the gang were killed as a result of the gunfire or the smoke.

The police will increase the number of policemen on streets to ward off anymore criminal gangs.

 As a class, we agreed that this wasn’t dramatic enough. It wouldn’t, as a tabloid, persuade us to part with our money. Problem some felt was the choice of words.

[2] We then decided to look at the nouns and how we could vary the use of nouns.

gang = thugs, thieves, crooks

police = officers, heroes, defenders

 e explored which noun would be best describe the people watching the event.





       Men and women


[3] Next, we looked at how we could develop the noun phrase.

gang = notorious crooks

police = brave defenders     

 This simple approach produced some effective efforts. The class then rewrote the article making it dramatic. Here’s one example:

Thugs Strike Again

There was disaster on Sidney Street yesterday as the cops battled against a gang of thugs. The crooks had stolen the priciest gems ever. The gang decided they would hide in the house.

The defenders were informed that the thugs were hiding in the building so they started firing at the building. A bobby was lost as result of the incident.

After the disaster the gang of criminals burnt the building down. All the thugs were killed as a result of the painful shots and the horrific smoke. The crowd were devastated and worried as the house burnt into ashes.

As the crowd walked home slowly, the house started tipping and it fell to the ground. Luckily no one was injured as a result of this. The police went into the house afterwards and discovered four of the five members of the game. Mysteriously, one of the gang had disappeared.

The number of bobbies will increase on the streets to frighten the other gang of thugs away.

It was interesting to note that the student used the word ‘bobbies’ and we discussed if it’s choice fitted with the overall tone of the writing. The class agreed it did not.  Then, we explored the additions the student made to make it more dramatic, as, after all, that’s the desire effect of a newspaper article.

He added:

·         Dramatic verbs – battled, devastated

·         A sense of greater danger – the house collapsing

·         Mystery though the disappearance of a body

·         A sense of fear – one of the criminals is loose

It is interesting to note that this improving a skeleton text work so much better with some genres, because the basics are there and when students are improving the writing they are looking at the subtleties of the genre. Get a student to write a news report and it will be a simple narrative.

[4] After highlighting these improvements, we looked at how we suggest things are even worse than they are. Here’s some of the suggestions:

·         Explain there is a disaster but don’t say what it is until the last sentence.

·         Talk about how there is a death. One person suggested the following headline: ‘Death Strikes in a Street’.

·         Hint that there are more criminals and that this is a sign of an increase in crime nationally.

 [5] I discussed with the class how we could use eyewitness accounts. We explored the difference between direct and indirect speech.

Then students added one line of each. One example of direct speech. One example of indirect speech. It had to be very dramatic.

A neighbour said: ‘I feared for my life.’

Officers reported sounds of screams and choking inside the building.

I had to ignore one student’s suggestion of....

One bystander said: ‘Ahhhhhhhhhh!’

[6] Listening to eyewitnesses, we looked at the writer’s view of things.  I gave students the follow set of words. I explained to the class that the following words or phrases help to express the writer’s opinions. What opinion does it help to show?


       Apparently, ….    Allegedly, ….      According to sources, ….

       Luckily…..                             Surprisingly….                    Fortunately….

       Sadly….                 Shockingly….                      Unfortunately….

Students then had a go at adding one of each to their article.

And that, dear readers, is where I got to. Next week, I am going to focus on turning the article into a broadsheet story. We will look at:

·         Making the text formal

·         The use of passive and active sentences

·         Extending sentences to develop ideas

·         Embedding clauses

For me, this developing and building a text has been far more productive when teaching newspapers than a reductive list of generic features. Together, the class and I have been building up the writing from the bottom. Rather than try to do everything at once, we have built the text one brick at a time.  The new curriculum has placed more emphasis on drafting and this approach to teaching text types has certainly helped students. They are using things for purpose rather than following a set list. They will know how each aspect affects the writing, yet they know that they don’t have to use all of them. Only the ones that will work best.

Maybe, we have to rethink our approach to this held view of genres. The new English GCSE builds in the comparison of texts over time, but, maybe from the start of how we teach we insist that some and most follow the rules. We have to actively teach that not everybody does it. Drafting is where we experiment and explore and discover. Are we more likely to draft a story in lessons than a piece of non-fiction because we are more comfortable with shaping and moulding a story and our understanding of newspaper articles is fixed and rigid?  

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 5 April 2015

The day Winnie the Pooh became my hero

I have just returned from a week at Disneyland Paris. A bizarre place of adults dressed in Goofy hats and employees always being happy. Oh, and there are endless queues. Queues that never end. A bit like Alton Towers, but with bigger and longer queues.

One of the things I am impressed with Disney is its attitude towards disability. One of my daughters has Cerebral Palsy. Something, I am quite open and honest about. She is diplegic, so her legs don’t function as do yours or mine. In fact, she can only walk for short periods of time and even then those short bursts of walking are fraught with danger and much destruction as she can’t walk in a straight line. Anyway, Disney helped her by having special access for each ride and allowing her to wait less than others. They even had a dedicated space for her and other disabled children to watch the parades. I cannot fault their attitude. They understood her needs and they helped.

So where is Winnie the Pooh in all of this? Well, one day there was a special parade for Mickey and friends. They drove around in a circle, waving to everyone. My wife, daughters, wheelchair and I waited to see this happen. As usual, the general scrum descended. We made our way to the two metres of a hundred metres strip dedicated to disabled children and waited our turn. A row of characters pranced around before us and talked with the able children and they signed their autograph books and took pictures. We waited and then towards the end some of the characters made it to the allotted space where we were stood.

Princess Jasmine arrived and signed my daughters’s autograph books. Then, Winnie the Pooh appeared on the scene. He was dancing along to the music blaring out of the speakers. He was two metres away signing autographs for children. They were loving it. He was too. We were right at the end of the section allocated for disabled children. A rope separated the two groups of people. One child, pushed on by his mother, was trying to get Winnie’s (I’ll shorten his name for ease) attention. He was pushing and shoving and elbowing his way. Behind him was his mother egging him on. The mother was helping him get under the rope and his was edging his way across to the disabled side near my daughter in her wheelchair. Thrust at the front of him was his autograph book and behind him his mother. We, as family, ignored what was happening. Winnie didn’t. He interacted with everyone apart from the pushing boy.

The boy started to push his autograph into my daughter’s face, covering her from sight. The boy’s mother watching and not doing anything about it; her inaction a sign of her acceptance of this behaviour. My daughter, being her usual self, didn’t mention a thing. More shoving and pushing ensued.  Had my daughter not been in a robust wheelchair, she would clearly have been pushed aside or on to the floor by this action. Everything that my daughter did, the boy pushed himself before her.

Winnie the Pooh then stopped. He made a clear point. He told the boy to go back to the space allocated to abled bodied children – all ninety-eight metres of it. Then, gently Winnie held the boy’s hand, which had been shoved into my daughter’s general area, and pushed him away and said no. Winnie then kneeled down to her level and cuddled her.

This all happened in a short space of time. So, quickly, my wife and I had little time to react or say something, but the whole experience had a bit of a profound experience on me. I am not angry with the boy, or even the mother, but proud and impressed with what one man in a furry suit did. There in that suit was a fantastic human being. I don’t know how much he or she is paid, but I’d like to thank them personally. Someone that dealt with a small injustice in such a brilliant way.

So what is the relevance of this to my teaching? Don’t worry: I haven’t decided to share my holiday memories and photographs. No, I felt this episode reflects what happens daily in the classroom. We all have needs. We all need support. We can all be a little bit selfish. We can all put our needs above others. I am not angry with the parent in this episode; she was focused on her needs so much she didn’t consider the needs of others. I don’t think the mother purposefully lets down the wheels on wheelchairs so that her child can be better than others. I genuinely think she and the boy did not consider how people around them have needs that are different to their own needs.

We, teachers, have to deal with thirty individuals with thirty different sets of needs. Everybody wants the best. Everybody will push and shove to get the best. Everybody needs support. However, it is the balancing act of these needs that is something that we need to be aware of. With too much support a student becomes too dependent that they cannot work on their own. With too little support a student lacks confidence and therefore will struggle to work. Our job is to be the Winnie the Pooh in the classroom. Allocating those that need support and those that don’t. We are the guides in the learning.

My daughter will pretend she can’t do things to get extra support from people, when she is more than capable of doing something. She knows how to play on her needs. That’s why dealing with SEN in the classroom is such a difficult thing. These are children and they don’t always know how to deal with things. Therefore, they opt for default approaches either ‘play weak and feeble’ or ‘push and shove’. That’s why I think it also important that we push SEN students. It is too easy to wrap SEN children in ‘cotton wool’, because they have something diagnosed or written in a folder somewhere. It is the sympathy factor. I see it all too often with my daughter. She is underestimated because she has the label of Cerebral Palsy. In fact, I would go to say, in a way, she needs pushing twice as hard as an able bodied student as life is twice as hard for her. All the sympathy in the world will not do her the world of good if she doesn’t do things for herself.  That’s why I think we need to work harder to make them more independent, because there will be a time when they will have grown out of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and there will not be a Winnie to help them.

Winnie reminded me it isn’t sympathy that children with disabilities need; it is an understanding of how they function and interact with the world around them. It is an understanding when they need help and when they can do it themselves.

Thanks for reading,



P.S. If you ever see Winnie the Pooh, thank him for me.