19th September 2018

Teaching Biblical Allusions

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRVm_TAE24A
(Errr – don’t watch this if swearing offends you).

I’m from a very religious family.  My step-dad is a former RAF Chaplain (and served in the Falkland Islands) and is now an itinerant vicar (which is not the same as what George and Lennie were); my brother is a vicar.  I grew up steeped in religious tradition – from churches were the communion wine is golden to ones where they play guitars and dance. I am enduringly grateful for my upbringing.  Not least when it comes to teaching literature. You see – I can spot a biblical allusion at 50 paces.

*The purpose of this introduction is to contextualise some of mild irreverence below.*

Kids these days…

Have no clue about the Bible and why should they? Yet, this absence of knowledge results in pupils often struggling to identify and understand many of the deep running threads in literature.

I often describe the need for deep subject knowledge as being like a tapestry – it is complex and interwoven, creating an overarching picture with mini-scenes within.  Threads are drawn upon as needed but always remain embedded in and attached to the big picture.

Yet – if this tapestry is English literature – then much of what we study (if not all) was written in a time when religion and religious ideologies were key to moral and ethical outlook, social norms, thoughts on the creation of wealth, and society, and even the nature of life and death itself.  Rightly or wrongly identity itself, for much of history, was shaped by religion.

Some may disagree – but I would argue that religion was the predominant ideology of English Literature right up until World War I.

Thus over 700 years of written literature is interwoven into a tapestry where life and religion were twisted threads.

Therefore, to study, understand, and enjoy literature – knowledge of religion and the religious texts, such as the Bible, is essential.

How should we manoeuvre this camel through the needle’s eye?

It’s easy, as with all things historical context based, to bolt this knowledge onto a unit of work.

You’re teaching Great Expectations – you paraphrase the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The Lord of the Flies – well, that’s just one big Biblical allusion, although you could just summarise beginning of Genesis and then skip to the New Testament…
The Handmaid’s Tale – same.

Whilst this approach works for individual texts, it doesn’t allow students to develop an overall bank of knowledge that they can rely on. It robs them of the cultural knowledge that is part of our history, as well as our literature.

I like what ED Hirsch has to say in The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (this is an affiliate link!):

No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible. … All educated speakers of American English need to understand what is meant when someone describes a contest as being between David and Goliath, or whether a person who has the “wisdom of Solomon” is wise or foolish, or whether saying “My cup runneth over” means the person feels fortunate or unfortunate. Those who cannot understand such allusions cannot fully participate in literate English.

But this piecemeal approach is not enough

Religious imagery (both positive and negative) pervades culture still.  By only teaching what is needed to tackle one text, we are not weaving the tapestry.

My long-term goal is to create specific units of work that study ‘allusion’ in KS3, knowledge units that study Biblical knowledge as well as mythology from Greek, Roman, English heritage. Not just studying the stories but also studying representations of these stories, characters, and ideas throughout literature.

I’m a while away from being able to do that, so here’s the stop-gap:

At the moment, I teach these as explicit, out-of-context starters in year 9.  Whilst I am aware this isn’t ideal – I do feel that some knowledge is better than none, for now.

Teaching Biblical characters who have become literary “clichés”

Here’s the list of biblical characters and stories that I teach, with some examples below:

Old Testament:

  • Adam and Eve
  • Satan…
  • Abraham/Isaac
  • Cain and Abel
  • David (and Goliath)
  • Jezebel
  • Job
  • Joseph (and his cheerful coat)
  • Lot and often more importantly Lot’s Wife
  • Moses
  • Noah (and the Flood)
  • Solomon

New Testament:

  • Jesus
  • John the Baptist
  • Judas
  • Mary (mother of Jesus)
  • Peter (the rock)
  • Paul (Saul)
  • Pontius Pilate
  • *The Holy Spirit*

Top Bible stories to know:

Old Testament:

  • Creation – Genesis 1 and 2, Adam & Eve, the apple, the snake, the Garden of Eden etc
  • Cain & Abel – the first death, the first murder
  • The Flood – the rain, the boat, the animals, the rainbow, the dove.
  • Jonah and the whale – I didn’t put Jonah as a character above because his story isn’t really all that without the whale. It’s a great narrative about rebellion, trust, and redemption.
  • The Tower of Babel – the arrogance of man and the birth of language.
  • Moses and the Ten Commandments – what happens at the top of the mountain and what happens when you get down again.
  • Job – misery loves company.

New Testament:

  • The birth of Jesus – rather than the nativity itself, I tend to focus on King Herod and the baby genocide, the astronomers and following a star and then the idea of the birth of a new humanity and the age of harmony with God.
  • The story of John the Baptist (or ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’)
  • The Beatitudes
  • The Good Samaritan
  • The resurrection of Lazarus
  • The Parable of the Prodigal Son
  • The “Let he who has no sin cast the first stone” story
  • The betrayal of Judas
  • The Crucifixion and Resurrection – again, where my students have the basic knowledge from their Religious Studies lessons, I tend to look at nature imagery and Christ figures.

Even more…

Also because Biblical allusion, among other things, is tested under the AP Literature curriculum – there are loads of fabulous sites that have lists of biblical phrases etc. I like this PDF because it has a bunch of useful literary, biblical and historical allusions.

What to test your knowledge of Biblical reference and allusion? Have a go at this BBC quiz!

 

 

 

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So Read Me Maybe? {My new classroom display}

This gorgeous reading display is perhaps one of the best things I’ve added to my classroom in ages. And not just because I get to play Carly Ray Jepson songs in class… I cannot claim the idea is mine. But I do adore how it turned out!  Here’s how I went about it and how you can swipe the download!

This week I updated the display in one pokey corner of my classroom. It’s one of those things that I had been meaning to do for a-g-e-s. But because the space was generally well hidden by the 5 tonnes of stuff I accumulated last year, it hadn’t been a high priority. Karma happens, though right? We had visitors in school and my classroom needed to be pristine. Or prestige, as my students would say!

 

This cute rhyme is a play on Carly Ray Jepson’s song “Call Me Maybe”.  All my students ‘got it‘ as soon as they saw the wall. They groaned and shook their heads, enjoying a moment of teenage indignation. I then asked them for their best book suggestions. So it’s their book recommendations, plus a few from my colleagues, that I placed around the rhyme!  Read on to see how I made it and to swipe my files!

Before I get into the practical details – I wanted to give a shout out to the amazing Jessica Lawler from Joy in the Journey. Check out the ‘Read me!’ and ‘Pick me!’ labels in my books! Don’t you just l-u-r-v-e them!! They are also a sweet treat of free download, Jessica has them on her TpT store and you can download them for free >>here<<.

Ok, ok. I know what you want. Here is how you can get stuck into this in your classroom. It really is as simple as 1 – 2 – 3.

  1. Grab the swipe file with words typed out and ready to go. It is a PowerPoint file so make sure you can open it on your computer.
  2. Change the colors to suit your classroom decor.
  3. Print and laminate (you can totally see I didn’t have time to do this!)
  4. Cut out and pin up.
  5. Ask for book recommendations, grab the covers and print.
  6. Cut and pin these up too!
  7. Stand back and enjoy!

So all you need to do now is get the SWIPE file!

Transform your reading corner!

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1 Awesome Idea for Fall Writing

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29th August 2018

5 ways to use lolly sticks in your secondary classroom

If you’re anything like me, you have drawers or even cupboards of things you have bought for your classroom – just in case. I have about one hundred thousand lolly sticks*. Over the last year, I worked hard to use all-the-things. In the post, I am going to share 5 ways you can use all those lolly sticks in your secondary classroom!

1. Still great for names

Lolly sticks originally made their way into our classroom as a form of assessment. We wrote our students names on them. Then used them as a simple, low-tech random name generator. Well, they are still great for that purpose. You don’t necessarily need to use them as part of your questioning strategy every lesson. But mix things up using them every now and again.

Here’s what I do:

Hand out the lolly sticks to students at the beginning of the year. Set them a homework to decorate their lolly stick with their name and at least 2 images that show me something about their personality.

I stick them in a cup at the front my room and use them to:

  • select students at random to answer a question or perform a task
  • randomly assign pairs or small groups
  • choose students at random for a positive call, email, or post-card home
  • monitor missed homework (they get a red dot sticker on their stick)

So don’t discount using your lolly sticks for names still!

2. Bookmarks

Another way I use lolly sticks is as bookmarks for our class novels. We generally don’t have enough copies of our class novels to allow students to sign them out and take them home. In fact, often our teachers are sharing class sets of novels between and we have to juggle who is using the books during hour 1, hour 2 etc. I also don’t see my classes every day. In fact, some of my classes are one hour a week classes and I don’t see them except for that one hour.

So, bookmarks are one of the things that make my reading teaching easier. I used to use post-it notes and to be honest that was fine. But my lolly stick bookmarks have a two-fold purpose: they make a great bookmark and they can be used as a reading ruler.

Here’s how it works:

  • Hand out a lolly stick to each student in your class.
  • Ask them to decorate it with either a short quote about reading (I’d rather be reading) or a book they would love to recommend.
  • Then when we start reading I ask every student to use their bookmark as a reading ruler. I model it. We practise. Rewards are given out for those who are doing it right.
  • At the end of the lesson, everyone puts the bookmark into the book (at the right place) and returns to book to my box.
  • The next lesson I hand out the books out and students get to discover a new bookmark. Each lesson they get to see/use a new bookmark.

It’s an easy and effective way to keep everyone on track. No issues with different page numbers in different editions of the novel and an easy differentiation tool.

3. To help your study of literature texts

I also use them the most for extending and developing student responses to literature texts. Let’s take Macbeth for example. At some point early on in studying the text, I will hand out my unused lolly sticks to the students and ask them to write on them the names of characters, events, settings, themes, and relevant historical context facts. Once I have these I use them in a number of ways:

  1. Handout to students and ask them to link any class discussion to their own lolly stick.
  2. Ask them to form a question for the class based on their lolly stick.
  3. Challenge them to use their lolly stick information in any analytical writing we are doing.

To take this further, I then start adding lolly sticks with key literary terms on (foreshadowing), with text-specific language (sycophant for example from Macbeth), or with essay writing challenge sentence starters (e.g. another way this could be interpreted is…).

By the end of studying a literature text, I normally have about 150+ lolly sticks to use for any number of quick quizzes, revision tasks, or extension ideas. Even better, when I move onto a new text but want to spiral back to review Macbeth (for example) then I can just grab a lolly stick and ask the class a question.

4. Awesome vocabulary

Idea 4 is one that I use throughout the year and I use across multiple classes. Simply, anytime we find a new vocabulary word that we love (last year one class was obsessed with the word incredulous), we write it onto 2 – 3 lolly sticks and put them in our vocabulary post.

5. Puzzle Paradise

The final idea for using up all those lolly sticks is to create puzzles for your students to solve. These are great ice-breakers, quick fixes for when you need 5 minutes, or discussion prompts.

Here’s what I do:

  1. Lay about 9 or 10 lolly sticks side-by-side and measure them. I use 9 lolly sticks across (the odd number makes it a little trickier) which measures to be about 12cm high by 17cm wide.
  2. Print your image so it fits the measurements above.
  3. Glue across all the lolly sticks and leave to dry.
  4. Use a craft knife to cut the paper and separate the lolly sticks.

I hope you enjoy using these ideas!

*This post contains affiliate links. If you buy something using one of these links, you won’t pay any more but I will receive a small commission!

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Pre-reading activity for any literature text

Helping students engage with and understand literature before they read is essential. One way to take the fear away from old-fashioned language or writing that is unfamiliar is to let students play with it before you read.

This pre-reading activity is deceptively simple. Here’s what you do:

  1. Before you read the text in class, select 4 or 6 important words or phrases from the text.
  2. Ask your students to divide a notebook page into 4 or 6 boxes (depending on how many words/phrases you choose – one box per phrase)
  3. Then they should write the 6 words or phrases as titles in each box.
  4. All of I do then is ask students to draw an image to represent the phrase. You can see my instructions below – this is for the war poem, The Drum by John Scott.

It always amazes me how varied, interesting, and deep my students’ interpretations of these words are. Remember they have no idea what they are going to be reading. Yet students are able to see the depth in the language so much more easily when they only have a handful of words to deal with.

Here are a few examples of my student’s work: from Romeo and Juliet and the task above on The Drum!

 

If you try using this activity with your class, drop me a note in the comments to let me know how it went! You can see all my Literature resources here.

 

 

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Macbeth: 3 ways to take your lessons to the next level!

As we get towards September, I know teaching Macbeth is just around the corner. Again. Please don’t misread me, I LOVE teaching Macbeth. It’s almost my favourite Shakespeare play to teach (see my post on teaching The Tempest).

I teach Macbeth every year and every year I find I l-o-v-e it all over again! In my class, there is no room for a quick trot through the play. My students all sit an examination on the play at the end of their 2 year English Literature qualification. We have to know the play and know it very well. Each year I try to add something new to my Macbeth armoury.

Here are 3 ideas that I used this year to take my teaching of Macbeth to the next level!

1. Get stuck into Holinshed’s History

Raphael Holinshed was an English chronicler (similar to a historian today) and it is his chronicle of English history that was Shakespeare’s main source for the play Macbeth. Holinshed published two ‘complete histories of England, Scotland, and Ireland’ in the years 1577 and 1587. Each publication holds a large and comprehensive description of the history of these three nations.

Holinshed’s version of the story of Macbeth describes the reign of King Duncan and shows Macbeth to be a bloody dictator. It also included a woodcut illustration of the three witches that presents them more as nymphs or fairies, and less like the dark, genderless creatures in Shakespeare’s play. You can find out more about Holinshed and his chronicles here at the British Library site.

I have included resources for Holinshed’s history in my Macbeth unit on TpT. If you’re curious about what’s included you can find it here!

How do I use Holinshed in the classroom?

It is very simple, we have a short extract that we read directly from Holinshed (like the one below). We read it directly in Early Modern English (Elizabethan English) – you can talk to students, if you feel like it, about this transition moment in the English language. I love that Holinshed, like Shakespeare, shows both the old styles and new styles in his writing.

So somewhere around the end of Act 4 and the beginning of Act 5, we read a page from Holinshed, describing Macbeth’s later reign (remember Macbeth was actually King of Scotland for 17 years). We chuckle at the funny spelling and words.

Then we talk about the differences between Holinshed’s description of Macbeth and Shakespeare’s one. Holinshed generally comes out the winner because his presentation of Macbeth is bloodthirsty to the extreme.

After that, I ask my students to discuss the play by referencing Holinshed’s history. I might use sentence starters like:

  1. Holinshed’s Histories reveals Macbeth castle at Dunsinane was…
  2. Holinshed explains the complete nature of Macbeth’s tyranny…

2. Explore 1606

The year that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth was a truly spectacular year for English culture and politics. Not only did London see the first performances of King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony & Cleopatra in that one year but England was rocked, almost constantly by political intrigue.

Let’s start with the obvious:

  • In late 1605 the Gunpowder Plot saw a failed assassination plot to kill the King. Let me say that again – kill the King. Now, according to medieval beliefs, the King is God’s representative on earth. A man appointed by King to rule of the earth.
  • To kill the king (I love the word ‘regicide’) was then to kill God’s appointed leader, to go against God’s plan, and to break his organisation and order of all the things. To kill the king was to go against nature himself.
  • Now many of us know the Gunpowder Plot because of Guy Fawkes and 5th November and fireworks night. But, what is often overlooked in our popular memory of history is that the Gunpowder Plot was arranged by a group of Jesuit priests.
  • In fact, the assassination plan was known to the head Jesuit priest in all of England,  Henry Garnet. So let’s recap: a group of priests were planning to kill God’s representative on the throne. Wow! Something surely was rotten in the state of Denmark (I mean England).
  • The sensational trial and execution of Henry Garnet, Guy Fawkes, and other members of the Gunpowder Plot took place in early 1606.
  • Think back to Macbeth – what happens? That’s right. The King is murdered. Right in front of the audience, Shakespeare plays out the ‘what might have been’. It’s like Shakespeare invent reality TV 400 years before Big Brother.
  • Added that we have the Berwick Witch trials, the Oaths of Allegiance to the King, Catholic Equivocation, James’ own version of the Inquisitions, and…the hint that Shakespeare might have been a Catholic sympathiser. Well, it seems, 1606 was a year of intrigue.

3. Get stuck into Shakespeare’s sounds

I have a long post already about how I teach Shakespeare meter and rhythm. You can read it here. I use many of the same strategies when I teach Macbeth, but I can never pass up the opportunity to add a little piece to my metrical teaching.

Here are a few ideas that I love in Macbeth:

  1. Most of us are happy with Shakespeare’s basic metrical rhythm, iambic pentameter. Here’s an example from Act 5. But get thee back; my soul is too much charged. You can see the “iamb” which is the pattern of ‘unstressed’ then ‘unstressed’ syllables. Then the pentameter is 5 pairs of syllables. So 10 syllables per line.
  2. A “trochee” is the opposite of an “iamb”. This is where you start with the ‘stressed’ syllable and it followed by an ‘unstressed’ syllable. Because the stressed syllable comes first, the trochiac meters tend to sound harsher. Gall of goat is a great example from the witches’ spell Act 4 Sc 1. Many characters move to speaking in trochiac meter at different points in the play. The break in the usual meter shows emotion, turmoil, or change.
  3. The witches don’t just invert the metrical pattern, they also use a lesser number of syllables. This is called catalexis. The process by which a metrical pattern is cut short for effect (it can be at the beginning or the end). Shakespeare doesn’t just give the witches otherworldly words to say, he gives them a whole otherworldly way of speaking.
  4. Their lines are shorter than the other characters’ lines – often made up of seven syllables (seven was associated with witchcraft). Consider the symbolism of this, they have short lines because Shakespeare shows they are less than human.
  5. Their chants are mostly written in a catalectic (incomplete) form of trochaic tetrameter, which sounds like an incantation or magical spell.

If you’re curious to learn more about how to teach the meter and sound patterns in Shakespeare then do read my other blog post and download the free resource.

You can also see my complete Macbeth unit by clicking on the picture below:

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3 ways to improve descriptive writing

Writers can never get enough opportunities to write more detail. We live in the cracks on the pavement and the blank spaces between letters. Here are 3 quick writing activities that you can set your students to help them improve description and descriptive writing.

1. Find all the details

Here’s a quick-write task you can to practise the skill of ‘finding all the details‘. Choose one room in your house and list everything that can be: seen, smelt, heard, felt (and tasted). Write 100 words describing this room using only sensory imagery. When you have finished writing, ask yourself this question – were you able to create a sense of the room with this tightly controlled word count? If not, consider why? Look at your nouns and adjectives, are they specific and precise? Did you waste words? Make just 5 changes and see if this improves your writing.

2. Look beyond the surface

Description isn’t always just about giving an accurate observation of something. Sometimes it’s about seeing it deeply. Perhaps we need to look into the heart of things before we can describe them well. Use these quick-write tasks to practise this skill:

  1. Sit somewhere public (the cafeteria at school is perfect for this).
  2. Describe the faces of 5 strangers, show personality through expressions and gestures.
  3. When you have your 5 descriptions, create some conflicts between them.
    One character bumps into another character. One character asks another for help.
  4. How would your character react based on the personality you created for them?

3. Slow your description down

Slow writing is the opposite of quick writing and quick writes. The idea is to write slowlypreciselycarefully, selecting each word intentionally. Slow writing can take 5 minutes with one sentence and 30 minutes with a paragraph.

Imagine this scene: It is sunset and you are waiting for your friends, who are late. Describe the setting as the day moves towards darkness.

So how can you slow your writing down? you are waiting, probably bored, perhaps a bit annoyed. Now,
s-l-o-w your writing down, exactly like time seems to have slowed down while you are waiting. Walk your reader through the tick, tick, tick of your watch as you wait.

If you enjoyed these writing tasks and prompts then you should check out my writing prompt sets on TeachersPayTeachers. You can find them here.

 

 

 


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5 tips for new writing teachers

As we head back to school for another year of writing, I thought I would just take a minute to share my 5 top tips for teachers who are new to teaching writing.

1. Do all the writing tasks yourself first.

I am a firm believer that if I want students to complete any writing task (small or large) then I need to do it first. Why? It’s the same reason why we read the text before we teach it. I need to know that the task I’ve set will achieve the outcome I’ve planned for. So rather than just project a picture of an elephant and say write a description. I write the description. The side-benefits of completing the tasks yourself are: you can create mentor texts that suit your students; it helps with pacing – writing ALWAYS takes longer than we think (doing the writing yourself proves this); it helps you understand the ‘in brain’ process your students will go through (so you can support them better when they get stuck); and it can help you spot with misconceptions and simple errors.

2. Have a clear outcome for every writing task

This sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But let me break it down why it’s important. There are so many skills that we teach and test for in writing. The technical aspects of grammar, spelling, sentence construction, dialogue. Then you have narrative structure, character creation, mood, atmosphere, action, resolution. Finally, there are things like word choice, punctuation, literary devices, genre writing. So, for every writing task you set – make sure you and your students are really clear on which of these (and all the others) you want them to focus on. Make it explicitly clear for them.

3. Make the writing process transparent

This tip goes hand in hand with number 2. Creative writing can be (and often is) as stressful and terrifying for students as essay writing. Even students who are readers often can’t see the creative thought process that results in a great story, so we need to show it all to them.  That means actively teaching and then demonstrating narrative writing, story structure, character, description, action, dialogue, transitions, literary devices, paragraphing – the list goes on. Show your kids good examples, bad examples, how to fix mistakes, how powerful editing can be.

4. Use “miniature moment” tasks

I don’t call these quick writes because I don’t want to unconsciously indicate that writing can and should be bashed out in 10 minutes. Even if that is the only time I can give a particular task. As all writing (whether it’s about practising sensational similes or creating complex characters) is about creating moments that the reader will remember, I use the term ‘miniature moments’. What are these exactly? Well, they can be anything you want. Lasting from 2 – 10 minutes, these activities are fantastic for focusing on a handful of key elements that contribute to a larger piece of writing. Say for example you will spend the lesson looking at descriptive writing – then your miniature moments could be: listing nouns, sourcing adjectives that add clarity, testing out metaphors, writing open lines, creating a 1-minute piece of dialogue. These miniature moments in themselves should all be compelling pieces of writing, but together that serves as great reminders of everything students need to remember!
I love miniature moments so much I created a 12-month writing calendar full of them! Have a look here if you are in the US or here if you are in the UK!

 

 

5. Harvest vocabulary from texts.

This might be my favourite tip. Whenever you read anything with your class – whether you are doing a writing unit or not – harvest vocabulary from the text. There are a couple of ways you can do this: 1) as you are reading together and come across a cool word, make a note of it; or 2) nominate a student or two to be in charge of writing down cool vocab as you are reading. Then I like to make a display of all of the words we’ve collected – this year we made this one. If you are curious about how I teach vocabulary in the classroom then check this out.

 

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2nd June 2018

5 ideas for better high school creative writing

Raymond Bradbury is reported to have said (among other things):

Over 20 years ago this advice was given to us – a gaggle of wet-behind-the-ears Creative Writing undergraduates. It seems rather contrived now: to carry about a notebook and chewed pencil end. But I do. The purpose then was to build fluency. Fluency in the practicality of writing, fluency in expression, voice, inspiration, and silence. “Building writers is like building a wall,” said one professor, “one sodding brick at a time.”

It would be gross exaggeration to say that I have followed Bradbury’s advice faithfully. But over the last 20 years I have filled some 15 notebooks and over a hundred pages online of writing.

When I was 20 years old, my writing voice was cynical, dark, and worrying. At 30 years old, the voice was hollow: falsely buoyant, darkly comic, restricted and curious. Now at 40, my writing voice is no more confident or certain, it is changing again. Bleak landscapes inhabited by warm-hearted individuals; pain moulded relationships living in richly symbolic environments. My writing has shifted in style too, sometimes daily it seems. Laboriously dense description. Then sparse. And every shade between.

Every time I sit down to write (honestly now perhaps 3 or 4 times a week) I start with anxiety. What shall I write about? How will I start? The waiting and the silence are hard task masters. Only with years have I realised these moments are also part of the process. So I feel great empathy for the students I teach who struggle with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of writing.

Like so many things in English – we as teachers are often the jack-of-all-trades, and while I don’t necessarily want to use the word ‘master’, I must confess that even with over 20 years of writing, a degree and a Masters in it – I still don’t feel well qualified to teach it in the classroom.

Teaching writing means so many things…

Handwriting. Spelling. Grammar. Punctuation. Sentence openers. Techniques. Sentence length.

It is this multiplicity of outcomes that I think has inaccurately shifted the spotlight of emphasis onto the technicalities of writing, rather than the what of writing.

So this year, we have been giving students the opportunity to write more.

Here’s what it looks like:

1. Use Mentor Texts

A short exemplar of either narrative voice; setting; character; dialogue; action (etc). I rotate focus and style for variety’s sake.
This is the ‘read more’ bit of Bradbury’s advice.  We have a huge collection of mini-exemplars available for any and every purpose.

The above is the opening of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood – we use this with nearly every year group.

2. Simple prompts

A simple instruction that focuses on who the narrative voice is and what the content is:

3. Free writing

At first we do two minutes, then 4, then 5. We alternate these depending on what else we are covering in a lesson. These writing moments are not designed to create polished writing. The purpose is to ask students to write often, write variety and to write freely.

4. Use a Writing Calendar

We do this daily (if possible) sometimes in class, sometimes at home. I have started generating Writing Calendars for students and colleagues who want to write every day.  More, more, more writing is the point.

 

5. Spit and polish

At the end of a particular session of writing (perhaps 3 lessons, perhaps 6) students then choose which piece they would like to develop. The word ‘develop’ here is significant for me. It would be very easy to use the word ‘improve’ but improvements often imply a prescriptive success criteria that requires students to write more like Dickens and less like Hemingway.

So we return again to narrative voice and style – who is this person telling this story? What is important to them? What do they need the reader to know, to feel, to think?

We ask:

  1. How does this person think and speak?
    Unless they are Victorian then we don’t need to sound like Henry James; we then go back to our exemplars and find example of one that is closest in style.
  2. How quickly is the drama or action unfolding?
    This will often shape the sentence length and sentence structure used.
  3. What is the most important detail?
    This is the focus for descriptive techniques – here is often when I give my one restricting instruction. Just one technique* allowed in this piece of writing.
    Choose it well. Plan it well. Use it well.

 

* As a side note here, I tend not to encourage the use of poetic techniques in prose writing (alliteration, onomatopoeia etc). We teach personification (and pathetic fallacy) and extended metaphor.

 

If you are interested in the daily writing calendars they can be found on TPT here.

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3 ways to teach kindness in school

It feels like there has never been a more important time to bring kindness, resilience, bravery, and growth mindset into our classrooms. Over the last few months I’ve been working on ways that I bring kindness and character writing tasks into my ELA lessons.

Kindness characters

The first way we looked at kindness worked really well with our reading work. We had been reading the novel Once by Morris Gleitzman (see my blog post on this awesome novel here!). In the novel (I won’t spoil it) the children who are trapped in Nazi-occupied Poland undertake beautiful acts of kindness for one another. We decided the display “Choose Kindness Every Single Time!”. Every student had a letter, inside the letter they had a writing prompt about acts of kindness.

 

Brave characters

Our identity poetry unit resulted in this summary of all the poetic voices we had studied. “Kind Heart, Fierce Mind, Brave Spirit!” I a-b-s-o-l-u-t-e-l-y loved this idea by my students. Again, each student decorated one letter for my classroom. I gave them a choice of 3 possible creative tasks – I want this particular class to have the option to draw images, instead of writing. And it worked really, really well!

Growth Mindset characteristics

Finally, with my youngest class (just 12 years old) we decided that we want to list all of the Growth Mindset characteristics they had demonstrated since starting secondary school. The move from primary education to secondary is huge and daunting. Students have to demonstrate huge adaptability, resilience, and cheerfulness to cope with it all. So now we are nearly at the end of year, we wanted to celebrate their achievements.

We came up with 32 different words to describe how awesome they had been this year and I turned them into a set of pennants to display around my classroom!

I hope you enjoyed these ideas!

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