Evidence to Essence

With so many quotations to consider learning for GCSE English Literature, we have to find ways to prioritise and the best quotations to focus on in our study are those which are high-utility – they can be used in a wide range of essay questions and they offer lots of exploration for analysis and links across the text.

One example of high-utility quotations are images which help us move from evidence to essence, the quotations that take us right to the heart of a theme or a character. We can say lots about them on their own or in the scene they appear, but they also allow us a lens, a viewpoint, to deal with the character or theme across the text.  I’m going to illustrate this with examples from Romeo and Juliet.

Tybalt is a storm

In Act 1 Scene 5, Capulet asks Tybalt, “Why, how now, kinsman! wherefore storm you so?” when he is enraged by Romeo’s presence at the ball. Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘storm’ is so apposite because not only does it describe how he is feeling and acting at this moment in the play, but it encapsulates the character so perfectly. And by using this lens, we can then explore the storm and how it is seen elsewhere in the text. If we think of the way a storm builds, the way we can see the sky darkening and the air changing, so we can feel Tybalt’s dark presence on the rest of the play. He’s only in three scenes (if we exclude his corpse in Act 5 Scene 3) and speaks 17 lines and a total of 205 words, yet we know he is lurking, ready to enact revenge. The storm brewing is a symbolic reminder too of fate and the presence of death introduced in the prologue.

Now for some further interesting ideas. The only other use of ‘storm’ in the play is in Act 3 Scene 2. Juliet asks “What storm is this that blows so contrary?” as she takes in news of Tybalt’s death. Then Capulet, seeing Juliet’s tears in Act 3 Scene 5, states “But for the sunset of my brother’s son/ It rains downright.” The storm has ‘passed’ but the rain has started!

Romeo has a soul of lead

In Act 1 Scene 4, Romeo states “I have a soul of lead.” There are lots of things we can say about this quotation and how it shows how Romeo is feeling, we can analyse the connotations of lead, what it means to have a heavy soul etc. But moving from evidence to essence, this image encapsulates Romeo as someone who cannot escape a burden. Take this, and we can explore the various ‘burdens’ that Romeo carries, the things that weigh heavy on him:

  • Love for Rosaline: “bound more than a mad-man is”; “Under love’s heavy burden do I sink.”
  • Fate: “death-marked love”; “Some consequence yet hanging in the stars”; “fortune’s fool”
  • His family name: “Is she a Capulet? /O dear account! my life is my foe’s debt.”
  • The law: “Ha, banishment! be merciful, say ‘death;’ /For exile hath more terror in his look”
  • Love for Juliet: “Thy beauty hath made me effeminate/ And in my temper soften’d valour’s steel!”
  • His temper: “fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!”
  • Loyalty to Mercutio: “Either thou, or I, or both, must go with him.”

You can see how useful this image is a wonderful springboard for exploring a wide range of ideas across the text. In Act 5 Scene 3, Romeo speaks of a “lightning before death” and it is only with his death that he relinquishes the burdens. There is also the huge ‘burden’ of the genre and the fact that Romeo, as a tragic hero, is bound and beholden to the rules of the tragic hero. His burden is his hamartia, his fatal flaw: impetuousness.

Love and Death

Romeo’s final soliloquy in Act 5 Scene 3 is up there with “To be or not to be…” and “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” in the realm of Shakespeare’s greatest explorations of life and death. In here, death is many things: a conquering army; a monster; a lover; a monstrous lover; a pilot; a guide. A good exercise with students is to consider which one of these best encapsulates the idea of death in the play – which image gets to the essence?

We can do the same for love. Is love best encapsulated as “a smoke raised with the fume of sighs”, “a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes”, “a sea nourish’d with lovers’ tears”, “a madness most discreet”, “a choking gall” or “a preserving sweet”? Or something else entirely?

These are images that are explicit in the text. We can find others, some of which work well to encapsulate a character e.g. “solitary as an oyster”* and some less effective – I’m not sure if “Juliet is the sun” is the best to get to her essence, perhaps “yet a stranger in the world” is better? We can also think of our own metaphorical lenses to view characters through. An example of this I use is that Jacob Marley is a mirror. While not explicitly stated in the text, we can view him as a mirror to Scrooge and a mirror to the reader. By seeing him like this, it elevates our responses a little and helps us to explore Dickens’ intentions and the context a little better.

What do you think? Which images from texts you are studying best encapsulate the characters/ themes?

*Not from Romeo and Juliet, although I would like to see a cameo from Scrooge in the play.

Focus on the Final Foot: Why I’m in Favour of Ready Made Resources

Last week I read this article from John Blake: “The solution to the workload crisis? Stop teachers designing their own lessons.” I found myself agreeing with the sentiments, so I read the full report: Completing the Revolution: Delivering on the promise of the 2014 National Curriculum. I thought it was sensible and attempting to address some very real problems in education – I would recommend reading it.

I understand the issues that some people have with what Blake terms “oven ready resources” and the fear of robotic automatons reading from a script, but my concerns at present are the unhealthy hours that teachers work. Something has to give. My sense is that far from being a restriction, having some well crafted, quality-assured resources and curriculum programmes will help to sharpen up the way that we teach material and improve our work-life balance. The report calls this the Final Foot:

As well as lowering their workload, such “oven ready” resources will also help teachers focus their professional expertise on “the final foot” between them and the children they teach in the classroom. Instead of hours making different worksheets, their attention can all be on using those resources to help the children they are teaching.

In my school, we have well-resourced lessons, and the benefit of these is enormous, letting me concentrate on this so-called final foot. Here are a couple of examples to illustrate it.

Brushing up on subject knowledge

In my post last week, I listed some sources for finding out about George Orwell and the context for Animal Farm. While I try to be efficient by listening to audiobooks and podcasts on the commute, time is finite. Rather than deskilling me and making me less likely to understand what I am teaching, having a good starting point for a lesson frees me up to pursue those aspects that increase my understanding and therefore improve my teaching.

Recently I taught The Charge of the Light Brigade, starting with a pre-planned lesson that already had retrieval practice questions in the Do Now, a model answer which was ready to unpick and even something simple: the poem copied and pasted on slides ready for me to annotate in class. This meant I had more time to think deeply about the poem, reread some notes and explore the context further. It took me to the original Times article which Tennyson would have read. You can see echoes in the language/tone of the poem in the article e.g. “ they flew into the smoke of the batteries”; “exhibition of the most brilliant valour, of the excess of courage, and of a daring”. I learnt much more about the Crimean War and understood that the Crimean War was the first where newspaper reports were ‘live’, albeit taking three weeks to arrive. From then I pursued the shift from event to news to poetry and the complications of stories told third hand, then the links to Ozymandias.

Crafting explanations

A good explanation can be the making of a lesson, but it can often be an afterthought – the planned lesson is seen as the endpoint. It’s all very well having a lesson ready and the notion that you’ll explain dramatic irony here or tell them what a subordinate clause is there. Yet there is an art to explaining these things – use the wrong words and they just don’t get it, or worse a misconception becomes ingrained (see other pitfalls in this great piece by Tom Boulter). A great explanation needs examples and non-examples, it needs analogy, it needs prior thought about the misconceptions that might arise. I think teachers should practise more, and a great explanation gets better with practice. These things can happen when teachers plan their own lessons, but when teachers plan all their lessons from scratch, this’ll happen less, or in the evening or weekend.

An example of a great explanation is this one from @positivteacha on iambic pentameter. You can see how deeply he has considered the sequencing of it and the examples he uses as exemplification. I used this to reconsider my own teaching of iambic pentameter when looking at Ozymandias. I used these lines to explain the metre: “Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone’” and “And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command” then asked them to see whether the following line was written in iambic pentameter: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:” which led to some great moments of discussion. Then three questions to explore: How does the regular iambic pentameter combine with the irregular rhyme scheme to reinforce Shelley’s ideas?/ How does the iambic pentameter serve to diminish Ozymandias’ power?/ How does the regular iambic pentameter help to reinforce the idea of the everlasting and inevitable power of nature? Having ‘taught’ iambic pentameter for many years, this is the first time I gave it any real degree of thought. Again, this could happen without pre-planned lessons, but I’m not sure it would.

 

We have this norm in teaching, where it is taken as a given that teachers work long hours. Most professions wouldn’t entertain the thought – the job finishes when it does. We all want to do our best, but when this means that we have zero time for ourselves, our profession is unhealthy and our lives are unhappy.

Would I prefer to plan all my lessons from scratch? Probably. But the reality is that it takes time, and that time often comes in the evenings and weekends. Whether you are someone who disagrees with John Blake on this issue or not, I am firmly in the camp that teaching at present is an unsustainable profession, so I would welcome a range of high quality curriculum and lesson resources. It will make me a better teacher.

As Blake concludes the report:

No textbook or worksheet will ever substitute for a positive relationship between teacher and pupil but these “oven ready resources” can underpin those relationships by reducing teacher workload on activities which can be done effectively by external bodies. That then expands the time and energy available to teachers to deploy their professional skills where they will make the most difference, in “the final foot” between them and their pupils, in the classroom.

Written in the Tsars: Context in Animal Farm

In addressing context in Animal Farm, there is a temptation to write about a character/event and then just tick off the context with a match to Russian history. Orwell uses Napoleon to represent Joseph Stalin– that kind of thing. Even when there is a huge depth of knowledge about historical events, it can still feel like a bolt on. I’m keen to improve this, and this blog is my way of thinking through how I will approach it with my students.

Making more insightful comments about Russia

A knowledge of the Russian Revolution, which manifests itself in these comments matching events in the book to events in history, is not a bad thing. We should still integrate that knowledge into answers but refine the way that this knowledge is used.  One way is just to deal with the straightforward Napoleon = Stalin as before but then explore why Orwell would have chosen this way of representing the character/event. So instead of just x=y we move to x illuminates y. Napoleon isn’t Stalin. Rather, Orwell presents the character of Napoleon in such a way as to highlight, exaggerate and caricature aspects of Stalin that he is criticising or condemning. And instead of saying that Boxer simply represents the Russian proletariat, we can comment on why the image of a strong workhorse was chosen by Orwell: ‘By equating the Russian proletariat with a powerful beast such as Boxer, Orwell highlights just how…’ The question of ‘Why is this an appropriate representation of the figure/event?’ is worth asking and a useful way of developing responses.

The destruction of the Soviet myth

Dealing with each individual character in this way might still lead to a limited response, and we still have  context  tagged on to the end of a paragraph as an afterthought. I think that the next step is to be very clear about the way that the context of Russian history directly influences Orwell’s choices. It’s the very reason for the book’s existence. That can be seen in the characters, but it’s also the choices he makes around language, structure and form. In this way context becomes much more integral to the understanding of the text as a whole and will be integrated more fully into responses.

In his preface to the Ukranian edition of Animal Farm, Orwell states, “And so for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.” And it is through this lens that I think we can sharpen our focus on this aspect of context. Now when students start to explain just how Squealer ‘represents’ propaganda, they can also explore the idea that Orwell’s representation of the Russian regime as actively misleading the public is also a way of demonstrating that the British public is falling for these lies too. In drawing our attention to this in the book, he helps to destroy the so-called Soviet myth. A question we can add to our repertoire is ‘How does this help Orwell to ‘destroy the Soviet myth’?’

‘Notions and ideas’

If we only comment on the Russian parallels, we can miss out on a richer discussion of other aspects of context, historical or otherwise. In the two prefaces contained in my edition (the Ukranian edition mentioned above; the original proposed preface entitled ‘The Freedom of the Press’) Orwell acknowledges that his criticisms apply to more than just Russia. He shows that we are not dealing with a unique situation – the way that we deal with Russia is the way we have dealt with other regimes and we have not learnt our lessons. Here are selected quotations from those prefaces:

The servility with which the greater part of the English intelligentsia have swallowed and repeated Russian propaganda from 1941 onwards would be quite astounding if it were not that they have behaved similarly on several earlier occasions.

 

Very similar things happened during the Spanish civil war.

 

It is important to realise that the current Russomania is only a symptom of the general weakening of the western liberal tradition.

 

The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.

 

Up to 1939, and even later, the majority of English people were incapable of assessing the true nature of the Nazi régime in Germany, and now, with the Soviet régime, they arc still to a large extent under the same sort of illusion.

 

In Spain as well as in Russia…

Because of this, students need to be able to move beyond Russia towards universal ideas. In the In Our Time episode on Animal Farm, Professor Mary Vincent states that Napoleon is “emblematic of dictatorial power” and “emblematic of totalitarianism and of greed and of ambition.” It’s helpful therefore to think of it like this: character x represents y but is also emblematic of concept z. Linking characters to the concepts they are emblematic of is helpful to address context, and will help to address exam questions as they are often based around themes and wider concepts: How does Orwell use character x to present ideas about concept z?

Universal ideas are a perfectly valid way of considering context. In AQA’s Further Insights report into teaching context, some examples they use for context in a Macbeth question are ‘the idea of paternal lineage’; ‘the idea of the afterlife’; ‘notions of chivalry and honour’. We should ask of all our texts which ‘ideas and notions’ students should be aware of in order to have a fuller understanding. Off the top of my head for Animal Farm:

Totalitarianism; Propaganda; Satire; Marxism; Communism; Socialism; Class;

When writing essays, perhaps students can start from the ideas and notions, then zoom into how this was seen in Russia, then how this is exemplified in the text and the methods used by Orwell to explore the idea. This will offer a sharper insight than the original problem, integrating the context, and they can even skip the reference to Russia on occasion.

The AQA Further Insights publication has four questions that I think are a good starting point for considering context:

  • What is it helpful to know in order to understand about the text or the writer’s view when reading this text?
  • What might different readers / audiences take from this text, or from this moment in the text?
  • What might it be helpful to know in order to get a fuller, richer understanding of the themes, or the language, or the characters?
  • To what extent does the context broaden / deepen my understanding of this text?

 

 

The Characteristics of Artistic Statistics

Like many teachers, I have foregone the checklists of persuasive techniques that lead to clunky and ineffective writing.  The trick for me is not to lump techniques into lists and deal with them in a job lot. It’s much better to spend whole lessons on the individual techniques themselves. You can teach them, look at multiple models and examples, then practise. This blog looks at some strategies to focus on for one of the staples of these lists: statistics.

Don’t leave them on their own

Like most rhetorical techniques, statistics don’t really work if they are just dropped randomly into a paragraph. Sometimes you can just stick them on their own on the side of a big red bus, but they are generally more useful if they are developed as part of a rhetorical flourish. Here are some examples of what I mean.

Statistic reframing

In Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson writes the following about Blackpool: “It has the continent’s second most popular tourist attraction, the forty-two-acre Pleasure Beach, whose 6.5 million annual visitors are exceeded in number only by those going to the Vatican”. The 6.5 million annual visitors to Blackpool is interesting on its own, but when compared to the Vatican then it feels even more significant. Taking the statistic and framing it in another way gives added substance. To take Nate Silver in The Signal and the Noise slightly out of context, “The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning.” So, a good way to use a statistic is to frame it another way, something like: “According to Cancer Research, around 35 thousand people die each year from lung cancer. To put that into perspective, that’s the average attendance at White Hart Lane.” Here is another example from the Huffington Post: “In fact, the small preliminary study found that these young adults used their phones an average of five hours a day — that’s roughly one-third of their total waking hours.” In each instance, the statistic is brought to life by reframing it in some way.

Statistic stacking

I wrote more about this here, and it’s the way that we can take a statistic and make it bigger, like in this example from AIDS activist Mary Fisher at the Republican National Convention: “The reality of AIDS is brutally clear. Two hundred thousand Americans are dead or dying. A million more are infected. Worldwide, forty millionsixty million, or a hundred million infections will be counted in the coming few years.” 

Another way to do this is to take a seemingly small statistic and grow it by adding time or quantity: “The typical can of cola has 35 g of sugar, which doesn’t seem much. However, over the course of a week, one can a day adds up to 245 g of sugar which builds to 12,740g over the course of a year – that’s 12 bags of sugar.” I have found that these structures can be used really well, although I do become a little frustrated when the calculators are out in my English lesson. You also need to explain why you can’t statistic stack percentages.

Donald Trump, in his State of the Union address, used a variation of this: “In 2016, we lost 64,000 Americans to drug overdoses, 174 deaths per day, seven per hour. We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge.”

Statistic + other

If you get students into the habit of thinking of statistics as never just the point in themselves, then you will encourage better writing. They can be combined with other rhetorical techniques:

Statistic + Rhetorical question: Emma Gonzalez, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, following the recent mass shooting there, said the following at a gun control rally: “And divided by the number of gunshot victims in the United States in the one and one-half months in 2018 alone, that comes out to being $5,800. Is that how much these people are worth to you, Trump?”

Statistic + Anaphora: You could use a statistic at the start of multiple clauses or sentences. “The average young person spends 5 hours on their phone. 5 hours of Candy Crush and Farmville and Angry Birds. 5 hours of Whatsapp and Instagram and Snapchat. 5 hours where they are simply unconnected with the wonderful wide world around them.”

Keep them plausible

In the real world, it’s actually the slightly unbelievable statistics that are the most persuasive. When Bill Bryson writes about the 6.5 million annual visitors to Blackpool, we are fascinated precisely because it seems so implausible. Yet if a student uses a ridiculous sounding statistic in their writing, we immediately notice and it has the opposite effect – we simply doubt the statistic.

This therefore poses a problem for a pupil sitting an exam. You would reasonably expect a piece of rhetoric to include some facts and statistics, yet the exam question is very likely on a topic where they have little knowledge. If, for example, the question was on persuading young people not to eat fast food, you might take a guess at how much money is spent on fast food such as fried chicken (£2.2 billion in the UK, according to the BBC). You can’t expect knowledge of every statistic – journalists would look them up – but if we acknowledge that pupils will make them up, they should always ask if it’s plausible. If it isn’t, or they simply have no idea, then it might be better to use vaguer terms like ‘a huge number of children’, ‘thousands’ or ‘an increasing number’.

Keep them credible

In that last section, I gave a statistic about the money spent on fried chicken. I imagine that you just accepted it. Not because I told you about it but because I wrote ‘according to the BBC’. Having a credible source for statistics in a piece of writing helps to avoid thee statistics feeling just added in randomly. That statistic was actually taken from a research report by Mintel, but reported in the BBC – I knew the BBC had more credibility. Phrases that can be used: ‘According to…’; ‘A recent study by…’ etc. I often use models with students which look like this: ‘According to name, Professor of x at y University, …’ which lend credibility to the statistics. There are countless real world examples, like this one from Trust for London: “New research from Loughborough University shows that 41% of Londoners have less income than they need for what the public regard as a decent standard of living – that is one that allows them to meet their basic needs and participate in society at a minimum level. This is significantly higher than the 30% that fall below the standard in the UK as a whole.”

According to a recent survey, 110% of people loved this blog.

Teaching is better than marking

If you had to make someone learn something, would you decide to teach them it, or write a short comment on a piece of paper and hope that they learn it? Yet that is not too far away from what we do with marking. After reading students’ work, there are often better ways to address areas for improvement than with individual written feedback. Most involve teaching.

The modelling lesson

If I mark a set of essays, it is rare that every student has an entirely unique target for improvement. More realistically, there are about four or five targets, most of which are identifiable after a handful of books. Many students will even need all of those targets to improve.

Instead of wasting time writing all of these targets out in books, lump them together and model a response which meets the targets. Particularly useful for extended writing or longer mark questions, you can ensure that you model how to meet these targets, directing questions to the students who made particular errors. For example, to the one who forgets to use quotation marks, start to write the quotation and ask them “what’s missing?” and “why do we need these?” I have exponentially increased the amount of modelling I do this year, and feedback modelling is an important part of it.

Intervention groups

As I mentioned above, students tend to have similar targets. It’s very likely that marking identifies ‘batches’ of students with the same targets. Because it’s quite inefficient to write the same comment multiple times, why not just teach them in a group? It’s often worth looking at the errors that seem to persist despite feedback in books, then teach them. For example, things like comma splices are much easier to explain and model than give written advice for.

Int1I have written before about our in-class interventions at DKA, and this is just the same, but after marking. It helps if you create the classroom culture where students are able to work independently while the teacher concentrates on groups. Classroom layout can also play a part in making this easier, and spaces where you can work with small groups and still have a good view of the class are recommended.

Student work lesson

When you read work, take snapshots of excellent examples, then display them one by one and unpick them with the class. Pupils love working out who each belongs to and it’s great for the person who wrote it. It’s also useful to look at these examples and see what can be improved. It feels safer to offer constructive criticism on a good example from a pupil you have already praised. The best models will have examples which reflect the common errors of the class. In half an hour, you can read a set of books, work out the areas for improvement, choose the examples and then plan your lesson.

Marking proforma

marking-proformaThis is something I have seen used by @Mrhistoire, @mrthorntonteach and @jofacer which I have been using when marking homework. I am asking KS4 students to write an essay a week so this has been essential in making that manageable. I read their essays, complete this and simply teach the key errors. One thing I am aware of is that students might spend a long time on their work so to see it come back with no written comments could be disheartening. By making a big deal of the ‘appreciations’ and giving public praise in class and in our morning line-up, positive behaviour logs, phonecalls home and the appreciations bulletin, I think this will be ok! Students get a copy of this, highlight their names and then I teach what is in the second box.

Live marking

Let’s say students are writing for half an hour. In that time, teachers can get around every student and have a look at their work. Teachers are pretty good at spotting a misconception with a ten second glance around the room at mini whiteboards, so you can bet they’re even better with much longer looks at books while students work. Often, it can be addressed there and then, allowing students to improve instantly. Or perhaps you can use a marking proforma like the one above, and you won’t even need to take the books in to mark! If timed right, you can have all students complete a task, decide the next steps and teach them what they need at the end of the lesson.

All of these methods work because the teacher looks at the work, identifies what needs to improve and then targets it through teaching. The elephant in the room is that leaders expect to see written feedback, schools often have inflexible marking policies, and therefore some of these methods become less efficient because we have to make them visible. It is hard to see the desire for written feedback go away completely, but with some of these more efficient, less time-heavy methods, the argument may start to be won. Teachers can then focus on the best way to give feedback- teaching.

Further reading: Look at the excellent work they are doing at Meols Cop High School: Stop writing feedback comments…and see what happens!

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Structuring persuasive paragraphs

In a previous blog, I wrote about the need to study persuasive techniques, not just spot them. It’s something I have been revisiting lately from a writing perspective because I am still encountering work which is peppered with persuasive techniques which don’t do anything except stop the writing mid-flow. On one hand, I like the fact that students are using techniques, but using them isn’t enough. One way to shift the approach to persuasive techniques is by focusing on how they can be used to structure paragraphs and build ideas.

Let’s start with something that appears in 90% of persuasive writing: statistics. Students can’t pronounce ‘statistics’ properly, but that doesn’t stop the proliferation of percentages. Instead of just using statistics, we can try to think about how figures can be used to structure ideas, like in this example from AIDS activist Mary Fisher to the Republican National Convention:

I would never have asked to be HIV positive, but I believe that in all things there is a purpose; and I stand before you and before the nation gladly. The reality of AIDS is brutally clear. Two hundred thousand Americans are dead or dying. A million more are infected. Worldwide, forty million, sixty million, or a hundred million infections will be counted in the coming few years. But despite science and research, White House meetings, and congressional hearings, despite good intentions and bold initiatives, campaign slogans, and hopeful promises, it is — despite it all — the epidemic which is winning tonight.

The number starts small, then grows. It is a structure also used by Malala Yousafzai in her speech to the United Nations:

There are hundreds of human rights activists and social workers who are not only speaking for their rights, but who are struggling to achieve their goal of peace, education and equality. Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured. I am just one of them. So here I stand, one girl among many. I speak not for myself, but so those without a voice can be heard. Those who have fought for their rights. Their right to live in peace. Their right to be treated with dignity. Their right to equality of opportunity. Their right to be educated.

This technique, which I am going to call ‘statistic stacking’ works well enough on its own, but in each instance above there is a response to the numbers. In the former, the weight of numbers is used to show that the disease is winning, whereas the numbers in the latter are used to emphasise that Malala is just one person in many- and there is a nice use of anaphora to end the paragraphs too. The points are stronger after the statistics.

Now let’s focus on another staple of persuasive writing:  the rhetorical question. On their own, they can be clumsy and stop good writing in its tracks. But combined with something else, a rhetorical question becomes something quite special and functionally very useful. Look at this section of J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement address, and what follows the question:

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

Another question is asked in Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

In both examples, the question is asked at the beginning of the paragraph and the rest of the paragraph serves as the answer. The question is the foundation that the rest of the paragraph is built on. In J.K Rowling’s speech, the question is answered with a series of lists. In King’s, it is answered with anaphora. Question>anaphora is a structure of paragraph that works particularly well and which students can learn. The main idea is to ensure that the question is dealt with in some way. The question may not be the start of the paragraph- it could even come at the end, perhaps as a response to a list or anaphora.

Edit: Thanks to @JamesTheo for the feedback. The first example is hypophora, where a speaker asks then answers their own question. The second is procatalepsis, where the speaker states the opposing case and then offers a rebuttal.

The last idea I will explore on structuring a paragraph is the extended metaphor. Unlike the previous examples, metaphors are an underused element of persuasive writing, seemingly because imagery is more readily associated with narrative or description. But metaphor and analogy can work well in persuasion, such as in the extended metaphors in Barack Obama’s victory speech:

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. But above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

Here’s another one from an article on Brexit:

At this stage, most people contemplating divorce are motivated by two things. First, they see only their spouse’s defects. Secondly, they fantasize about an idealized alternative future. Often, though not always, this involves a magically perfect new partner. But the most important motivation is the dream of freedom. No more nagging! No more unwelcome guests! All that money saved!

The metaphor carries the weight of the argument. With practice, students could get quite skilful in building these kind of paragraphs, or even whole texts. Schools are prisons. Smoking is poison. Fast food is an executioner. Find the common ground and build a paragraph around it.

So, instead of teaching some of these techniques in isolation, look to see how they can be the focal point or the foundation of a paragraph, how they can work in combinations with other techniques, and how they can punctuate an argument.

Paragraph pairs

Paragraph pairs

Writing isn’t just a series of paragraphs, one after another. Well, it is, but these paragraphs are not just tacked on to each other. They follow on, they build, they look back, they contrast, they develop ideas. By focussing on the relationships between paragraphs, not only can we improve students’ understanding of structure for the reading paper, but also improve their writing. One way to do this is by looking at two paragraphs together- paragraph pairs.

Here is a paragraph pair from a speech from Barack Obama on gun control:

I was there with Gabby when she was still in the hospital, and we didn’t think necessarily at that point that she was going to survive. And that visit right before a memorial — about an hour later Gabby first opened her eyes. And I remember talking to mom about that. But I know the pain that she and her family have endured these past five years, and the rehabilitation and the work and the effort to recover from shattering injuries.

And then I think of all the Americans who aren’t as fortunate. Every single year, more than 30,000 Americans have their lives cut short by guns — 30,000. Suicides. Domestic violence. Gang shootouts. Accidents. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost brothers and sisters, or buried their own children. Many have had to learn to live with a disability, or learned to live without the love of their life.

The first paragraph on its own is tragic, but needs the second paragraph to show that it is not isolated or simply personal; the second makes clear the wider point, but is made more effective because a concrete example has preceded it.

We all know students who include every single persuasive technique that their mnemonic tells them to, but whose writing is stilted and clunky. In moving from thinking ‘I must include an anecdote’ to ‘I must include an anecdote so I can then look at the wider point’, we should see an improvement in the structure of writing. We might even label this technique something like anecdote-wider point or specific-general.

Here is another paragraph pair, this time from Treasure Island:

The next morning he and I set out on foot for the Admiral Benbow, and there I found my mother in good health and spirits. The captain, who had so long been a cause of so much discomfort, was gone where the wicked cease from troubling. The squire had had everything repaired, and the public rooms and the sign repainted, and had added some furniture—above all a beautiful armchair for mother in the bar. He had found her a boy as an apprentice also so that she should not want help while I was gone.

It was on seeing that boy that I understood, for the first time, my situation. I had thought up to that moment of the adventures before me, not at all of the home that I was leaving; and now, at sight of this clumsy stranger, who was to stay here in my place beside my mother, I had my first attack of tears. I am afraid I led that boy a dog’s life, for as he was new to the work, I had a hundred opportunities of setting him right and putting him down, and I was not slow to profit by them.

In some ways, these paragraphs work like the Obama example. We have specific details about the mother, the inn, the boy before a wider realisation: “It was on seeing that boy that I…”. On the other hand, the reaction is personal. What can students take from this? In narrative writing, instead of simply describing setting and chronicling action and dialogue, they could describe something and then have the narrator react. This helps them to structure writing of course, but it also elevates the writing. We could label this focus-reaction or external-internal

It isn’t just consecutive paragraphs that can work in pairs. Some of the most satisfying pieces of writing have openings and endings that somehow link. This could be a sentence, word or phrase repeated, like from The Man in the Brown Coat:

Opening: I am writing a history of the things men do. I have written three such histories and I am but a young man. Already I have written three hundred, four hundred thousand words.

Ending: Already I have written three hundred, four hundred thousand words. Are there no words that lead into life? Some day I shall speak to myself. Some day I shall make a testament unto myself.

When writing descriptions, I often tell students that the ending paragraph can just be the opening paragraph but with changes. A change in the weather, in the time, in the mood or atmosphere. In other types of a writing it could be a question asked in the opening (literally or not) that is answered in the end. Obviously it helps if this is planned in advance, but it is a strategy for those who struggle to end their writing- they can just refer back to the opening. I have written a little more about endings here, but this is one of my favourite examples of a linked opening and ending, taken from A Tale of Two Cities:

Opening: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Ending: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Once you start examining texts closely, there are so many possibilities for paragraph pairs:

  • Setting-reaction to setting
  • Description of character 1-contrasting description of character 2
  • Action-consequence
  • Setting-flashback to first memory of setting
  • Paragraph arguing the consequences of doing something-paragraph arguing the consequences for not doing something.

Other than this, pick up a book, an article, a report and look at some paragraph pairs. Better still, ask the students because they’ll find lots of interesting ideas too.

Further reading: John Tomsett’s post on structuring essays contains the fantastic idea of Janus-faced sentences.

Navigating the islands of poetry

Every poem is an island. To get to a poem requires sailing out from the mainland of routine language. Some poems are close to shore, others much further away; on every island it is possible to feel remote and at home. A poem is defined by the rugged shore of its right-hand margin, cutting it off from prose.

Robert Crawford

When I think back to my first encounters with poetry as a boy, I realise that I often understood poems, yet I simply didn’t get poetry. Later as a teacher, I have spent an awful lot of time working on how I will teach individual poems, but not nearly enough time on how to teach poetry. If I continue the metaphor above, I have focused on the island but not the archipelago, or the…er…ferry journey (this is why I’m not a poet). With the prompt of this month’s #blogsyncenglish, I thought it was time that I did. So, how do we get to a point where a poem is no longer something remote, something that only exists in isolation?

Sequencing- building a bridge

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.

T.S. Eliot

An example of a poem that I have ‘taught’ recently is ‘Tissue’ by Imtiaz Dharker. When teaching this, there was just so much I had to tell students and with that came a number of shortcuts. A poet was reduced to “Born in Pakistan. Brought up in Glasgow. Conflicted.” Teaching the poem in isolation led to these kind of generalisations. (Of course, it wasn’t completely in isolation, because I was teaching it as part of the conflict cluster. AQA can dictate that it is in the conflict cluster but what it has in common with The Charge of the Light Brigade I am not sure.) I felt that my teaching of the poem was fine; my class knew the right things to write about and understood the main idea. But it was just a poem on its own.

I don’t have time to teach any other poems by Dharker, but wouldn’t it have been much better if we’d studied more of her poems earlier and appreciated a body of work that this was only a small part of? Could we study other poets dealing with similar themes? Would there be a special combination of poems we could study in sequence that would mean that we arrive at ‘Tissue’ ready for it? If a poem is a specially constructed puzzle, can we give them the clues beforehand, and if we can, what are they? For starters, a more comprehensive grasp of metaphor would have helped my students with this particular poem.

Whether our ultimate goal is to prepare students for literature exams or whether we just want them to develop an appreciation, perhaps a love for poetry, we need to think quite carefully about the sequencing of poems.

The sequencing of learning about poetry should start early. It need not be dictated just by the poems selected by an exam board, especially when these might change, but it does need to be selected consciously. And not just a poetry unit each year where students study a bunch of interesting poems, often favourites of the teacher, or perhaps collected together under a common theme. Then they get to year 10 and rattle through poems in the anthology before we finally make sure that we give enough tricks and mnemonics to cope on the unseen poetry questions.

I’m honestly not sure about what the ‘correct’ sequencing of poetry should be. Should we, for example, start in year 7 with Shakespeare’s sonnets and move towards contemporary poets in later years? Should we start with simple poems? Should we start with poems of a certain structure? Should we rattle off one of each kind of poem in an introduction to poetry unit? These are important questions to ask and ones which a new curriculum gives us a chance to answer.

Relevance- spotting landmarks

Poetry is common. The stuff of it is common, even commonplace. Poetry comes from what we as human beings have in common. It puts us in living touch with our shared realities.

David Constantine

This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless-about to be birthed, but already felt.

Audre Lorde

Because poetry is often shrouded in ‘high style’, it can be difficult for students to have this illumination, particularly when a poem is usually brief. Students can seem to ‘get’ other texts more readily because they spend time finding what they have in common with characters and how the themes affect them. It is never hard to empathise with characters, but isn’t it strange that we can find more in common with a citizen of District 12 who kills a bunch of fellow children than we can with a poet pondering their own mortality?

I’m not an advocate of making everything relevant in the classroom, but in many ways poetry is so valuable because it is universal and relevant. If we can somehow tap into this and help our students to identify the connections, they will navigate the islands of poetry fearlessly. I know that a child may not quite need the reminder that we all do of the fleeting nature of time, of the inevitably of death etc; starting a lesson with “we’re all going to die…which is why this is a GREAT poem!” might be ill-advised. Yet because much of our poetry deals in universal truths- even if these truths can themselves change- we can expose students to great examples of poems that do connect.

There are obviously lots of ways to navigate individual poems, but with a little thought we can at least ensure that they arrive on the island with a map.

Teacher Workload Reports: initial thoughts

I welcome the reports into teacher workload and I hope that school leaders read them and implement some of their recommendations. Here are my initial thoughts on the data, planning and marking reports:

For leaders, not teachers

These reports are ultimately for the benefit for teachers, but if you have no control over your school’s policy, you will find little practical inspiration from them. The problem with workload is that it is often closely linked with your school and your leadership team. In the marking report, it is stated: “If the hours spent do not have the commensurate impact on pupil progress: stop it.” Yet if you are the NQT who does this, you are possibly going to fall foul of the next book scrutiny. You can see that there are only two recommendations specific to teachers in the marking report, two in the data one and two again in the planning, which reinforces the idea that the audience is not actually classroom teachers.

However, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the advice is aimed at leaders and institutions. Teachers are very rarely the sources of their own workload problems. They are at the mercy of the “policy” and the “initiative”. I appreciate that the marking report states:

Evaluate the time implications of any whole school marking assessment policy for all teachers to ensure that the school policy does not make unreasonable demands on any particular members of staff.

The Data report:

Take measures to understand the cumulative impact on workload of new initiatives and guidance before rolling them out and make proportionate and pragmatic demands.

When I filled in the survey myself, this was something that I wrote about. Lots of things are good things to do, but they take up time. It is up to leaders to make these choices. There is a vagueness in what is meant by “unreasonable demands” and I am sure different people will have their own ideas about what this means, but it’s so important that we ask this question.

Broad advice

I do feel that this sense of imprecision runs through all of the reports. For example, the marking report recommends ITT students develop “a repertoire of assessment methods” and teachers use “a range of assessment techniques” without being precise about what these look like.  If you are a teacher struggling with the marking workload, being told to use a range of techniques isn’t helpful when those techniques are not clear.

There are definitely principles that everyone should get behind and there are not many parts of the report that I disagree with. For example, the suggestions of making marking “meaningful, manageable and motivating” seems sensible.  These terms are then defined in more detail, so can serve as a very useful starting point for any marking policy.

Once something is said to be good practice, it can take on a life of its own, so I appreciate why these reports need to be careful. It is much easier to say what shouldn’t be done than to say precisely what should (except posters). There are some case studies on the blog and there will hopefully be more, although this one recommends different coloured pens and writing VF for verbal feedback in books so perhaps we should be careful with these too.

I really like the line in the planning report that “there should be greater flexibility to accommodate different subject demands and needs, as well as the specific demands of primary phases.” It is important to acknowledge that there is much variation in subjects and phases, not just with planning but other demands too. Should an English teacher teach the same load as a maths teacher? Should a teacher who has predominantly KS5 have the same teaching load as one who teaches mainly KS3?

Workload issues in the planning report

The planning report has good intentions but some of its recommendations seem to lead to more time:

School leaders should place great value on collaborative curriculum planning which is where teacher professionalism and creativity can be exercised.

I agree that shared planning can be beneficial, but where does the time for this come from? It has to come from somewhere. Similarly, the demand to create “a fully resourced, collaboratively produced, scheme of work” as a default is a noble one but I can assure you that this is a time-consuming process and someone has to do this. I’m not arguing that this shouldn’t be done, just that to create a really good scheme of work that can be used by anyone takes time.

I have always struggled with the fact that there are not some free central resources that all teachers can access. Ones that they can adapt for their context, change and share back. TES can be useful, but there is a massive quality control issue- try to look for a lesson on similes (smiles/ similies) and you’ll see . Also, the idea of teachers selling their resources runs counter to a profession where we should be interested in helping each other. This happens on Twitter of course but I feel that the DfE should appoint teachers to make schemes, perhaps as a summer project, or recruit experienced, recently retired teachers to do it. Even just creating a quality controlled shared site would be a start.

On textbooks, I agree with the recommendations that we should use them but it is not a “mistrust of textbooks” but a lack of good enough ones that I am more concerned with. Textbooks are a huge investment when curriculum content changes so often, so the DfE should look at ways to make this commercially viable.

All in all, I think the reports make sensible recommendations that will impact positively on workload. We just need more concrete examples of what should be done.

 

5 questions to ask about your CPD

I couldn’t claim that we have all of the answers to CPD at Dixons Kings. However, I feel that we certainly ask the right questions. Here are 5 questions to ask that might help your CPD to be that little bit better.

Is everyone getting what they need?

Schools have priorities. Departments have priorities. Individuals have priorities and interests. We have biases and preferences, the things that we like to do and the things that we want to share. A balance has to be struck, of course, but if teachers leave a CPD session with nothing, then it simply isn’t worth their time.

At DKA, we split our teachers into two CPD sessions during the week and break these up further where necessary. While it is ultimately our decision on the overall content of the CPD program, it is informed by various factors to ensure that it is as personalised as possible. (On top of this, teachers get individual development through the coaching program.)

Are we sharing the right ideas?

When those who lead CPD say that something is the ‘right’ or ‘best’ way to do something, it is likely going to start appearing in classrooms, so we have to hold things up to scrutiny. In the past I was told that learning styles should be catered for, and I did it. I was told that teacher talk was bad, so I eliminated it. It’s all very well to blame others for this, but I have also given bad advice. I still shudder at the memory of the podcast I recorded on ‘showing progress’, or my suggestion in a blog that you could write feedback in code to ensure students engage with it…

Fashions and concepts of best practice change, so it is perhaps inevitable that some bad advice will be given. To avoid it, you always have to consider whether what you are sharing is received wisdom, a ridiculous fad, an inefficient drain on teachers’ time. Even when something makes sense, is it adding to workload? Last year, I ran CPD on my own, but this year I have benefitted from sharing the work with a colleague, Simon Gayle. He is brilliant at calling out any nonsense that I come up with, and vice versa. We hopefully filter out 99% of the possible nonsense, and any that we do share at least we agree on!

How do we ensure that it sticks?

If a focus for CPD is chosen, it needs to remain the focus for enough time to allow it to become just a part of practice. One session isn’t enough. You can’t just ‘do’ something or launch an idea, expect everyone to do it and then move on the next week. The individual sessions too have to be constructed in a way that people don’t just forget things as they walk out. This might involve tasks which ensure reflection or discussion, or even quizzes.

We organise our CPD around a half-termly focus. Last half-term was questioning, next half-term is revision & memory. We therefore plan a series of sessions which we hope develop a deep understanding not just of what teachers should do but why they do it. Another approach that we have is to practise anything that we can, have the theory one week and then follow it up with the practice.

How is it different for …?

It’s hard not to see teaching through your own lens. Teaching to me has always been English teaching and I used to believe that teaching was just a bunch of generic transferable skills. I think that there are definitely a range of things that all teachers can work on, but there are many things that are unique to their subject discipline. For example, you could share some modelling strategies with all staff, but the head of maths shouldn’t model how to do a backflip. You have other considerations like heads of year who may suddenly have all of their free time taken to deal with an incident, teachers who don’t have their own classroom, non subject specialists, split classes- and the list could go on. You can’t put on a session for cat-lovers born in February, but you can at least consider the impact of what you do on as many teachers as possible.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at feedback strategies and we split the session into three. One priority was ensuring that there was a session focussing on feedback in practical subjects (another session was a walkthrough of using mail-merge marking, with the other on timesaving marking strategies). We are also looking to develop our CPD model further to allow teams even more time for subject pedagogy to be developed.

How will we know that it works?

This is the trickiest question to answer. You can evidence compliance quite easily, but this is not the same as something working. This is the area we have tinkered with quite a lot this year and continue to try to get right, so it’s the question on this list that I have the least comprehensive answer for.

One useful start is our half-termly anonymous survey. It has various questions that help us to understand what is going on in classrooms and how people feel about the quality of our CPD. Two questions we always ask are: ‘What are giving you that you don’t need?’ and ‘What do you need that we are not giving you?’ The feedback sessions came out of requests from this survey, as do many of the sessions next half-term. We can compare responses from each half term to the next, showing where improvements have been made and identifying where we might focus next. We can compile data from other sources too, e.g. book scrutinies and learning walks, but it is harder to tie these to specific CPD sessions.

Like I say, we don’t have all of the answers, but I’m happy that we are asking these questions. If you have any other questions worth asking, or indeed some of the answers, feel free to comment.