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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Visual Learning: using graphics to teach complex literary terms

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I have always tried to pay attention to the way that I present material to my students. Don’t get me wrong, I am not interested in style over substance, and I certainly don’t spend hours labouring away over every resource that I use in class. If there is a quicker, equally effective way of teaching something, then I will take it. I’m not a masochist.

Most of my resources now are paper copy quizzes for retrieval practice and elaboration, many of which have proved very effective at A level. I try to use the board as much as possible, whether to post the all-important learning objective model writing, record the unfolding of the lesson to ease the pressure on working memories or as a means of explaining tricky ideas or concepts more fully, often with an accompanying visual.

The problem is that I am a terrible artist. Unlike the wonderfully talented Oliver Caviglioli, whose illustrations and generosity are first class, my drawings are sad and pathetic. I would love to be Rolf Harris a great illustrator, but I can barely write legibly, let alone draw anything beyond a stick man! I remember a couple of years ago I drew a picture of a horse for a year poetry lesson, and the final product looked more like a pregnant camel with IBS than the thoroughbred I’d intended.

Fortunately, in the age of the Internet and Powerpoint (sorry, Jo), I have some pretty decent tools at my disposal to help me to make up for my artistic deficiency. As I have become increasingly aware of the power of combing words and images in boosting student learning, I have spent more of my time thinking about how images, in particular graphical representations, can be used to help with my teaching, such as in my explanations of complex literary concepts.

One of these troublesome concepts that seems to crop up whenever I teach Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ is allegory. ‘Goblin Market’ is a narrative poem with a familiar story: a young girl tempted into sin; her subsequence loss of innocence before salvation through sacrifice. Most people reading will get the allegory to the story of the Fall of Man. There are one or two differences in the poem – there is no Adam, only horny and grotesque Goblin men, and the saviour is a woman, not the Son of God – but the overarching parallels are pretty clear.

The problem is when it comes to explaining the concept of allegory in and of itself to students – in other words outside the context of the specific example – students really struggle. No matter how hard I try to explain allegory clearly, with examples and analogies aplenty, students just don’t seem to fully get it. Now, you might be tempted to say that I should look to hone my explanation. Trust me on this one: I have honed it to within an inch of its life. There is simply no room for any more honing.

So, this year I thought I’d take a different tact and invest a bit of time producing a graphical representation to sit alongside my verbal explanation. I don’t have any hard evidence to show that I what have done has been any more successful than usual. It seems to have made a difference, with more students being able to explain the concept than before, but then again this may well be a case of confirmation bias. Or brighter students. Or chance.

As you can see from below, the slide I have used in the past to explain allegory is pretty contemptuous – an overreaching definition which I expand and exemplify, with a bulleted breakdown of the two main types, political and the allegory of ideas. There are even a couple of token images thrown in, which I am not really convinced add any real value.

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My next effort is, I think, a real improvement. The graphical representations make the points of comparison between in an allegory between Text A (‘Goblin Market’) and Text B (The story of the Fall of Man) much clearer, and they have the added advantage of being able to highlight where the biblical comparison breaks down, in that some pretty big parts of the Bible story are missing in Rossetti’s poem, such as the presence of God.

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I then attempted to flesh out this initial explanation with an amended version of my original effort. This time I added a relational dimension to my diagram which enabled me to visualise the difference between allegory and other related literary concepts, such as fable and parable. The trouble was that whilst I had made some visual links between genres clear, I had lost the power of the previous graphic to embody the workings of allegory itself.

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My final version therefore combines the best elements of my previous attempts, including the graphical embodiment of the concept of allegory, the relational links to other genres and better images to exemplify examples of the different forms of allegory. The visual cues and graphical representations, along with my honed explanation, seem to have been much more successful in shifting my students’ understanding of allegory. At least, I hope that is the case.

Screenshot 2017-04-22 08.33.07Allegory is not the only literary concept I have attempted to represent graphically this way. I hope to blog about others in the future, so watch this space.

Thanks for reading.