Saturday, 19 March 2016

Anchor sentences


It is that time of year again: exam season. This year I have a group of GCSE students and, so far, they are working between a C and an E. At this stage we have completed coursework folders and completed two full mocks. However, success is slipping away from some of them. Why? For some, it is simply they don’t write enough. For others, it is about a lack of depth in their thinking. Things are, just a little, superficial.
If I am honest, I don’t think teenagers write enough in schools. They don’t write at length in silence. The years of child-centric focused teaching has meant that we struggle to cope with long periods of silence while students are head down writing. In fact, we have turned writing into manageable chunks of work. Manageable for the student and their self-esteem. Manageable for the teacher and their work load. The problem is when faced with the English exam some crumble. I am tempted to photocopy and English exam paper and put it in the pigeon hole of all staff. This is what we need to prepare them for! This is why all students need to write more. For those unfamiliar to the out-going (AQA) exam specification, it contains six questions and for each one students have to write approximately two or more sides of A4 lined paper.  They, in fairness, have to write solidly for two hours. When you have had a curriculum for years of writing for thirty minutes and then moving on to something else, they find this difficult. Our first hurdle is making sure they finish the paper. We will leave this aspect for another blog.

Anyway, the second problem I have is the superficiality of their answers. They are students who are close, but often within a finger’s grasp of the next grade. They keep missing it. On further investigation, I noticed a few things. As students, they can retain a considerable amount of knowledge. Their retention of a range of facts is evident in all pieces of writing. But, then, what is the missing link?
I think wholeheartedly how our students read texts and interact with texts is the problem. They know they stuff; they just don’t read texts effectively. When marking their papers, I noticed time and time again there was a pattern. They were analysing whole texts. All the time they were trying to write about everything. They felt the need to write about the beginning, middle and end all at once. When trying to write about all parts of the text, you default to generalised statements because you can’t cover things precisely. They would be making one point about the opening and the ending at the same time and condensing things together, leaving no room for precise analysis. In a way, this is a reflection of society. The ability to concentrate and focus on one things is hindered by the fear of missing something out. Look at social media. Our fear of missing out is highlighted in some people when they can’t sit still without casually looking at their phone and see if they have had a notification.

What if we built that level of concentration to a focus on one single sentence?
Student struggle to analyse precisely because they focus on everything, so wouldn’t it be better to concentrate their efforts on one sentence?  The sentence would be the starting block. Instead of jumping into whole text analysis, in exams, the starting point is one simple sentence. Of course, they will read the whole text, but their starting point is the perfect sentence. The best sentence. The most effective sentence. Then, the work out from that sentence. Our students struggle because they don’t have a clear anchor to the reading.  

Let’s have a bit of a play with ‘Pride and Prejudice’:   
IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.   

As a sentence it has some interesting points:
·         It is an opinion.
·         It is an opinion that is very confident that it thinks that it is a fact – universally acknowledged.
·         It concerns the desires of men – want of a wife – and not the needs of a man.
·         About the progression in relationships – single man/ wife.
·         The use of ‘IT’ suggests that the writer might see that the opinion as something impersonal.   
·         The use of the present tense highlights how it is a current practice / held thought.
·         The use of ‘must’ suggests that there is no alternative to this thought.
·         The term ‘good fortune’ is vague and unclear so open to interpretation as is what actually refers to. Does it mean money? Or does it mean luck? If so, does that mean unlucky people do not want to marry?


Well, close analysis like this can be fruitful as it anchors thinking on precise detail. Then, the student can then develop that thought by linking to the rest of the text.

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.   

Links
·         It is an opinion.
We see this when Mrs Bennet reinforces the statement consistently in the novel. She sees every man as a possible husband for her daughters.
·         It is an opinion that is very confident that it thinks that it is a fact – universally acknowledged.
It is a statement held by most characters. Happiness it seems is derived from marriage. The story ends with Elizabeth Bennett marring. In fact, we see several men with money marry by the end of the novel.
·         It concerns the desires of men – want of a wife – and not the needs of a man
At heart of the novel is the desire of one man: Darcy. We also see the desires of Mr Wickham.  
·         About the progression in relationships – single man/ wife
Umm.. we have a few weddings.
·         The use of ‘IT’ suggests that the writer might see that the opinion as something impersonal   
Look at the transactional relationship between Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas – marriage can be something transactional
·         The use of the present tense highlights how it is a current practice / held thought
The novel can be seen as evidence for the prosecution.
·         The use of ‘must’ suggests that there is no alternative to this thought
Look at the fear characters have about not being married.
·         The term ‘good fortune’ is vague and unclear so open to interpretation as is what actually refers to. Does it mean money? Or does it mean luck? If so, does that mean unlucky people do not want to marry?
Mr Darcy’s happiness is dependent on one particular marriage.

That was me being silly and using my hazy knowledge of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. But, the one quote, a perfect quote, can work on so many levels. Why are we crowding these students’ brains with so many quotes when three or fewer could be meaningful? Could there be one sentence in each of the main poems a student could learn to the depth of the Mariana Trench. That becomes their anchor to the whole poem. They sit the exam confident with one line. They talk about the whole text but group it with one line.  
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
http://poetry.eserver.org/space.gifNoble six hundred.

Points

·         Repetition of honour shows that we must honour these people more than others. And, we mustn’t forget to honour them.

·         It is an imperative – the writer is angry and demanding we do something – there isn’t a choice for us.

·         The use of ‘six hundred’ is a factual statement and precise about the soldiers. It is specific about the amount who died to make this personal and highlight the point they died when then odds were against them.  

·         The adjective ‘noble’ is the only adjectives to describe the hundred. They don’t need endless words to describe them. One word sums them up. The use of ‘noble’ suggests that they are some form of royalty or having excellent qualities.

·         The use of ‘charge’ instead of ‘fight’ puts the emphasis on the action before rather than the physical battle. The poem doesn’t dwell on the physical aspect of the deaths. He focuses on the causes and the consequences. He is respectful enough to not show us the gory details.



I could go on and on with looking at my anchor sentence. The next step would be to link the sentence to the rest of the text. When we teach students texts, we might zoom in on words or techniques, but most of the time we are doing this whole text reading. For your sophisticated reader, that will be fine. But, for students, who struggle with reading, it is hard to shift between whole texts and parts of the text. Maybe we have to help the less able readers to do this anchoring to a text. Most of us will probably teach by taking extracts from a text and getting students to analyse them. But, what if students had one line about Lennie that they knew in such depth? Surely, when faced with a question they have never seen before, they will be able to look at their quote and adapt it to their answer. Look at the example for ‘Charge of The Light Brigade’. You could use that for most questions in the poetry exam.

For the next mock, I am going to set students to select an anchor sentence in a non-fiction text. For revision for the literature exams, I am going to work with the class and get them to create their own poetry anchor sentences. If we want precise analysis, we need precise thought and decluttered brains. If students revise poetry by learning a shed load of features in the poem, they will just try to repeat all those features. If we give them one sentence they know well, they will have a clear starting.

I’m sailing off now.

Thanks for reading,

Xris  

2 comments:

  1. Like you, I am nervous as the time for external exams rapidly approaches. As a teacher of English I too have my concerns about the proficiency of my students to work under exam conditions. What I have noticed over the years is that the students tend to do better at in-class assessments, particularly tests, than they do in external exams a lot of the time and that is understandable. For youngsters having to fully develop 5-6 essays in 2 ½ hours it is really a lot of pressure. In addition, on the morning of the exam they may be nervous, they may not have eaten, they may be tired, they may be sick, etc., and these conditions can hinder them from performing at their optimum. This is one of the reasons that I support the use of in-class assessments as part of the students’ final grade for eternal exams because I do not think that after 5 years of high school we should really leave their fate entirely up to what they do in 2 ½ hours. I believe it’s the terrifying thought of this which sometimes paralyzes them and makes them unable to think and reason logically in these exams. I have had students who were able to tell me the answers to questions after the exams, yet they said they did the wrong thing in the exam; they don’t know what happened.

    As teachers, preparing students for external exams, I believe that our instruction should be two-fold: content and exam strategies. This is what I try to do to mitigate the stress of it. Additionally, accommodation should be given to students who are not very proficient in reading to help them interpret and answer questions correctly, as Gottlieb (2006) explains that according to research, when accommodation is provided in large-scale testing all students who are struggling with reading benefit. Explaining the concept of anchor sentences to your students is a very helpful practice; I only wish there was a way that the external exam could incorporate some kind of explanation of this to help the students respond to these kinds of questions correctly.

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  2. Thank you another thoughtful post. I like your idea of anchor sentences especially for teaching anthology poems.

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