Sunday, 26 March 2017

A year of writing creatively, independently and silently

Next week, I am off to the ResearchEd event and this is the second one focused on English. Yesterday, I thought, what did I have to offer? What would I impart if I was speaking at the event?

Well, since the start of the academic year I have made all Year 7, 8 and 9 students write every week for a lesson. People familiar withthe blog will know about the 200 Word Challenge. Students are given a different writing task each week and there are certain ingredients students must include and those ingredients vary each week.

As a result of all this, I have read hundreds of examples of work over the last few terms. The same task has been used with each year group and that has produced some interesting results.


1.  Year 7s default mode is narrative writing.

With several modes of writing, the Year 7s turned everything into a story. I had some ‘interesting’ pieces of writing about the ‘dangers of smoking’ told as a story. In fact, when a student decided to use one of them as an assessment piece, it took us three drafts to get the student to realise that it wouldn’t work for a whole text.

2.  Year 7s struggled conceptually with speech writing.

We asked students to write a speech from the head teacher persuading students to work harder. Boy, did they struggle with this. Here’s a typical approach:

The head teacher walked to the stage. “Now, the reason I have called you together is…

3. Dramatic monologues produced the greatest level of creativity in students.

This was really interesting because we hadn’t explicitly taught dramatic monologues, but the detail, creativity on this style was phenomenal. Their attempts to recreate natural speech was much better than their scripts – another 200 task. Plus, naturally, they played around with holding back information from the audience. The task was to write a dramatic monologue based on someone committing a crime.

4. Some very able boys struggled with humour and audience.  

These boys saw the tasks as an opportunity to show me their wit, but sadly their attempts weren’t very witty. They took every writing task as an opportunity to have a laugh. One student tried to include Bob Marley in every piece and another student used absurd humour. What is interesting is that they were writing for themselves? When, they discovered they were writing for an unknown reader, their writing got better. The Bob Marley student is writing the best in the class at the moment.

5. Boys tended to demonstrate a clear, opinionated voice than girls.

Comparing hundreds of students together, it seemed that, in terms of writing, the boys had more to say in their writing. Plus, their voices were a lot more distinct and clear. They had an opinion and their writing. The girls were often vague and lacked perspective when it came to opinionated when conveying a point. Boys, after a while, took really pleasure from being bombastic and controversial. We’ll explore how we can get girls to do this.

6. Students struggled the most with changing perspective.

We asked students to describe a character from three different perspectives. They really struggled with this one, suggesting that maybe our students aren’t forced into writing from different perspectives enough. They are limited by the narrow first person and third person and are unaware of the variations within and between those two.

7. Quiet girls have responded very positively to the weekly writing.  

Parents and students alike of very quiet students have commented on how much they have enjoyed the weekly experience. Some said that this was a result of the extra creativity, whilst I think it might also be a result of them having a lesson without the risk of attention.

8. All students struggled when the writing did not follow a linear order.

We asked student to write a story at the end and then describe how you got to the end. There was much head scratching. In fact, to get the gist of the task, we had to repeat the instructions and provide an example.  

9. Writing inspired by a picture was problematic.

It seems that students need a number of structures to approach this task. There clearly needs to be a way in.

10. Non-fiction writing always produced the shortest paragraphs compared to fiction.

On all pieces of non-fiction, it was common to see that students wrote brief and glib paragraphs. Their writing was often very general and vague. There seems to be a real problem with students writing directly and precisely with non-fiction.

11. Overtime, the writing fed in to other lessons.

Last week, I student make a connection between a writing task and a scene in Macbeth. ‘Shakespeare has structured this scene like the writing task we did about a change of mood in the middle.’ Ideas from lessons surrounding the writing task also fed into the writing.

12. Girls used more figurative writing in their texts than boys. The boys were always literal with their ideas and writing.

13. When given a choice, the boys selected a non-fiction task instead of the fiction tasks.

The girls would pick a non-fiction task if it was on a topic they could choose. However, they gravitated to the narrative tasks.

14. Boys used more humour in their writing.

 In fact, the girls’ writing was devoid of humour. There was none. The boys relished the opportunity to use humour. The girls didn’t.

There will be more findings in time. Some of these points will change. But, they do make some interesting points. I have never really been in this position before. A position where I can see trends across year groups. As a teacher, I can see the differences and similarities across the years. The above finds are based on all three year groups.

I will continue to explore are watch the trends and adapt my teaching as a result.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. Technically, it hasn’t been a full year.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Time to take off the cotton wool gloves on special needs in school

I am very public and honest about being a father to a child with a disability. As a teacher, it provides with an interesting perspective on things. A perspective that I possibly wouldn’t have if my daughter didn’t have Cerebral Palsy. A perspective which might be too sympathetic.

In my time teaching, I have seen some excellent and some less than excellent attitudes towards students with special needs or some form of disability. I have seen SENCOs push students and build great relationships with students and parents and I have seen the opposite where students have been doing everything else but the work they need to do to improve.

My daughter is wobbly (that’s the family name for it) and she walks like she has had several pints. The Cerebral Palsy affects only her legs. She can’t walk in straight lines. She is incredibly stiff with her walking. She can’t walk for long distances and has to use a wheelchair for the majority of the time. But, we as parents and a family push her. She swims every week. She goes horse riding every other weekend. She goes cycling when her dad came be bothered to get the tank of a bike out of the garage and it isn’t raining. She does everything and anything. She does everything and anything her non-disabled twin sister does.

When she was growing up, we made a conscious decision. A decision to let the disability not be used as an excuse for things. My daughter will try to use the disability to avoid things, like most children.  Dad, will you get me that book? Dad, will do this for me? Dad, can you fetch this for me? Each time I said, and still say, no. She would have to walk and get it. Naturally, we are compelled to help and support a child with a disability. We are probably more compelled to help and support a disabled child than a non-disabled child. Our inner saint comes into play. Bless this child, they haven’t had it easy: my charitable deeds will just make their life better.

The problem is, and I can say this, by us being a saint we are holding these children back.

If I pick something up for my daughter to help her, I am not helping her for the rest of her life. Yes, I am helping her at that specific moment and it is a nice thing to do. But, here is the sad truth about life: it isn’t all about nice things. My daughter will have to fight for things in life. She has a bigger fight than her peers, because she has a disability. The world out there is a tough one. It is a tougher one for a person with a disability.

I push my daughter harder because of her disability and the great thing is she does it too. She was gutted when she couldn’t do three laps in the school run. Her teachers felt that she couldn’t do it. She came back upset and told me she wanted to do it. She doesn’t see her disability as a limiting factor.

So what is the relevance of this in the classroom? For me, students with special needs need to be pushed more. They don’t need extra support. They need extra pushing.  A saintly teacher or TA is not going to remain in the child’s life forever.  There is going to be a point in the future when that child will have to function on their own. They will look around the street and see that there is not a nice, kind, smiling friendly warm face to help them. Instead there will be blank faces of boredom, antipathy and indifference, unwilling to help them.

Ask this simple question in lessons: am I supporting or am I pushing this student?
Our saintly attitude towards SEN comes from a good place. Letting them do less work or something is easier than their peers, isn’t enabling equality or independence. Equality should happen in the classroom. Having different expectations in the classroom is not equality.

Give those children with SEN and disability boxing gloves at the start of each and every lesson. Teach them to fight.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

AQA Exam Update: Questions 3 and 4 bore galore

We are on that last big push for the final exams. We have taught the set texts and we are practising and practising for the exams. At the moment, my Year 11 class is working through Paper 1 with the opening of ‘Rebecca’. From the marking of their mocks, I have come up with these few points.

Point 1: Question 3 (Structure)

With the structure question, I have found that students produce more meaningful comments when the emphasis is based on the effect. Starting with a device leads students to obsess on the structural device and fail to explain things fully. When students focus on the effect first, they look for the structural device to support their idea.

This is the slide I gave students. They had to find these ‘effects’ in the text. Then, they had to explain the structural device to support it.

The writer is trying to make the reader curious about what is happening.

The writer is trying to make the reader sympathise with the narrator.

The writer is trying to make us feel like we are there.

In discussions, this led us to explore the use of narrator, the shift in focus and use of description. If students are to attain the high marks, we need them to independently engage with the effect and develop sophisticated explanations of the effect. Plus, they need a bank of readymade effect comments. They, probably, need to be a regular part of the language of lessons. I don’t suggest for a minute that we give students a list of comments like the above, but I suggest that we use these phrases more often in lesson.

Point 2: Paper 1 Extracts

Now, this is an idea adapted from something I saw on Twitter many moons ago. It was a simple idea to get the whole school shadowing the Carnegie Book Award. The idea was simple. You photocopy the opening page of the books and passed them out during tutor time. Students then judge which book is the based on the opening.

The shortlist is released this week and I am going to order all eight books. Then, for the next eight weeks, we are going to explore the opening of each book in English lessons. Now, here’s the interesting thing: I am planning on doing this with Years 7,8,9,10 and 11. Teachers are going to use the texts with their classes. Year 10 and 11 might have them as complete booklet, but KS3 will have the revealed a week at time.

We are going to have a clear focus:  narrative perspective and structure. How is this story told to us? What is interesting about how it is structured? I might even throwing in an opinion to support: Frank, my mate down the pub, thinks this opening is the biggest pile of tosh written in the last ten years. How far do you agree with Frank?

I am not a big fan of giving KS3 students GCSE papers and I am not too impressed with the KS3 test papers as I feel they are just repeating the questions rather than developing skills and knowledge over time. However, this approach will give staff a break from planning lessons, but it will develop this structure aspect as a school and a department. We are all looking at the same text and collectively discussing things. At the end we can vote for our favourite.   

I will use Twitter (@Xris32) to discuss and explore the texts over the next few weeks.

Point 3: Question 4 (Evaluating)

Again and again, we hit a block with Question 4. In fact, on any test, I twitch and start panicking whenever I see a question 4. However, I am very grateful to somebody on Twitter for providing this question and exam paper.

04:          In this question, focus on the whole source.

A student, having read this text, said: “This part of the text introduces a place, but it also introduces a character. The writer creates tension by giving us clues about the narrator’s life at Manderley.”

       To what extent do you agree? [20 marks]

       In your response you could:

       consider your own impression of the narrator and of Manderley

       evaluate how the writer presents the narrator and presents Manderley

       support your opinions with quotations from the text

Right, this week I tried something different and I was surprised how successful it was. I fail often with lesson ideas, but those failed ideas I hide from the public. I taught student to break down the opinion statement into three parts:

“This part of the text introduces a place,

but it also introduces a character.

The writer creates tension by giving us clues about the narrator’s life at Manderley.”

These are the starting points for their ideas. Then, I introduced the following words: Typical / Unusual / Predictable / Effective.

They then had to say which word they would use to describe the aspect in the text.

·         “This part of the text introduces a place, [typical]

·         but it also introduces a character. [unusual]

·         The writer creates tension by giving us clues about the narrator’s life at Manderley.”[effective]

Now, in future, I might change the words, but the students started engaging and evaluating the text quickly. Students started saying how typical is was for writers to start with a setting. They said it was unusual to not describe the character when introducing a protagonist. They felt the writer effectively created tension.

The next stage was to explore the methods:  

·         “This part of the text introduces a place, [typical]

o   Journey / personification / slow reveal / constant barriers / contrast

·         but it also introduces a character. [unusual]

o   personality implied / structure of sentences / limited use of first person / few opinions

·         The writer creates tension by giving us clues about the narrator’s life at Manderley.”[effective]

o   Repetition of barriers / use of mystery / questioning

The final stage was to look at the effect of these and link it all together. What is the effect of using a typical introduction of a place?

The benefit of structuring the analysis in this way, like the structure question, is that you are address the important stuff first. If students can start making pertinent comments and statements from the start, the explanation will improve. All too often, the most important comment is made at the end of a student’s paragraph and we have to wade through drivel to get to it. This pushes those points at the front.

Step 1: Typical / Unusual / Predictable / Effective.

Step 2: Methods

Step 3: Effect.

I found it helpful to use the same text twice, but give them a different opinion statement. 

“The opening is incredibly creepy[Point 1] and mysterious [Point 2]. It is effective in the way it builds and creates mystery [Point 3]. ”

Time will tell if it is useful for all students and groups. At the moment, it seems to be working with my class.

Thanks for reading,