Sunday, 21 June 2020

I love the smell of red herrings in creative writing

I make no bones about it but I cannot stand ‘Freytag’s Pyramid’ for story writing. In fact, I loathe its very existence. It warps stories beyond all recognition. Makes storytelling a simple box ticking exercise and it is one that would put me off writing a story. For life.

Recently, I have been marking a set of Year 10 Question 5 responses. In the same week, I was looking at rewriting parts of our horror / gothic horror unit in Year 8. And, a simple case of happenstance made me join some cognitive dots. The Year 10s Question 5 responses were reasonable but they were not wowing me. Students had a picture of a beach and they were describing the sea and an island in the distance. There were some lovely bits of description and ideas, but they were flat and monotonous. They were full of bits of description and nice bits of description at that, but they were largely one tone. Flat. Now, it is easy to blame structure and a lack of ‘Freytag’s Pyramid’ but something was missing. And, for me, that was a puppeteer. Story writing is akin to being a puppeteer. You have a number of strings to pull with an impact on the overall story. Students need to have an idea of the strings and when and how to pull them. A large number of strings are not used, but one or two are. But it is the knowing when and how to pull a string that is key.

Anyway, I was planning some work for Year 8s. We spend a term looking at gothic fiction and within that I have wanted to explore how horror directors employ a number devices when filming. Here’s some of the things we are looking at.

Techniques employed by film directors and writers in horror films   

A false sense of security – the writer makes everything seem safe when in reality it is not
Anticipating the worst – the reader is expecting something terrible and they don’t know when it will happen
Dramatic irony – when the audience knows something the characters don’t
Empty space – the writer makes the setting empty so that we think nothing can affect our main character 
Jump scares – this is when –  BANG -you get a shock suddenly without any build up
Mise-en-scène – everything that is in the scene / setting –how things are placed
Nonlinear sounds – these are sound effects that don’t fit in with the story – they seem odd
Red herring – a false clue designed to put us on the wrong path of what is really happening
Slow reveal – this is when the writer reveals a key piece of information slowly and one bit at a time
Stock character – an easily recognised, and predictable, character for the genre – we can easily tell who they are from their clothes and behaviour
Subverting expectations – when the writer breaks the rules of what we expect to happen in the story
Suspense – a feeling of being anxious or excited, but unsure of the reasons why
Twist – this is a reveal and it changes everything we know about a character or story
Underexposure – where the writer using lighting / darkness to hide things
Unreliable narrator – the reader thinks they can trust the narrator but they cannot and they mislead them

We need students to be puppeteers in the writing process. Directors are puppeteers. They control the story. They help direct the story and how the story is told. That’s why I think it is important for us to develop story telling rather than, solely, story writing.  ‘Freytag’s Pyramid’ is about story writing but not about telling. Directors are focused on story telling.
Take our descriptive writing for Question 5. Here’s the picture we used:

How could you structure a piece of writing around subverting expectations?

Example 1:

Paragraph 1 – A beach is calm and quiet.
Paragraph 2 – A person steps their toe in the water.
Paragraph 3 – The reality is that they are stepping a toe in their bath at home. In a dull, tiny flat.

Example 2:  

Paragraph 1 – A beach is calm and quiet.
Paragraph 2 – A person is calm and quiet.
Paragraph 3 – Beneath the water several sharks are hunting and waiting for life.

Example 3:

Paragraph 1 – A beach is calm and quiet.
Paragraph 2 – A person steps their toe in the water.
Paragraph 3 – A person removes their headset to reveal that they are in the future – a world without light and nature.

Each of these structures would include complication, crisis and exposition but the story telling is key. How you structure the story hangs not on endless crises but around a structural device and how you use the device. That’s why I think, we as teachers, need to be thinking about how writers use a technique. Thought about how to use a device / techniques is imperative with helping students to use something effectively. The danger is that we give these devices to students and then expect them to use them without insight, understanding, knowledge, experience.

Let’s take another one of the devices employed by directors. How could you structure a piece of writing around a red herring?

Example 1:

Paragraph 1 – A beach is calm. Slowly a fin pops up.
Paragraph 2 – Something is moving in the sea while a person moves towards the sea.
Paragraph 3 – The person enters the water and the thing heads to them and dives between their legs. A herring. A waves sweeps the person out to sea.

Example 2:

Paragraph 1 – A quiet beach.  A person takes off their clothes and pile them up. They place a letter next to the pile and rest a stone on top of it.
Paragraph 2 – The person goes out into the sea and swim out to the deep.
Paragraph 3 – The person and returns. The letter has blown away.

I feel that we need to get better at talking about the structuring and creation of stories. We, often, through a lack of experience and knowledge paint story writing with big large brushstrokes. We need a more succinct and precise approach to discussing story telling. ‘Freytag’s Pyramid’ represents this exact problem. That are four billion ways to create a complication. That richness is neglected when reduced to a pretty picture.

There is an art to puppeteering. We want students to be sophisticated puppeteers when they write, but we teach them as if they have a sock puppet. They needs strings and lots of them. But, they need guidance on what the different strings do and how to manipulate the string to create a variety of effects.

We need to teach students how to use each string. In fact, we, ourselves, need to be clear about how to use each string. It is not enough to spot a string. You have to know about the length, the connection, the amount of pressure, the position of a string. 

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 13 June 2020

Home or remote work – why it is the school’s responsibility and not the teacher’s responsibility

We love a pattern. Look at tea leaves and we try to see a pattern that reflects our future. Look at your toast and you try to see a divine image in the burnt bits. Look at the news and we try to see a conspiracy behind the patterns of events.  

We love searching for meaning in the unconnected and disjointed fluff of our lives.

Leadership teams look at the reward system to see where there are problems and issues relating to events in the classroom. They look at a spreadsheet to judge the behaviour in departments, year groups, lessons and for teachers. They look to see where support is needed or things need monitoring. They look for patterns in the behaviour.

The problem we have is that a lot of our behaviour systems clump different elements together. Behaviour is often gauged through a numerical figure. That might be a percentage. Or a simple number. We then identify types of students based on this one figure. Good student. Naughty student. Or, effective teacher. Not effective teacher. The problem is that we lump class behaviour, outside the classroom behaviour and homework. A figure combines everything. We don’t separate the three different parts of behaviour in schools. In the classroom. Outside the classroom. Work at home.

As a teacher, I am responsible for the behaviour in the classroom, but I cannot be held responsible for Tim smoking behind the bike shed - unless I lent Tim my lighter. However, as class teachers, we are expected to be responsible for the work done in the classroom and at home. So, in essence, we have a responsibility for the behaviour at home. Let me just repeat that again: we have a responsibility for the behaviour at home. Like some deity, I am expected to have power that ensures that students complete work in a bedroom that isn’t tidied, because they haven’t listened to their parents when they asked them to tidy it. My teacher powers are to be so powerful that they move through walls, buildings, gardens and get a student to work at home. At the moment, I am doing my teacher stare at the window, hoping that my Year 10s will do some of the work I have set them.

I think the way we treat and clump homework to what happens in the classroom is so problematic. My teacher power does weaken as the student leaves the classroom. How can I be responsible for what a student does at home? And, more importantly, why should I be held responsible for a child’s behaviour at home? And, even more importantly, why should I be held accountable for a child’s behaviour at home?

Remote learning has drawn this out in to the public. Teachers are setting work and not every student is completing it. Whose fault is that? Whose responsibility is it?

Homework consumes a lot of any teacher’s time, effort and energy in school. We are setting it. We are checking it. We are chasing it. We are hunting it. We are, in some cases, begging for it. Some time spent teaching is spent on homework. Some time spent planning is spent on homework. Why don’t we have a system that alleviates this burden from teachers. Why are Maths chasing the same students that the English department are chasing ? Usually, if a student is poor at doing homework for one subject, then they are usually poor for most subjects. Yes, they might be getting a repeated message, but is a time effective one. How much time has it taken?  Wouldn’t it be better if one person addressed the homework issue, rather than the English, French, PE, Geography, DT and Mathematics teacher?

Remote learning, I hope, has changed the landscape of homework. It has made homework a whole school issue. A whole school responsibility. Our school is collectively looking at students not engaging with remote learning. Then, we have a team of leaders calling home to ask if any support is needed or guidance needed. It is not blaming or accusing, but simply highlighting and helping issues. This model for me is the one we need to take forward after the lockdown. Teachers flag the patterns and it is the school’s responsibility to address and explore the patterns. That collective responsibility I think is a massive shift. It is realising that the work is not just the responsibility of the teacher, but the responsibility of the whole school. The whole school should be monitoring homework for patterns.

I also think remote learning is going to do something phenomenal in how we deal with work on top of lessons. At the moment, we have a huge data exercise. Schools are generating a massive data picture. We are, in effect, creating a data picture of the students that work outside the classroom. Aside from individual problems, we are going to see how over several months how students engage independently with work. We have a building a picture of how independent they are. Or not.

We are able to build a picture of who in Year 7, 8, 9 and 10 will need pushing and monitoring. We are able to build a picture in each year of who ‘might’ not revise for exams. We have a picture of the students who rely solely on lessons for their progress. We have a whole school picture of something we rarely have had in the past. The homework picture has always been isolated to the teacher. It is the teacher’s concern and nobody else’s. I think we need to change that.

Lots of people are talking about gaps in knowledge when the students return but maybe we should look at the gaps in engagement. Those should be the patterns we investigate when we return to school.

Make homework a whole school issue and not just an issue for the one tired teacher who is doing everything else.  Chasing homework is so time consuming. We never deal with the underlying issues. A teacher can’t do that on their own. A school can though!

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 7 June 2020

Putting stories back in the curriculum

It is Sunday, so it is hymn number 423:

All things bright and beautiful,

All characters great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,

The writer made them all.

Each little voice that speaks,

Each little person's fling,

The writer made their glowing colours,

The writer made their tiny wings.  

Books. I love them. The short books. The long books. The lost and forgotten books. The cherished books. The unpopular books. The easy books. The complicated books. I love them all.

Annually, there is always a discussion about books in the GCSE English curriculum. Rightly so, we should question and interrogate the choices made. Yet, the discussion on the GCSE texts becomes a hurricane for the whole English curriculum. It pulls in Years 7, 8 and 9 in its path. Everything is forgotten for the sake of the GCSE texts. I know I teach a Shakespeare play, a Dickens novel, a play written by a modern writer and a selection of poems for GCSE, but I also teach other books for the English curriculum. Ideally, those GCSE texts are studied in one specific year. One year. The course might last two, but the time spent on individual books is shorter.

We need a good hard look at how reading is used in the classroom, because I think we are in danger of making the same mistakes as before and just transposing a model from previous exam systems on to the current one.

We are in danger of having book dysmorphia.

We need to re-evaluate how books and stories are used in the classroom, because I think we have become warped into thinking that every book we read in English should be studied and analysed in the way we do books at GCSE. In fact, I’d say that the model for studying books, in English, is the GCSE model. Spend a term on it. Read a bit. Do a bit of work. Repeat again and again. Then an assessment at the end to ensure that the student has a good knowledge of the text.

If we follow the GCSE model of studying books like that (I am still traumatised when I taught ‘Holes’ – that book takes a year to read), then no wonder we don’t read many books in KS3. You are simply blocking off two terms to read one book. We are eking out the interest for weeks at a time. When you look at other things in the curriculum to cover, you can see why people don’t teach several novels in a year.  This is the problem. We need students to read more, yet our curriculum works against this. Instead, we rely on private reading or tutor times to plug the gaps, when we could be looking at our own curriculum to aid this need for more reading and more stories in lessons.

I feel there are two types of book in the English classroom. Don’t think for a second that I being elitist and snobbish about the two types. I view each type of books as equally good and each with their own literary merit. And, yes, you could study them both using the GCSE model. However, I think some books lean closer to analyse and some books lean closer to reading for pleasure / exploration of ideas / issues.

Type 1 – Texts to analyse

Year 7:  ‘A Treasure Island’

Your Type 1 books are meaty, weighty and call for the level of analysis you’d do with GCSE texts. Enjoyment stems from the story and engagement with the language of the text.

Type 2 – Texts to experience as stories  

Year 7: ‘A Monster Calls’

Your Type 2 books are powerful, poignant and need to be read and enjoyed. They don’t need to be stopped and started all the time. Enjoyment stems from the story and engagement with the ideas of the story. They might have an issue or complex emotional conflict.

The predominance of Type 1 books and the associated methodology with them means that the speed, pace and consumption of books is lost. We don’t race through books. We stumble. We limp. No wonder reading has a bad press in teenagers, because if they view reading in the same light as we study books over a term, then I too would be questioning my enjoyment of books. What, before I read this chapter, I have to match up the meanings of words? Books can be just read. Books can be just discussed. Books can be just enjoyed.

Again, our treatment of books follows the GCSE model. We must at some point write on paper something about how language or structure has been used in the novel or we haven’t taught them something. What if the reading of a book and the teaching from it isn’t something you can easily assess? What if it is the culmination of reading several books over several years?

This year, I tried to change the way I used novels in lessons. I looked at how I could change the way we used novels in the classroom. So, I put more texts in. When studying Gothic horror, we read a Real Read version of ‘Dracula’ and discussed the story. Then, we’d carry on with our writing of our Gothic story. No analysis.

Also, at the start or end of the lesson, I’d read a chapter from a book. That book went on for a term or more, but engaged them. They were hooked, and, surprisingly settled at the start or end of a lesson.  They listened. And, they listened. When, I asked them about the story, they could offer ideas and predictions. They were engaged in the story. Oh, and I only needed one copy of the text because I was reading out aloud.

For next year, we are reading with each KS3 class we are aren’t changing our Type 1 texts, but we are adding five Type 2 books. We are adding more story to lessons. Our plan for Year 7 is to read the following:

Ghost Boy – Jewell Parker Rhodes

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – Judith Kerr

Trash – Andy Mulligan

Jessica’s Ghost – Andrew Norriss

We’ll be reading them a bit each lesson. The teacher reading…and the students listening. A collective reading experience. We are putting the story back in lessons. Yes, there might be something interesting about the language or the structure, but the students will hear a story and engage with the story and listen. We are now looking at our Year 8 and Year 9 texts. Why not try to teach students four more books in a year? Do I want the experience students have of a year to be dominated by one book? Plus, if the student’s only experience of reading takes place in the English classroom, then lets give them loads of reading experience. After all, that’s mainly what distinguishes the able and not so able: reading experience. Why don’t we just make the reading experience better for students?

I love stories. Part of the reason I read so much is that I love reading stories and experiencing stories so much. That’s why I read everything and anything. The more exposure to stories, the more chances we have to ignite the spark. Yep, the GCSEs are the goal post, but you can some great passes and tackles before you score the goal.

Reading is the best thing in English lessons. We need to tell each other that is fine to just read the book. It is fine to not have something written in your book after reading. It is fine listen to a story and not be interrogated about the writer’s techniques. It is fine to just read. It is fine. Just read.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 10 May 2020

Living on the edge… of reason

Energy cannot be destroyed but transformed from one state to another.

Emotions cannot be destroyed but transformed from one state to another.

After several weeks of confinement, I sense that people are quite fraught on Twitter. People are snapping at each other. People are taking umbrage at everything and anything visible. People are reacting uncharacteristically to things said or written.

It feels like, collectively, we are on the last leg on a car journey that has seemed to go on for days. Your dad’s taste in music (James Last) is driving you mad. Your mum’s squeaky nose is annoying you beyond all reason. You brother is just annoying because he simply just exists in the world. Finally, your dog is annoying you because he insists on plonking its fat arse on you while it licks the window for some unknown reason.

We are at that stage of the journey where it could all explode quickly and messily.

Over the last few months, I have noticed the journey in emotions the whole world is experiencing. And it is interesting how those emotions are dealt with.

At the start of the whole process, we had weeks of nervous students worried about the impact of the virus. Students joke and laugh about things, but seriously they are worried. I remember spending a whole fortnight of lessons starting with a discussion of what’s happening with the virus and how it is being dealt with. The problem the students had was that nobody was talking to them about things. They were picking bits of things from the news and various media outlets, which is just a playground of gossip. Each lesson would begin: ‘What do you want to ask me about it?’ They were appreciative of having the opportunity to just talk. It seemed that the British Stiff Upper Lip was well and truly in place. So stiff it couldn’t give explanations and talk to young people what was happening. Their nervous jokes hid their anxiety and worries.

Then, we had the lockdown and we noticed the impact on our own children. Sleepovers were cancelled. The regular contact with their friends evaporated overnight. Friendship can disappear too and without the contact that is a possibility for children. Their anger was as result of their fear of losing something.

As the weeks developed, I saw the frustration parents had when dealing online learning. Overnight parents have become teaching assistants and teachers whilst balancing their own jobs and commitments. Their anger aimed at the schools was their frustration at the situation.

I, then, had to get used to online learning and that turned my working day upside down. I was chained to the computer. Unlike those that have seen time to watch online CPD courses and read endless CPD books, I was responding to constant emails and messages about work. My anger was a result of my inability to control my workload.

There’s a lot of anger out there. Even more thanks to some newspapers. Yet, this anger is borne out of an inability to control our circumstances. Our helplessness. I have had some unpleasant conversations on Twitter recently and I put them down to the fact that fear, anxiety and sense of hopelessness don’t simply disappear. Instead those emotions are converted into anger. That anger then hides that fear, anxiety and helpless about a situation. Possibly, anger is easier to deal with as an emotion. It is quickly absorbed by something. It is easy to target it on something. It is easier to control. It is easier to justify to ourselves.  

Anger is a very loud emotion that drowns out all the other emotions.

The problem is that Twitter and other mediums are a conduit for people to offload their feelings. A conduit for them to get things off their chests. And, maybe there is a genuine need for this type of conduit, and Twitter and Facebook are fulfilling that need. I suggest we have a new social media platform called Rant. But, like the good Yoda said: ‘Anger leads to suffering. Suffering leads to pain.’

We are experiencing something unlike anything modern history and we have no framework or point of reference for dealing with what we are dealing with at the moment. Therefore, I am going to suggest that we walk away from arguments. That we ignore barbed and insulting comments. That we ignore the anger and hatred. There is so much more me to be angry about and with the amount of spurious, speculative guff some people are spewing it is all too easy to get caught up in someone else’s offloading of their emotional baggage. Ultimately that’s what the angry voices are, a cry for help.

I think the next few weeks are going to get worse and we are going to see more and more of the anger online. The past fortnight has shown me this with several different examples. I think we are at peak emotional instability. Emotions cannot be destroyed but transformed from one emotion to another.

I am worried because my mother is a district nurse and she visits lots of elderly patients, but I will not turn that worry into anger.

I am worried because my eighty old gran lost her husband after Christmas and now lives alone, but I will not turn that worry into anger.

I am worried because my daughter has brittle asthma and CP so will be confined to hospital if infected, but I will not turn that worry into anger.

The tinniest of things can cause anger but that anger has to go somewhere. It doesn’t just disappear and it is converted into something else. It could be that we don’t see what it is converted into because all we can see is our own anger, because our anger is loud and it hides all other emotions.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 3 May 2020

Standing centre stage

Watching the national updates of our current crisis, I cannot help but think of what is being foregrounded and what is being placed in the background. Nothing hit me harder than the way that the number of deaths in care homes had been hidden and placed in the national background.

The relationship between the foreground and the background is an important thing. Putting something at the front makes you forget what’s at the back. It is a statement of importance. Just think of where you are sat in a wedding party. Sorry to say this but the level of proximity to the bride and groom marks you level of value to them.

I love looking at Shakespeare from the view of choices. I like exploring why Shakespeare made one choice over another. Now, one choice I think is more challenging and conceptually perceptive is the choice between putting something in the foreground or in the background. What’s pushed to the back is interesting too? Poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Or, is it Guildenstern and Rosencrantz?

In the world of storytelling and sometimes things are pushed to the sides so another part of the story can be told. In some cases, the men are in the background and the women are in the foreground. In others, the young are in the foreground and the old are in the background.

I think looking at Shakespeare’s work in terms in what is and isn’t in the foreground is really interesting. I find ‘Macbeth’ interesting because it shoves King Duncan to the background largely in the plot. He even suffers the indignity of dying off stage. How unimportant must you be to die off stage? Yes, King Duncan features in scenes and talks, but if I got the part of King Duncan I’d be asking for more lines.  Go on – let me be the Porter too.

So why is King Duncan relegated to the background? Well, it could be because Shakespeare wanted to foreground the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. It could be because Shakespeare wanted to protect the divine nature of the true king and not treat him in human terms. It could also be because Shakespeare was placed on a table as far as way as possible from the actor and his bride at their wedding.

Looking at the relationship between the foreground and the background is an untapped seem of ideas and thinking we neglect. Foregrounding occurs all the time in stories and we can mine them more in lessons. Foregrounding is happening with characters, events, relationships, feelings, language. We know that foregrounding is just emphasising, but talking about ‘emphasis’ is a hard thing to articulate for students because in some students’ eyes everything is emphasis. Looking at foregrounding allows students to see the bigger picture. They are comparing one element to another.

I study ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with Year 10 so here are some possible choices. I am aware of the clunky sentence – but I wanted to show the foreground and background element. Of course, you only need to use one in writing, but students to know both.

Shakespeare places the Capulets in the foreground and places the Montagues in the background.

Interestingly, the Capulets are at the foreground of the story which could largely indicate the role parents have in a daughter’s life. They control her and dominate her life. It could also show males aren’t really controlled by their parents and are largely independent and have freewill.

Shakespeare places the developing relationship in the foreground and places the wedding in the background.

I love a good wedding, unless I am position furthest away from the bride and groom, but the wedding is absent from the play. We know it happens, but we don’t see it. Could this be a way to undermine the purpose of marriage? It is not important enough to see. Instead, what we see is the relationship and all its ups and downs. In fact, we could even suggest that this foregrounding negates marriage completely. The greatest love story of all and yet there’s no weddings on stage.

Shakespeare places the physical appearance of Juliet in the foreground when Romeo speaks about the dead Juliet and takes the poison.

I don’t know about you, but if I saw my loved one supposedly dead before me I wouldn’t be obsessing over her appearance. I’d probably thinking of things I never say or do with my loved one. Yet, her the emphasis is on her physical appearance. It could suggest how naïve the relationship is. It could suggest the love is physical, which contradict much of the imagery of the story. It could also show how young their relationship is that they cannot see beyond the physical.

When looking at whether something is in the foreground or in the background is some complex engagement with a text. It then leads to other discussions. If it isn’t in the background, then where is it? Where is it in the writer’s ideas and view of the world?

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 26 April 2020

Where have all the spotty pants gone?

At the moment, I am working with lots of students remotely to create a story and, along the way, I have seen a common trend. A trend that we don’t, I think, successful address in the classroom.

I asked students to describe a setting. It just so happened that the setting at the point in the story was a kitchen. The majority of the students decided to use the setting as an opportunity to symbolise the neglect the boy had suffered at the hands of his parents. The uncared for kitchen reflected how uncared for he was. I have hundreds of descriptions like this. The default description, it seemed, was child neglect and cruel parents.

Now, I would like to think this event was an isolated event, but it isn’t. I remember once how depressed I was at class’s response to a Paper 1 Question 5 response: a picture of a person on the edge of a lake. The class had to create a piece of narrative inspired by the picture. I was given the following narratives:

·         A man contemplating suicide.

·         A man had killed somebody.

·         A man was thinking about killing someone.

·         A man was on the run.

·         A teenager who wants to escape from bullies.

·         A man had just discovered that his girlfriend is pregnant. 

The class seemed to have written the plot of a week’s worth of Hollyoaks episodes. It did, however, depress me. Not because I am cheesy grinning moron who coats life with optimism, but because death and unpleasantness is so common in their storytelling. We know that films and TV are the key sources for their inspiration. That’s why we get cheap copies of The Walking Dead when we ask students to write a horror story.  Like Catherine Moreland in ‘Northanger Abbey’, our obsession with one type of story warps our view of things. I think young people are tainted by these stories. In fact, they are the dominant narratives in their life. Everyone is a possible murder. Everyone is a victim of something.

Reading is the key to combatting this. That’s why the best writers are always the best readers. They know that in a situation death, murder, abuse or suicide are not the sole options or solutions. Going back to the writing task, there was one little bit I loved. This line:

The rain sank deeper into Sam’s thin spotty pants, his dad’s grey work trousers and his mum’s pastel yellow cardigan that were all on the wet washing line.  

One student decided to use a washing line to introduce the family. There was no blood, death or violence and just, simply, a pair of spotty pants. But, those pants were more creative than any Marvel film or Eastenders knock-off. And, the problem is, we don’t see Captain America’s boxer shorts. We need more pants. Why? Pants are mundane, normal and funny. The student made something normal into something deeper.

The problem with students is that they take something normal and make it something dramatic. It is the shift between these two elements that builds creativity and imagination. It is so easily to turn a pair of knickers into a drama. Let’s put a pair of knickers on the washing line and it becomes a case of the father having an affair and the mother might not be aware of it. Or, maybe the mother is aware and that the marriage is on the rocks. Then, why is she washing the kecks of another woman? That’s a whole week of Eastenders episodes there.

We need to shift from the dramatic pants to the deep pants. That’s why we need to work on mundane events in storytelling. If you take the majority of the AQA Paper 1 exam papers, there’s a lot of mundane events.

Rosabel farts on a bus.

Mr Fisher sneezes.

Mr Hartop drives a van.

They are not very dramatic, but they are quite meaningful and this is what some students struggle with. Of course, they are not dramatic, but that’s what students struggle with. What has the writer done to interest the reader? For most students, nothing has been done to interest the reader. There’s no death. There’s no murder. But, that’s because they are stuck on the dramatic mode rather than the deep mode.  Like Catherine Moreland, they living a in fantasy world expecting things to be bad, when in reality they are fine and happy.

So, how can we help students move to mundane deep rather than spectacle and drama? Well, I suggest pants. No, not really. We need to bring the mundane to lessons. None of this crazy talk of structuring stories. Build stories instead from mundane events. I have created a table for the creation of stories and I expect to see one of them in a future exam.

Mundane experience
Profound and deep experience
A mother not valued by her family
a telephone call
Things in life aren’t always clear
A man who doesn’t want to age
opening a letter
Happiness is more important than money
A boy who wants to be like his dad
a bus journey
The world isn’t fair
A woman who wants a different life
washing the dishes
Love takes various forms
A man who is tired of life
Brushing teeth
Loss creates something new

A girl who wants to make a friend
wrapping a present
You have to be cruel to be kind sometimes
A father struggling to connect with his child
opening the curtains
Only you can make things change

A mother could have a telephone call from a school and from that she learns that he child was punished for standing up to another insulting her.

This allows for a change in perspective and type of conflict. It would be so easy for a student to describe a fight. This way we can see the impact the conflict has. The mother learns she is valued.

I think moving away from spectacle and moving towards mundane is key. If only the makers of 'Game of Thrones' did this in their last series? I am a big fan of Ibsen and this is a style of storytelling we have lost from the majority of film and TV. Small events with big emotional resonance. Instead, we have big spectacle with little or no emotional resonance. In fact, we have the music to tell us how to feel. Maybe, we need to be a bit more grownup with storytelling.

When we pick stories for class readers, we tend to select according to the taste of students. What if that taste or preference of books is limiting their imagination? What if we are reinforcing that domineering power of one type of narrative? What if we are promoting the ‘dramatic storytelling mode’ over the ‘deep storytelling mode’ through our choice of books? We pick books to be engaging rather than the quality of depth of meaning.

Thank for reading,


Sunday, 12 April 2020

Remote Learning: teaching dialogue

The whole education world is in limbo at the moment. Uncertain about what is happening. Uncertain about when things are happening. Uncertain how things with Year 11 are going to work out. I was all set for a couple of months supporting Year 11 and now that has evaporated.

Like most, I am trying to make the home learning work and work in a way that isn’t about widening gaps.  Therefore, I have spent that last few weeks, in isolation, making video after video designed to support students. I have been working mainly on creative writing so that we can develop, build and revise existing knowledge rather than introduce new content.

I thought I’d share how I have structured the videos for one week. Each one has a specific purpose related to dialogue and building on their use of dialogue in writing. The videos last about six to eight minutes long and allow students to pause and try out things. After watching the videos, students have to write three lines of dialogue for our ongoing story.

Video 1 – The basics

Video one talks them through using dialogue and attempts to clarify some misconceptions of dialogue. Generally students have a lot of misconceptions about dialogue. That’s why I have placed more emphasis on the purpose of dialogue. All too often, students use dialogue purely for narrative, and this is where they are missing out.

What is the purpose of dialogue? Why do writers use dialogue at a particular moment?

       Helps us understand the character’s thoughts / feelings / personality 

       Make us understand who are the good and bad characters 

       Help us to see the protagonist’s relationship with others

       Helps us move the story on 

       Helps us to add drama / conflict

Which one uses dialogue better?


“Hello,” said Bob.

“Hello,” yelled Frank.

“How are you, Frank?” shouted Bob.

“Good, thanks. How are you?” bellowed Frank.


‘Not seen you for ages, Frank?’ bellowed Bob across the room.

‘Been busy.’

‘We missed you at work. Thought your wife was ill.’

‘Nah, just busy,’ Frank replied curtly.

Common mistakes

These are the main problems students have with writing dialogue

       Copying a normal conversation and the rules of a normal conversation

       Writing lots of dialogue – keep to three lines at a time

       Too much phatic talk – How are you? I am fine 

       A lack of indirect speech

       Overusing names and verbs

       Not using  dialogue structurally

       Make all the characters sound the same

Take one of these and turn it into a three line conversation

‘You lied to me, Tom!’

‘Have you always loved her?’

‘You’re an idiot.’

‘Did you really do it?’


‘Did you really do it?’

Tom whispered, ‘Shh. Don’t.’

‘Come on. You can tell me. Did you really do it like we planned?’ asked Terry with enthusiasm.

Key Tips

       Make your characters have contrasting personalities

       Hint at something larger – something under the surface

       Don’t spell things out - you don’t have to say ‘I love you’ 

       Don’t overuse names and verbs – use them once, effectively

       Stick to two or three lines of dialogue at a time

Video 2 – Building sentences

Video two gives them an example sentence and students use the structure of that sentence to create their own sentence. The example here is getting students to use two bits of dialogue added to a bit of narrative action.

There,’ said the schoolmaster as they stepped in together; ‘this is our shop, Nickleby.’

                                    Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens 

 Sentence Broken Down 


said the schoolmaster as they stepped in together;

‘this is our shop, Nickleby.’


‘Hello,’ said the woman as she removed her helmet slowly; ‘I didn’t expect to meet you here.’

Video 3 – Pushing it further

Video three aims to develop the sophistication and subtly of the dialogue and making it do something more than just be about a conversation, building in inferences and subtext. I talk through each one and explain how they add meaning.

Looking at how tone can be used

I talked about the use of italic and inverted commas to help emphasise the tone of sentence.

‘Did you really do it?’

Tom whispered, ‘Shh. Don’t.’

‘Come on. You can tell me. Did you really do ‘it’ like we planned?’ asked Terry with enthusiasm.

Looking at how pauses can be used

‘Did you… really do it?’

Tom whispered, ‘Shh. Don’t.’

‘Come on. You can tell… me. Did you really do ‘it’ like …we planned?’ asked Terry with enthusiasm.

Looking at how body language can be used

‘Did you… really do it?’

Tom whispered, ‘Shh. Don’t.’ His eyes didn’t meet Terry’s eyes.

‘Come on. You can tell… me. Did you really do it like …we planned?’ asked Terry with enthusiasm.

Looking at how indirect speech can be used

‘Did you… really do it?’

Tom whispered, ‘Shh. Don’t.’ His eyes didn’t meet Terry’s eyes.

‘Come on. You can tell… me. Did you really do it like …we planned?’ asked Terry with enthusiasm.

He refused to speak to me. He’d not even answer my questions. 

Exploring the impact of choices with a different example

‘You lied to… me, Tom!’

‘I didn’t really lie, but avoided …telling the truth. You see: I wanted to protect you.’

Tom stood up and raised himself to his full height.

‘Protect me! Protect me from what… No, protect me from …who?’

Jasmine stopped talking. She knew that he’d never answer her questions, no matter how many times she asked him.

What do these subtle things do to the dialogue?

       Sense of shock

       Thought they had a strong relationship

       Defensive and not willing to back down

       Sense of hopelessness

I have to say that making PowerPoint videos in six to eight minutes is helping to channel my thinking on ideas. My thinking is having to be more precise and relevant. It is challenging time, but we adapt, nonetheless.  And, I will be able to use these in lessons, when all this is over.

Feel free to use the content here and I’ll be happy to share more of these, if people find them of use.

Stay safe,


P.S. I will not be sharing the videos I have made. I am happy for the likes of others to make them, but I’d rather not inflict my voice on society.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Remote learning – storytelling with four hundred students

What everyone thought was going to happen, happened.

Like most people, I am reeling from events happening at the moment. The pace and uncertainty is a real challenge for us. We are taking each day as it comes.

The news that schools were closing was both a relief and shock this week. It has left us with a quandary. The majority of our classes, this term, are working on Shakespeare. Year 10 were starting to read ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Year 8 were working on ‘Macbeth.’ Year 9 were finishing off ‘Julius Caesar.’ How do you effectively teach Shakespeare via remote learning? Answers on a postcard for that one.

Thankfully, we have some regular systems in place so I can easily transfer them to online activities. Spellings. Reading logs. Vocabulary testing. Knowledge testing. Easy. What about teaching? Well, I love thinking myself out of a problem. How can I engage with students? How can I teach students remotely and make it productive? How can I support parents at home without making it overly complicated?

Then, I came up with a solution. Interactive storytelling.

Like most, we have a homework platform. Ours is Show My Homework. So, when the news of the shutdown came. I set my first piece of homework for Year 7, 8 and 9.  This is what I sent to students:

With school being closed as of Friday, we are going to set an interactive writing task over the next few weeks. Each year group is going to work on a different interactive story. 

The story is written in parts and for each part we will pick a winner in the year group. The winner's work will be the starting point for the next part of the story. At the end of the process, we will print and publish the completed story. 

The Year 7 story is called  'A strange event'. 

Write the opening sentence to our story entitled 'A strange event'. 

* The sentence has got to hook people and raise a number of questions. 

* It should only be one sentence long - you can cheat and have two sentences, if you really need to.

*Look at the examples provided, but don't steal them. 

*Do you want the story to be told in the first person or the third person? You decide. 

Submit your opening to Show My Homework by the end of Sunday. You will get the next part of the story on Monday. 

The response has been phenomenal from students. These are some examples from Year 7:

Her life would never be the same, as she picked herself up from the rubble that she use to call home.

I was tired, I was cold, I was hungry and a long way from home.

I thought we would be safe... that it would never affect us.

The house was being swallowed by fire.

He looks just like me...

I changed the story title for different year groups.  Year 8’s story was entitled ‘The Surprise’. Here are a few examples:

She knew where they lived.

I thought it was completely normal to see voices as colours.

The operation was just about to start, the knife was nearly all the way in, but little did they know I was awake and could feel everything.

The only time I knew what to do and it was already too late.

What everyone thought was going to happen, happened.

Year 9’s story was entitled ‘The Mistake’. Here are a few examples:

It’s been months since it happened, but the image is still engraved in my mind.

They often say life is full of regrets, yet I had none...

He dropped the shovel and admired his work, as he stood beside the home made grave.

I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea.

The decision I’ve just made I now regret.

The plan now is to whittle the sentences down to one key sentence per year group. I might cheat and include a top ten of sentences. There’s just so many good ones. Then, we are going to write the next paragraph. At each stage, I intend to do some explicit teaching or guidance on writing. I might even film a video for it or two.

The next paragraph is about introducing the protagonist. I am very grateful for the writer Dan Walker for allowing me to share his opening to his novel. Students are going to look at how to introduce their character. They will, however, be continuing from the opening sentence I have selected. Here is the link to a resource I am using. 

Each new week will bring a different part of the story. We will introduce our setting, our antagonist, our complication, our crisis and resolution, but each stage is influenced by the students.  All responses written by students are small – not even 200 words. Ideally, I am working on 1 to 5 sentences. The whole purpose being the activity is teaching students about storytelling at the same time as writing a story.

We don’t know how long we are going to be closed, so I am thinking how I can expand and explore ideas. I might get to a stage where we need a subplot. Or a flashback. Or a prequel. Or a sequel. I am even thinking at a later stage we get students, at home, creating PR materials such as covers, posters, trailers, etc. Who knows where we will get to?

As I said, the response has been phenomenal. I have several submissions during the typing of this blog. I am loving the collective and interactive nature of the story telling. To be honest, I have no idea where these stories are going to go. Three separate stories. No plan. No end point. No overall structure. A scary notion, but one that’s interesting. However, we are all working together, uniting people.

Over the weeks, I will place more materials on the blog as and when I create them.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 15 March 2020

I shot the counterargument but I didn’t shoot the argument

At the moment, I have been marking some Paper 2 mocks and the whole process is making me revise how we teach non-fiction. To be honest, I find the teaching of non-fiction really interesting. Throw a paper aeroplane out of a window – disinfect it first – and you are guaranteed to it someone with an idea about how to write a story. Do the same thing for non-fiction and you’ll get nothing.

In fairness, we teach non-fiction writing terribly. We’ll enthuse about creative writing to the extent that we will bring in sand and pebbles from the beach into lessons, just so our cherubs can find the right adjective to describe a beach. We might even play sounds of the ocean and blow in their faces so they can just get the experience right. Coffee breath and all! We might even allow Derek to eat his tuna sandwich during the lesson, because it is atmosphere building. Trish has opened all the windows to ensure the right temperature. Sharon has stolen a salt cellar and started flinging it in people’s faces. Trevor has taken it upon himself to make various bird noises until it draws the attention of SLT.

The problem with non-fiction is that we throw ideas at them. We teach students that non-fiction is about ideas and hundreds of them. That’s why when students write non-fiction they throw every idea at us. Why is smoking bad? Six paragraphs later and the students have listed four billion reasons why smoking is bad. Yes, you could teach them about Pathos / Ethos / Logos - but still they have listed a billion reasons, just with added emotion.

The problem comes with forming an argument. We tell students to list their ideas. We tell them to think of the opposite arguments. We get them to expand, list and build up arguments. We don’t get them to select, pick and identify the best argument. We don’t get them to select the one reason that is the best. That’s why non-fiction writing tends to follow the structure of:

Paragraph 1  - reason 1

Paragraph 2 – reason 2

Paragraph 3 – reason 3

Paragraph 4 – reason 4

Paragraph 5 – reason 5

Paragraph 6 – reason 6

Now, if you get students to think of opposing argument or counterargument, then you get a for argument paragraph and then an against argument paragraph. We need a cohesive argument across the whole text and that usually is achieved by building the whole piece around one reason. That reason is then developed and explored and strengthened not watered down.

Take a question from a few years ago. Parents are too overprotective. What is the one argument above all that will address this argument?

Let’s say we agree that our main argument should be:

Childhood should be about freedom and children should be carefree.

That one idea can then be a starting point. That way we can then start building up an argument rather than trying to link several disparate idea – which is what most students do.

Yes, you can go all Pathos, Ethos and Logos on me, but I’d prefer it if students look at that one argument and exploring it further. Here’s a great opportunity for classroom discussion. List as many questions about the argument.

Why should people have freedom?

What does freedom mean?

What are the benefits of children rather than adults having freedom?

Why do some people think children shouldn’t have freedom?

What does freedom look like?

Should children have complete freedom?

Does a child’s view of freedom differ to that of a parent’s?

What does a carefree child look like?  

What if I didn’t have freedom?

Why should children be carefree?    

Is my view of freedom different to others?

Do I have freedom?

Did I have freedom when I was younger?

Then, students see if they can answer some of the questions in pairs. The questions all have a natural cohesion because they all link to the same argument, but they are different facets of it.

From that point, it is easy to build and structure a coherent and cohesive argument.

Introduction: Do I have freedom?

Point 1: What does freedom mean?

Point 2: Did I have freedom when I was younger?

Point 3:  Does a child’s view of freedom differ to that of a parent’s?

Conclusion: What are the benefits of children rather than adults having freedom?

You have a stage at which you can move points and build a complete argument. You have the bones to build an argument. At this stage, you could decide that you could probably zoom on one strand and repeat the process again. I’d be tempted to go with ‘What are the benefits of children rather than adults having freedom?.   

Then, students can build up the writing and add to their framework.  If we look closer, we can see that the students are naturally demonstrating different skills and building on the one argument.

Introduction: Do I have freedom?  - Speculative writing

Point 1: What does freedom mean?- define and explain

Point 2: Did I have freedom when I was younger? – anecdotal writing

Point 3:  Does a child’s view of freedom differ to that of a parent’s? – comparative writing  

Conclusion: What are the benefits of children rather than adults having freedom? – opinion

At this point, you could bring in the heavy guns. Decide when to introduce Pathos / Ethos / Logos into the party.

How does anybody deal with an idea? I sit on it – like an egg – and wait for it to hatch. That’s what we don’t do enough with writing. We search for hundreds of eggs and then pick the best ones. Ideas need cultivating, growing, tending, caring. We don’t need hundreds of eggs. Just one. One.

Let’s get students away from listing and get them exploring one idea. Talk, of course, is brilliant for this. You don’t even need a salt cellar, a tuna sandwich, a pebble and sand to do it. It is all in their heads. Oh, and Trevor can make those bird noises in his head.

Thanks for reading. 


Next: Sentence Hacks for Paper 2 Q5