The Pieces of a Thesis

The thesis statement is the expression of the line of argument to be made in the essay. It’s an important tool in the construction of a good essay, and helps to hit some of the criteria at the upper end of the (AQA) markscheme e.g. “Critical, exploratory, conceptualised response to task and whole text.” But the statement can’t come until the idea is fully conceptualised, so how do we get students to the position where they can conceptualise the line of argument, then create the thesis statement?

Lessons

A good approach when teaching an individual lesson is to frame it around a thesis of its own. So, instead of teaching a lesson on propaganda in Animal Farm, you might frame it as a thesis: corrupt leaders use propaganda and lies to gain and maintain power. This means that new information can attach itself to a clear line of argument, meaning that it can be used to help form the thesis statement later. Instead of a lesson on Ignorance and Want in A Christmas Carol, it is framed as a thesis: Ignorance and Want are used by Dickens to emphasise the consequences of mankind’s abandonment of the poor.

I think it is important that we read the book before we study it. That way, any lesson can start from the whole rather than a part. We cannot have a full conceptual understanding without knowing the whole text.

Time spent explicitly teaching and modelling planning is time well spent. It never feels like it, when we have so much content to cover, but plans that originate as mind-maps won’t have that clear argument throughout. One way is to model the construction of a thesis statement in multiple iterations. The first shows a thesis statement of sorts and how we can improve/adapt it each time.

  1. Napoleon is a negative character.
  2. Napoleon is a cruel leader.
  3. Napoleon is a cruel leader who manipulates the animals.
  4. Napoleon is a cruel leader who manipulates the animals through fear.
  5. Napoleon is a cruel leader who manipulates the animals through fear and propaganda.
  6. Orwell presents Napoleon as a cruel leader who manipulates the animals through fear and propaganda.
  7. Orwell uses Napoleon to criticise the way that cruel leaders keep power through fear and propaganda.

But I think the place where we can develop this most is in our students’ revision.

Revision

It is useful to design revision materials in such a way as they help students to form lines of argument about characters, themes, events in the texts that they are studying.

Knowledge Organisers are useful tools, but the presentation of them in hierarchical lists can be a little unhelpful when trying to organise them into more complex conceptual ideas. In our Animal Farm Knowledge Organiser, we have placed key quotations next to a line of argument in order to reinforce the idea that we don’t just memorise a quotation or a fact about a character in isolation. Instead of memorising a quotation about a character, they are memorising a quotation that supports an idea about that character.

These can make very simple Do Now activities in class. You can share the quotation and ask how they support the argument. You can have the statement and ask them to write out the corresponding quotations. You can ask them to write down any other quotations which also explore the theme or those which oppose it.

We should encourage students to make flashcards to memorise quotation. Then we have a tool for all sorts of activities to help create conceptualised responses. For example, a simple activity (for class or study) is to give a thesis statement and ask them to go through each quotation and ask the question ‘How does this quotation support the statement?’ (This is also a useful strategy for remembering the quotation itself: see this blog on memorising quotations I wrote for Bradford Research School) We can provide statements and exam questions for students, but the goal ultimately is to ensure that they can do this for themselves.

Another activity is to pick two (or more) quotations from the stack at random and ask which argument would be supported by these quotations.

To prepare for extract questions, we should pick pages and scenes that we want to explore further. If the extract is on Lady Macbeth, we ask what aspect of Lady Macbeth do we see here? Does this contrast, parallel, echo, develop from, lead to something else? Which quotations support this? It’s quite easy for students to do this themselves, and this allows them to develop an ‘extract to whole’ approach.

If studying poetry, students can easily come up with thesis statements for individual poems and memorise quotations for each poem. It’s important that their revision prepares them for the comparative focus of the exam. So, poems should generally be studied in pairs. Select any two poems and write a thesis statement comparing the poems. When memorising quotations, we should always ask, which other poem does this quotation link to and why? By studying poems in this way, it is much easier to develop that conceptualised, comparative response.

The two main problems with using quotations in essays is a) they don’t know enough so they use the only ones they know (“solitary as an oyster” anyone?) or b) they know loads but can’t choose the right ones for the essay, so the essay becomes a series of disparate points rather than a conceptualised sustained essay. These strategies help them to memorise more quotations, but also to help them pick the apposite ones to support their ideas.

A Visit From Imtiaz Dharker

I spent a lovely hour on Friday listening to Imtiaz Dharker, who visited Dixons Kings as part of the Ilkley Literature Festival. I came hoping for the cheat-sheet on Tissue, but I left her talk with a renewed love for poetry and especially for Tissue. Here are some of her words and some of my thoughts.

“Poetry travels without a passport.”

Dharker read some of her poems, including Tissue, Blessing and This Room, explained the inspiration behind them and shared moments from her life. A running theme from the talk was the way that we tend to close ourselves off, pigeonhole each other, say how things should be. “Listen for the human voice that cuts across borderlines,” says Dharker. Dharker says that she is a “Scottish Muslim Calvinist adopted by India and married into Wales” and that, like her own, “your identity is always travelling.” I had no idea that This Room and Blessing, two poems I have taught in the past, were based on her own experiences in India. It was nice to draw this line through those poems and now Tissue, all poems about breaking free, casting aside restrictions that we may face. We see this in Tissue, the way that “The sun shines through/ their borderlines” and we see the “breaking out” and “lifting out” of This Room and the “flow”, “rush” and “bursts” of Blessing. Poetry describes this freedom but poetry is this freedom. It certainly freed Dharker: “Poetry gave me a different kind of freedom.”

 “Listen for the human voice”

Sometimes it’s hard to explain what poetry is or to put into words why it matters. Who better to do this than a poet: “Poetry says things that the heart knows before the mind has a chance to catch up.” The idea of poetry giving a voice is important as when Dharker was a child she used to have ideas, but “my tongue couldn’t catch up.” A moment that changed her relationship with poetry and the world was when her teacher Miss Murray noticed her poem, loved it, typed it up and published it in the school magazine: “It changed my whole world. It changed everything.”

 “One of the jobs of poetry is to pay attention to the detail”

Dharker explained the inspiration for Tissue – a note from her father in the back of the Quran. This was seen at the time when she and her father were out of touch and she hadn’t spoken to him for a long time. This “flimsy piece of paper” brought home to her that it is family and relationships that matter, not the structures we build, not bricks and mortar and stone. Tissue is “written like a love poem” to remember her father. The connections between the most precious and the flimsiest things is explored. Paper is precious and flimsy. Human connections are precious and flimsy. Tissue as a love poem is a wonderful lens to view it through.

Dharker patiently and enthusiastically answered our students’ questions about Tissue. After the talk, some students stayed and had their anthologies autographed. At least one starstruck teacher asked for a selfie, but he will remain nameless…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Changes for a Stronger Foundation at GCSE

I’m not a believer in doing lots and lots of new things for the sake of it. If things are working, leave them alone. But there are times when it is good to reflect on what is working and if it means significant changes then so be it. For September, I was asked to tweak the scheme of work I created on Animal Farm a couple of years ago. It would have been fine to change the odd thing, but I realised that this was an opportunity for us to make a few more ambitious changes in how we start the GCSE course. Here are some of the changes.

Reading the book before we study the book

The change that felt most significant was to begin by reading the book from start to finish without studying it. It’s very difficult to study a text until it has been read fully because so many important elements of the text remain hidden. We cannot comment properly on structure, characterisation, context and themes until we see how things pan out over the course of a text. Take Old Major’s speech in Chapter 1. We can study it in isolation on first reading as a rousing speech, a piece of rhetoric. Yet if we study it after reading the book, a line like this reads quite differently: “You, Boxer, the very day that those great muscles of yours lose their power, Jones will sell you to the knacker, who will cut your throat and boil you down for the foxhounds.”

In addition, when we study a book as we read it, there is an arbitrariness in what we study when. We read a few pages or a chapter then do a lesson based on what we have just read. This can lead to lessons which are dictated by the page number not a deliberate decision. And every lesson is weaker because it is only based on a chapter or what has come before; it is never about the whole book. In the old scheme, we studied Old Major’s speech first only because it comes first in the book. Now it is one element in a lesson that focuses on how power corrupts noble ideas.

Using exercise books as revision guides

Last year I was horrified when year 11 students started clearing out their lockers before their exams were over. There was a skip full of exercise books and I was disappointed that this rich revision resource was wasted. Students clearly didn’t value their books. We need to remind students that they can go back and read answers, read feedback, look at exam questions and resources glued in their books, and we can make explicit how to use exercise books as their ready-made revision guides. We can also design tasks which lend themselves well to restudy.

One way we have encouraged this is by using the Cornell note-taking method as we read the book. After each chapter of the book, we ask students to write up their notes. We explicitly model what good examples of these notes should look like and what each part of the notes is designed to do. In making the rationale explicit, we hope to ensure these students value their notes pages from day one and their exercise books are not quite as disposable.

Explicitly teaching revision strategies

As well as an assembly for all students into the most effective revision strategies, we have explicitly taught how revision should look in English as part of this scheme. We have tried to concentrate on three clear and simple messages around revision using Knowledge Organisers: Retrieval; Elaboration; Organisation. (You can see in this post from our school blog.) General principles like these then get exemplified in lessons. For example, how do we revise quotations in English? We can’t just say ‘use flashcards’ – we have to model how to make them; how to use them; how to reflect on whether they have been successful. It has taken quite a bit of lesson time to teach these strategies properly, but I hope that the benefits will be seen over the next two years. I certainly don’t want to be frustrated in a year about a lack of revision when we can be very explicit from the start about what is expected.

Starting with the Knowledge Organiser

The magical land of gained time gave me an opportunity to really get to grips with a proper Knowledge Organiser. I have spent a lot of time trying to get the general principles of these right as part of my work with Bradford Research school and the Animal Farm Knowledge Organiser helped me to explore it practically. To be honest, it is really hard to produce a decent knowledge organiser, and mine went through several iterations. By really getting to grips with some of the most fundamental aspects of the text, it put me in a much better position to design the scheme. Do Now quizzes, homework tasks and revision were much easier to produce when I had a clearly designed Knowledge Organiser. My knowledge of the text improved. When I created the last scheme, the Knowledge Organiser was an afterthought and was little more than a revision guide.

It’s dangerous to make any bold claims about the effectiveness of these approaches a couple of years before these students sit their exams, but I’m confident that we are laying a strong foundation by reconsidering our approach in this way.

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.”

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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.