Sunday, 20 January 2019

Painting the writer's presentation of a character clearly

At the moment, I am thinking, like most of us, on how we can use KS3 to empower students at KS4. On this area, I thought I’d share something I did in a lesson this week and its interesting results.

This term, I am exploring the presentation of characters in ‘Treasure Island’ with Year 7s and we were looking at how Robert Louis Stevenson presents Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins. Usually, I provide students with a range of quotations and we analyse those in detail. Or, I get students to select appropriate quotes. This time, I added an extra stage.

There is often a large leap between an idea and a precise language point. Some students can infer an idea from one simple word and others need so much guidance that I may as well write the answer myself, as I have given the point to them and I am praising them for repeating my idea. This gulf between ideas and language points is huge. It is often a struggle for a student to make a decent idea and find the appropriate language point. The melding of idea and language is a problem.   

During one lesson, we looked at the idea of how writers present characters in stories. I simply spelled out that writers use the following to present characters:





Of course, there’s clothes too but there is only really the opening, where clothes are used to show us a character’s personality.

So, with this, I changed my questioning. Instead of asking students to find a quote where Stevenson shows us how brave and mature he’s become, I asked question about how does Stevenson present Jim’s maturity and bravery. At this point students, were able to pinpoint, his actions and one specific decision.

As a group, we continued this with looking at different strands of how Jim and Long John Silver are presented in the book. The emphasis, however, was on these four elements: actions, relationships, decisions and dialogue. It gave students quite a concrete starting point for their analysis and helped them with the next phase: drilling down into the language.

If it is an action, I need to look at the verbs or the way the action is described.

If it is a decision, I need to explore the choice and the consequences of the choice.

If it is the dialogue, I need to explore the tone, level of politeness/formality or words used in the speech.

If it is relationships, I need to find moments in the story what symbolise the relationship.  

What this did for me was helped to develop the logical thinking of analysis? The knowledge of the specific approaches to presentation helped students to see things rather than rely on the old see what jumps out at you.

From a lesson perspective, I wrote on the board the following headings.

Jim is …                                 Stevenson uses…..                                          Because….

And, students filled out the table easily and quickly. Then, when I was able to get students to write paragraphs about the characters, they were able to structure their analysis around the key idea. A student focusing on a decision would then introduce the decision at the start of their point and then explore the decision instead of use benign sentence starters forcing students to look at word regardless of the fact that the way the writer is presenting a character is something embedded in the writing and not easily amounted to one word.

I think the GCSEs now are really helping to make us see that students need a background in understanding the complexities and simplicities of storytelling. We, as English teachers, need to spell out the basics of storytelling and not just graphs to show where a climax or a resolution is. We need to teach students that writers have these tools in their arsenals.

Let’s take ‘A Christmas Carol’. Do we really focus on the decisions made by Scrooge throughout the story? We probably emphasise the way he is presented at the start and end, but do we look at the decisions he makes. In fact, do we list the decisions he makes or has to make? Do we even explore the decisions?

Here’s a few decisions:

The decision to give the Bob Christmas Day off without pay.

The decision to not attend Fred’s house at Christmas.

The decision to not give money to charity.

The decision not to paint Marley’s name out.      

Each and every decision helps us understand the character more.  I’ll be honest: I have tended to focus dialogue and relationships when talking about presentation of a character. Oh and clothes is a given. But, do we look closer enough at the decision making of characters. Do we place emphasis on them and I don’t mean an impromptu drama lesson with a decision alley. In fact, I am sure decision alley was a torture device employed by several dictators in the past. A love drama, but my love does not spill out to lining students in a line and getting them to spout brain dibblings. It’s your decision to make. Feel free to judge me on my decision not to use it in my teaching.

The decision not to paint Marley’s name out.      

A decision that on face value could look like laziness or penny pinching. Or a decision that could indicate an inability to change. A sign that points to the notion that Scrooge doesn’t like change and doesn’t want to change. This is ‘signposted’ at the start of the story to indicate the battle we are going to have convincing Scrooge of changing his ways. If he can’t be bothered to change a sign, then how will he change his mind, when that is free?  

What was the decision? To paint or not to paint - that is the question? What if he does paint out the sign? It would mean he has visual reminder of his loneliness. It is just Scrooge. No, and Marley. The sign would be a reminder that he is on his own. It could also be the chink in his armour. For all the negativity surrounding him, this could be the one glimpse of hope.  Maybe he doesn’t want to be lonely. Maybe that sign is the symbol he wants to be part of something. He wants connection. He isn’t totally on his own. Like most of us, he just doesn’t know how to change himself for the better.

Then, we can look at when that decision took place. Seven years ago, presumably. A decision that hasn’t changed in seven years. That then highlights the rigid nature of his decision. He’s made a decision and he doesn’t go back on it. Let’s assume that in those seven years he has been asked by numerous people or has been reminded about it, yet still he hasn’t changed.

Decisions are everywhere in the texts we study and they are a choice made by the writer. To give a character a decision, helps us to understand a character. What decisions did Eric make prior to ‘An Inspector Calls’? What decisions does Juliet make in ‘Romeo and Juliet’?

If students can understand, learn and recall that characters are presented in a number of ways in Year 7 and remind them of this annually, then we will have students that understand better the way writers present characters in a range of texts. The group I was teaching had a detailed discussion about the decision making of Jim Hawkins towards the end of the novel and it was fruitful, meaningful and detailed. Giving students these four words helped the student to explore the text more than they would have done without them.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 13 January 2019

Giving us a choice in reading assessments and stopping our fixation with essay writing and essay preparation

When the new English GCSEs were introduced, the exam boards were selling their courses on the basis of KS3 materials. These KS3 materials were simply watered down GCSE papers. The longer I teach the GCSEs, the more I see that watered down GCSE questions is not the way to do things best. I have enough of marking exam papers and adding Years 7, 8 and 9 into the mix means that I am just a walking and talking exam marking machine – with teeth and hair. The GCSEs are the end point, but they are not the starting and middle point too. Years of answering the structure question will not make students better at answering them. It will make them understand the format well, but not necessarily the knowledge and skills to answer it effectively.
Last year, we tried to strategies to address reading and the assessing of reading. I wanted to explore how we could assess reading without defaulting to GCSE questions. A large problem with teaching and assessing reading is that it is all largely based on written literary analysis. Students are taught to write a literary response to a text from Year 7. How does the writer use language to make the monster sound scary in the extract? Students have to make a point and then explain it in detail. This is repeated again and again. And, we judge a student’s reading based on this. We see if they understand the text and we see if they can explain how the writer used language. All too often, these paragraphs are a retention of knowledge and the clever bits the teacher told them in class. If we honest, there is a level of narcissism when marking these essay style bits of writing, because we like it if the student remembers something we said or told them. Let’s give them a higher mark.
The added problem to this literary analysis is how we prepare students for writing a response. Students are often so heavily supported to write the essay so that sometimes the assessment amounts to filling in the gaps assessment. The problem I have is separating the student’s understanding from the teacher’s support. Rather than seeing what the student can and can’t do, we see what they can recall. If we are honest, how useful to our teaching is student’s response to an essay title that we have been preparing them for from the start of the unit? Essay based assessments do help us to spot issues with the use of quotations, idea forming and explanations, but do they effectively helps us to understand how students read independently and respond to a text?  
Therefore, we’ve changed our approach to some reading assessments to help us get a better picture. At the start of KS3 and KS4, we complete a reading age test to identify their reading skills. Last year, we started changing the assessment of reading skill as we approach literary texts. We started using multiple choice questioning. Here’s an example of one we used with our Year 7s this year.

Heroes and Villains Assessment 2018 – Dracula
Just as I had come to this conclusion I heard a heavy step approaching behind the great door, and saw through the chinks the gleam of a coming light. Then there was the sound of rattling chains and the clanking of massive bolts drawn back. A key was turned with the loud grating noise of long disuse, and the great door swung back.

Within stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere. He held in his hand an antique silver lamp, in which the flame burned without a chimney or globe of any kind, throwing long quivering shadows as it flickered in the draught of the open door. The old man motioned me in with his right hand with a courtly gesture, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation.

"Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own free will!" He made no motion of stepping to meet me, but stood like a statue, as though his gesture of welcome had fixed him into stone. The instant, however, that I had stepped over the threshold, he moved impulsively forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed cold as ice, more like the hand of a dead than a living man. Again he said:

"Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring!" The strength of the handshake was so much akin to that which I had noticed in the driver, whose face I had not seen, that for a moment I doubted if it were not the same person to whom I was speaking. So to make sure, I said interrogatively, "Count Dracula?"

He bowed in a courtly way as he replied, "I am Dracula, and I bid you welcome, Mr. Harker, to my house. Come in, the night air is chill, and you must need to eat and rest." As he was speaking, he put the lamp on a bracket on the wall, and stepping out, took my luggage. He had carried it in before I could forestall him. I protested, but he insisted.

"Nay, sir, you are my guest. It is late, and my people are not available. Let me see to your comfort myself." He insisted on carrying my traps along the passage, and then up a great winding stair, and along another great passage, on whose stone floor our steps rang heavily. At the end of this he threw open a heavy door, and I rejoiced to see within a well-lit room in which a table was spread for supper, and on whose mighty hearth a great fire of logs, freshly replenished, flamed and flared.

The Count halted, putting down my bags, closed the door, and crossing the room, opened another door, which led into a small octagonal room lit by a single lamp, and seemingly without a window of any sort. Passing through this, he opened another door, and motioned me to enter. It was a welcome sight. For here was a great bedroom well lighted and warmed with another log fire, also added to but lately, for the top logs were fresh, which sent a hollow roar up the wide chimney. The Count himself left my luggage inside and withdrew, saying, before he closed the door.

"You will need, after your journey, to refresh yourself by making your toilet. I trust you will find all you wish. When you are ready, come into the other room, where you will find your supper prepared."

The light and warmth and the Count's courteous welcome seemed to have dissipated all my doubts and fears. Having then reached my normal state, I discovered that I was half famished with hunger. So making a hasty toilet, I went into the other room.

I found supper already laid out. My host, who stood on one side of the great fireplace, leaning against the stonework, made a graceful wave of his hand to the table, and said,

"I pray you, be seated and sup how you please. You will I trust, excuse me that I do not join you, but I have dined already, and I do not sup."

Extract from Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’  

1.        Whose perspective is the story told from?

ð         A: Count Dracula

ð         B: Mr Harker  

ð         C: The Driver 

ð         D: A Servant

2.        What is the narrator’s attitude towards Count Dracula?

ð         A: Scared 

ð         B: Curious   

ð         C: Nervous   

ð         D: Excited  

3.        By the end of the extract, the narrator is…

ð         A: Relaxed and calm

ð         B: Worried and scared  

ð         C: A bit nervous

ð         D: Angry and fed-up 

4.        What group of words best describes Count Dracula in this extract?

ð         A: worried, anxious, scared

ð         B: rude, abrupt, demanding 

ð         C: mysterious, cautious, distant

ð         D: friendly, welcoming, helpful

5.        Why do you think Count Dracula speaks so kindly to the narrator?  

ð         A: To fool him into thinking he is safe

ð         B: To hypnotise him

ð         C: To show how evil he is

ð         D: To show how he is better than the narrator

6.        How does the writer create the atmosphere in the opening paragraph?

ð         A: Sound effects

ð         B: Light effects 

ð         C: A list

ð         D: A metaphor 

7.        To make Count Dracula seem like a villain the writer has mainly used… 

ð         A: Physical description

ð         B: Dialogue 

ð         C: Exaggeration 

ð         D: Sound effects 

8.        ‘…his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince… it seemed cold as ice, more like the hand of a dead than a living man.’ 

What technique is used here?

ð         A: Metaphor

ð         B: Simile

ð         C: Personification

ð         D: Exaggeration 

9.        To make Count Dracula seem less like a villain, the writer has made the character…

ð         A: attractive  

ð         B: tell a joke 

ð         C: Kind and old 

ð         D: look weak

10.     In paragraph 6, the writer repeats the word ‘great’ to …

ð         A: show the size of the place

ð         B: show us there’s lots of holes in the room

ð         C: show us how dark the place is 

ð         D: show us how small things are

11.     Why does Count Dracula use lots of exclamations?

ð         A: To show he is in shock

ð         B: To show that he is shouting

ð         C: To show how pleased he is

ð         D: To show how he thinks the narrator doesn’t understand him

12.     Which two things are the biggest causes of tension in the extract?

ð         A: Vampires and a castle

ð         B: Darkness and only two characters

ð         C: Lots of silence and strange noises 

ð         D: Dracula wants to kill him / monster lurking 

13.     Who in this scene has the most power?

ð         A: Neither characters 

ð         B: Both

ð         C: Narrator

ð         D: Count Dracula

14.     There are lots of references to light in this extract. The light is a symbol. What is it a symbol of?

ð         A: Safety 

ð         B: God 

ð         C: Healing 

ð         D: Ghosts

15.     The writer works hard to convince us that Dracula is a person to be liked and respected. How does the writer do that?

ð         A: Makes him a ‘Count’

ð         B: Makes him come from another country  

ð         C: Makes him intelligent 

ð         D: Makes him tall

16.     ‘At the end of this he threw open a heavy door, and I rejoiced’

What does this suggest to us?

ð         A: He is angry with the narrator

ð         B: He is quite weak   

ð        C: He isn’t careful with his property

ð         D: He has incredible strength

17.   ‘The old man motioned me in with his right hand with a courtly gesture, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation.
What does the bit in bold suggest to us?

ð         A: He has a strange voice

ð         B: He speaks very quietly   

ð         C: He puts the emphasis on the wrong sounds in words  

ð         D: The narrator cannot hear him properly 

18.     Dracula is an example of the Gothic horror genre. What two features of the genre are evident here?   Pick two things.

ð         A: A woman being terrorised 

ð         B: A dark place  

ð         C: A human with strange powers 

ð         D: A dungeon

19.     What does the word ‘dissipated mean in the following line?

‘The light and warmth and the Count's courteous welcome seemed to have dissipated all my doubts and fears.’

ð         A: Improved

ð         B: Increase   

ð         C: Reduce  

ð         D: Change  


20. You are going to complete this section in your green assessment books.  Write a page in response to this question.

Bram Stoker doesn’t present Count Dracula as a typical villain. Explain why you think the writer presented him in the way he did.

In your response, you need to:

·         Use quotations from the extract to prove your points.

·         Pick out words or techniques used by the writer.

·         Explain what the writer is suggesting to the reader.

·         Explain what the reader feels. 

Our idea was to separate reading assessments into two parts. The students prior to this had not read the extract. Instead they had read several extracts from Dickens’s novels related to villains.

Part 1 focuses on understanding and what a student has and hasn’t picked up when reading the text. It uses a range of questions exploring inferences, techniques, perspective, word meanings and genre. From that, we can spot key bits that students haven’t got. But, interestingly, there are questions that relate to the GCSE exam without me being all showy.

For example:

Q1 – structure: Paper 1 Question 3

The student is identifying the perspective of the extract.

Q4 – summary: Paper 2 Question 2

The student is summarising the character.

Across the multiple choice part I can diagnose issues with a student. They can do X,Y and Z. However, they can’t do A, B and C, which is a far better diagnostic tool for reading skills. It isn’t perfect and I will admit it, but it is a starting point.

Part 2 is ‘ye olde essay writing’ but we have reduced it to a page and just a page. If a student can’t say it in a page, then they’ll never say it in fifteen. It’s here where we do a combination of GCSE questions – Q4 and Q2. They have a question in which they have to explain a point. The first part will hopefully support them with their ideas and help them to write a meaningful paragraph or two.

Oh, and this has reduced our marking considerably. Instead of us having four pages of essay for each student to mark, we now have students mark the multiple choice questions and we mark one single page. Before we’d read four pages to give a grade and then say ‘you need to use quotations’ which was ineffective as they’d forget to use quotations next time. Now, we can diagnose issues with reading, perspective for example, and explore how they write about texts quickly and effectively. It has also meant that we are not spending ages writing the one essay. We are working hard on preparation with more texts and not the same one text. It’s allowed for us to be more exploratory with texts. We have tried it with Shakespeare and Dickens novels. They are given an extract they haven’t studied in the multiple choice section and then the page essay is simply relating the text.

From a curriculum leader’s perspective, we are generating two marks and we report back on them. One for reading and one for writing about reading. It allows us to separate parts of reading. The student’s reading and the student’s ability to communicate their ideas about reading. There’s a lot of students who struggle to communicate their ideas about reading, but actually understand the texts. This way we are able to reward students for a bit that has been largely hidden by writing.

I admit there are elements to work on and we are still working on how to word the questions effectively, but for us it has been a significant change. Oh, and we haven’t ditched essays completely. We just use other forms to assess reading rather than rely on essays all the time.

Thanks for reading,