Saturday, 25 June 2016

Where is the love for ideas? Are we too passionate about techniques?

This fortunately or unfortunately isn’t a blog about how Britain is broken. Instead, it is inspired by a lesson I did this week on the theme of love in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. The new GCSEs in literature have placed theme at the heart of the exam questions and it has made me think we need to explore in depth how we teach themes. Previous exams tended to focus on wider arcing questions. How satisfying is the ending? How does the writer create mystery? The new GCSEs place themes and characters at the centre of the questions. How does the writer present power in the play?  I don’t recall actually talking about themes when training to be an English teacher and there is the rub: there wasn’t a specific lesson. A lecture. A hand out. In fact, nothing was offered in this area.

I always tell students that I teach them ideas and how to think. We read books to understand how others think. We get students to develop how they think. In fact, all I deal with are ideas, but have we, in the past, been too obsessed with analysis and exams? The new GCSEs, in my opinion, have placed more emphasis on ideas, perspectives and thought. Look at some of the questions. There are questions aimed at summarising, identifying what the writer is thinking. There are questions where the students are comparing texts, identifying how two writers think differently. We even have a question where somebody – an unknown secret student- has made a comment about a text and our students have to comment on whether they agree or disagree with the persons’ statement. It is all about thoughts and ideas.      

I think for too long we have had literary analysis driving the exam papers. It was simply a spot a technique and then explore the ideas around the technique. Why did the writer use that technique? I feel there has been a clear shift in the analysis and it is a monumental one, which I am surprised that exam boards haven’t been shouting from the roof tops. Start with the ideas first, then find the techniques. It might sound obvious, and, someone somewhere will pipe up and say that’s how they have always done things, but I would disagree. For too long, we have tried to get students to get the ‘good stuff’ quickly. We have shortened the reading of texts to a reductive processes like spotting the purpose, audience and genre of the text, then spotting techniques. If you don’t believe me, look at the lessons you have taught this term. How long does it take for you to get to a literary technique in a lesson? First five minutes. Ten minutes. Thirty minutes. One hour. We even do it with writing. I am going to teach you a fancy grammatical term and you are going to be able to write an example and you will be able to spot it when you look at a text. We are all guilty of it. I am surprised we don’t have schemes of work that just list a number of techniques. Lesson one: simile. Lesson two: metaphors. We are obsessed with techniques and literary analysis, yet moan when students don’t take things further.

What if we spent a lesson looking at writing a letter that is angry yet polite at the same time?

What if we spent a lesson looking at insecurity in stories?

What if we looked at writing lies in stories?

What if we spent a lesson just talking about ideas?

What if we left the analysis to another time?

I am suggesting that we need to get students to think more and think more of the ideas presented.

What is the text saying?

What is it not saying?

What do you think it really means?

Why do you think the writer wrote it?

What is it saying about the writer?

Do we agree or disagree with the text?

What does it remind us of?

Maybe, we have become too focused on literary analysis. Too focused on a reader’s response to a text. Too focused on the exam. Maybe, our focus for next year should be about ideas. What ideas are we going to focus on in this text? What themes are we going to explore in this topic?

Take Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. Aside from the themes, we might want to look at these ideas first.

Society has a duty to protect the weak and needy.

We are inspired by the past.

We are more concerned with the present than the future.

The rich have more power than the weak.

Society is divided.    

As a starting point, these are ideas, but they are important in each lesson.

Surely, we need to focus on discourse more than rhetoric. Recent events have taught us one thing. People, at the moment, feel more than they think in society.  We need to make people think more than they feel. Certainly, the new GCSEs are tougher, but I think we need to get them thinking of ideas more and in more depth and more regularity.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 11 June 2016

Notes on AQA's Paper 2 - SEEK, LOCATE, DESTROY

Last year I shared my initial thoughts on Paper 1 of the new GCSE English Language exam. It was me, simply, walking myself through the paper and exploring what I will have to teach or focus on. Now, I am not a big believer of constantly teaching to test, but I am a big believer of ‘muscle memory’. This will be my only football reference to the Euros ever. I prepare students for exams like the way coaches prepare a football team. My lessons are similar to the silly sessions we see of footballers training.

A footballer exercises in a gym -  a student writes or reads something unconnected to the exam

A footballer repeats an action – a student repeats the same one skill over and over again

A footballer plays a friendly game - a mock

A  footballer plays a match – the final exam
At the heart of how I teach and my philosophy, is muscle memory. Our current Year 11s knew the mock paper inside out. It was funny listening to the students before and after the exam. They sounded like examiners. They knew the order to answer the questions: 6,1,2,3,4 and 5. They had three mocks in Year 11 and one in Year 10. By the final one, they knew the order to approach it. The order for answering things became an automated response. No thought necessary. With so many exams and so many methods to follow, our students need repetition more than they need direct instruction. I have told them the important stuff, but do they listen? No. They need to live it and repeat it to get better. Like students, I think teachers need to live through an exam paper.

Our Year 10s have already sat through two Paper 1 papers. One a practice and one a test. Now, they are going through Paper 2. Here’s some of my thoughts, ideas and observations as I taught the paper.

Question 1 – Choose four statements that are true
This one has created some of the most interesting results. There are a large majority of students who don’t think with this question. They search for a quick soundbite and accept that as fact. It is surprising how many students haven’t got four out of four. They rush it, because, in their eyes, it is easy and simple.

The thing we noticed was that the statements in the list get more subtle. The first few are about explicit facts and the final few are implicit facts. The last few statements are the ones students need to be careful with as implicit information might be from several points or involve more thought.
I spent this week working on this question getting students to think logically. The statement says this, but where is the text does it say or suggest that. The great thing is getting students to justify their point. They saw it as a challenge. We even, as a department, challenged the answers in AQAs mark scheme.  To quote my friends, the Daleks, SEEK, LOCATE, DESTROY.  I am going to use this explicit and implicit fact in lessons. Nice little starter to find the information and see if they can prove or disprove it.

Question 2-  Use details from both sources to write a summary of the differences
I do feel that summarising has been a skill we have underused over the years in English lessons. Usually, we have gone for the literary jugular every time and focused on literary techniques. This question had a lot of my students stumped. They find it difficult for the simple reason that you have to do more than copy bits. This one has X, whereas this one has Z. On a simple level, it is a spot the difference, but to increase the complexity you need to look at subtle things.

When teaching students this question, I have found a simple similarities and differences table helped. They need to start with a comparison element. Again, the issue is moving students from explicit differences to implicit differences, which makes for a rubbish table, when drawn. The similarities and differences table helps students to spot the explicit differences, but then I get them to add another row of boxes underneath it – ‘words to sum up – cannot be in the text’. Then, they try to describe it and summarise it.
I have written about inference words before, but for this question I think they are vital for students to make good solid inferences. For example, with the sample paper based on ‘Glastonbury Festival’ and ‘Greenwich Fair’, I used the following words as a way in to looking at inferences:

Inference words: optimistic; welcoming; consistent; cultured; educated; sophisticated 

Inference words: overcrowded; urgency; chaos; unsettled

When you look at the sample answers, it is the vocabulary that usually detonates an inference. For example, one sample paper uses ‘light-hearted’, ‘civilised’ and ‘theatrical’. All too often, we have relied on ‘this suggest’ or ‘this implies’ to create easy inferences. This, however, I think is problematic when you are looking to make sophisticated analysis. It is a helpful structure to use at the lower end, but it these ‘inference words’ that gets the marks and not the ‘this suggest’. If students are only making an inference when the sentence features ‘this suggest’, then they are wasting time.

Both ‘Glastonbury Festival’ and ‘Greenwich Fair’ seem to be chaotic and cluttered places with lots happening. However, there is a more laidback, easy-going attitude in Glastonbury and a frenetic, lively, urgent attitude.   

We should be getting students to blend inferences into their writing. List them. Pair them. Start sentences with them. End sentences with them. The more the better. This year for me has been the ‘Year of Inferences’ because my Year 10 class as so used to looking at inferences in everything that they can look at any text and give me press-ups. Each time they get to the floor they give me an inference word. They only stop the press-ups when they chuck a quote in.
I sometimes prepare inference words for texts, so I challenge students to competition. A holiday to Skegness if they come up with five of my words. The following are for the ‘Watercress Girl’ and ‘Living Doll’ KS3 sample tests.
       Time consuming
       Fairy tale
       Hard work
       Lacked care

Students need a new set of vocabulary for describing and summarising texts.

More on Inference Words here.

Question 3 - How does the writer make you feel ….?
This question seems to be a carbon copy of Paper 1 Question 2. The structure of a student’s response needs to be fairly straight-forward. Technique / Quote / Effect. The problems come with the effect and technique elements of the response.

It seems, from looking at the samples, students need to be making lots of references to techniques used. No longer will Tom who learnt rhetorical questions off by heart will be safe. Students need to look at a range of techniques and not just the safe ones like alliteration, repetition and lists. There must, I think, be at least one reference to word classes in their responses. The verb …. The noun… The use of the pronoun… Come on the knowledge gained in the KS2 SPaG tests must be repeated somewhere. Plus, they must use them correctly!

The biggest problem, I fear, will be the effect element. Students need to move from comment to explain to analyse when exploring the effect. One issue is the question. Looking at the ‘Greenwich Fair’ example, we see it refers to ‘make you, the reader, feel part of the fair’. All too often, students latch on to a phrase like this. Everything then, in a rush, is clumped together with this one phrase. And this make us feel part of the fair. I have discovered from teaching this that we need to get students talking about effect more effectively and better. For years, I have struggled with students who saying the ‘writer wants to read on’.
In my attempts to get students to comment more effectively about the effect, I have used the following set phrases:  

A sense of ….
A feeling of ….

This has now expanded with teaching this question to these phrases:
The excitement of…

The fear of …  
The (emotion) of…

Furthermore, there are two things, I think, when exploring effect: the reader’s emotional reaction to the text; and the reader’s engagement with a text. These are two separate things and I rarely see students refer to them both. We could simply put these separately as feeling and thinking. The reader feels… The writer feels… I feel that we need to make these two explicit for the students. What is the reader thinking? What is the reader supposed to feel?

The list of verbs creates a sense of movement and urgency. The reader will see that this will inevitably finish as a high state of urgency cannot be maintained for a long periods. This will make the expect it to finish at some point.   

More on effect here.

Question 4 – Compare how the writers have conveyed…
This question for us is very similar to Question 2. In fact, I just think it is Question 2 with added terminology. We have been using the following structure to teach this question – inference or viewpoint (connection) / quote / technique (method) / Explanation.  

The issue it seems to be the viewpoint element. I am using the following to explore viewpoints of the text.
       more realistic
       more vivid
       more engaging
       more humorous
       more atmospheric
       more positive
       more visual   

The viewpoint is more distant that Question 2's inferences. It is positioning the student far away from the text. Where as the inferences in Question 2 are about precise aspects of the text. This is about wider inferences and combining those inferences with writing style. The list above are a combination of content and style phrases, which is what, I think, students need to explore for this question. How does the style vary?

I will add more phrases in time, but again, it is vocabulary that will help students cope with this question. The other aspect I have been teaching related to this question is a summative comment at the end. It seems students need to make three detailed paragraphs and a paragraph for conclusion. The ending needs to stretch and be quite perceptive and profound. Exposure to this question will help develop that.  

Our students are completing a full mock next week, so I will see what will be the next step to focus on. This is what the back of the exam paper looks like.

Feel free use, but I do ask you credit the source when adapting.  It has a list of targets to make the marking for teachers easier and a box to show students how many marks they missed.  All part of the 'muscle memory'. Students will see what muscle need working. Teachers will learn the key aspects of each question.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 5 June 2016

And now for something completely different

Occasionally, I have an educational epiphany. It isn’t often, mind you, but roughly I have one every five years. This year, my epiphany took place whilst teaching autobiographies and biographies. Every year, I drag out the same tired, lifeless resources for teaching students to write an autobiography and I go through the unit in the same old tired way. This year, however, I digressed. I moved away from the topic by focusing on digression. I chucked out all my usual techniques and approaches and explored digression and all its forms in writing.

Usually, when I teach students to write autobiographical accounts I read several extracts and get students to mimic the writing style. A lot of my teaching addresses the following targets:

Convey more emotions in your writing.

Give a sense of place by describing things in more detail.

Present ideas in an original way.

Along the way, I’d teach specific aspects related to the writing of an autobiography. How do you avoid using ‘I’ all the time? How do you convey emotions without explicitly saying what you feel? How do you accurately describe the situation for a stranger? I suppose when I teach an aspect of writing, I have several questions at the heart of teaching of the genre. Take a story writing. The questions I might explore in my teaching are:

How do you make the story feel like something the reader has never read before?

How do you avoid spending the first few paragraphs introducing characters and setting?

How do you make the story emotional?

All too often, writing is reduced to basic components. Rudimentary blocks for students to arrange in a piece of writing. The problem is that writers don’t tick techniques off when writing. They just do it and get on with the job. The writer probably didn’t even given it a thought.

Anyway, I have digressed. So this year, instead of making lists of features of autobiographies, we looked at how writers could digress, go off the topic, steer the writing away and change focus. An autobiography is about stories within stories and that is what digression allows a writer to tell. Narratives within narratives. Our lives are complex. That time when somebody did something funny is only funny when seen in the complex web of mini stories. There’s so much history and backstory in one simple anecdote.  

Take this example from a student.

The main narrative

A student describes how she spills nail polish on a sister’s duvet. 

What other narratives under the surface?

The student’s relationship with her sister.

The student buying the nail polish.

The student’s relationship with make-up.

The mother’s reaction to daughter.

The mother.
The sister.

The mother and daughter’s relationship/  

The student’s history of being clumsy.

The sister’s pride in her bedroom.

I could spend ages describing the different narratives with a simple event. But, when I unlocked these for students, they went mad for telling narratives within narratives. Sometimes, it was a small sentence, or a throwaway comment, but their writing was much more textured... and more much interesting to read. The main narrative wasn’t seen as a juggernaut to dominate the storytelling. They understood that you had to paint more of the picture for students. I had students trying to convey relationships with parents and friends in a sentence instead of the typical: ‘We all laughed – it was so funny.’

Digression isn’t just telling a different story. It is also going off at a tangent. So students went off in different directions. The student, in the example above, explored the colour red and what it meant to them. I also had potted histories of things and random discussions on all aspects of life. Again, it didn’t have to be a massive part of the writing. It was just a small bit of texture. It added life, nuances, richness to a simple story.

We overly simplify writing. We make it a clear process. We make simple diagrams to make students structure a piece of writing. Writing is complex. If we use simple structures, we will see simple writing.

Thanks for reading,