Posted in Teaching Ideas

Doodling in the English Classroom

Everyone loves a bit of colouring in. As a dyslexic English student I developed my own coping methods when writing notes, planning essays and internalising language during my A Levels and later, during my degree. I personally find colours to be vital to my own learning; even now I read with a pink layover and have a colour coded system in my own notes and lesson planning. Images and colours work beautifully as part of English lessons because, at its heart, English is a highly conceptual subject where students need an understanding of abstract theories as well as a strong sense of structure in their own writing (structure; the great intangible elephant in the room). Images, symbols, doodles, colours and shapes have been the basis of some brilliant activities in my lessons and I am certain that many of these principles will apply equally well in other subjects too.

My classroom is a felt tips, sugar paper, cutting and sticking zone. However, you do not need tons of fancy art resources to make these activities work. In true Blue Peter style, all you will need is…

Felt tips OR colouring pencils OR highlighters (in fact, as long as the kids have around four different coloured writing implements of any kind then that’s fine. Many of them will have their own…)

A5 paper (cut some A4 in half…)
A4 or A3 paper (up to you – A3 is my preference, but for some kids, being presented with that much empty page is a little daunting…)

Activity 1: Images of Images – Map Out a Poem

Being able to recognise and understand imagery in literature is a skill which we spend a lot of time trying to teach. This activity is very simple. I take a poem and split it up into lines, giving each student their own to work on. They then draw a picture of the image described in the line.

For example, here are some images drawn by some Year 13 students of the Sylvia Plath poem, Resolve

“O bent bow of thorns”

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“A milk film blurs the empty bottles on the windowsill”

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“And the coal fire burns”

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All of these images, though they are simple, serve to highlight the very domestic scene presented in this poem, which, during this lesson, allowed the students to hit upon the feeling of of claustrophobia and the sense that the speaker has stagnated. The “empty milk bottles” in particular have appeared in a number of essays since!

Activity 2: Images of Images – Collage

Very similar to the idea above, but students cover an A3 sheet in lots of images and significant words from a poetry or prose text. One way of doing this is to play an audio or video version of a text and have a lovely time sitting and listening while the students (and you… I find colouring in very relaxing…) draw the images which jump out at them. I like to use the Simon Armitage poem, Out of the Blue, and there’s a brilliant reading by Rufus Sewell on YouTube (here) which is incredibly evocative. My students have produced some fantastic image collages using this poem, and it helps them to understand imagery such as “dragon’s tongue licking fire”, “awful snow”, and “an oak leaf, pressed and dried”, which are usually quite abstract.

A similar use of this idea is to print a poem in the middle of an A3 sheet and ask students to draw four of the images around the edge. Here are a couple of examples from Wordsworth’s Upon Westminster Bridge

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These were done by students in Year 8, and this led on to some really focused paragraph writing using the target, “I can discuss imagery using PEE”, “I can discuss personification using PEE”, “I can discuss an author’s intentions” or “I can discuss natural imagery”, depending on their ability related marginal gains targets (to learn more about marginal gains, see this <a href="http://here“>article).

Activity 3: Images of Images – Duality

This activity aims to focus the students on the reality that an image in a poem or story was inspired by a real scene, object or person. I am always trying to get my students to see the duality of imagery; that 1. there was an original image which inspired a poetic one, e.g. Shakespeare’s mistress with eyes “nothing like the sun” may have been a real woman so, what did she look like? Was she some faded woman, past her prime? Or that 2. There is an entirely new image which is probably nothing like the original inspiration for the line. This image is created by the mind of the reader, informed by their own interpretation of the language, their own unique experiences and the way in which they might put an image in context. For example, this line might say to me that her eyes are dull and bereft of life.

In order that students grasp this idea, I ask them first to draw (or describe in writing…) what this image makes them think of when they see it in isolation, without the rest of the poem or any kind of context. We then look at some of the students’ ideas and discuss why the line makes us think of these things. Then, I give the students the rest of the poem and discuss the context, encouraging the students to think about why the poet might have written this line and the real life person, place or object which might have inspired it. Students then draw a second image which we call “getting back to the original”. By the end, they have two, often very different, images. Looking at these reinforces that old English teacher mantra: “there is no right answer, literature is all about interpretation”. They begin to understand that literature is both based in reality and open to alternative and ever evolving readings.

For me, the best thing about drawing in lessons is that it forces a sort of close analysis of language before students have even begun to write about it. I always follow these activities up with some kind of writing or detailed note taking. These always make great displays which will constantly reinforce the key themes of a text as the students see them again and again. The pictures could also form a really attractive cover for folders or exercise books.

To follow – colours and flash cards; how they help me order my brain…

Posted in Teaching Ideas

Marginal Gains with Controlled Assessments

My Year 11 boys are getting restless and, since coming back from their mock exams, they have no focus… GCSEs feel miles away for them (all of four months) and they still have half a novel and a 25% literature CA to go. The answer for me is marginal gains. Alex Quiggley (@HuntingEnglish) has done some brilliant work on Marginal Gains (here). I know this is now widely understood and used by many, but for anyone who is unfamiliar with the theory, it’s based on the work of the hugely successful GB Cycling team and briefly states that if one is able to make marginal improvements in a number of different areas, even a 1% raise in efficiency, skill, understanding etc. then the overall improvement will be substantial. Alex Quigley has taken this idea into the classroom and I have been using it with a number of classes, in slightly different ways, since the start of term.

Because I have a limited time in which to complete this CA (one of the many issues with these types of assessment… see this blog by David Didau @LearningSpy for an excellent run down of all of them), I need to make the most of every activity in lessons. With this in mind, I came up with a list of 24 skills which my students will need to use in the essay. Each one is linked to the Assessment Objectives and colour coded according to a specific skill category…

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As you can see, each skill goes into a different ‘spoke’ on the marginal gains wheel, and the students colour code them according to the AOs.

This is very simple, and incredibly similar to what @HuntingEnglish has already described in his own blogs. It is based on AQA GCSE Literature Route B, Poetry CA.

I hope that this will do the job of both focusing the students, making them engage with the mark scheme, and ensuring that they make real progress in essay planning, writing and understanding of analysis; all of which will, of course, impact greatly on their Exams (hopefully!).

Will update with information about how it works in the up coming lessons.

Posted in Personal Reflection

Universal Panacea? The Number 1 Shift in UK Education I Wish to See in My Lifetime… Shake the Dust

Shake the Dust. Is teaching about repetition or creativity? In my own school there is a real divide. Some have decided that they know what to teach and how to teach it; they have a set repertoire of techniques and they are now happy to stick with them. In my subject, English, this might manifest itself in a teacher who has taught the same GCSE novel for twenty years in exactly the same way, using the same notes, activities, essay titles and, what’s worse, trotting out the same opinions they had back at the start. This is not a dig at my older colleagues, some of whom are the most reflective, innovative and inspirational people I have ever met. Rather, this is about the people who are happy to settle and are scared of popping their head back out into the ever evolving world of education. As an aspiring AST, I regularly bring new ideas to department meetings and to colleagues on a more informal basis, but often hear the old mantra, “yes, I’m sure it works in your lessons, but you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, or “not really my style…”

The problem with this attitude is that it promotes what is, for me, one of the most intensely frustrating ideas about education in this country; that teaching is just getting what is in the teacher’s head into the student’s head; a simple transfer of stuff from us to them. I have had countless debates with friends in other professions who think, possibly as a result of their own experiences in education, that teachers just have to know facts and that each year is pretty much like the last because you can just trot out the same stuff again for a new year group. I know that most people reading educational blogs will be of my opinion, that our noble profession is fundamentally a creative subject and that knowing stuff does NOT make you a good teacher. The difference between seeing teaching as information transfer and seeing it as creative, is that the former looks back or, at best, stays still, and the latter looks forward. Creative teaching does not just aim to instruct students in the things they should know, but actively facilitates the growth and development of the next generation, pushing forward social change through the children who will grow up to implement and enjoy it.

The biggest change I would like to see in my lifetime is twofold. First, that society at large should begin to see education as something which creates change, rather than as an exercise in trawling back over stale ideas. Second, that all teachers become people who constantly challenge themselves to change what they are doing; shake the dust.

One way in which a teacher might do this is, of course, to embrace the incredibly wonderful world of Twitter. See @learningspy’s recent blog from this blogsync where he makes an incredibly strong, if rather emotional (!) case for all of us to become Tweachers (My Homage to Twitter). I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly; Twitter is the way forward for anyone who wants to shake things up and be an innovator.

Possibly because I have a constant need to be busy, I have always operated by actively searching for thing which make me feel uncomfortable. Since the introduction of the new AQA English specification in the last couple of years, I have chosen to teach ‘Mister Pip’ and ‘Purple Hibiscus’ instead of the old favourite ‘Of Mice and Men’ and have found that the students relish the incredibly current, hard hitting nature of these texts, and also that my teaching of them has been fresh and thoroughly enjoyable. I have been forced to create and forge new paths through this uncharted territory, and I know that my classes were with me every step of the way. This isn’t practical for every teacher or every class, but it’s an example of how trying new things and putting yourself out on a limb can be successful. Don’t get me wrong, my cavalier attitude to experimenting in my lessons has sometimes led to the odd mistake or sticky situation, but I would rather try something out than be scared of never playing out a wacky new brainwave of my own (or of the kids for that matter; they come up with some cracking ideas for lessons!).

I am aware that calling for more creativity and experimentation in a forum like this is like preaching to the converted. However, I think it’s worth saying. I also think that it’s worth saying again, but by this guy, and with far more eloquence, style and effortless cool than I could ever muster…

To read the rest of the blogs on the theme “Universal Panacea” see this blogsync

Posted in Slam, Teaching Ideas

5 Reasons why you should bring Spoken Word into your classroom…

A wise lady once told me that ‘Poetry is the music of language’. I take this to mean that poetry is simultaneously pure and abstract, both direct and ambiguous. Just like music, poetry needs an open mind, an open ear and, perhaps most importantly, no fear. Students of poetry must feel confident to face even the most intimidating poets of the canon, take them apart and reinvent them for themselves. If Shakespeare’s sonnets can speak to the students of their own frustrations and crushes, and if they can see something of their own lives in Chaucer’s pilgrims then poetry will become, like music, something which can comfort and stimulate them.

The recent push to get school children to learn the classics by heart (Poetry By Heart) will, I’m sure, prove successful. However, I can’t shake the thought that we are missing a trick. What we really need is to turn our students into writers, not just to get them going back over this approved list of poets again and again. The world of spoken word, or Slam, is vibrant, compelling and highly academic in approach.

Slam is essentially a form of competitive performance poetry. Individuals or teams prepare work on a given theme which they perform before judges and an audience. The process of writing, drafting, editing and rehearsal is vital to the end product, and Slams tend to be very powerful expressions of ideas and feelings through the medium of very skilled writing and performance.

In the past two years I have been heavily involved with Slam in my school and our region. I have worked with youth groups and on Regional and National competitions and have seen what Slam can do both to individual students and to the ethos of a school. Added to that is the way that engaging with Slam has enriched my classroom; my students are genuinely excited about poetry. Slam has been a ‘way in’ for even the most disengaged students. Any teacher can bring an element of Slam culture to their school, both through their individual teaching, and through collaboration with visiting writers and local organisations. Here are five reasons why YOU should bring slam to your classroom, and some tips for how to get started…

1. KIDS LOVE IT! Slam poems are instantly appealing to students. Showing a YouTube clip of a performance will instantly engage a class and is a fantastic way to introduce an idea, spark off a discussion and inspire writing. Take a look at this clip of an individual slam poem by Marshal Soulful Jones. It is a response to the impact of technology and instant messaging. Amongst other things, I have used to initiate debate when introducing the GCSE Spoken Language Study…

Marshall Soulful Jones – ‘Touchscreen’

2. REAL LITERARY WORTH Slam poems are not just entertainment for the students; they are also highly academic and many are worth studying in their own right. Yes, students will love them and they may go off and spend hours finding more on YouTube, share them with friends, laugh and cry at the wit and hard hitting truths, but that’s the beauty of it. As Hywell Roberts so brilliantly puts it in his book, ‘Oops’, Slam poetry acts as a hook which tricks students into learning. The best part is that they will learn. I have used Slam poems as actual studied texts in schemes of work. Take a look at this fantastic piece of conflict poetry. It uses an impressive extended metaphor, stunning imagery, an intriguing structure with repetition, rhetoric and powerful themes. Perfect material for any English lesson…

Shoolie – ‘Love, War and Peace’

3. WRITERS ARE THE BEST READERS Spoken word poetry is all about original writing and innovation. As I said at the start, if children become writers, then they become better readers. If they can express themselves and make their own choices as poets then their ability to analyse and discuss the work of others is magnified. I have seen a direct correlation between introducing poetry writing regularly in lessons and students’ confidence in their own analytical skills. I have started to blog with writing activities which are tried and tested. If you fancy having a go, here is an idea to get you started…

Poetry Writing – Symbolism

4. TEAM WORK Many Slam poems are team efforts. A group will write together, supporting and developing each other’s ideas. It is an incredibly worthwhile exercise for students to bring their ideas together and share the editing process; it requires mutual respect and builds real trust and understanding. Team Slam also means that students can lean on each other in performance; they are not just putting themselves out there, alone. These performances are often incredibly powerful. Have a look at this performance by the New York team at the International Poetry Slam Competition called Brave New Voices.

New York 2011 – ‘Silence’

5. SELF EXPRESSION I am an English teacher, but fundamentally, I think that my job is about looking after students’ emotional and moral development. Writing is an ancient form of self expression; people have kept diaries, written songs and poetry for thousands of years. Slam is just another part of the tradition. It’s not new, but to kids, it looks different and, dare I say it, “cool”. I have been bowled over by the things which my students have expressed through spoken word, from how much they hate cheese, to how they want the courage to come out to their parents. One of the most successful experiences I have ever had with a class is when I got my Year 9 boys writing love poems; real, sweet, thoughtful love poems. They were inspired by this man…

Mike, Brave New Voices – ‘Thinking About You’

Spoken word is just another way of getting creative writing into your scheme of work, and giving students the opportunity to get excited about poetry. Anything that we can do to achieve these things is worth a try.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, check this out. Taylor Mali, an English teacher, defends our noble profession through the medium of Slam…

Taylor Mali – ‘What Teachers Make’

If you want to know more about how to introduce Slam to your school, please message me on Twitter (@FunkyPedagogy). Most regions in the UK will have local youth writing organisations who will happily work with schools. In Yorkshire we are lucky enough to have the fantastic Leeds Young Authors. Another route is to get in touch with Apples and Snakes, a very active organisation who will arrange events, INSET and poet visits to schools.

Posted in Uncategorized

Poetry Writing 1 – Symbolism

Getting kids to write poetry is often difficult. Some teachers, me included, think of that oasis of poetry writing as one of the only times when we can let students be totally free and expressive. However, the key to creating the best lessons on poetry is structure – if students get activities broken into bite sized chunks then they will be much more open and willing to put pen to paper. I am trying hard to avoid the ‘staring at blank page’ horror we all know, by doing just that; breaking things down. This lesson, or series of mini activities, is the first of many I hope to post over the next few months. They are all tried and tested with my own guinea pigs and mostly stolen from talented writers’ workshops…

SYMBOLISM

1. I ask students to make a list of 5 people who mean something to them (e.g. family member, friend, role model – works best if it someone they know personally, but a celebrity is a good idea for a student who doesn’t want to reveal anything too personal).

2. I get them to choose ONE of these people and come up with an object which they associate with this person (e.g. I might choose my Nana and her prized Prada handbag or my friend Lesley and the embarrassing comfort blanket she has carried around since she was 2…).

3. I ask them to describe the object in as much detail as possible (they are not writing a poem here, just s straight forward description in prose, e.g. “The handbag is made of white leather with silvery studs which reflect the light of the 60 watt bulb in the living room. It is in mint condition and the zippers and buttons all scream ‘bling’.”)

I would normally circulate and help students to expand their descriptions, the longer the better. I introduce literary devices as appropriate depending on the ability levels in the group.

4. Once they have their description, I ask them to explain how the person is connected to the object. They could comment on emotional connection with the object, physical similarities, experiences they have had which relate to it or anything else they can think of (again, the more detail the better e.g. “My Nana has a special relationship with the Prada bag; she is so proud to own one that she won’t use it for fear of ruining it. She would rather have it on display in her front room to impress visitors than use it herself. In many ways, it reflects the ways he presents herself; always pristine, proud and covered in bling!”).

They should now have two short pieces of writing, one is a description of the object, and one is an explanation of how the object is linked to the person.

NOW WE TURN IT INTO A POEM

They are going to write a two stanza poem using the text they have already created. I use these terms and explain them to the kids: Cut, Compress, Condense.

Cut: take out any unnecessary words which you don’t need – poems do NOT have to be grammatically correct…

Compress: move words or phrases around to make the meaning clearer and the piece more dynamic…

Condense: a poem is essentially a series of powerful images and ideas in close harmony. Take out anything unnecessary and stick interesting ideas together to really enhance the impact of the poem…

E.g. The handbag is made of white leather with silvery studs which reflect the light of the 60 watt bulb in the living room. It is in mint condition and the zippers and buttons all scream ‘bling’

Becomes…

The handbag, white leather
Silvery studs reflect 60 watts
Mint condition
Zippers scream
Bling

NEXT we think about some other easy ways of making the poem more sophisticated, such as putting similar words closer together…

E.g. The handbag, white leather
silvery studs reflect 60 watts

Becomes

Leather handbag, white
Silvery
studs reflect 60 watts

…so ‘white’ and ‘silvery’ are together, creating a more interesting image.

NEXT we think about how to format the poem, putting words alone or together, using enjambement is an easy way of placing emphasis on ideas…

E.g. Putting ‘scream’ on a line of its own might change the way we read the poem.

NEXT we think carefully about the first and last words/ images of the poem as these will establish a tone…

E.g. Starting with the word ‘handbag’ would add realism to the piece, whereas starting with ‘silvery’ creates more of an ethereal tone and might easily link to my Nana’s silver grey hair.

FINAL STRUCTURING: Students could begin with the stanza on the object, creating a nice twist when the reader realises it is actually about a person OR they could intersperse lines from both.

This activity works well at all ages and ability levels, but I always think carefully about how I approach it with some groups. In the past I have started the activity without mentioning the dreaded word ‘poetry’ at all until half way through – this avoids any problems with those students who have already decided they ‘can’t do’ poetry. Teachers must be prepared to model the activities throughout so that students are completely on board.

Variations on this could include writing about places, important issues/ ideas or even a literary character as part of the wider study of a novel.

I honestly believe that having a successful poetry lesson (or lessons… the editing part of this activity could potentially take a while, depending on how much time one chooses to devote to it) is a sure way to get to know a class better and to gain some trust and credibility. It’s a chance to share something of yourself with them through your own modelling, and you are creating a safe, easy platform for them to share with you and with each other.

Enjoy! I’d love to hear feedback and will happily provide clarification if anything is a little vague…

Posted in Uncategorized

The Beginning

I am completely new to this. As a young teacher who has quickly become involved in managing specifications, syllabuses, projects, staff training and anything else they will let me, I feel the need to splurge a little. Teaching is an incredibly creative activity, and I want to share the things which inspire me and create a platform from which to start discussions. I want to learn all I can, and having been engrossed in the blogs of other educators in recent weeks, I want to contribute to this incredible, but terrifying web of information, advice and debate which is blossoming online.