Developing Great Writing Part III – Contrasting Characters

http_com.ft.imagepublish.prod.s3.amazonawsThis is the third in a series of blogs on using sentences to develop great writing. My previous two posts looked at sentences that contrast ideas and sentences that link details in a text to relevant contextual information outside of it. This post returns to sentences that contrast, but the focus shifts from contrasting ideas to contrasting characters.

Before half term I spent a bit of time looking at how complex sentences provide a useful structure for comparing and contrasting. Complex sentences make it possible to have the two aspects of a comparison held together within a single sentence. The grammatical flexibility of subordinate clauses also allows for the idea or thing being compared to come first or second – an important feature in terms of improving argument coherence and style.

My focus was comparing the initial presentation of the two main female characters in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Nora and Christine. Early in Act One, the two childhood friends are on stage together for a prolonged duration. They have not seen each other in years and during that time they’ve had very different experiences, which have impacted on their character and appearance.  Although the end goal is an open comparison across texts, I am keen to practise short, focused comparisons like these as and when they occur to breed confidence and fluency.

Last time round we discussed the sentence dynamics and used content generated in the lesson to model one or two examples on the board. On this occasion, I changed tact. Because I felt students now knew enough about the structure of complex sentences and we had already discussed some of the main differences between Nora and Christine, I got students to write a paragraph cold in response to the question, ‘How does Ibsen contrast the characters of Nora and Christine?’ The only stipulation was that in the set-up, students must use one of the contrasting sentence structures.

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After the lesson I took the paragraphs in and spent a few minutes at break looking over them. This gave me some useful pointers I could address next time. The first thing I did next lesson was to identify some small technical points in a handful of individual answers. Under the visualiser we quickly reviewed half a dozen or so responses, noting a couple of minor grammatical errors and celebrated some of points made. Students could quickly see different ways the sentences had been used and different positions the contrasts had come in the paragraphs.

I then zoomed in on one example in more detail, an answer I thought had an issue common to other responses. The paragraph I chose represented the best example of the point I wanted to make: that overloading contrasting sentences with too many qualifying clauses can lead to confusion and a loss of accuracy. Whilst I want my students to be able to express more complex ideas, I never want that complexity to come at the cost of clarity.

I first showed them the original sentence the student wrote.

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I then made a couple of changes to improve the phrasing, whilst retaining the underlying structure.

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The next step was to provide a graphic representation of the different components of the sentence. I wanted to visually show students how within the two sides of the original comparison, there were clauses containing additional analytical comments. This not only enabled the students to see how the sentence worked, but also how the additional information affected the clarity. Increasing the sophistication of the analysis diluted the strength of the comparison between Nora and Christine.

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The next slide – which stripped out the two analytical clauses – helped to visualise how the sentence had become much clearer. It was easy for students to see that in the reduced version there was less information to hold in mind. What’s more, by removing the additional analysis to later on in the paragraph, the contrasting points could now be seen directly next to each other. It was much easier to see and therefore understand the different ways the two women had changed over the years.

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I had wanted students to take these insights from the worked class example and apply them to their own paragraph, but there was not enough time left. I probably won’t return to this activity next lesson, but I have made a note to create further opportunities for practice the next time we work on comparative writing.

Thanks for reading.

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Developing Great Writing Part II – from Text to Context

914f69693cafc9951be88400871229e2This is the second in a series of blogs on developing great writing. It is intended to chart my ongoing attempts to improve the analytical writing of my A Level students as part of my professional learning, and to share any ideas and strategies I am using with others, for better or for worse. The focus of my approach is the sentence, the building block of great extended writing.

Since my last post, I’ve decided to give a little bit more structure to my plans – to make what I am doing a bit more intentional and systematic. I have identified all the sentences types I want to use with my students and will note them down when I use them. This will help me to cover all the structures, and make it possible for me to better plan when to revisit them at regular intervals.

Here are the sentence functions I want to teach my students over the next two years:

1.1          Locate passage in the play

1.2          Locate passage in the play (with more specific qualifying details)

1.3          Locate passage in the play (with comment on its significance)

1.4          Establish significance of a passage

1.5          Establish structural significance of a passage (follow up point)

1.6          Establish thematic significance of a passage (follow up point)

2.1          Analysing the overall visual spectacle

2.2          Analysing character positioning on stage

2.3          Identifying a dramatic method and explaining its effect

2.4          Identifying linguistic features used in a speech

2.5          Identifying a language feature and explaining its effect

2.6          Exploring images and figurative language

2.7          Commenting on effect of individual words or phrases

3.1          Linking techniques to context (cause then effect)

3.2          Elaborating on techniques

3.3          Connecting details to context (inside out)

3.4          Connecting context to details (outside in)

4.1          Establishing a thematic point of similarity

4.2          Establishing a thematic point of difference

4.3          Establishing a point of difference (within an overarching similarity)

4.4          Linking a previous comparative point to a new comparative point

4.5          Exploring similarities between characters

4.6          Defining differences between characters

5.1          Introducing a critical view to support a point

5.2          Tracing the source of a point made to a critical interpretation

5.3          Introducing a critical view to be explored in more detail

My main writing focus over the coming weeks is helping students to make meaningful contextual links. There are lots of different ways that outside knowledge of the text can illuminate what’s inside it, such as through the depiction of the characters, the choice of setting and obviously through the development of ideas. I want my students to have access to a range of skilful ways of drawing on this background knowledge to enhance their analysis.

Through their study of some Christina Rossetti poems students already know a bit about the Victorian period. They are familiar with the division between the public and the private sphere, the dominance of men in the world of work and the limited scope for women outside the home. They are also aware of the imbalance between male and female attitudes towards sexuality, the important of reputation and of the emergence of the middle classes during this time.

This half term we have moved on to an initial read through of A Doll’s House, another text of the Victorian period with which students will eventually have to compare and contrast to Rossetti’s poetry. The opening of Ibsen’s play represents an ideal opportunity to relate some of this understanding of middle class domesticity to the setup of the Helmer home as shown in the opening stage directions and the early exchanges between Torvald and Nora thereafter.

After reading half a dozen or so pages, students answer a number of straightforward comprehension questions. The purpose here is to check basic understanding, but also to provide opportunities to deepen understanding through elaboration. Planning out these questions in advance is crucial to get the wording and the layering of complexity right. It is this surface / depth questioning that provides students with the confidence and material to write more extensively later on.

After the comprehension work comes a longer, extended question. It is focused around the material already discussed and knitted together by a specific writing focus, in this instance making links between the methods of presentation used by Ibsen and relevant context. Next time it will be on comparing different aspects of the characterisation of Nora and Christine, something I introduced a couple of weeks ago.

This is the point I introduce one of the sentence structures I have identified from the outset (see below). I tend to unpick its structure a bit as a class, but no longer spend quite so much time developing an understanding of the grammatical metalanguage behind it. From experience, this takes far too long and the gains from students knowing the precise technical details is marginal and probably, on balance, not worth it at this stage.

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There is then some paired discussed about what should be included in the paragraph, which we discuss as a class and usually involves using the same ideas and examples already rehearsed. The idea is to give every opportunity for students’ writing to be successful. I then model an exemplar sentence or two, taking on of the more challenging points the students will probably leave alone. I narrate my thinking for the first example and then do another together with the help of the class. This usually works quite well and doesn’t take too long.

The final part is the independent writing. Because the content has been repeated on several different occasions and students have had seen some modelled examples and orally modelled others themselves, they write quite happily and with confidence for around 7-8 minutes. I’ll focus on the different ways I feedback in a subsequent post, but suffice to say for now it usually immediately under the visualiser or the next lesson after I have time to be a bit more considered.

As ever, here are some of the examples, which I am generally quite happy about. The highlighted sentences are the ones the students consciously crafted on the back of our work in the lesson.

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Developing Great Writing Pt.1 – Contrasting Ideas

Over the past few years I’ve developed a number of academic sentence structures to use with my students in an effort to improve their writing. I started with generic structures – I had supporting whole school writing in mind – but more recently I’ve developed more subject-specific sentences.

The main focus of my work on improving writing has been A Level, and the fact that I have taught the same syllabus for a number of years now has given me the opportunity to refine and review each year. Whilst I’ve had good feedback from students and teachers who use the sentences, I’m not convinced I’ve fully optimised either the structures or the way I use them in class.

In order to understand what I intend to do next, it might be useful to know a bit of what I’ve done already. In recent years I’ve left extended writing until year 13, believing that students write much better when they know more about the material. Most of year 12 has therefore been spent building up an understanding of the texts, which include Rossetti’s poetry, A Doll’s House and Hamlet

In the main this has proved successful – when students have started writing at length their sentences have been much more controlled and deliberate. I’m beginning to think, however, that their writing could be even better if they mastered a number of specific, high-leverage, sentence forms in year 12 too. I don’t want to lose the focus on knowledge development, but I do want to get them to practise applying some of that knowledge at the point of acquisition through small bursts of writing. I think this will help internalise certain sentence structures, which we can then build upon in year 13 when we turn our attention to synthesising knowledge and understanding in full essays.

So, this year I’ve started building in lots of deliberate practice with the subject-specific sentence structures that I have honed over the past few years. Sometimes we practise single sentences whilst at other times we write whole paragraphs, but with a particular focus on just one or two sentence constructions within that paragraph. I’m constantly using other effective strategies whilst teaching writing, such as including examples and non-examples, live modelling and co-construction with the students, dual coding and frequent oral rehearsal.

My first attempt is illustrated below:

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I spent a couple of minutes recapping students’ understanding of complex sentences, and then showed them how these sentence structures can be used to make simple comparison points, such as to contrast aspects of a character or theme. Through further exemplification we looked at how contrasts can come after the main clause or before it. We considered the stylistic and analytical rationales for each approach.

The next step was a bit of practice in class with the different sentence formulations, including punctuating the clauses correctly.

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What I like about this kind of activity is the ease with which I can get a handle on a whole class’s writing. I have 13 students in my class and I can look at the sentences that each of them produce in just a few minutes. I don’t really give them any detailed individual feedback, but rather look for trends across the class. The students like the quick turnaround and since they frequently make the same kind of errors, they can see the benefit of this approach.

And here are some of the results. Not perfect, of course, but there are some clearly focused comparisons, which we can build upon later on.

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I think my next focus is going to be on weaving in contextual details.

Thanks for reading.

Room for improvement, or what I’m working on this year

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I’d like to think I am a better teacher than I was say 10 or even 5 years ago. I’d like to think that every year I continue to improve. I’m sure that’s not always the case, and that some years I stagnate. I’m ok with that if my overall trajectory is up, which I think (and hope) it is. As I came to realise some years ago, after a certain point it takes a lot of time and conscious effort to make significant improvements to your practice. It’s bit by bit rather than wholesale.

Having a lighter timetable than some probably helps my development in the classroom. Not because I have an abundance of time to pontificate – I really don’t – but because teaching fewer classes makes it easier to retain a clearer focus on the change to my practice I am making and the impact it is having on my students. I have more bandwidth to make sense of my classroom.

I deliberately refer to change in the singular. Isolating just one variable in teaching, consciously honing it in light of feedback, is hard enough, let along managing multiple changes at once. I’m envious of those who seem able to pick up a new idea and run with it immediately. I prefer to see if the thing I’m working on really is making a difference, and to give it the time and space it needs to work. I also find it difficult to turn successes into habitual practice.

I’ve written before about our approach to professional learning, and the way that we set ourselves classroom-based targets at appraisal – one an overt craft goal; the other an inquiry question. We’ve moved this process on quite a bit since that blog, but the essence of our approach remains the same. We identify one pedagogical goal to work on with an instructional coach, and one question about an aspect of student learning that we undertake through disciplined inquiry.

This year my pedagogical goal is to improve my modelling of sentence structures to aid students’ analytical writing. It may seem odd that I’ve chosen to focus on what you’d think would be bread and butter for an English teacher. What makes it even more perplexing is that I’ve written on this topic before and spoken about developing sentence structures at conferences!

The thing is: whilst I think I’m much better at teaching students to write good sentences and helping them turn their good sentences into good paragraphs, I still don’t think I’m quite good enough. There is still a lot more I can do to help my students set up their ideas, move between their points and introduce and engage with judicious secondary material.

There are doubtless other things I could be working on, but I want to stick with the modelling and deconstruction of sentence structures. Too often we set ourselves improvement targets – whether formally or more personally – and we move to something new before we have truly honed the change or habituliased it into a daily routine. The emphasis is for breadth, not depth.

So, this year I am keeping the main thing the main thing. I am going to build on the gains I’ve already made in this area and make a conscious effort to identity a couple of techniques that I can add to my armoury every time I teach writing. Small little sustainable moves that will have a big impact on my students’ writing, and that I can perhaps share with my colleagues when I am ‘sure’ that they work.

I want to write about my efforts on this blog and to share any successes or failures. I may not get around to doing this, of course, but the intent is there.  And after all, it’s the thought that counts. I will call blogs relating to this focus ‘Developing Great Writing’, so you can choose to read about them or not if you want.

Wish me luck.

Low Cost, High Impact Feedback

Screenshot 2018-06-16 07.12.00When we changed our feedback policy a few years ago, we were quite pleased with it – we’d looked at all the evidence around what makes good feedback, and thought we’d come up with something sensible and fair.

We established several key principles of effective feedback for each department to contextualise, such as providing time for students to do something with the feedback, highlighting the importance of using feedback to inform planning and distinguishing between feedback and marking. There were no silly requirements for different pens or extensive written comments every couple of weeks.

And yet, I don’t think we went far enough.

On reflection we could have spelt out that we do not necessarily expect to see written feedback at all; that we have no centralised expectation as to what feedback looks like in a subject and that we do not stipulate how often feedback should occur at all. We could have done more to stress that policies should be set by departments and to say that quality assurance should only be made against these policies.

I also think we could have done more in providing our teachers with tools and/or exemplification of how to practically implement strategies for giving different kinds of feedback in an efficient manner. It is easy to forget that just because the principles are right and that the intent to alleviate burdensome workload is there that teachers will magically know how to adopt low cost, high impact feedback strategies.

It’s interesting, for instance, to see how whole class feedback has evolved as more and more teachers try it with their classes and understand how to make it better and more efficient. For what it’s worth, many of the examples of it I see being shared still have too many unnecessary and inefficient aspects, potentially undermining the purpose of saving teacher time in the first place!

Our policy is now just one page long and I think now makes it crystal clear that we expect subject leaders to balance the needs of our students with what is reasonable and sustainable. Departments are free to shape their own policies in a way that they think is best with the emphasis on Low Cost, High Impact.

Behind the school policy are also examples of what this might look like in practice. Live Marking, Book Sampling and Whole Class Feedback are not original but perhaps what is different is how we have tried to show how these strategies actually work in practice. Our Low Cost, High Impact guides are the result of trials in classes to work out the most efficient and sustainable approaches.

The important thing is for these or other strategies to become habitualising them into daily practice. Only then are can they really be considered to have High Impact at a Low Cost.

High Impact, Low Cost feedback strategies: