Why can’t my students write good stories?

You’d think teaching the creative writing component of the GCSE English exam would be the most rewarding aspect of the specification. It’s the chance to delight in the beauty of language and get students to let their imaginations run wild.

It’s really not, though. 

In all the different incarnations of the syllabus I’ve taught, I’ve always been left utterly deflated by what my students end up producing. It’s often boring, cliché-ridden, derivative and almost always utterly preposterous. I’m left scratching my head, thinking – is it me?

I don’t think it’s just my students, though.  I see the same sort of thing in other classes too. I also remember when I did some GCSE exam marking a few years back. The task was along the lines of ‘describe a perfect world’. Paper after paper detailed a chocolate world, with chocolate trees and fountains with characters spending their days at absurdly named theme parks on rides that paid no heed to the laws of physics or even human possibility. It was so babyish.

Exam marking is tedious enough, without having to wade through all that.

It’s not as if our students have a bad literary diet. They can count the likes of The Odyssey, Great Expectations and Animal Farm amongst the texts they study in the build up to GCSE. They also read a wealth of contemporary stories during form time from diverse writers like Jamaica Kincaid, John Steinbeck, Kazou Ishiguro and Chinua Achebe. That’s not a bad introduction to great storytelling.

So, what am I doing wrong? I suspect a lot. I know I could probably inject more enthusiasm into how I approach the task. I could also spend more time searching for inspirational examples or put more effort into creating better resources, like this set of literary introductions from Sarah Barker. I definitely accept some of the blame here.

But I don’t think it’s all me. I think it’s also partly a product of our society, where everything is an ‘issue’ and everyone is ‘stressed’. My students seem only to write about these extremes. Either I get a saccharine description of mindless hedonism (see above), or a nightmare world where everyone is one step away from some kind of terrible personal or collective disaster.

There are never any subtleties; nuance is nowhere to be found!

Obviously, the problem is also one of maturity. It’s fair to say that as you get older, you appreciate there are real stories all around. You experience them and so learn to see them. In most good short stories – see Munro, Carver, Chekhov – nothing much really happens. These stories are often about missed opportunities, hope punctured, regret resurfaced, moments of realisation, tenderness and, of course, loss. Very little tragedy (in the real sense of the word); no dramatic set pieces; no emotional outpouring. They’re more about the gaps and the silences and what lies in between. 

But even if I put the effort in and managed to get my students to write with more subtlety and less drama, would they gain as many marks in the exam? Would the unadorned style of say a Munro, a Carver or even a Hemingway be recognised? 

Take Raymond Carver, for example, one of the finest exponents of the art of the short story. I often read his stories to my students to help them better understand how less can sometimes be more – that profound things exist in the seemingly trivial.

Fat is very good at conveying this, a deceptively simple story about a waitress in a diner called Rita who serves an exceptionally fat man during her night shift. The man is extraordinarily large and eats an extraordinary amount of food. Despite his size and apparent greed, there is something beautiful and pure about the man; something that leads Rita to an epiphany – that she herself is ‘fat’ with the child of a lover she doesn’t really love.

Here is Rita first describing the fat man:

‘This fat man is the fattest person I have ever seen, though he is neat-appearing and well dressed enough. Everything about him is big. But it is the fingers I remember best. When I stop at the table near his to see to the old couple, I first notice the fingers. They look three times the size of a normal person’s fingers—long, thick, creamy fingers.’

Would this cut it at GCSE? I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure. The repetition of fat – deliberate by Carver throughout the story to challenge our understanding of beauty – and the simple adjectives (fat, big, old, long, thick) would probably be seen as the sign of competent, but ultimately unambitious writing. 

Mark schemes actively encourage flamboyance over restraint, hyperbole over understatement. If I were marking Caver’s work, I’d be able to say that ‘sentence demarcation is consistently secure and consistently accurate’ but not that he uses ‘extensive and ambitious vocabulary with sustained crafting of linguistic devices’. One of America’s greatest writers would be placed firmly in band three!

I’m not saying we should do away with creative writing at GCSE. It’s already side-lined enough in many schools that if you strip it back any further, you risk sending the wrong message about the importance of the imaginative act. There may well be a wider argument about the language exam itself, but as long as it stays, there should be a place for original writing, however flawed.

I guess I’m arguing for mark schemes to show greater understanding of what makes a good story – that it shouldn’t only be about bells and whistles. Understatement, subtlety and writing that doesn’t announce itself through the loading of unnecessary adjectives or overwrought comparisons should be encouraged and rewarded..

I guess I’m also recognising that I need to up my game too. If the world we live in is becoming increasingly hyperbolic, and the messages my students are getting through things like social media and rolling news, are becoming increasingly dramatised, then as an English teacher, I need to be using my time with my students as an opportunity to push back on all this – to show that there is meaning in the everyday and that often less is more.

After all, some things are better left unsaid.

A Fine Balance – Weighing the Costs of Assessment

Most of us recognise the need to make effective use of assessment when students return in September, whether in establishing starting points, promoting learning through retrieval or in identifying potential gaps. What’s not so clear is how we should assess and – mindful of the need to focus on integrating students after so long away – when assessments should take place.

Professor Rob Coe has written two excellent blogs on this subject for the EEF. The first focuses on three questions for school leaders to consider in relation to the purpose of assessments, and the second at the role of quality assessment in helping teachers understand how best to help pupils regain any learning lost during the period of school closure.

It would be unwise to offer any definitive answers to questions about assessment since every school has its own context. The profile of the student population, the quality and engagement with remote learning during the period of lockdown, the capacity and expertise of staff and the culture, pressures and practices of the school will all influence what assessment looks like.

As Rob Coe rightly points out, the first principle of effective assessment is to establish purpose. What is this assessment intended to achieve? What is the point of asking students to sit these exams at this moment in time? But even once any purpose has been agreed, there are still choices to be made. These choices can be seen as a series of trade-offs. If you want to do X, it will mean you can’t do Y, or if you do Y that will have a knock on effect for Z.

These trade offs relate to pretty much all assessment decisions, including timing, form and use. For every decision you take as a teacher, head of department or a school leader, there will inevitably be some kind consequence for students and/or staff. If, however, we are clear about the purpose of any assessment and understand the trade offs involved, we should be able to make better decisions for the good of all concerned.

To understand what we mean by trade offs let’s look at a couple of examples that schools might be thinking about come September. Probably the most likely is some kind of assessment for exam groups to help identify gaps in learning and direct limited resources. Whilst the learning of all students is valued, there is understandable concern for those fast approaching examinations.

Putting aside legitimate concerns about assessing students so soon after returning, there are a number of other significant pros and cons to consider. Chief amongst these is whether the price involved in getting accurate information about student learning is worth the effort and potential undesirable consequence. Some of these trade offs are crudely depicted in the table below.

Variable inferencesMore accurate inferences
Less markingIncreased marking
Little moderationGreater moderation 
Shorter testsLonger tests
Weaker itemsStronger items
Different test conditions Standardised conditions
Curriculum variationCurriculum alignment 

After thinking through the implications, a school might decide that there just isn’t enough time, expertise or infrastructure available (don’t forget, it will be difficult to run internal exams) to warrant such large scale summative assessment. They might decide instead to lower the stakes and focus instead on developing formative assessment practice – in other words, assessment that facilitates students’ learning.

Even here, though, there are potential issues. Assessment that drives student learning sounds like the right thing to do – and it probably is – but as with summative assessment, it can be hard to do well, particularly in classrooms where movement is restricted and touching papers and books is going to be problematic. Some of the main differences between high quality purposeful formative assessment and ineffective practices are outlined below.

PurposefulIneffective 
Sound knowledge of learning progressionsCurriculum incoherence or variation
Confidence to respond to diagnostic dataReliance on pre-prepared resourcing
Well designed tasks and questionsTasks that go through the motions
Time and tasks for learners to improveTokenary time to work on improvements
Students as instructional resourcesStudents as passive recipients 
Spaces that enable efficient data collectionRestrictions on teacher movement

In both examples, establishing purpose, whilst important, is not the end of the decision-making process. Listing the potential trade-offs involved with a proposed assessment – workload, accuracy, logistics, etc. – can be a helpful way of evaluating whether those assessments are right to run or not. A particular assessment may be well intentioned but if it cannot be actioned properly, or if it compromises other things of value, then it is probably not worth doing.

Purpose may well be the starting point when we think about assessment, but it isn’t necessarily where we end up. Any assessment involves a trade off and it is up to us as teachers and leaders to understand the full implications of our decisions before we act.

If you are interested in learning more about the Role of Assessment in Supporting Lost Learning, Greenshaw Research School are running a free webinar tomorrow from 3.00-4.00pm with Professor Rob Coe (EBE and EEF).

You can still sign up here:

99 stories – the power of retelling

Picture5Have I got a great story for you:

A male narrator on a crowded bus witnesses a disagreement between a man with a long neck and a funny hat and a fellow passenger. The narrator then sees the same man a couple of hours later, this time getting some advice from a friend on how to add a button to his coat.

That’s it.

Ok, It’s not much of a story, I admit, but it’s nevertheless one that has had a profound effect on the way that I teach elements of my subject, in particular ideas of genre and perspective.

The plot – such as it is – comes from a neat little book written by Raymond Queneau in 1947 called Exercises in Style. Originally written in French and subsequently translated into over 30 different languages, Queneau’s book is a collection of 99 retellings of the same base story, known as ‘notation’, which I summarised above. 

As the title suggests, each retelling is a writing exercise, where Queneau takes the original story and transforms it in accordance to a given literary or rhetorical style. And so we have versions such as double entry, where every detail and item is repeated and duplicated, or metaphorically, where the passengers on the bus are a ‘shoal of travelling sardines’ and the man doing the arguing is a ‘chicken with a long, featherless neck.’

I tend not to use Queneau’s exercises directly with students. Many of his retellings are too complicated and the rhetorical methods they are intended to illustrate are too advanced.  I do, however, apply his approach, taking passages from stories and rewriting them from different perspectives and in different genres. It really helps to show how both fiction and non-fiction work and the importance of structure and viewpoint.

Transformational writing is nothing new. I’ve been teaching some form of recreational writing for years and students enjoy reimagining a missing scene, or transforming a passage from one genre into another. The exercises are different, though. Because they are so short, the focus of each is much more pronounced. The base ‘notation’ is also devoid of artifice, and so the core features of any stylistic or generic inflections are amplified.

In 2013 Bethany Brownholtz wrote a modern day extension to Exercises in Style as part of her Master’s programme. In her 21st Century Remix, Brownholtz draws upon styles that have emerged since Queaneau’s time, offering 40 variations on a new base story, which she calls the ‘gist’. As with Queaneau, the gist is not the focus, but rather the tone or genre that is applied to it. 

Here is the gist in its entirety:

Commuter train to Chicago, early afternoon. Recurring cell phone dings. A middle-aged businessman plays with his phone. He sits across the aisle from a woman. She makes eye contact with the passenger in front of him—college kid, white undershirt, messy hair, like he slept on a futon. She smiles and rolls her eyes at the kid. A friendly gesture meant to commiserate. The kid shouts “What?” At the next stop, she apologizes and moves to another train car. 

Thirty minutes later, the young woman uses the bathroom at Union Station. She notices an older homeless lady by the sink in distress and asks if she needs help. The lady requests that the young woman take the older lady’s pants off. The young woman says no and leaves.

Amongst Brownhltz’s re-workings are moods such as nostalgic and pissed off and contemporary styles such as memoir, rap and social media status updates. It’s a really useful resource, though I should stress I’m not advocating transforming literary works into rap lyrics or Tweets! This isn’t about making writing more engaging and relevant, it’s about making the art of the writing more explicit, such as the effects of different perspectives, styles and voices.

One activity I’ve undertaken recently with a year 8 writing unit is to explore the effect of different points of view on meaning – helping students to understand how the same story framed differently emphasises some ideas and attitudes, and downplays others.

The gist might look like this when inflected in the third person.

It was a cold October morning. Mrs James was travelling to London to make an early morning board meeting. The dusty grey train was packed with sleepy commuters, looking tired and bored. She had been lucky to grab a seat by the window, but just as she curled up in the corner to rest, a loud mobile phone ring brought her crashing back to her senses.

Or like this in the first person, from the point of view of the woman.

I was due at a board meeting at 9.00am in London. It had been years since I’d last got a train and I’d forgotten how crowded they got. Despite the fact that carriage was packed with commuters, I managed to find a seat by the window, next to an old lady and opposite a grumpy man in a suit. As I shut my tired eyes, the man’s phone suddenly burst into life!

Or even like this in the second person, where the reader becomes the woman.

You are heading to London for an important meeting with your clients. Last night was late and you are very tired this morning, barely able to keep your eyes open. You look around the carriage and spot a free seat by the window. As you nestle down in the corner, your sleep is interrupted by the sound of man’s phone and its annoying ringtone.

In each retelling something is gained and something is lost. Such a comparison of perspectives is arguably more effective at illustrating these differences than most verbal explanations. I guess it works in a similar way to the use of examples and non-examples when teaching difficult concepts. The key learning points are better understood through side by side comparison of getting it right and getting it wrong.

Hopefully you can see how this approach could be applied to other areas of the curriculum. For example, when reading a novel, a rewritten passage from a different perspective might help clarify authorial intent. Indeed, i’ve recently had some success with year 11 by making subtle changes to some of the source material on AQA Paper One. Understanding the perspective used by the writer and how the text is structured is quite tricky and comparing different narrative possibilities proved very useful.

As with all stories, this is not the end. In 2005 artist Mark Hadden released Exercises in Style. 99 Ways to Tell a Story, a comic book rendering of Queneau’s work, in which Hadden applies the principles at work in the written form to the visual medium. In my next post, I hope to show how Hadden’s work has inspired my teaching, in particular at GCSE to explore how writers use structure to create meaning.

The end.

Or is it?

We Murder to Dissect – How to Approach a Poem Without Killing It

I don’t know whether it’s a by-product of the way we teachpoetry – where there’s always so much to do and so little time – or whether it ‘twas ever thus. Either way, many students seem to approach poetry like they are trying to solve a puzzle. To them, a poem is more like a riddle to be solved or explained away rather than something to be enjoyed or savoured.

It may be a stretch to expect young people to independently appreciate the aesthetic pleasures of a lyric or bask in the sensual delights of metrical verse, but I think we should at least try to stop them treating poetry like Sudoku or seeing poems as codes to be cracked. The problem – the tension, the ambiguity, the unexplainable – is the point of the poem. Students need to learn how to accept that which evades ordinary language is part of the pleasure of poetry. It is poetry.

I’m currently reading Picnic Comma Lightening by Laurence Scott, a great read about the impact of digital culture on meaning in the modern world. Early on, Scott recounts the experiences of a group of professors who start noticing an increasing number of their students referring to non-fiction in their essays as novels. Scott attributes this collapse in understanding of generic boundaries to the digital age where everything is a‘story’.

Poems are not novels, of course, and whilst narrative poems share similarities with fiction they are not the same as stories found in books. Poetry is distinct from prose and we should help students to see, hear and feel these distinctions, particularly if it’s true that the notion of genre really is becoming less familiar and intuitive to younger generations. Teaching poetry not only requires a shift in pedagogy, but a shift in mindset. This we can model.

Key stage three is fertile ground to inculcate this aesthetic apprenticeship. We should fight the urge to analyse everything to within an inch of its life and better model the art of appreciation, sympathy and the subtle thinking processes involved in approaching a new poem afresh. We want the poem work its magic before we look at how it’s all achieved – to what lies under the hood! It’s tempting to focus on meaning (we are meaning-making creatures) but we also need to learn how to be comfortable with uncertainty and reconcile ourselves to different ways of seeing.

In short, we need to learn how to notice.

Over the years, I’ve settled on an approach to introducing a new poem that tries to foster this art of observation – of patterns, tensions and the unusual. It works just as well with younger students as older students, albeit with some tailoring to reflect relative experience and ability. It’s not reducible to a pithy acronym. Rather, it’s a loose set of questions that take students from the discombobulation of initial reading to the beginnings of what it means to enjoy the forming of meaning out of patterns of images and sounds.

Before I get to the questions, I like students to get a sense of the poem.

I read the poem first.

Students then read it silently to themselves.

They read it again, identifying any words or phrases they don’t know.

I explain all those that are crucial, usually as I have anticipated but not always.

Students then take turns reading lines, hearing the poem in their own voice.

We repeat until fluency emerges and they can hear any rhythm or rhyme.

I then get students to write down things they notice – not explain, but notice. This generates anything from comments about tone, perspective and emotions to statements about line lengths, rhyming patterns, recurring words and so on. Pretty much anything is valid here.

Students next choose a couple of observations and frame them as questions – there are alternate lines that rhyme becomes why does every other line rhyme? The last stanza is shorter than the others becomes why is the last stanza shorter than the others?

The following 10 questions help to deepen their understanding and build meaning:

  1. Who is speaking in the poem? To whom? What is their perspective?What is the tone of the voice? How do you know?
  2. What is the story or set up? Does it describe an event (narrative), recount an exchange (dramatic) or is it more reflective and observational (lyric)?
  3. What kind of language is used- formal, colloquial, poetic? What kinds of words -abstract, concrete, technical? Is the language consistent with the voice and/or story?
  4. How does the poet use visual elements? Is there any striking or unsettling imagery? Are there patterns, repetitions or contrasts?
  5. How does the poet use aural elements? Are there any striking sound effects? Do the sounds complement or contrast the images?
  6. How does the poet structure the poem? Are there interesting contrasts? Patterns? Developments? Changes in tone? How does the poem begin and end? Do they relate?
  7. How does the poet use rhythm and rhyme? Is it regular or irregular? Are there any heavy or light stresses?  How do they relate to the meaning and tone?
  8. How is punctuation used in the poem? Do lines run on or are they end-stopped? Are there any pauses or gaps? Would changes in punctuation alter the meaning or tone?
  9. Are there any irregularities in the poem? How does it relate to other elements?
  10. What is the relationship between the title and the poem as a whole? Does it anchor the meaning or seem to work against it? Why?

At this point I go back to the questions we asked ourselves earlier and more often than not we are in a better position to start answering them.

Well, most of the time!

I hope this was useful – thanks for reading.

Teacher Choices – helping teachers make better decisions in the classroom

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Last week the EEF introduced a new initiative called Teacher Choices. It aims to generate the kinds of evidence that teachers can put to practical use in their classrooms with their students. These short teacher-led research studies should be able to help provide teachers with answers to some of the questions they want to ask, rather than the ones often asked on their behalf.

Whilst large-scale research clearly has its place, the focus is not always on the experiences of the classroom teacher and the decisions he or she has to make as routine, often on their own with little or no support and guidance. They tend to answer bigger and more generalizable questions operating at institutional or system-level.

There can also be a lag between the commissioning of big studies and some of the answers teachers want help with right now, such as how exactly should I be using these knowledge organisers I’ve produced? What does it actually mean to quiz frequently in my subject? When is dual coding most useful in lessons? What is the best way to model writing under the visualiser?

This shift in emphasis has the potential to be a helpful and responsive way of drawing upon the knowledge and expertise of the EEF to better support practitioners to make more informed choices. Often top-down decisions can overlook the role of the teacher in making change happen. The Teacher Choices initiative addresses this problem by directly comparing different approaches used by teachers.

The first Teacher Choices trial involves a comparison of different ways of starting a lesson. It compares opening a lesson with a retrieval quiz with starting a lesson with a short discussion. This is exactly the kind of choice that many teachers – including this one – have made over the years and would like to be more informed about in the future.

Other proposed questions include the most effective way to read with a class and whether or not getting students to line up outside a classroom improves behaviour or not. In most schools, it would be really useful to know if asking questions during reading makes a difference to learning or gets in the way on an initial read through. We often do things out of habit without any evidence that it is that effective. Teacher Choices could fill this insight gap.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the new EEF approach is that it is driven by teachers themselves. It is classroom practitioners who can frame the direction the EEF takes in this initiative. With this in mind, it would be great to get as many teachers involved in these trials as possible. Recruiting has begun and closes on 7 October 2019.

If these initial questions are not really relevant for your context, it might be worth starting to formulate ones that are. There are lots of possibilities, not just for generalised aspects of classroom teachers, but also for those with a more subject-specific focus. The scope to get evidence on various aspects of subject pedagogy is exciting and a chance to hone our day to day practice.

Here are some suggestions for additional Teacher Choices studies:

  • Does using PPT slides help improve learning?
  • Does greeting your students at the door improve conduct?
  • What is the most effective way of improving students’ notetaking?
  • What is the best way to end a lesson?
  • What is the most effective way to give exam feedback?
  • What is the best time to give back the results of a test?
  • What is the most effective way to model writing?
  • What is the best way to introduce a new poem to class?
  • When is the best time to start teaching analytical writing?

This is a great opportunity to get involved in the future direction of the EEF and get answers to some of the things that you want to ask and that will help improve the impact of your teaching.