Structuring persuasive paragraphs

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?

Revision Decisions: proposition composition

Over the last couple of years, sentences have played a prominent role in my classroom. Students know what good sentences look like, can often discuss the mechanics of them, but lately I have encountered a couple of problems.

One is that students decide the type of sentence, then fit the content to it. For example, they will decide to use an embedded clause, then begin to write it, throwing in whatever detail springs to mind. It’s the same way of thinking that leads to random rhetorical questions clunkily arriving in persuasive writing and is perhaps an inevitable consequence of informing students that they must use certain techniques in their writing. I want them instead to have the idea in mind, and the effect, then construct the right sentence to express it, choosing the structures that work best in that instance.

Another problem is that students commit to sentences and once a sentence is written, it is very rarely changed. On redrafts, individual words are often replaced, sentences are added to paragraphs, but the basic sentences don’t change all that much.

So, to help address these issues, I have been trying to model explicitly  all of the decisions that writers make when they construct great sentences. This helps the first problem because students look at different options before committing, and with these additional options they should be more confident in rearranging sentences, addressing the second problem.

To illustrate how I am doing this, let’s look at a sentence from Il Duro by D.H. Lawrence, an 80p Penguin Classic:

He suddenly began to speak, leaning forward, hot and feverish and yellow, upon the iron rail of the balcony.

We can’t see all of the writing decisions that Lawrence made. He had to choose the ideas, the words themselves and then the syntax. To begin to explore the third of these in particular, we can break the sentence up into its basic ideas, or propositions, of which I see eight:

  • He began to speak.
  • He spoke suddenly.
  • He leant forward.
  • He leant on the balcony.
  • The balcony had an iron rail.
  • He was hot.
  • He was feverish.
  • He was yellow.

By my reckoning, there are 40,320 different ways to organise these eight propositions. I like to ask students to put these together, without changing the main ideas or the words (except for verb endings). This means that they have to make some of the choices that the writer had to make. Crucially, they start with the ideas to be expressed and not an arbitrary sentence construction. It is the order and relationship of these propositions that will lead to subtle differences in meaning.

With this sentence, I know in advance the kinds of things that will likely be up for discussion. Why is “He suddenly began to speak” the main clause? Why not “He leant forward”? What happens when we change “leant” to “leaning”? Why “hot and feverish and yellow” and not “yellow and feverish and hot”? And so on. And we can ask questions of the students about their choices too. Then we can compare: students with each other, then students with the writer.

In these discussions, we look at the ways ideas can be combined. Through coordination, subordination, through causal relationships, right branches, left branches, colons, commas, appositives, prepositions and present participles.

Here are the propositions from another sentence in the book:

  • Her head was tied in a kerchief.
  • The kerchief was red.
  • Pieces of hair stuck out over her ears.
  • The hair was short.
  • The hair looked like dirty snow.

At #TMBRAD, we had a go at writing sentences from this:

The actual sentence: “Her head was tied in a dark-red kerchief, but pieces of hair, like dirty snow, quite short, stuck out over her ears.”

This isn’t a particularly ground-breaking approach- it is pretty much just sentence combining after all- but it’s new for me, and it’s improving my students’ writing. As Jeff Anderson writes, in Revision Decisions:

But the point of combining is not simply to put two sentences together (one sentence…and…another sentence) to make a long sentence. The point of sentence combining is for young writers to see relationships among ideas and to discover more effective ways to show these relationships […] Sentence combining is about playing with ideas and shaping them into effective syntactical patterns that make sense for individual writing situations.

Further reading:

revision-decisions Revision Decisions is another wonderfully practical book from Jeff Anderson, and inspired the ideas above.

Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon covers similar ideas, and there is an audio course from The Great Courses on the same subject by the same writer.

 

Trying to be a better English teacher

A few weeks ago I wrote about becoming better teachers of our subjects and concluded with: “I have become a better teacher in recent years by trying to become a better English teacher”. I thought it was worth trying to give examples of general approaches I have taken to improving my teaching. Here are some ideas that work for me, many of which could be transposed into different subject areas.

Collecting models

Whenever I read something interesting, I keep it. If I see an interesting sentence, I write it down. If a print advert makes me smile, I rip it out. If I see a colon used effectively, I save it for a lesson in the future. For students to become better writers, they need to be surrounded by high quality models. Everything we teach should be exemplified. I have a few posts on this, including Working With Mentor Texts, and I think this approach has improved my practice more than anything else.

When it can’t be found, I make it myself. I have found this particularly useful when it comes to essay writing. Students need to read essays and see what a good analytical paragraph might look like. If you don’t then you get the old ‘makes it more interesting’ or as I read the other day, ‘Shakespeare is trying his best for the play.’ The thing is, it’s really hard to comment on the effect of language. More examples=better responses.

Reading around the subject

There are lots of books with ideas on how to teach English, but they often tend to just give a few ideas for activities. Rather than reading books on teaching English, I would definitely recommend delving deeper into the subject, reading books which are not necessarily designed for teachers but will build subject knowledge and provide inspiration for lessons. I have started listening to audiobook lectures on the way to work now that my commute is longer, and already they have improved my teaching.

The great thing about English, is that anything you read can be useful. You can read a YA novel to recommend to students, you can read a history book to help learn about context. Every novel is a source of models and mentor sentences. Here is my list of books I recommend to start with.

Not making excuses and not dumbing down- the subject is exciting enough

It’s easy to apologise when teaching Shakespeare or poetry, subjects which students seem to approach with dislike, and say things like “well, we have to do it” or “I’ll try to make it fun”. Then whole lessons are spent trying to avoid contact with them. So instead of studying poetry, we study song lyrics and instead of writing essays on Macbeth, we design costumes for the witches. I used to do it so often, scouring the internet for ways to make my subject fun and doing lots of misguided things that I thought were necessary to make it all interesting. Obviously this came at the expense of learning. It’s okay to use things like Pop Sonnets as a way in, but students will always rise to the challenge if you teach the difficult stuff and support them to get there. For me, a love of the subject is cultivated by teaching the subject in all its glory and not trying to apologise for it.

Learning from other English teachers

There are so many great English teachers out there and lots of them blog. I love reading blogs because they are immediate, are personal, are often unfiltered, and are written by teachers based on their day to day experience. There are many blogs I enjoy by non English teachers of course, but the English teacher blogs have had the most direct impact on my teaching. Andy Tharby has a great list here to start from. Many tweeting teachers don’t blog but are generous in sharing what they do. A photograph of a classroom display might trigger some ideas, an interesting article might be shared which inspires a sequence of lessons, a throwaway comment might transform your approach to a text. I don’t spend as much time on Twitter as I once did, but it’s an invaluable source of inspiration. Not because it’s Twitter, but because it gives me easy access to these ideas. (Albeit we shouldn’t get too carried away with new ideas)

There is also this other thing called ‘real life’ which has quite a few more teachers! Chatting to colleagues in my department and in other schools is always useful. Seeing other teachers covering familiar topics in their own ways is wonderful and helps me to avoid becoming set in my ways. Our subject based school CPD this week consisted of our English department talking about a couple of poems and how we could teach them. The discussions helped everyone improve and I am sure our teaching of English Literature will be better as a result.

Developing efficient marking strategies

Man, the marking. I don’t think it can be avoided that English teachers mark a great deal. Because of this, English teachers need to develop strategies to make marking simple and effective. I honestly don’t hate marking any more because I have efficient methods and I continue to work on them. Every English teacher should prioritise making marking more efficient.

5 seems like a nice number to stop on. I’d love to see some other suggestions in the comments.

Style over substance?

PollA poll immediately after the independence debate last night suggested Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland was a clear winner. A Guardian article today explains that “Salmond’s win over Darling was one of style over substance.” Just like the phrase ‘empty rhetoric’, ‘style over substance’ dismisses the sophisticated role that rhetoric can play. In my opinion, the arguments from both Salmond and Alastair Darling were broadly on par- so how did Salmond ‘win’ the debate, if not the argument?

It’s always interesting to look at real examples of rhetoric and I have written before about how the best way to look at any type of persuasive writing is not to feature spot but to identify the argument and then see how language supports that. Salmond’s victory comes from the way that his language is used to support his message- Scotland should be independent from the UK and I should be trusted to take you there. Darling does strike some blows but not enough. (Before I get stuck in I must point out that this is neither a YES or NO blog but a look at some of the language used in the debate. I wouldn’t try to read more into it than that.)

Who am I?

The referendum is about a country but for this debate and for much of the campaign it has been about two men: Alex Salmond and Alastair Darling, leader of the ‘Better Together’ campaign. Very quickly in the debate, Salmond seems to seek to establish himself as a man of the people. When commenting on currency, he uses the Scottish-ism “We pay our messages”, emphasising his Scottish credentials. He later begins to describe debts as “enormous”, before switching to the less formal “ginormous”. This does again reinforce his ‘Hey- I’m just like you’ schtick. Alastair Darling, who is not blessed with a Scottish brogue does, rather uncomfortably, say “haud on” later. In trying to evidence his own Scottish credentials, he does the opposite.

Salmond uses the old ‘walk in front of the podium’ technique a little later on.

Once again, the message being I’m one of you. It felt a bit cringeworthy to me but it shows that Salmond is crafting everything about his speech. The barrier between him and Alastair Darling is further emphasised when Darling has to lean forward to be seen by the camera. Salmond adopts a relaxed posture when listening as Darling jabs a finger at him. In all of these exchanges, Salmond is isolating Darling, categorising him as the outsider- the overbearing yet distant authority figure who represents the UK Government.

PointOf course, we all hope the debate is more than just “I’m like you so vote for me.” After all, Darling does say “this isn’t about me or him”. (Although he did say before that “If I lose and he wins…” so maybe it is!)

Who are we?

So often, persuasion comes down to ‘we’. Who are ‘we’ and how can I make sure that you and I are part of this ‘we’ together? In this debate it is very interesting as both Salmond and Darling are careful to make the ‘we’ of this debate mean Scotland. However, Darling means Scotland with the rest of the UK and Salmond means without. So how does their language reflect this? Well, this is where I think Darling is quite effective. Darling manages to structure many of his arguments so that the solution can be seen by widening things out to the whole of the UK. He uses the phrase “UK-wide” more than once and later says: “Not just from Scotland but from all over the country”. He makes problems in Scotland easily solved when you take into account the whole of the British population. This ‘expanding’ of the debate also works when he is talking about Trident, the nuclear weapons development. When Salmond talks about solving a problem in Faslane, perhaps to emphasise the familiarity with a local issue (as he also does with the Ferguson Shipbuilders), Darling makes this a problem for the whole “West of Scotland”. “We cannot afford to lose £8000 jobs” he goes on to say, expanding it even further from a region to a whole country. The core message of “Better Together” informs the argument and the way it is structured. In doing this, he also makes the ‘we’ both Scotland and the UK.

Salmond repeatedly uses the phrase “The sovereign will of the Scottish people”. Darling criticised Salmond’s “smart lines” at the opening of the debate but it is a very simple way of laying the foundations of the argument that ‘we’ should have full jurisdiction on our own affairs. Salmond definitely has more of the lines but a simple line can be incredibly powerful and linger longer than a well structured argument. Salmond even speaks in hashtags at the end: “#teamscotland”.

Who are they?

Salmond has to tread a fine line between independence as a positive thing and as a divisive thing. He needs to use language to identify the UK as other but needs to avoid the negative tone too much as this will likely deter undecided voters. The Better Together- NO- campaign can then be left to be the negative party.

One way that Salmond does this is by referring to Trident as “weapons of mass destruction”. Here he is strongly arguing against nuclear weapons of course but the phrase has a wealth of connotations, and is especially prudent for Darling, who was a member of that Labour regime. In another heavily loaded phrase, Salmond in his closing speech claims that we should “rise and be a nation again”. Once again, this phrase, taken from Flower of Scotland, helps to build a warm sense of patriotism but let’s not forget that the verse concludes “That stood against him/Proud Edward’s army/And sent him homeward/Tae think again.” Far from being simply “smart lines”, these are words as full of meaning and are weapons of destruction themselves.

Salmond always refers to the UK government as “Westminster”. If Darling wants to emphasise that we should be included in the union for our own good, Salmond wants to emphasise that the UK government is isolated and distant from Scotland, even going so far as to say “Westminster is indicted”. Metonymy, personification: Salmond uses metaphor quite effectively here, although he does stray into cliche at other points. (“one trick pony”)

Knowing this approach from Salmond, Darling has to distance himself from the UK Government and he does by saying “I don’t agree with the present government’s policy” and that the bedroom tax is not good. However, by doing this he actually just reinforces Salmond’s point that “Westminster” makes decisions we don’t agree with!

 

I would be saddened if voters made their mind up on the big issues based solely on how a speaker performed on a debate, and I am not sure if anyone in the ‘no’ campaign will switch sides based on some stylistic flourishes. However, it is a dangerous game to dismiss rhetoric as merely style over substance. Elections should be won on substance, but they are often won on style.

 

An English teacher’s library

There are so many educational books out there that it can be difficult to know where to start. For anyone looking for books to read to improve their teaching, I would suggest they start from their own subject. The following list serves as both a reflection on books that have improved my teaching of English and a recommended reading list for English teachers. My friend and colleague @srcav has undertaken the same task for Maths teachers and you can read his list here.

YouTalkingYou Talking to Me by Sam Leith

All English teachers should read this. It’s an entertaining and constantly enlightening book on rhetoric and so many of my best lessons this year have been inspired by it. The book is particularly useful in helping to teach sophisticated writing techniques. While we may never use (or even understand) hyperbaton or tmesis, it still serves as a handbook to improve students writing. Not only this, but it will help teachers move students away from the awful technique spotting that litters essays on persuasive writing.

Rhetoric is language at play; language plus. It is what persuades and cajoles, inspires and bamboozles, thrills and misdirects. It causes criminals to be convicted and then frees those criminals on appeal. It causes governments to rise and fall, best men to be ever after shunned by their friends’ brides and perfectly sensible adults to march with steady purpose towards machine guns.

ShakespeareSpringboard Shakespeare series by Ben Crystal

There is a world of difference between knowing a play and knowing how to teach Shakespeare to a class of students who often arrive with negative attitudes towards him. I could have selected Shakespeare on Toast from the same author but I found his Springboard Shakespeare series incredibly useful in offering new insights into old favourites. Designed for a theatre audience who may not know the play, the books get to the heart of what makes them special: the context, the problems, the discussion points. Often, Crystal points out details that illuminate a scene and this can then be used in the classroom. I have used the Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and there are others on King Lear and Hamlet. There is one simple idea from his books which has really stuck with me:

When looking at Shakespeare’s writing it makes sense to think of a play as being full of speeches to be spoken out loud, rather than text to be read: we speak in thoughts; we write in sentences.

There are more extensive books on Shakespeare worth studying of course, but this is a great one for teachers.

10Things10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know by Jeff Anderson

I have chosen this book in particular because of Anderson’s explanation of how to use mentor texts and the influence this had on my own teaching of writing. His approach of ‘read>analyse>emulate’ is simple but effective. This is just one of the sections of the book which can improve practice. There are many more chapters full of wisdom and it is one of those books that is often worth dipping in to for inspiration.

Models are our teachers. Using the scientific method of writing from models we can do just about anything. The trick is to zero in on what works in a piece of writing and to find what we can use in our own compositions. When we stumble across writing that strikes us, we pause, reading it slowly and closely, analysing and soaking in what strong writers do.

WordsBringing Words to Life by Isobel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan

Beck, McKeown and Kucan build a strong argument for why we need to teach vocabulary and explore how we should do this. The follow up, ‘Creating Robust Vocabulary’, is also a must read. The most important idea in this book is that without a clear and structured approach, students with poor vocabularies will find themselves further and further behind and that simply providing a thesaurus or word banks is not enough. I would also recommend Teaching Word Meanings by Steven Stahl on this topic.

The problem is that many students in need of vocabulary do not engage in wide reading, especially of the kind of books that contain unfamiliar vocabulary, and these students are less able to derive meaningful information from the context.

TeachNowTeach Now: English by Alex Quigley

This is a book I wish had been around when I first started teaching. Granted, I wasn’t really reading educational books back then, but you get the point. While Alex’s book deals with more than just subject pedagogy, the sections on teaching English are the ones which resonate. His section on ‘Using language to explain, question and feed back’ is particularly strong.

We should remember that the essential elements of great teaching do not require flashy technology, glossy labels or teaching packs- just skilled, well-practised pedagogy.

In limiting myself to 5 choices, I have omitted some great books. Feel free to suggest your own in the comments.

Persuasive techniques: studying not spotting

Persuasive writing is often broken down into lists of techniques. These lists can be memorised quite quickly without a sense of their utility. This leads in some cases to students who use a wide range of persuasive techniques but a) they don’t really persuade and b) they give an air of falseness to writing. They can name the techniques but don’t have a sense of the real impact of them. These techniques do have a place however, certainly as a bridge to more complex aspects of rhetoric, but I think how they are taught has a massive influence over how they are then used.

To explore persuasive techniques, I think it’s much more interesting to look at them in context, exploring the nuances of different techniques. Students need to spend longer exploring each one, how they work differently in a range of contexts and how they only make sense as part of a design by the writer. Then, when they move to using them in their own writing, students are better prepared. To illustrate how we might do this, I’m going to look at Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech and place it alongside Malcolm X’s ‘The bullet or the ballot’ speech. Seeing the techniques used in different contexts should help students to understand the subtleties.

Tone before techniques

As Chris Curtis discusses in his legendary sexy sprouts blogs, tone is crucial, and students need to see that any techniques they may spot have everything to do with creating a tone and building an argument. On a simple level, we can read King’s speech as hopeful and optimistic and Malcolm X’s as threatening. However, there is much much more at play than these simple short cuts. (They will be referred to as MLK and MX henceforth)

Opening lines set the tone:

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” MLK

“Mr. Moderator, Brother Lomax, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies: I just can’t believe everyone in here is a friend, and I don’t want to leave anybody out.” MX

MLK’s language is grand and sets this up as a momentous occasion. Depending on your interpretation, MX goes for either self-deprecating humour or sets up the tone of division that he wants to create.

From here, both speeches go on to highlight the awfulness of the situation: MLK speaks of “the dark and desolate valley of segregation” and MX talks about how “All of us have suffered here, in this country”.

At this point, the tones diverge. MLK is clear that the solution is “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy” whereas with MX “it points toward either the ballot or the bullet”. If students can track this crucial distinction in tone they can first of all unpick how the language does the hard work. MLK: the situation is terrible, therefore we must have true freedom and democracy. MX: the situation is terrible, therefore we must have democracy- or revolution. MLK’s evangelical tone builds and builds, sermon-like towards rallying calls. MX, having presented the ‘bullet’ alternative, calls for Lyndon B. Johnson to take action. Despite the angry and threatening tone of the speech, MX’s tone shifts at the end and he proposes a sensible, peaceful set of actions. (MX is reported to have said: “If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”)

With a clear understanding of the shifting tone of each speech, any language analysis becomes much more straightforward and rooted in a clear purpose. Instead of generic ‘it is used for effect’, even simple responses will be specific about the intended effect.

Rhetorical question

For some reason, this is the technique students always remember and they always use it. Often badly. (“Do you want capital punishment?”) Exploring it in depth and looking at the technique in context shows just how effective it can be. In MLK: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” This question is used for one simple purpose: to set up the rest of the paragraph; to list all the conditions which must be met. MLK poses a question. He then answers it in depth.

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.

Similarly, MX uses “So, where do we go from here?” to fulfil an almost identical purpose. It is used to structure the argument.

So, where do we go from here? First, we need some friends. We need some new allies. The entire civil-rights struggle needs a new interpretation, a broader interpretation. We need to look at this civil-rights thing from another angle — from the inside as well as from the outside…

The following section from MX shows how questions can be used to structure a paragraph. Note how the last question is only effective because of the examples which precede it.

How can you thank a man for giving you what’s already yours? How then can you thank him for giving you only part of what’s already yours? You haven’t even made progress, if what’s being given to you, you should have had already. That’s not progress. And I love my Brother Lomax, the way he pointed out we’re right back where we were in 1954. We’re not even as far up as we were in 1954. We’re behind where we were in 1954. There’s more segregation now than there was in 1954. There’s more racial animosity, more racial hatred, more racial violence today in 1964, than there was in 1954. Where is the progress?

For students, not only do they help to add these uses of rhetorical questions to their toolkits but they see that a rhetorical question is not something they add in somewhere to get more marks- it forms part of a structured, deliberate piece of writing. They can see that questions play different roles at different stages.

Repetition

Much like rhetorical questions, it is very easy to spot repetition and students do, but they can often say things like “it makes it stand out”. Once again, repetition is used for different purposes depending on the intention of the writer. I would recommend first of all that students are aware of a couple of specific types of repetition: anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses) and epistrophe (the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive clauses or sentences).

Anaphora is a mainstay of both speeches. We have established that MX takes a confrontational tone at times and his frequent use of “I’m not here to…” reinforces this (In fact, MX begins many sentences throughout his speech with variations on “I’m not…”).

Although I’m still a Muslim, I’m not here tonight to discuss my religion. I’m not here to try and change your religion. I’m not here to argue or discuss anything that we differ about, because it’s time for us to submerge our differences and realize that it is best for us to first see that we have the same problem, a common problem, a problem that will make you catch hell whether you’re a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Muslim, or a nationalist.

There’s an interesting point in the speech where this shifts from “I’m not” to “they’re not”:

And this time they’re not going like they went last year. They’re not going singing ”We Shall Overcome.” They’re not going with white friends. They’re not going with placards already painted for them. They’re not going with round-trip tickets. They’re going with one way tickets. And if they don’t want that non-nonviolent army going down there, tell them to bring the filibuster to a halt.

It’s a wonderful rhetorical flourish and prepares the listener for the alternative. Because once MX has presented this picture, his final paragraph (which uses anaphora also: “let him”) is directed not really at the present audience but at Lyndon B. Johnson: “Let him go in there and denounce the Southern branch of his party.” The use of anaphora has fully supported the tone that we commented on earlier and certainly supports the bullet or ballot argument. After all the ‘not’ (bullet), it feels conciliatory for MX to use the positive-sounding “let him”(ballot).

MLK uses “I have a dream today” as punctuation, an exclamation, a rallying cry. He begins sentences with “I have a dream” to contextualise his hopes for the future. MLK doesn’t spend too much time on the nitty gritty of how this will happen but in many ways he does not need to. The speech is designed to build towards a crescendo and it is the sense of occasion, of emotion which is most important here. The anaphora shifts from “I have a dream” to “let freedom ring” and, much like MX changed the anaphora to change the tone, so does MLK. Still an abstract idea, “let freedom ring” suggests action rather than merely wishful thinking. (Interestingly, King only decided to use “I have a dream” on the spur of the moment. It was something he had used many times before and was memorised- he knew the power it had.)

Working through lists of persuasive techniques, you can provide example after example from these pieces that shows how something is used.

Forget spotting a personal pronoun, explore how ‘we’ is used for opposite purposes in “With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” and We died on every battlefield the white man had”.

Don’t just find emotive language, contrast the proud patriotism of “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today,” with “Uncle Sam’s hands are dripping with blood, dripping with the blood of the black man in this country.”

Forget simply metaphor-spotting, what about how King goes from “flames of withering injustice” to “a great beacon of light and hope” and “joyous daybreak”? Then see how X moves from “catching hell” to “the most explosive year”.

I wouldn’t stop teaching these ‘A FOREST’ type lists. But like any aspect of English, we need to give time to explore things in depth for a fuller understanding.

Further reading:

Sam LeithYou Talking to Me? by Sam Leith is a wonderful book which has transformed my entire approach to teaching persuasive writing.

Joe Kirby’s blog on Reclaiming Rhetoric is a useful introduction to the subject.

x=y: A threshold concept in English

In an article for the New York Times, Robert Sapolsky writes the following:

Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.

This idea is fundamental to English teaching. In the texts that we study, things represent other things. Sometimes we are ushered as readers towards them quite clearly and other times they are puzzles for us to solve or flights of fancy for us to follow. James Geary, in his fascinating book I is an Other, explains metaphor in a simple equation: x=y. This equation is simple shorthand but it captures this idea in our subject that something we can focus on (x) sheds light on or represents another aspect (y). I would consider this to be a threshold concept: a ‘big idea’ that when understood will have a powerful impact on how students succeed in English. Once they ‘get it’, they are unlikely to go back. However, it can be difficult to spot when this hidden code is at work.

Sometimes metaphors are pretty obvious. One such example  is from Norman MacCaig’s lovely poem Frogs:

[frogs] make stylish triangles/  with their ballet dancer’s*/  legs.

The image is simple and works. We appreciate the physical resemblance. x (frogs’ legs) = y (ballet dancers’ legs). Elsewhere in the poem, frogs are ‘parachutists’, ‘Italian tenors’, ‘Buddha’. I love this poem in its simplicity- frogs are a bit like all of these things. However, even this has much more complexity if we explore it.

frog vennWhile a student certainly won’t be wrong if they comment on the physical similarities, they need to consider more: what are the things we can say about ballet dancers’ legs that we can also say about frogs’ legs? But it is more than this: what are the things we can say about ballet dancers that we can also say about frogs? Or, even: what are the things we can say about ballet dancers that Norman MacCaig wants us to think about nature? If students can grasp these layers of meaning then they will move beyond a straightforward interpretation of the phrase and the poem. Because then the comparison isn’t about frogs’ legs being like ballet dancers’ legs, it’s really about nature being beautiful and complex and graceful and strong. It’s about the fact that MacCaig can see in a creature and in a moment the beauty of the world.

The MacCaig example is a poet with his cards on the table and yet there are still so many layers. Robert Frost describes these layers of meaning as ‘feats of association’.

All thought is a feat of association: having what’s in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didn’t know you knew. Putting this and that together. That click.

The ‘feats of association’ are often subtle; they don’t hit us over the head and announce themselves. The ‘click’ isn’t always instantaneous. As John Fuller says in Who is Ozymandias, “The suspicion is generally and often rightly held that poetry is ‘about’ something other than its ostensible subject, and that there is a reason for its concealment.” Speaking of Ozymandias, my year 10 class have been studying it this week and the biggest challenge has been grasping the concept that the poem is a metaphor and that it isn’t really about a statue, it is about what the statue represents. If we don’t approach the poem as this kind of metaphorical puzzle then it really is just about a statue. There are also so many aspects of the poem which might seem arbitrary (like the rhyme) or inconsequential (like the traveller) if we don’t think in terms of  allusion and metaphor.

blackboardSo here’s where x=y comes in handy again. If students can balance the equation then they can solve it and unlock the poem. If they mention a technique for the x part then the equation needs to be balanced with the y of effect. If they comment on a theme in the poem (x) then they need to balance that with how that theme can be related to the wider world (y). This way of thinking makes them consider how anything they spot might have an intended effect rather than simply listing techniques. It also helps them to be disciplined when addressing the question, in our case about power and control. In the example in the image, we look at the effect of the alliteration. That could be explored even further, with all of those final ideas becoming a new x and wider points about power becoming a new y.

Of course, poetry is the place where we expect this trickery, but it is everywhere.  x is the dagger before Macbeth, x is Squealer in Animal Farm (x is everything in Animal Farm!), x is the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead.

It’s a concept which can improve writing too. How often do students just write when what we want is for them to consciously craft writing? Even students who can analyse writing well don’t necessarily reverse engineer great writing themselves. By thinking about the y of their writing, then the x parts become rather straightforward. For example, if they want a particular tone in their writing then the vocabulary choices need to balance that equation.

This isn’t a neat mathematical equation and I would be loathe to reduce everything to this. Nonetheless, I think it’s an interesting way to approach a fundamental aspect of English.

*This apostrophe has bothered me.

Further reading:

Alex Quigley’s blog on Threshold Concepts is well worth a read.

GearyI is an Other is  a fascinating look at the role metaphor plays in our lives. His TED Talk on the same topic is here.

 

 

fullerWho is Ozymandias? is a book about the puzzles in poetry.