Saturday, 27 September 2014

Marking wars

There’s a battle inside every English teacher. It’s not a fight between Austen and Bronte. It’s not a war between Dickens and Poe. It is instead a marking battle. The battle between accuracy and creativity.

When I mark, it is often with the focus of accuracy and technical improvement. I will circle a mistake and make a student identify what the mistake is, with the hope they learn from this and never do it again. My mind is always set on accuracy. Targets will be driven by errors and I might spot spelling, punctuation or grammar mistakes. However, my marking doesn’t focus on creativity. I am chained to accuracy and I never seem to escape it. The beast is far stronger than creativity. If I am honest, it is only with creative writing does my marking address the creative aspect. I then might say: I like how you have developed the character and how you end the story. The rest of the time the marking focuses on spelling, punctuation and grammar.

This week I did something different. For a few years, I have discussed and blogged about how we neglect the effect of writing in lessons. An insistence on the purpose of writing has led to some dire writing and some boring efforts in class. I have explored in Sexy Sprouts how students should be taught to change the effect of their writing and for me this has really helped my students. This week I thought about this writing for effect in more detail and applied it to my marking. What if the drive behind my marking was focusing on the effect? What if I solely focused on the effect and left the accuracy alone?

As a result of this thought, I asked a group of students to describe a setting for a ghost story. After teaching students the difference between ghost and horror stories (which amounts to one going Ahhhh! and the other going Oh!), the students set off to write their settings.

Enter the red pen from stage right.  

I marked the work with a very different approach. Instead of the boring ‘two wishes and a star’ approach, I simply put the word atmosphere and a number out of ten next to it. The effort was ‘draining’. Most students scored a two or a three out of ten. Then, I got them to revise their setting without any direct teaching. They got underway with the task. Next, I got the students to assess each other’s work. Again, they only marked it out of ten for atmosphere. Finally, the students wrote a third version. At no point did I actually teach the children how to produce an effective setting during this process. I even refrained from providing them with good examples. I only said to them to avoid the most obvious words.

The result: brilliant examples of progress for very little work and marking on my part.

The difference between version one and three was startling. Students had produced clich├ęd settings in the first version and by the time they got to version three I was reading atmospheric and detailed, original writing.  My only advice / marking was a word and a number. Prior to this experiment, I have listed to students what would make their writing better. And, they have typically selected to follow or ignore my advice.

I think this approach was more successful than others, for me, was due to the way students were writing and I was responding. There was sense of cohesive focus rather than a disjointed list of features to include. All too often improving writing concentrates on adding things. This approach focused on developing and linking things together. Students were improving the whole text and not tiny aspects. Does this mean that a lot of my marking focuses on the small tiny aspects? Yes, I do. After all, God is in the detail. However, maybe this approach is something that needs weaving into the way I teach. Of course, I can’t possibly do it all the time, but maybe I could do it occasionally.

Along with this approach maybe I have to adapt the language I use in task setting. Persuade. Advise. Review. Comment. This terms used to describe types of writing are so plain and we are expecting students to come up with creative ideas based on these vague, beige types of writing. Perhaps, I should be asking students to make a letter about the dangers of smoking that makes me laugh. Or, they should write a description of a beach that makes me worry.

When you look at the mark schemes for the exams, the writing always refers to technical accuracy and the effect. Yet, we tend to focus on one and neglect the other. I will rarely say that a piece of non-fiction needs a funnier start.

Now don’t get me wrong: I value accuracy but I tend to think that our overriding focus on it has slightly overshadowed some elements of creativity.

There’s a battle in my head, but this time creativity won and surprisingly accuracy was not injured.

Atmosphere: 2  

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 14 September 2014

Diet Drama

Out of all the different texts studied in the English classroom, drama, I feel, is always the one that is undervalued. I have poetry coming out if my ears. I enthuse with passion about the novels we study. I continually shove articles I have found in newspapers under students’ noses. Yet, drama is one thing that I really struggle with.

Why do I struggle so much with drama? In theory, I shouldn’t have that much of a problem, given that my degree is an English and Drama degree. Yet, I do have a problem. The latest version of the New Curriculum has made this problem surface again. In the ‘lovely’ new curriculum, it states that students should study drama. That’s it. Nothing else. The previous curriculum stated some stipulations, but now we have nothing. Nada. Zilch. Just the word ‘drama’.

The problem I have is that KS3 drama texts are so insipid and boring. I have searched endlessly with colleagues for a text to study with Year 7, 8 and 9. I have read endless scripts and all have left me cold. There are hundreds of play adaptions of texts, which are simply a dumbing down of the original prose text with the hope of saving a student from actually reading some really difficult prose. I have taught them nonetheless and still have found no joy. The issue I think is that all the scripts I have read lack drama. I know, the irony of it all. The scripts have become a way for students to read a play with a plot but the drama has been sanitised. Diet drama plays.

GCSE is when drama gets interesting in English and the students love it. I have seen weak students engaged in ‘The Crucible’ by Arthur Miller and they are angry with the resolution. I have had classes curious over the ending of ‘An Inspector Calls’. Last year, I read Arthur Miller’s ‘A View from the Bridge’ with a set of students and they were transfixed for the whole time. The plot, the events, the ideas and the characters were all sparks to the students’ interest. Could we lift a chair up with one hand? What is Beatrice and Eddie’s relationship? It was a full sugar play. Photocopy one page and it is rich with ideas and techniques. Photocopy a page of a diet drama script and you’ll be left scratching your head.

One of the most powerful performances I saw in a theatre was ‘The Crucible’. It was performed in the round by a group of university students and it was brilliant. But, for me, the defining moment of it was the minute where I felt I needed to get out my chair and get involved in sorting out John Proctor at the end of the play. I was part of events and I was compelled to act. I was thoroughly engaged. Do students get this similar level of experience when they read drama at school? They might with some of the GCSE texts, but I would struggle to engage with some of the dross that exists out there.

This year I am studying William Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ with a class and for the first time I am treating it like a play. We are studying it for GCSE and we are watching it like a play. I have found a stage version and we are experiencing the drama as a real audience. We are in the moment. So far so good.

The students have engaged in the plot and the discussion is mainly about the stagecraft rather than spotting language features. All too often when our students write about Shakespeare it is always about characterisation and language features, but rarely do they talk about the staging of the play or the decisions made to affect the audience’s feelings. Yes, they will mention dramatic irony because you taught to them and they feel, like something akin to guilt, they must mention it. However, I have noticed students making astute points about the staging of the play that you just don’t get from a mixture of easy Shakespeare version, original texts and scenes from a film version of the play. They are starting to see the tone changes, the shifts in pace and the manipulation of the audience’s thoughts and feelings.  

It goes without saying: to get students to talk about a play effectively they have to see it as a play. The analysis of a play is very different to the analysis of a novel. Sadly, all too often we treat them in the same way.  I am not one of those teachers that insists on acting all plays out. I don’t – I feel for the quiet and shy students in class. I think students should see it as a play, or the nearest equivalent, like a filmed version of a play and not a film version of the story.

Let’s bin the diet drama scripts!

Thanks for reading,