Sunday, 8 May 2016

Last few bits and bobs before the final exams

As a school, we teach English in sets and with each new year we get a different ‘kettle of fish’. Last year I had a shiny, deluxe kettle with salmon in it. This year’s kettle is somewhat different. Still, a great kettle with unique fish. Just a bit different. They are in that difficult place of hoping to secure a C based on their controlled assessments and their exam result. Some lack drive. Some lack speed. Some direction.

It is always the saddest thing with Year 11s that some only start listening when the exams get close. The same messages I have been repeatedly saying for the last few years only starts to be heard to. when weeks away from the exam. And boy have I tried. I have said the message in a high voice, a low voice, a fast voice, a shouting voice, a sarcastic voice, a friendly voice and various other voices, including the voice of doom. So, some of them have switched on and there is still hope to make improvements.

Moving from a top set to a lower set has meant that I have seen big differences between what our top and other students do. Therefore, this year has been to look at mimicking the behaviour and approaches top set students do and seeing if they could apply things to their work.

1: Think of complex ideas  - this but this

Curley’s wife is fragile, but strong in her behaviour and attitude.
Lennie is caring, yet unknowingly cruel.

Our students when explaining an interpretation they tend to focus on one, sole, aspect. For example, in ‘Of Mice and Men’ we often get students describing Curley as a bully. Then students spend their time explaining when and where he is a bully. The problem is that limits their understanding of a character. Characters are full of contradictions. They are never one thing. Yet, students focus on one thing. Therefore, the lovely conjunction ‘but’ or ‘yet’ helps to get students to subtly extend their interpretations in a more detail.
Curley is an aggressive yet gentle character. He’s aggressive towards men, but he keeps his gentle side for his wife. This is reflected with his gloved hand. The two hands show the two different sides to Curley.

2: Build up the interpretations in layers

Sheila shows us how the young in society don’t understand the consequences of their actions.
Sheila suggests to us how children copy the behaviour of their parents.
Sheila symbolises how parenting is partly responsible for a lack of change in society.

Originally, I used the shows/suggests/ symbolises structure for exploring pictures in the AQA English exam. However, it developed further when a student used it in an essay on ‘Of Mice and Men’. The great thing about it was that it made students actively look at the text in three different ways and it actively moved students away from literal readings of texts. But, it didn’t negate a literal reading of the text. What happens is important, but the subtext is more important.  Some students have experimented with this structure and inverted it. It worked for them.

3: Focus on sentences
Less able students often drown in texts. They spend either too longer finding a quote or the sink under the text by simply retelling things. The best students often zoom in on one aspects and make connections to other parts. Therefore, I have been teaching students to pick a sentence and use that as your starting point.

They have done this with the poems, non-fiction texts, novels and plays. It narrows their focus and it is amazing how original their thoughts and idea are. Bright students are especially precise with their ideas. When looking at the non-fiction paper, I get students to pick a line in the opening, middle and closing paragraphs. It gets them on track quicker and faster than before.
Below is an approach used with ‘An Inspector Calls’. It is always hard for students to comment on the presentation of a character as there is so much to choose from. Students were able to make some perceptive observations based on three quotes for a character and they were able to spot how the presentation of the character changes.   

Mr Birling
Act 1
‘….perhaps we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together…’ 
Act 2
‘I must say, Sybil, that when this comes out in the inquest, it isn’t going to do us much good. The Press might take it up.’
Act 3
‘Now look at the pair of them – the famous younger generation who know it all. And they can’t even take a joke-’

Mrs Birling
Act 1
‘Now, Arthur, I don’t think you ought to talk business on an occasion like this.’
Act 2
‘ Secondly, I blame the young man who was the father of the child she was going to have. If, as she said, he didn’t belong to her class, and was some drunken young idler, then that’s all the more reason why he shouldn’t escape.’
Act 3
‘Well, why shouldn’t we?’ [carry on]

Act 1
‘Oh – it’s wonderful! Look – Mummy – isn’t it a beauty? Oh –darling.’
Act 2
‘It means that we’ve no excuse now for putting on airs and that if we’ve any sense we won’t try.’
Act 3
‘But you’re forgetting one thing I still can’t forget. Everything we said had happened really happened.’

Act 1
‘Mother says we musn’t stay too long. But I don’t think it matters. I left ‘em talking about clothes again.’ 
Act 2
No dialogue – only enters at the end of the scene
Act 3
‘I don’t see much nonsense about it when a girl goes and kills herself. You lot may be letting yourselves out nicely, but I can’t. Nor can mother.’

Act 1
‘Wouldn’t dream of it. In fact, I insist upon being one of the family now. I’ve been trying long enough, haven’t I?’
Act 2
‘All right – I did for a time. Nearly any man would have done.’
Act 3
‘Everything’s all right now, Sheila. What about this ring?’

Inspector Goole
Act 1
‘It’s the way I like to go to work. One person and one line of inquiry at a time. Otherwise, there’s a muddle.’
Act 2
‘Do you want me to tell you – in plain words?’
Act 3
‘This girl killed herself – and died a horrible death. But each of you helped to kill her. Remember that. Never forget it.’

4: Micro quotes
The most able students tend to pepper their writing with quotes. Less able students tend to pick one big quote and leave it smack in the middle. Therefore, I have been getting students to use micro quotes or single worded quotes. We all know Mr Birling refers to the ‘Titanic’ and being in a time of ‘prosperity’. In one sentence, they can integrate points from different parts of the text quickly and it is so easy to do. Think of five micro quotes for Lennie – bear, paws, mouse, behind, shapeless.

5: Linking techniques
Weaker students tend to feature spot, or technique vomiting, as I like to call it. Better students show how two things combine to create an effect. Discussions in lessons have been around what two things create a particular feeling or sense. Therefore, when writing, I’d expect them to say: ‘The writer uses X and Y to create a sense of …’

6: Structure    
 It sounds silly, but students struggle with structure and we can easily rectify that. The new GCSE specs have made me go structure mad, but simply teaching students to write points in a logical structure of how the text is presented in the text.

Take ‘An Inspector Calls’:
Point 1 Act 1
Point 2 Act 2
Point 3 Act 3

It’s not rocket science, but giving this structure helps some students to explain how things develop across a text. At the start…. By Act 2…. By the end…. This structure ensures that they address the structure of the text implicitly. Look at the presentation of a character. How is the character introduced? How does the character develop? What does the character learn at the end?
The same applies with the themes. Each stage is looking at how the aspect develops. Weaker students just look for examples. Better students explore how something develops across a text. This approach allows for some students to do this.

7: Get them talking in abstract nouns
The more a student uses abstract nouns the more abstract and complex their ideas will be. Getting students comfortable with using more abstract words in lessons has been my goal this year. Only this week, we were applying ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ to aspects of the language example. We were exploring how the writer shows their thoughts and feelings in a text.

8: Adverbs are your friends
Emotionally, physically, mentally the poet is exploring the consequences of war. Unusually he uses exaggeration to covey feelings of frustration. The challenge is for the students to use the most appropriate ones to use. But giving students the words ‘emotionally’, ‘psychologically’, ‘physically’ and ‘mentally’ can help students to comment on presentational aspects of a text. The words ‘surprisingly’, ‘disappointingly’ and ‘unusually’ allow students to subtly evaluate the text or aspect.

Aside from all these things, nothing replaces knowing the texts well. With only a few weeks before the final exams, I have a few lessons and in those lessons I am being precise, simple and clear about what they need to do. Their brains are cluttered with a lot at the moment. Now that some of them have decided to listen, I am hoping that my message is clear. Learn from the best. Do what the best do. You might be a D, but you can copy what an A does in their writing. Aim higher.

Time to put the kettle on. First, I’ll just check that there are no fish in it.
Thanks for reading,


  1. Thanks so much - some useful ideas here.

  2. Thank you for this!

    Ps: Was there a fish in the kettle? haha


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