Sunday, 19 March 2023

I am ready for my closeup now, Mrs Writer.

There is a danger in English that we become the subject of extracts. Let’s look at an extract for Paper 1. Let’s look at an extract for Paper 2. Let’s look at an extract for unseen poetry. If there’s one thing we have in aplomb is extracts in English. I get that texts are the beating heart of English, but the constant trotting out of extracts doesn’t set pulses rising, or interest focused. Added to that we have some bizarre questions on the exam papers. I am looking at you, Question 2 and Question 3 on Paper 1. Questions that split something that is never really split on English exam papers. For decades, exam papers have always included language devices and structure devices under the umbrella term ‘methods’. Paper 1 bizarrely labotamises one from the other. Language and structure have always worked together, yet, like some messy royal divorce, the two are separate and cannot even speak to each other - let alone mention the other’s name. No, that is a structure term. No, that is a language term. 

Across the land, we are battling with this crazy question. We are having to separate structure from language. And, in no other part of the curriculum have we got this distinction. We don’t criticise students when they refer to a structure point when exploring a novel. Nor, do we criticise a student when they spot a language device in a poem. We reward the exploring of texts and not insist on a narrowing of focus. Texts are messy and assessments need to reflect that messiness. Otherwise, we are narrowing the focus, the teaching, the thinking and the ideas. Just look at the fact that they provide us with a bullet point to the questions. Is there anything more indicative that the question is the problem? This question is so messy that we need some bullet points added to it. If you cannot simply write ‘How does the writer make the setting scary?’ then there’s a problem with the question and not the students. 

I hate Question 2 and Question 3 with a passion, because they represent a massive problem with English. We have placed a ‘Frankenstein’s creation’ of analysis at the heart of the assessment system. The beating heart of the subject isn’t engagement and connections with literature, but a bizarre form of analysis which looks like some form of critical analysis, but it is far from it.This analysis monster is everywhere and dominating the collective consciousness. Instead of exploring texts meaningfully, we default to a perceived notion of what analysis is. We are shaping students to this analysis rather than thinking and connecting with texts. Instead of students noticing, exploring, digging in a text, we have defaulted to a subject that identifies, labels and categorises parts of a text. I hold Question 2 and 3 responsible for this. Instead of talking about what they notice in the extract, they have to separate things into language and structure points. The exam becomes a test of not their understanding of the text but their knowledge of if this is the structure or the language question. 

English is a unique subject because it allows all students and all levels of ability to engage, respond, explore and investigate a text. Having taught for years, you can see this. The weakest student in the class can often floor you when they make a point that is so profound that you haven’t even considered it. Yet, the exam system doesn’t support that and I blame the questioning. By being so detailed and prescriptive, the exam is holding a large number of students back on something they can excel in: responding to a text. 

With all that in mind, I have changed my approach to Question 3 over the last few years. Along with reading short stories, I explore film clips when exploring Paper 1. Instead of introducing Question 3 with a trumpet, I start the work covertly. Throughout the whole time I teach the reading section, I watch film clips and explore the ideas in them, so when I get to the dreaded Question 3 students have built up their confidence already. We watch the clip. Then, I show them a storyboard of the clip. Next, I pick one or two camera shots and get students to explore the meaning behind the shot. Usually, I pick a shot that focuses on an object or people. For the objects, we tend to explore the symbolism of the object and how it relates to action or subtext. For the characters, we tend to explore the inferred thoughts, feelings and motivations. 

There’s no need to look at every shot and we certainly don’t obsess about beginning, middle and end. We simply talk about how that shot adds meaning to what is going on. 



Camera shot 4. A masterclass in creating an ominous mood. You’ve got a child playing in the sand while a boy is searching for his missing dog. We have Brody, in the full clip worried that something is going to happen and this shot foreshadows what is going to happen and indicates that something has happened already, which he doesn’t know about. I also like this shot because it mirrors what is going on in the scene. You have two types of people: the worried/searching and the relaxed/playing. But, thinking of the writer’s masterplan, this is the clue that Brody has been looking for. A sign that something isn’t right. 

Jurassic Park: 


Camera shot 4. This shot is so famous that it is often parodied, but I like it because it shows you how objects can be used by writers. The ripples of the water don’t just indicate the imminent danger of the tyrannosaurus rex but the sense of power it has. The creature is nowhere near the car yet it is having an impact on something small, tiny and insignificant. If this creature can create ripples on water from a distance, what can it do to the character when it is next to them? This is all about the build up and preparing us for meeting the creature.   

The Birds: 


Camera shot 6. Or, as I’d like to call it ‘I am smoking a fag!’. You cannot look at films without looking at some Hitchcock. This one focuses on a character totally unaware of the danger behind her. She is relaxed, calm and unaware of the birds amassing behind her. For this shot, we talked about dramatic irony and how that is used for effect here. Something Hitchcock does often. I like this clip because it matches a lot of what we see in the exam paper - a slow discovery. Here the character discovers she is in danger. 


All Quiet on the Western Front: 

Link: (sadly, they have removed the link for this one. I used Netflix to show this scene. Skip the school bits) 

Camera shot 9. This has been my favourite film recently and I really like the opening. Very powerful. The shot here echoes the number of soldiers killed but also how devalued they are. I like how the name labels on the floor echo the opening with the coffins. There’s a cycle to the process almost. 

Billy Elliot: 

Link:  (contains swearing) 

Camera shot 7. For me, this shot is interesting because of the inferences you can make. The shot of Billy clutching the cushion reveals so much. Billy has had good news, but his reaction isn’t that of someone celebrating. The focus on the character reveals to us that he is scared about how his life will change. It suggests that he didn’t think he’d get in so he hadn’t prepared for it to happen. I think it is a great moment, because it reveals so much about the character without saying anything.

Schindler’s List: 


Camera shot 5. This film had such a powerful impact on me. The scene here is interesting for what it doesn’t show. The director shows us a point of view shot of the children waving to their mothers. The act of waving reflects the innocence of the children and how they misinterpret the events. A wave is used to say goodbye. The children are waving goodbye to their mothers one last time. We see the mother’s faces yet we don’t see the children’s faces. 

The Sandman 

Link: (opening few minutes) 

Camera shot 9. If you have been teaching long enough, you’ll have seen ‘The Sandman’. An interesting and dark piece of animation. This shot I find interesting because it highlights how distant the boy is from safety. As the child moves through the house, he is moving further away from his mother and safety. The house is laid out in an interesting way which suggests that what we see here is the child’s perception and not the reality. 

Touch of Evil 


Camera shot 8. This clip is interesting because it weaves two elements together. We have our protagonists having a chat whilst walking and then weaved in this chat is a car that keeps appearing and stopping. Again, we have dramatic irony at play here, but also this camera shot puts these two couples together. This moment highlights how close to the danger our protagonists are, but also how easily it could be our protagonists in the car.  Often we have an element of danger in the extracts and the danger weaves in and out of the plot. This clip is interesting for that. 

North by Northwest 


Camera shot 4. This one is a simple case of misdirection. What we think of as being the danger isn’t dangerous. The shot here looks like the protagonist and antagonist in a face off, when it isn’t. The clip highlights how we search for danger in a situation. We go through numerous things - a car, a man, a bus. Then, the danger comes. 

The ‘burbs


Camera shot 5. This shot is a combination of object and character. We have two characters in conflict, as reflected by their opposing standing positions. They face each other. Notice how they align and stand together when they are of a similar way of thinking. Of course, the bone has lots of symbolism here and key to defusing the conflict. They have replaced one conflict with an even greater conflict. A murder. 

I could have easily written more about each film clip, but that would be overkill. Exploring one camera shot is enough to form ideas and meaning. There’s no need to interrogate every shot. What we want is students to explore how the focus affects the meaning. Sometimes, what isn’t focused is equally as important to what is focused on. Engaging with stories and ideas should be key to what we do. A student’s response to a text needs to be paramount. 

Thanks for reading, 


P.S. Please share any film clips that you find work. I am very grateful to a colleague who has helped me source some of these clips. 

Sunday, 12 March 2023

Mock Marking Targets

A long, long time ago. I shared some simple targets for marking the English Language exam papers. They’ve saved me hours of time and stopped me from writing endless comments on exam papers. I simply write the code at the end. Students copy out the target and act on it. Obviously if there’s something else I need to comment on then I will write it down. The great thing is that I am able to spot patterns and trends across a class.

It was time for me to update the targets and that’s what I have done. This time around I have added a next step task which focuses on precise next steps. This time around I have used some precise sentences for students to use. 

Feel free to steal, borrow and adapt as you see fit. I hope that it saves someone out there some time. 

Link to Paper 1 marking targets. 

Link to Paper 2 marking targets. 

Thanks for reading,