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.

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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:

 

On KS3 English Curriculum Design

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If students studied The Odyssey in year 7…

They would learn about the incredible story of the Trojan War and understand the meaning behind a number of idiomatic phrases, such as ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’, ‘between a rock and a hard place’ and ‘beware Greeks bearing gifts.’

The names of Greek and Trojan heroes – Achilles, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Hector and, of course, Odysseus himself – would become familiar to them, as would their stories of glory and suffering.

Through the tales of Penelope, Clytemnestra and Helen, students would learn about gender inequality in the Classical world, which could then be critiqued, perhaps referring to the wealth of contemporary literature that writes back to these myths from different perspectives and viewpoints.

Learning about the lives of the immortals would be a must. The founding of Olympus, the battle with the Titans and the creation stories of some of the gods could all be covered. The nature of myth itself could be explored, so that students start to conceptualise the way human beings make sense of their world through narrative.

It would be a chance to study art of the Mycenaean period and for students to learn about the different periods of Greek Civilisation. Discussions could develop an understanding of the nature of civilisation, exploring Odysseus’s questionable actions and his treatment of his men.

Students would learn about the oral tradition of passing on stories from one generation to the next through bards like Homer. There would be the chance to establish the connection between the lyre and the lyric poem – a cornerstone of their poetry studies in later years.

Language exploration would be rich and plentiful. The grammatical and semantic roots of ideas like democracy, xenophobia and polytheism would all have concrete examples to aid their understanding and link antiquity to the modern world.

There would be the chance to introduce etymology and to show how contemporary society often draws upon the distant past to define itself through borrowing names like Hermes for lightening service, Nectar for heavenly benefits, and Ambrosia for foods of the gods, for instance.

The opportunity to look at the grammatical structures of epithets would be interesting and fun, as well as helping to explain how poets retained such a wealth of information in their own heads using recurring patterns of rhythm and rhyme. Comparisons to our digital world would be necessary.

Students would learn epic poetry and what it meant to be a hero in the Classical world – about the importance of attaining lasting fame (Kleos) through action (Achilles) or cleverness (Odysseus). An understanding of epic and heroism would underpin much of the wider curriculum and be a thread that is returned to in different time periods.

If students, then, studied Shakespeare’s Sonnets in year 8…

They would begin by learning about Petrarch and his love for Laura. They would be introduced to the tricky idea of idealised love and begin to see how yearning for something beyond your grasp is very different from the modern world’s desire for instant gratification.

By reading about Petrarch’s Canzoniere students could begin to understand that as well as working as individual pieces, poems can also function together as part of a wider narrative. A difficult concept for students to grasp who tend to only get fed artificial anthologies put together for exams!

At this stage the basic stylistic and thematic concerns of sonnets could be introduced – how 14 lines is just about the right length to develop an idea from start to finish and how the form represents something of a literary challenge that all the major poets tend to have a go at it.

Students would be introduced to the notion of an argument (as distinct from disagreement) and be able to understand the connection between the desired beloved and the yearning lover.

There would be an opportunity to develop an overview of the Elizabethan timeline and how minor poets – Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey – imported the Italian form into English, making changes to reflect the lack of as many rhymes in English as in Italian.

By the time they got to Shakespeare’s sonnets, students would know a little bit about how and why Shakespeare wrote poetry during times of plague. The idea of patrons and the need to make money (Shakespeare was not an aristocrat) might surprise them and bring him a little closer to their lives.

Students would develop an understanding of the way Shakespeare popularised the form, and by concentrating mostly on the use of rhyme schemes and structures (quatrains, octaves, sestets and couplets) they would gain confidence and mastery that could be built upon later on.

Stories about the Beautiful youth and the Dark Lady would capture attention, as would the change of pronoun from masculine to feminine in the Victorian Age. Discussions about male desire would be rich and there would be a chance to contrast with male relationships in the past and present

Focusing on just a handful of poems would help students to see structural features at work. It would provide the chance to learn poetry off by heart – at first daunting and alien, and perhaps not really something that is part of their world, but then exciting and contagious with practice.

The difference in confidence and understanding would be palpable and inspiring.

The couplet in ‘Sonnet 18’ could be poured over. Students would be surprised by the power of art to preserve a life this way. They would make connections to the Greek concept of Kleos, and see how different generations wrestle with the same enduring questions about life and death.

If students, then, studied WW1 poetry and Journey’s End in year 9…

There would be a great opportunity for students to thread together the ideas and themes explored in previous years but in a time period more recognisable.

They could extend their conceptual understanding of literature through exploring the relationship between art and politics, contrasting the early jingoistic poetry of Rupert Brooke and Jesse Pope with the later trench poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

Students would be well placed to appreciate why those largely public school boys who enlisted early on, filled with images of Achilles and Classical heroism, thought it would be possible to be heroes and obtain glory and honour of their own. They could then reflect on what it means to be a hero.

The sonnet would make a return, but this time in the context of the bloody battlefields of France. Students could contrast the tradition of idealised romantic love with the reality of homoerotic bonds between brothers. They would see how the genre (and genres in general) bend and flex at the hands of the writers and the circumstances they are writing in.

Studying Journey’s End would provide an even starker contrast between the Flanders’ mud and the battlefields of Troy. The notion of aristeia would seem laughable in the face of the ‘the monstrous anger of the guns’ and ‘the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’.

Students would learn about a different kind of play to reflect a different kind of war. Satire as a genre would enter students’ vocabulary, which would help them understand that this was not a war where the sword (or even the bullet) killed as much as the boredom, the waiting and the rats.

This would be an opportunity to explore ideas of class and make connections to wider social and cultural changes taking place then and now. It would make sense to learn about the women’s movement and to appreciate what we mean by context – how art both reflected and shaped changes in societal structures and gender roles.

Links back to the Classical World and to Shakespeare would be possible too, as would looking forward to the more demotic, plural society we live in today.

Students would see a world that did not have the means to express itself – trauma couched as neuralgia; silence seen as stoicism – so it had to invent new ways. They would see how over the years the notion of male heroism had completely transformed along with the role of the poet, whose brief was no longer celebrating, keeping alive but simply to warn.

They would understand why Owen believed that ‘true Poets must be truthful.’

If students studied a curriculum that included texts like these, they’d probably still spend their evenings looking at tiny screens, scrolling through endless images of themselves, but at least they’d understand that this is nothing new.

What’s more – they would also have been warned about the effects of such excessive narcissism!

Thanks for reading.

Ultimate Flash Cards

In terms of revision, we know what doesn’t work:

reading
highlighting
summarising
copying

and doing nothing!

Conversely, we also know what is likely to be more successful:

generation
retrieval
elaboration
spacing and interleaving
metacognitive strategies

The problem is some students find the language of these strategies off putting. The terms can seem opaque and clinical, no matter how many times you discuss and share the underlying reasoning.

Different terminology can help – words that capture the essence of effective study strategies but present them in more accessible and memorable language.  Often it is best to present things as clearly and simply as possible.

The Five Rs

The five Rs underpin our approach to independent study, including the guidance we give our students on writing effective flash cards.

  • reduce – identifying learning
  • recall – remembering learning
  • rethink – connecting learning
  • review – reflecting on learning
  • repeat – going back over learning

Flash card guidance

  1. Reduce

Create a learning overview by breaking down subjects into topics, units, modules and concepts. Whatever works best. Use the overview to group flash cards together within each subject. This makes revision more manageable and gives it a coherent structure.

  1. Recall

It can be useful to see recall as production and recovery. Production involves writing short prompts that invite retrieval of everything that can be remembered about a given topic, such as write a list or complete a graphic organiser e.g. Venn diagram or table.

Recovery involves recalling factual details using questions as cues. There are simple what/when/where/who questions, with how and why questions also used if appropriate. These questions strengthen memories and prime for rethinking. Three is about right.

  1. Rethink

This is important and involves designing activities that extend understanding by encouraging connections. Not exam tasks, but tasks inviting something to be done with what has been recalled, such as explanations, reasons, comparing and contrasting.

  1. Review

Planning makes study purposeful. Keeping track means weaknesses are prioritised and strengths returned to after forgetting has occurred. Colour coding (red for tomorrow; amber for a few days and green for a week) and adding dates is simple and strategic.

  1. Repeat

Steps 3-5 are repeated lots of time and at intervals. Dated cards and an overview of topics enable planning and reflection at review. Different subjects and different topics can be deliberately woven into a study session. Repetitions are determined by time available.

Example:

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The ‘ultimate’ reference is tongue in cheek – I don’t know if this approach is in any way optimal, but it is more likely to be successful than what is often produced and used.

Thanks for reading