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,


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