From here to there: structuring simple narrative shifts

Conceiving, planning and writing a decent narrative in the space of 45 minutes is incredibly difficult. One reason is that students don’t have lots of experience of short narratives. They watch feature length movies and (if they read) they read novels. So their idea of a narrative is one of lots of things happening. Yet sometimes the only major thing that ‘happens’ in a narrative is a shift in perspective, in attitude, in tone. Edit: Please read Nick Wells’ post on Shifts in Fiction for more on this.

This week, I have built a series of lessons for my year sevens around a short film called The Present, using it as a model to teach some aspects of narrative writing. In one lesson, we experimented with different paragraphs, focusing on the boy’s change of attitude towards the dog.

Sequence 1:

First paragraph: Attention on game – dog is in background > Second paragraph: Attention split between game and dog > Third paragraph: Full attention on dog.

Or sequence 2:

First paragraph: Describe how stupid the dog’s behaviour is > Second paragraph: Describe how funny the dog’s behaviour > Third paragraph: Describe how AWESOME the dog’s behaviour is.

Instead of just writing about all the things that were happening, there was a conscious focus on how the attitude of the boy shifted, and how we might present this.

While students may not have encountered many short stories, they have read, seen and witnessed many of these moments where we go from here to there, where there is a perception or an attitude shift.

For example, Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent has 232,719,477 views at the time I am writing this. There are not many better examples of a shift in perception than her story. From here: everyone is laughing and cynically judging > she sings > to there: standing ovations and adulation. How does that narrative work from her perspective? From Simon Cowell’s? From an audience member’s? There are many clips which follow a similar narrative arc on these types of shows. And any dramatic scene or sequence from a book has simple shifts like this.

Imagine that we watched only the beginning and end of that Susan Boyle clip, or did the same for The Present. Then we would be left with the black box and could try to figure out what happened to cause that shift. In exploring the black box, we can then develop interesting narratives.

You could provide prompts to generate these interesting narratives:

  • From hate to love
  • From despair to hope
  • From mistrust to horror

In exams, students will have photo prompts. When we have photo prompts, it’s interesting to consider whether this is the ‘here’ or the ‘there’. Is this picture the ‘here’, and we start from laughter and move towards something else? Perhaps one of their photographs shows someone in the background. Perhaps it isn’t their camera and the photos take a sinister turn. Or maybe it is the ‘there’, and the laughter has been a shift from some growing tension.

It can also be a useful strategy to try to turn some recurring default narratives into something more interesting. Let’s take the old favourite boy-plays-in-cup-final-and-scores-the-winning-goal narrative. What will be the most interesting shifts here?  From here: the optimism when stepping up to the penalty> the miss> to there: desolation and shame. From here: the father expecting his son to miss>goal> to there pride and guilt.

So that is my new strategy: ‘From here to there’. Next week, I will share an additional strategy for building narratives about two men with moustaches: ‘to me to you’.

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.

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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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.

Old texts, new perspectives

When Go Set a Watchman was published, it seemed that To Kill A Mockingbird was ruined for us. When Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet placed “To be or not to be” at the very start of the play, it was sacrilege. But this is part of the beauty of literature, that the words on the page never change but our perspectives can. Kenny Pieper, in this lovely post on reading Go Set a Watchman, writes:

Over time we change, experience and age altering our outlooks, and that is reflected in the way we read.When we re-read old favourites we don’t merely repeat the process because we have changed; our background knowledge has increased, our life experiences enhanced. So, like Jean Louise, we might return there but it can never be the same.

English teachers will visit the same texts many times in their careers and every time that we reteach a text, we reread it. Each time we will spot those differences- sometimes subtle, sometimes transformative- that keep things from ever getting stale.

Experiences

As we learn more about the world, our perspectives change. I spent a couple of days in Venice this summer and of course I thought of The Merchant of Venice throughout my stay. Navigating the intricate streets, I was both fascinated and claustrophobic. I often had no idea where I was- thankfully I was never too far from a sign. Perhaps other factors such as the intense summer heat and the swarms of tourists exacerbated this feeling of oppression. I could see echoes of this in so many of the characters, most of whom are trapped in some way: Antonio, trapped by his lack of capital; Jessica, trapped by her father (and Portia trapped by hers); Shylock literally and figuratively trapped by his religion. I thought of Belmont (which in my mind was a mountain visible in the distance) as a place that was so far removed from this place that Bassanio would do anything to be there. I loved the bustle of the Rialto bridge and the romance of the canals. When I teach the play again, I will approach it quite differently. (I can’t say that going to King’s Cross has changed my perspective on Harry Potter though.)

Choices

This year, like every year of my career, I am teaching Macbeth. The scheme of work starts inevitably with Act 1 Scene 1 but I don’t think that the scene with the witches is particularly interesting. It is fairly dramatic, and there are some language elements worth picking apart, but I feel that it is all fairly superficial. So I did a Cumberbatch of my own and started with Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 5 Scene 5: “Tomorrow and tomorrow…” It is one of the best passages in any Shakespeare play, it deals with the human condition as well as anything and is a perfectly formed poem in itself. It demonstrates Shakespeare’s wordplay and use of metaphor. It also leads students into the question of how he ended up like this and serves the study of Macbeth as a tragic hero much better. By changing the starting point, I changed the whole relationship students have with the play. It is framed as a play about a person, rather than a play about witches.

Time

Another thing that is hard to avoid is how time changes the way we read texts. Characters who were once much older than us become younger and our relationship with them changes as a result. Our political opinions change, our passions change, our circumstances change. A poem which has changed for me is So Many Summers by Norman MacCaig, one I always find a way to teach. It’s a simple poem, where the speaker passes a boat and the body of a deer every year on his fishing trip. The last stanza is:

Time adds one malice to another one–
Now you’d look very close before you knew
If it’s the boat that ran, the hind went sailing.
So many summers, and I have lived them too.

Year after year, I have taught this poem, one I first read when I was at school. Just like the speaker, the hind and the boat are still there for me, year after year, so the message of the poem becomes more resonant each time I come back to it.

Even though these are the same texts for us, our students are meeting them for the first time, and viewing them from their perspectives, so this poem is an entirely different poem for them. They see the speaker, and the boat, and the hind, for the very first time. Yet their perspectives, far from being naïve or simplistic, help to keep our texts exciting and new. The cries of “oh no” that came from a couple of students as we read the end of Of Mice and Men reminded me that these texts can always surprise. It is great to hear their fresh opinions on texts that you take for granted- I have lost count of the amount of times a comment from a pupil has changed what I think about a character or a simile or a theme.

Whatever we read, our perspectives are routinely changed. Does Orson Scott Card’s homophobia change the fact that I enjoyed Ender’s Game? Does knowledge of Steven King’s addiction invite a more favourable interpretation of The Tommyknockers? Most importantly, and I know that this isn’t ‘literature’, but does this article on Jar Jar Binks as a kung fu master change everything we thought we knew about The Phantom Menace?