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.

 

I didn’t see that coming – how critical friends can help us improve

Screenshot 2019-02-27 19.43.21The critical friend is a recognised feature of school improvement. Someone knowledgeable who is not blinded by institutional bias can point out weaknesses in plans and identify ingredients likely to increase chances of success. The same rationale applies to individuals too – teachers can improve by asking each other challenging questions and by challenging each other’s questionable assumptions.

In Thinking with Bets Annie Duke calls the process of holding ourselves accountable to other people in an effort to improve our practice as ‘truth-seeking’. In a previous life Duke was a highly successful poker player, and in her book she applies her experiences of learning how to make better poker decisions to learning how to get better at decision-making. She offers a number of salient lessons for teachers keen to learn from past decisions so that they make better ones in the future.

Duke notes that when we seek out others to challenge our thinking we are not only tapping into their expertise, but we are also actively taking steps to overcome aspects of our human fallibility, in particular our self-serving tendencies. We are hardwired to take credit for our successes and to look elsewhere for the causes of our mistakes. Exposing ourselves to the scrutiny of others who might see things differently can help us to examine some of the conclusions we reach, often subconsciously.

In the poker world, the practice of taking credit for successes but passing on mistakes is called resulting. Like teachers, poker players often equate the quality of their decisions to the quality of their outcome. So, a successful hand is the result of good-decision making, whereas an unsuccessful hand is the result of poor decision-making, or worse, simply dismissed as bad luck. Think here of the undue attachment we place on students’ results – good or bad. Not only in these instances is the self-serving bias served, but, more importantly, the chance to learn from the decision is lost too.

The differences between success and failure are often very marginal; a good decision one day can be a terrible one the next! Anyone who has ever taught the same lesson to different classes with very different results will recognise this truism. If only the unsuccessful lesson was taught, we might conclude it was a terrible plan and we may even question our teaching. Conversely, if the lesson went well, we could be tempted to take the credit and share our ‘insights’ with others.  But because we experienced both outcomes, we suspect there are more things going on and beyond our control.

Of course, admitting to our errors of judgement and questioning our decisions is painful. But if we slip into resulting we risk missing valuable opportunities to learn from our choices. In cultures where, as Mary Myatt puts it, there is ‘high challenge, low threat’, this opening up of oneself to the feedback of others is seen as healthy and simply part of what it means to improve. Feedback is limited to specific areas of development, so the scope of inquiry and challenge is understood and respected. In this way teachers support each other to get better and a culture of intelligent improvement is normalised.

There has to be ground rules for such collaboration to work properly, though. These rules provide a degree of accountability but also offer a framework in which pairs or small groups of teachers can work together effectively. The person being developed has to be transparent and open to honest feedback and challenge. They have to take responsibility for pinpointing areas of improvement and to share objectivity details of how their decisions pan out. They also have to try and resist the temptation to interpret events in advance of a meeting. This is hard but important, otherwise the process of resulting has already begun before the issues have been laid bare for joint consideration.

In turn the critical friend or friends have to be equally honest. They have to commit to giving accurate feedback within the agreed scope and to ask suitably challenging questions that probe and get to the heart of any potential issues. It is not easy to tell people things they may not want to hear, but providing this is done fairly and within given parameters, it is far more helpful and kind to be honest in the long run. Being a critical friend is not about picking holes in everything, but neither is it about acting as an echo chamber. A critical friend doesn’t have to know everything, but they need to know how to ask the right questions and to encourage others to be truthful with themselves.

Who we approach to act as a critical friend is important. Whilst it may be tempting to gravitate to a buddy in the department, it may be wiser to choose someone else. In Being and ExistenceSartre explains that when we approach someone for their genuine and ‘objective’ advice, we are in fact enacting decisions that have already been made. We choose what we want to hear. Even though we are clearly not discussing the notion of abandonment in an existential world, the point remains: working with familiar faces may reinforce our current thinking, rather than challenge us to be better.

In Thinking Small, Service and Gallagher, two members of the Behavioural Insights Team, outline some of the psychological explanations for why working with others and sharing our insights with partners or groups can be a powerful way of improving. They cite various examples of how voluntarily holding ourselves accountable to other people helps us to be more committed to change and therefore improvement. Groups like Alcoholic Anonymous and Weight Watchers, for instance, work because everyone in the group sees themselves as effectively accountable to each other. They operate on the basis of trust and shared goals – individuals commit to being open and to the changes that the process of openness teases out.

Seeking out a critical friend is ultimately about taking control over your own development. It is about recognising that we all have limitations and ways of seeing things that are not always accurate or the full picture. It’s about targeting specific areas of our practice and drawing upon the experience and perceptions of other people to help us improve them. It is not an exercise in self-flagellation; teaching is tough enough and there is always more that can be done. The point is not whether we can improve or not, but how can we bring about sustained improvement in a sustainable way.

Useful questions and prompts to critical discussions

Learner

  • X happened the other day when I did Y. What do you think?
  • What do you think about me trying X next lesson?
  • Could you look through Y and tell me whether you think it addresses Z?
  • Have you ever experienced X in a lesson? How did you deal with it?
  • Do you think that over the coming weeks X would be a good strategy for dealing with Y?
  • During the lesson I noticed X, Y and Z – what do you think they might mean?
  • Student X and Y do not seem to understand Z. How would you help them?
  • My reasons for X are Y and Z. Do you think these are the right reasons?

Critical friend

  • What were you feeling at this point? How might these feelings have affected your decisions?
  • What is the evidence for your feelings? Might that evidence offer a different explanation?
  • Have you considered Y and Z?
  • What was the outcome of the other students?
  • What might be the consequence of X?
  • Talk me through your decision-making process.
  • If Y happened instead of X, would you still feel the same way? What would be different?

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.