Sunday, 29 November 2015

Learning to love the humble multiple-choice question

There is something that is very frustrating in English lessons. It isn’t something that, we, English teachers talk about, but we do have to deal with it day in and day out. It is the student with the ‘scientific brain’. Or, maybe that should be the ‘logical brain’. It is something that all English teachers have to deal with in their lessons at some point. You can’t be a ‘proper’ English teacher until you have had a student state that they cannot see the deeper meaning of a poem. It might be prefixed with the following comments:

‘How do I know what the writer means? I didn’t write it.’
‘I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.’
‘How did you get that from the poem? I don’t see it.’

They just don’t get it. Often, in English lessons or in parents’ evenings, I have had to justify the complexity of my subject. You see, Mr Curtis, our Cuthbert prefers Science. He finds things tough in English. I think this all boils down to the fact there are no right or wrong answers in English lessons. Well, there are blatant wrong answers: I think the poem ‘Futility’ is about aliens. Wrong. The rest are just shades of grey.

I used to think that this ‘right or wrong’ mindset was a gender characteristic. It makes sense that girls enjoy multiple meanings in a text because they are attuned to looking for meaning and emotions in how people speak and act. Therefore, it makes sense that boys prefer facts, clear answers and things devoid of ambiguity. But, over the years, this has proven to be all ‘a pile of pants’. These ‘logical brains’ are everywhere and they can be either male or female. I am also separating this from autism and the autism spectrum. Yes, most people can fit on the spectrum of autism and demonstrate autistic tendencies, but I see this as a phenomenon separate to autism.

Anyway, these ‘logical brains’ struggle when faced with a poem or text and they have to hunt for meaning. Moving from literal meaning to figurative meaning, is a rocky road for them. Why? Well, it could mean anything. These students could probably tell you what a metaphor is, but explore the meaning of one and they start to go all sweaty and start breathing heavily. I suppose, English is full of abstract concepts. Other subjects, apart from RE, deal with quite concrete aspects and you could say that knowledge plays a part in this. They have something tangible to prove its existence in the real world. Look, here are two chemicals and this is what happens when we put them together. Let’s measure them. I’d probably go so far to say that if a subjects used measuring equipment, then it is probably a ‘concrete’ subject. There might be some ‘abstract’ thinking, but generally the learning focuses on clear, concrete knowledge. 

Take these two questions:

What is faith?

What is the effect of the simile in the poem?

They are difficult questions. There could be a number of different answers and the teacher, when marking a response, will use their knowledge and understanding to decide on the appropriateness of a response. Reading mark schemes in English are hilarious. They tend to focus on skills and any possible answers are provided, but there will usually be a little comment: other similar answers can be accepted. Across the different exam boards, there are lots of variations of this one sentence. Open an English textbook and you see how publishers have tried to make English a concrete subject. There seems to be a clear right answer and no opportunities for different possible interpretations or meanings.

Recently, I have been working with developing students’ memory of key texts for exams. Over the last few weeks, I have been making it a habit to make a multiple-choice quiz for each chapter in a book studied. This is partly inspired by the great Joe Kirby and his team at the Michaela School. It was while I was producing one set of multiple-choice questions that I had an idea. Usually, my questions focused on plot, character’s thoughts and key quotes. Students had to select the correct ones. Then, I thought about how this could be adapted for other parts of English and, in particular, the analysis of texts.

My Year 8s are currently reading ‘Great Expectations’ and they are analysing extracts from the novel. Recently, they completed a comprehension style task on Pip’s second meeting with Magwitch. Their answers were pretty weak. They are an able group, but something about their answers was lacking. They wrote short, superficial answers. When feeding back answers, they saw the error of their ways, but still they struggled with the next tasks. There seemed to be a gulf between their verbal responses and their written responses. They can insightful and detailed explanations when talking, but put pen to paper and they struggled to even answer the question. Step forward, Miss Havisham.

I gave students a series of quotes about Miss Havisham. Under each quote, there were four possible different interpretations. Of course, I started with a silly one to get the ball rolling.

The students then discussed for a lengthy time each one. As a class, we decided which one was the most likely interpretation of the line. The great thing about this was that students were using evidence from other parts of the whole extract or novel to justify their point and their ideas.

The next part of the process involved students working on creating their own multiple-choice interpretations. I gave students a blank grid and they had a go at producing their own set of interpretations. This made for some interesting discussions. One pair looked at the possible meaning behind Miss Havisham’s prayer book:

[a] She was raised a Catholic.   

[b] She is constantly praying for something.

[c] She feels she has done something bad so she wants to pray for forgiveness.

[d] Faith is a strong part of her life now.

It did take a long time for students to make their own interpretations.  It wasn’t that it was too hard, but more a case of students wanting to discuss at length. To make students feel at ease, I did say that if they couldn’t think of four interpretations, they could invent a silly one. Often, this wasn’t necessary. The class engaged with the ideas and discussed things at length.

The potential for this, I think, is endless. Getting students to explore, the different meanings of a line, effect of a word, thought / feeling of a character or writer’s purpose. It opened up the dialogue. We were not limited by a right or wrong answer. We were focused on a more likely or least likely answer. A slight difference in interpretation.

While the students were creating their multiple-choice sheet, I asked them about the process. They said that it helped them to think. We discussed what the next step would be and one lad suggested that for comprehension the teacher should set it as multiple-choice answers, meaning that there are four possible answers to the question set. So, finally, I set students the following task for homework:

I crossed the staircase landing, and entered the room she indicated. From that room,
too, the daylight was completely excluded, and it had an airless smell that was oppressive. A
fire had been lately kindled in the damp old-fashioned grate, and it was more disposed to go
out than to burn up, and the reluctant smoke which hung in the room seemed colder than the
clearer air--like our own marsh mist. Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimneypiece
faintly lighted the chamber; or it would be more expressive to say, faintly troubled its
darkness. It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing
in it was covered with dust and mold, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was
a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house
and the clocks all stopped together. An ├ępergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle
of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite
undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its
seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies
running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public
importance has just transpired in the spider community.

I heard the mice too, rattling behind the panels, as if the same occurrence were
important to their interests. But the black beetles took no notice of the agitation, and groped
about the hearth in a ponderous elderly way, as if they were short-sighted and hard of hearing,
and not on terms with one another.

These crawling things had fascinated my attention, and I was watching them from a
distance, when Miss Havisham laid a hand upon my shoulder. In her other hand she had a
crutch-headed stick on which she leaned, and she looked like the Witch of the place.
“This,” said she, pointing to the long table with her stick, “is where I will be laid when I
am dead. They shall come and look at me here.”
With some vague misgiving that she might get upon the table then and there and die at
once, the complete realization of the ghastly waxwork at the Fair, I shrank under her touch.
“What do you think that is?” she asked me, again pointing with her stick; “that, where
those cobwebs are?”
“I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”
“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!”

For each question, give four possible answers.

1.      What four thoughts / feelings are going through Pip’s mind / heart here?


2.      Why has Charles Dickens used the beetle image here? Give four ideas. 


3.      Why does Miss Havisham want her body to rest in this room when she dies?


4.      What is the purpose of the extract?


5.      What four things here link to the theme of death?  


6.      How does this extract link to other events / things in the novel?


7.      Create your own question and give the possible answers to it.


We are indirectly narrowing our students’ understanding of texts. Look at all comprehension tasks. They are based on having one clear answer. When we look at essays analysing a text, we are happy to accept a variety of ideas. We aren’t joining the two approaches together. On one, we are promoting a limited view of responses and interpretations; and, with the other insisting on having multiple interpretations.  

If we want students to explore layers of meaning, then we, as teachers, have to build that explicitly into our teaching. We need to show students in all things we do that there are often several meanings behind a text, line or word.

What is the purpose of the blog?
Old Style: To inform.
New style: [a] inform [b] describe [c] entertain [d] persuade.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 21 November 2015

What’s you motif when writing the story?

In my time, as a teacher, I have seen numerous lesson plans for schemes of work on story writing; and, if I am honest, they have bored me. Creative writing, sometimes, is boiled down to the following structure: 





Now, I am not a published author, nor am I a renowned critic, nor am I an expert on stories, but, this typical structure for stories, we often teach our students, has no relation to real stories. I think of the last five books I have read and none of them can be squeezed (with the flabby bits hanging over the trousers) into this framework. Yet, again and again on TES and other teacher sites I see this structure enforced on students. It just doesn’t work for me. I never see myself comment on a student’s resolution and I never criticise a student’s crisis in their crafted story. In fact, in exam reports I have never seen the following comment:
‘Students are commonly producing over-the-top complications and their resolutions never tie up any previous plot threads. Please avoid sub-plots. There seems to be a growing trend of students ending their stories with a cliffhanger, which is honestly disappointing for the reader.’

In fact, I find, all too often, that the way we teach creative writing tends to be from a lobotomy point of view. I, and many others, have taught schemes of work on the basis that the students in the class haven’t a clue about how stories work. Remember to use characters in your story. Don’t forget to use a setting. It isn’t that important for students to be told this. I have yet to read a story that has been set in an empty nothing and it is populated by no characters.

Having children of my own, I see that a lot of what has happened in the past has been spelling out the basics. My daughters could tell me, at seven, what a good story needs. In fact, they intuitively know. So when they tell me a story about Stinky the Mouse and his journey on a boat, they know what will make the story better. They know if Stinky loses his cheese, the tension will be raised. They know that Stinky must find his cheese, friends or home at the end of the story. You can see that, unlike me, my daughters have a better chance of starting a writing career than me.

I feel partly annoyed with myself that I taught creative writing in this way. I feel as though I have been teaching in such a basic way. I can’t take all the responsibility, because the National Curriculum enforced this structured way of teaching story writing on me, you, us.
This term, I have been working with Year 9s to write dystopian stories. You’ll be pleased to know that I haven’t even muttered the words ‘crisis’, ‘complication’ or ‘resolution’. I did use the word ‘opening’ and that’s only because they are writing their opening to their dystopian story. So, what did I use to help them structure their stories? Motifs.

When reading the opening of ‘Divergent’ I noticed how hair was mentioned. This hair motif is a constant pattern in the books. In fact, it is a constant motif used in dystopian fiction. We were able to make connections with ‘Hunger Games’ and how all the stories featured a scene where a character has their hair cut or style. Occasionally, this is through their choice or, as typically, in dystopian worlds the new hairstyle is forced on them. Of course, the symbolism of the motif is clear, but the message of the motif is far more profound. Do we fit in? Or, do we rebel?

To get the idea of motifs, I used the short film, Alma. Here is the link on YouTube:

We had to watch it twice to get the idea of the window motif.

The boy looks though a window.

The doll look through the window at the boy.

The boy looks at the glass eyes of the doll.

The boy as a doll looks out of the doll’s glass eyes.  

Another child looks through the window.

Clearly, the phases ‘the eyes are a window to the soul’ springs to mind. However, the idea was clear for the students.

We then, as a class, looked at possible motifs we could use to reflect the idea of a dystopian society:
Shattered glass
Reflections in mirrors

The class then formed a visual plan around the motif. I picked up on the ‘crack’ motif. No sniggers, please.

[1] A small crack in a wine glass

[2] A crack in a tile on the floor

[3] Two characters are splitting up – a crack in their relationship

[4] A news report on an earthquake

We were planning visually, creatively and symbolical and there wasn’t even a ‘crisis’ in sight. I had one lovely example of a student looking at ‘observer’ motif.

[1] A man watches another person

[2] A CCTV camera

[3] A bird

[4] An object

I noticed when the students started writing that the motifs told the story for the students. I didn’t need to worry about the overall structure.  As long as they knew that their motif had to be subtle and they had to avoid the same adjectives and verbs with each motif, then they would produce some great writing.

I know that if I focused on the opening, complication, crisis and resolution, I would have a typical Hollywood Summer Blockbuster, including 20 billion scenes involving CGI explosions and seven two-dimensional character, written on four sides of A4.    
So, when I am going to get students to write a piece of creative writing now, I am going to ask them one, simple question: What is you motif?

Thanks for reading,


P.S. ‘Stinky the Mouse and the hunt for the lost chunk of cheese’ will be available from all good retailers in December.  

Sunday, 15 November 2015

MacGyver teaching - getting back to the basics!

Sometimes I liken my job to being MacGyver….

I have friends who have travelled the world. Yet, I bet none of them have had anything like the experiences I have daily. They probably haven’t witnessed the birth of a new acronym in education. They probably haven’t discovered the delights of the YPO catalogue. They probably haven’t even uncovered the mysteries of how gluing a sheet into a book is somehow a genetic trait that only 34.5% of the human population can ever master. They probably haven’t lived.  They haven’t lived when faced with fifteen minutes to plan a lesson with three staplers, twenty sheets of paper and a bit of mouldy chewing gum.

Anyway, there I was in my classroom thinking of a lesson. The usual panic I have lasts a full fifteen minutes. I laugh in the face of a 5 minute lesson plan! I think and check my emails. I think some more and move some papers about. I think a little bit more and then move some books. It so happens that this happened to me this week. I needed to plan a lesson with my current Year 11s. They have a mock exam in a few weeks and I wanted them to get some practice on the writing section. I didn’t know what to do. All I had was a sheet of A3 paper and a board pen. This is when I came with this idea:

It is partly inspired by a NATE (I will cite the author when I find my copy) article I recently read, but it also links in to my ongoing idea of teaching students how to structure texts differently. Students are coming to our school with a solid grounding of grammar basics ( thank you, primary schools) and the ability to use onomatopoeias, but I think my lesson on what a simile is, is slightly defunct. I, maybe we, need to change how we look at teaching English. ‘The what’ isn’t my priority now, but ‘The how’. I am teaching a Year 7 about villains and they have written a description about villains. In the past, I have been slightly obsessed with chucking everything at the description. Come on, use a simile. Use a bit of pathetic fallacy. Naturally, over time I come to the idea that these things tend to be fluff compared to the basic content and structure.  Without a solid basis for ideas, students are floundering. We might get sparks of brilliance from a weak student where they happen to use words in an interesting combination, but the majority of times brilliance is happening by accident. Or, it is happening intuitively.

I have been exploring teaching how to describe a setting and how to describe a character here. Providing students with these structures ,to hang their writing on, has been a phenomenal change of perspective for me. I am now exploring choices made by other writers in relation to a student’s own choices. The previous default model has always been: see that; try and copy it in your own work.

Right so there I was in the classroom thinking and I came up with this little document. And boy doesn’t it look ropey?

I don’t care how it looks, because it changed the way my students wrote. Instantly. Non-fiction writing isn’t the easiest of things for students to master. They know the rules of writing stories because they are immersed in seeing, watching, telling and reading them. Non-fiction doesn’t have that level of familiarity. This gave students a chance with structures to hang their ideas on. Previously, my group had the ideas, but they struggled with the presentation and communication of these ideas. Yes, we’d try to dress things us with a rhetoric here or there, but they didn’t really have the method to convey the idea. Now they did.    

Because of this…

The writing changed.

No longer did my class write endless lists of reasons. They shaped an idea. They modelled a thought. They selected the best vehicle for the job. The most enjoyable thing was that a student openly told me that he mixed two up, because he thought it was best way to get his point across.  We know PEE is a problem for students. It doesn't produce effective paragraphs for analysis or non-fiction. This option allows students to see a number of possibilities to present an idea. Oh, and it is easy to memorise them.  

What I like about it most is that I am teaching students to read non-fiction texts at the same time. I am teaching them to read how writers structure their writing in non-fiction texts.  The simplicity of it is great. However, I am, in a way, preparing the way for the new GCSE. The focus on structure and how texts are structured certainly links to this.

I could have made this sheet look better. I could have typed it up. I could have made it look pretty. But, do you know what? I don’t want to. It served its purpose in MacGyver sense; it got me out of scrape. It doesn't have the fluffy stuff added to it. The photocopy is basic, but it gets the job done. If we want students to be better writers we need to revise how we  teach structure and content. We need to look at how we teach it and how we guide students to write non-fiction texts.

Now I am off to plan a lesson for 'A Christmas Carol' and all I have is a Hello Kitty sticker, a white crayon and Barbie doll. Let's see how I get out of this situation.   

Thanks for reading,