Back To School: Letter Writing Project

As the new school year approaches, I get a feeling – the same feeling I get every year – nervous and excited. I know that I will be meeting a bunch of new students: some I’ve never taught before, and some returning faces.

For each of these kids, I make a silent promise each September, that I will really see them. That I will take the time to get to know them. That they won’t fade into the background. That even though I will only see them 3 times a week (sometimes less) that they will be known in my classroom.

So I do all the usual stuff: learning names, memorising faces, greeting at the door.

Yet, it isn’t our classroom chat that helps me find out who these kids really are. It helps for sure. But there is something I do with my students that, every year, blows my mind without fail. It is to have them write me a letter. In fact to have them write me lots and lots of letters. A letter, a week for the first full term of school. That’s 13 letters, 13 chances for them to tell me the stuff that matters.

I love letter writing. It’s been ages since I’ve received anything more personal than a greetings card in the post. When I receive a letter, well, that’s something special.  I like to tell kids about how when I left home, there were no mobile phones, no email or FB. I mean it was the 1990s, man! If we wanted to keep in contact with friends, who had moved to another part of the country, we had to write a letter. I moved to London. My best friend moved about 400 miles away to the Scottish borders. We would write each other once a month – sometimes 10 sides of paper or more – I loved receiving those letters.

Letter writing, like diary writing, has been replaced by 140 characters or a fuzzy selfie. As letters are by their very nature personal – when we lose them, we risk losing a deep knowledge of human nature. Today we can watch fast moving news events live. But what about the people involved a week later or a year later? Letters allow us time to reflect on our circumstances. If ever a species was in need of a pause button, it is humanity.

The first letter

The first letter that my students write – is a letter to their future selves. Meh. You might say. Been there, done that. Well, this letter is something a little different. Perhaps because it isn’t a letter at all. I like to ease my students into the idea of writing me a few pages. It’s more a series of thoughts, or reflections, a collection of hopes and dreams.

We write this first letter in class. Students color in the different sections and then hilarity follows as I show them the complicated way to fold it up to make a ‘Renaissance folded letter’. I explain that paper and postage was very expensive in 1600s-1700s. Envelopes would have been a huge waste. So people learnt to write on every available space, except for the space with the address and the wax seal.

This moment has another purpose. We learn to laugh together. We learn to fail together. We become a team in this lesson.

Letters of them

After this first lesson, I set my students a letter writing homework each week through September, October, November, and December. We have a few mini-sessions on the “Lost Art of Letter Writing” (start with a greeting etc) but other than that, this is one of the rare times my students get to do writing without overly structured input.

They do have a rubric, but I have to be hands-up-honest here and say, I don’t always mark their letters for grammar and spelling and stuff like that. I find myself thanking students for sharing something, more often than not I find myself asking questions, wanting to know more. At this point for me, these are more than marks on grade sheet. And my kids need to know that.

There is not topic I won’t set, and depending on the age group of my class, we have covered them all. From ‘what is love’ to ‘my best day out’. From ‘is Britain a dystopia?’ to ‘is free speech really a good thing?’. Students know that they letters are set for them to think through a particular topic. To express their beliefs, opinions, and whatever muddle comes in between. Many times a student will start out with “I believe…” and by the end they have found some different thoughts.

Side benefits?

While I am being honest, I also what to tell you about the unexpected and awesome benefits of these letters. These were totally unplanned by me when I was developing this idea. First off, my students are more confident to express their ideas and opinions in my classroom. Yay! Less tumble-weed and more “I’m waiting for quiet!” but in an ELA classroom debate, discussion, and ideas are at the heart of what we do. Second, I discovered these kids are funny and clever and may does that give me hope for the future. (This one probably should have been first up). Last but by no way least, my students are better writers. And that’s my day job. These letters push them to think on topics they don’t really think about and they are improving in their writing and their expression for it.

So my advice – get your students writing letters. If you are interested in using this idea in your classroom. Click the image below.



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1 secret for developing close analysis skills

Developing close analysis skills when teaching literature texts can be tricky. Think of all the things a student needs to know first:

  • vocabulary knowledge
  • understanding of explicit and implicit meanings
  • working out which implicit meanings are relevant or useful
  • ability to recognise figurative language and appreciate what is suggested
  • how layers of meaning are created and how to work them out

Developing an understanding of explicit and implicit meaning

Here’s what we talk through first – explicit and implicit information. I introduce this very simply. Explicit information is clearly written in the text. “Last weekend, it rained a lot.” The text states it rained, so we know it rained. Implicit information needs a little detective work – we use our existing knowledge of the world around us to work out what is being suggested.

We look at the above example.  The explicit information is that two people (named Mark and Clara) paid for some tickets for ‘something’ and after that they went to buy some popcorn.  We use our existing knowledge of the world to workout that Mark and Clara at the cinema.  They could be at a show, the theatre, or at a gig, but we suspect not. And I ask students to explain why not.

Here’s what they generally come up with: most people who go out, go to the cinema (after all tickets for shows, theatre and gigs are expense). If you are going to a gig, you won’t be buying popcorn. This is also probably true for theatres and shows – we leave this for the interval.

After working through this inference together – students try the following:

  • Yesterday we packed everything into boxes and drove to another town.
  • Paul had a bad night’s sleep and then when he woke up, there were branches and leaves all over the roads.
  • It was always Sally’s dream to have a puppy, yesterday that dream came too.

This week I have also been using this amazing trailer from Miss Peregine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  There is so much that is hinted at this trailer – it’s great to discuss.

So now we develop our inference skills into analysis skills!

Rainbow Analysis

I first came across the idea of Rainbow Analysis on Twitter about a year ago. You can see the details here.

It is a structured and visual way to ensure that students are creating detailed inferences and then turning this into close analysis.  As you can see the sheet has 7 circles in an arc shape.  You can pretty much use these circles for any purpose that suits your outcome.

Here is what I include:

Circle 1: quotation

Circle 2: what does the quote mean in your own words?

Circle 3: choose one word (or short phrase) from the quotation and identify the technique used by the author (eg simile)

Circle 4: Now zoom in on the implied meaning of the word or phrase and explain what is suggested by it.

Circle 5: Are there alternative interpretations that could be made of the quotation? Does it contain ambiguous language or ambiguity of meaning?

Circle 6: How does the quotation link to contextual factors such as the period in history or the author’s biographical context?

Circle 7: How does the quotation challenge or impact the reader’s thinking about the character or situation?

Of course, then we colour it all in – to remind ourselves that we are understanding the shades of meaning.  Soooo, friends, would you like to give it a go?  Well, signup to my newsletter below and you can download the resources from my FREE resource library.

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Helping kids love reading

 

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This thing happened and it was good.

There are times when something spontaneous happens in the classroom and the results are so unexpectedly cool that it is hard not to stop and enjoy.

We have had a big push on reading with our reluctant KS3 readers over the last couple of weeks. You know the kids I mean. These aren’t the bright, top set kids – who are reading Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man at the age of 12 – these kids are the ones who declare proudly “I’ve never read a book” or “I’ve only read one book ever – it was George’s Marvellous Medicine in year 3”. My personal favourite: “I hate reading.”

This is my class in year 8. Unsurprisingly they are mostly boys, mostly the cheeky ones you see cutting in the lunch queue, mostly the ones who haven’t made much progress.

It became obvious, when I picked this group up, that our KS3 curriculum wasn’t going to cut it. We needed to read, read, then read some more and then read and keep reading. At first most were struggling to read a sentence fluently. Some were unable to read words with three or more syllables. Remembering what we read from one week to the next was an issue. Trying, and learning to keep on trying, even when it got tricky and embarrassing, was as important as learning how to do the reading thing.

So far this year we have read two novels. I won’t bore you with which ones; nothing fancy, books had been sitting in our book cupboard for a few years. Chosen to meet the criteria of being just hard enough to aid learning and with a storyline that was relatively easy to hook onto and remember. After that we read a translation of Grendel and now we are reading non-fiction texts.

I won’t sugar coat it. Reading extended texts with this class is still tricky. Decoding, comprehension and inference skills are improving, but reading has never felt fun in these hours. Reading is still hard. Very hard.

Fast forward then to last week and World Book Day. We start every lesson with 10 minutes of silent reading – most are doing the Diary of Wimpy Kid thing, some have borrowed from my extensive collection of Horrible History books. They are reading though. Not just holding the books and daydreaming. Eyeballs move. Hands go up – “what’s this word Miss?”. Spontaneous comments “This book is funny Miss”. They are reading.

The non-fiction text of the week explained how chicken nuggets are made. Yep, it caused a stir. We tackled the vocabulary – consumption, tempura, raised (as in chicks raised in factories for consumption) etc. Yum!

I then posed the challenge. “I have never eaten a chicken nugget. Can you create a clear argument that would convince and persuade me to eat a nugget?” After the horrific realisation that they were in the same room as a vegetarian, we looked at writing an argument.

The kids wrote. We peer marked. I have worked hard with this class to develop their basic literacy skills through peer marking. We have a set of criteria and use it every lesson, it has numeric scores (i.e. if they have started every sentence with a capital letter, award them 5 marks) and the boys seem to like the clarity this presents. We champion improving on previous scores. They usually get house points if they are in the top 10%.

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Here’s the thing that happened. It was World Book Day. I had been showing off some books that we had been sent and whooping generally about reading. Cheeky Billy piped up “Miss, I want that book. If I get top marks today, can I have it?”

My response was “Heck yes!” After all, what else was I going to do with these books?

Eight other voices called out – “Can I have one if I get good marks?” Affirmative from me.

And so the writing was on. The focus in the room was a notch higher than usual. Muttering could be heard “I need to use an exclamation mark”.

Writing done, peer marking completed, attempts to exploit the marking criteria were batted away and four books were handed out.

The whole class crowded around the box, giving their opinions on each option, helping the lucky four make their choices. Cheeky Billy lost out. His frustration was good humoured “I’ll give you my World Book Day voucher.” Then inspiration struck “Can I earn one tomorrow Miss?”

I grinned and nodded, booting them out the door to lunch and forgot about it.

The next morning, I was on gate duty, four of my gang of boys arrived after the bell shouting “I’m gonna earn that book today Miss.” And so last lesson on Friday afternoon arrived and the remaining gaggle of 11 kids proved themselves desperate to earn a book.

At the end of the lesson, there was pushing and shoving over the last two copies of Cuckoo Song by Francise Hardinge.

Let me repeat, these boys – self-declared haters of reading at the beginning of the year – were pushing and shoving over a book. A book. I could have wept with joy. My job is the best job in the world

Today a whole week later, they are still talking about it. Still telling me what is going on the books they are reading. Still telling their mates that I gave them a book. Still telling their parents that they earned a book at school.

This thing happened and it was good.

Celebrating diversity, creating community

Schools are wonderfully diverse communities. In fact, when I remember my ‘other’ job in the real world, I see what a bubble I existed in for such a long time. Working away, like a hamster on a wheel, with people doing jobs like me, who were pretty much, just like me.

I don’t have a choice who rocks up at my classroom door. Even teaching in a school with a very small catchment area, I see the full and wide range of human experience reflected in the kids I teach.

This year, more than any before, I have wanted to champion both diversity and community in my ELA classroom. To give space for challenge and difference and to enjoy togetherness and unity.  An idea for this – linked to writing – segued from a unit we were already studying. In Year 7 / Grade 7 we analyze a series of poems from different cultures, if you never heard or seen them I would recommend the following: Blessing by Imtiaz Dharker and Night of the Scorpion by Nissim Ekeziel.

I wanted my students to have the opportunity to give voice to their culture, just as these poets had. But in teasing out these thoughts, I quickly realised that even within one class of 30 students, we had no fixed culture. Yes we live in the same town, but some of us speak different languages at home, eat different food, love different music. I needed to find a way to hold both our difference and our unity up for the world to admire.

The “I am” poem

It could not have been any more simple in the end, the “I am” poem allowed my students to express both at once, in a muddle and a mix, just as it is.

Here’s what I asked students to do:

  1. Divide one page in 6 boxes
  2. Fill each box with as many ideas as you can (you can pick and choose later)
  3. Box 1: Where I live and the languages in my family/house
  4. Box 2: The food I love
  5. Box 3: Things I do for fun
  6. Box 4: What is important in life (boy, does this one generate debate!)
  7. Box 5: Places I love to go
  8. Box 6: Things I love

Once everyone had ideas in each box, we then discussed how to chose the ones that best represent ‘me’. I didn’t want to tell kids that ‘my iphone’ was wrong because that would have gone wholly against what I was aiming for – a celebration of them.

Turning ideas into poetry

After the list generation phase, I would show the class my responses.  Below is my original list (occasionally, now, I edit it and add sky diving or lion taming, just for fun).

Then I model turning this list- in-a-box into a list poem. Firstly, we discuss nouns and articles and how in poetry missing them out can create meaning “I am tea and cake”, but occasionally they will be required because it just doesn’t sound right: “I am iPhone” becomes “my iPhone”.  Again we discussed why “I am a sunny day” requires the article but “I am frosty mornings” doesn’t – looking at pluralisation and its impact.

Here’s my poem – which, yes, I show kids before they write their own one. I often ask students to consider what can be inferred from the various lines. My students tend to jump on “England and Europe” – I leave them to their speculations and then let them write their own.

I am London
I am England and Europe
I am tea and cake
I am chips not fish
I am chats with friends
I am lazy nights in
I am family and food and fun
I am a sunny day
I am frosty mornings
I am the seaside
I am fairgrounds
I am.

Draft, refine, create

I have no rules about the drafting and refining of these poems. I wanted a truthful expression. So after a lesson pottering about with words, we left the poems to ruminate for a while. Coming back to them the following day, allowed us one more opportunity to finesse and then we got creative.

I gave students this worksheet (click to download) and showed them the plan was to create a hanging squared poem to display.

So they need to:

  1. Cut out both squares
  2. Glue the top left square to the bottom right one to create two joined diamonds (see above)
  3. Write their poem down the middle three squares.
  4. Add drawings to the four empty squares to show what they love.

The result? A poem that shows the individual and yet celebrates the things that bring us together (cake, football, chicken) and the things that make us different (Russian, cheerleading champion, pro-golfer). I love it and I love them in all their samey-difference.

We laminate them and hang them around the room, sometimes stringing several together and leaving them to flutter in the breeze. Words and colour mixed together reminding us that diversity and community are beautiful.

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The Sounds of Shakespeare

When students first begin studying Shakespeare, we spend most of our time focusing on understanding the language, talking about the characters and events, maybe even discussing the themes. What do we do when our students are capable of going further? What’s the next step in analysis and exploration?  Well in answer to that question – I wanted to develop a bit on my last Shakey blogpost – and give you a little freebie to help.

The Sounds of Shakespeare

My first stop, after we have moved on from comprehension and inference, into analysis is to focus on the Sounds of Shakespeare. His work after all was written to be performed and this element is essential to our understanding of it.  It is the performance of his words that allows us to see and to hear the emotion, the performance is where interpretation becomes more fluid, less set.  We’ve all seen this FB post:

Despite how easy it would be if the meaning Shakespeare’s words were fixed, they are not, and our most-able students are capable of discussing this.

Alliteration and Assonance

Often – for me – this discussion of sound begins with the most simple sound patterns: alliteration and assonance. Specifically these patterns were used (like rhyme) as an aid to memory, actors used these sounds to help them memorize their lines. The rhythm created by the use of these patterns enables the words to flow without having to actively or consciously think about what words come next.

Try this:

As a lesson opener, write the beginning of a nursery rhyme on the board. Now if you teach a diverse bunch of kids, like I do, you will need to choose carefully. (Remind me to tell you about the time I assume all my students had read Goldilocks…)  My starter goes something like this:

1. Write the words ‘incey wincey spider’ on your whiteboard.

2. Ask the class to dictate the rest. Then ask them when was the last time they actually remember saying this nursery rhyme? I guarantee – even for those with younger siblings – these teens are not going around singing nursery rhymes all day.

3. I then pose the question, why it is easy to remember, when we haven’t said it for years? I often say tell them at this point, that I lived at my old address for 8 years but today I can’t remember my postcode (zip code). Why can I remember this nursery rhyme?

The answer is often because of the rhyming words or repeated words, it is easy to remember.  But then we look at little further.

Yes there are a ton of repeated words – and this one reason why I use this particular rhyme, because sometimes one glaring technique (a powerful metaphor or a biblical allusion) can take away from everything else that is going on.

Look at the assonance and alliteration here – the long /i/ sound in ‘spider’ is echoed with ‘dried’ and ‘climbed’; the /ow/ sound in ‘spout’ is seen again in ‘out’ and ‘down’. These assonance echoes aid memory just as much as the rhyming of ‘rain’ and ‘again’.  The alliterative elements are also easy to miss ‘spider’ and ‘spout’ – no rhyme, but for purposes of memory it works. I haven’t even highlighted the alliterative /d/ sounds throughout.

Once my students are comfortable with alliteration and assonance BUT before we dive into our Shakespeare play, I use extracts from famous Shakespearean speeches to force their focus onto sounds { see what I did there? force their focus }.

Why don’t I use the play we are currently studying? Well, I could I guess. But the problem is, my students know too much. They know all the characters and themes and once I ask them to start looking at the alliteration and assonance, they are going to get distracted by their knowledge! Wow! I never, ever, thought that would be a bad thing (and it isn’t really). I want them focus on the sounds alone. What do those sounds reveal? Without using prior knowledge, tell me about the sounds.

Now try this:

So download my freebie – right now – and that way you have it all ready to go. You can go through the info pages with your students as much as you like, then pick one of the coloring exercises for your students to complete, including is an extract from R&J and Sonnet 116.

Here students move from looking generally at repeated sound patterns to focusing on specific patterns and what they might mean.  There are two explanation sheets included – the yellow one seen in the above picture takes students through the 8 types of alliteration and why they are used. Students can practise identifying alliterative patterns and then giving them meaning.  The upside – anything using coloring pencils can’t be real work, right?

Moving on up

Ok. Coloring pencils away now. I am always super impressed with the ideas my students have following these exercises. They create real inferences, real analysis during these tasks. So to keep pushing them on, and building their confidence, we then move onto a simple annotation and exploration exercise.

Annotating a shorter passage (from Macbeth or Henry V) for alliteration, assonance and how these reveal emotion.  These sheets give students an opportunity to develop their analysis and write up their ideas but in a low-pressure, low-stakes table.  It again generates and aids great discussion.

Finally the piece de resistance

Analyzing a whole speech – so if you are studying a Shakespeare play, then this would be the opportunity to introduce a speech or soliloquy from that play. For example – when teaching Macbeth, I might pre-teach these skills on the lead up to analyzing “Is this a dagger?” in Act 2, or with Antony and Cleopatra, I often use this as preparation for Enobarbus’ barge speech.

I’ve included part of Mark Antony’s funeral speech from Julius Caesar, as an example for you, partly because this is the first play we teach when our students arrive in Year 7 / Grade 6 at our school. I love the play and by this point in the play (three Acts in) my students are pretty confident with understanding the language and ideas.

So start with a tiny, plucky spider and finish with some fierce and confident analysis.

Teach on my friends.

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Ps.

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16th February 2017

Create the perfect storm with The Tempest

I don’t know about you but there are some Shakespeare plays that I just love to teach. Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Hamlet all fall into that category. From start to finish my students and I are hooked on these stories.  There also some plays that the kids love more than me – Romeo and Juliet. Don’t get me wrong, I cry every time, but there’s always something missing for me about R&J. I think it might be the lack of justice. It’s just all so damned unfair at the end.

And then there are some plays that I love for the sheer wonder and technical mastery displayed by this Colossus of the writing world. The Tempest is that play.

Before I tell you about what a humdinger of play The Tempest is, I want to share this golden nugget with you.  Last summer I was honored to spend some time in the Shakespeare archive at Stratford Upon Avon.  Amongst other wonders I came across this wonderful playbill for a production of The Tempest from 1857, isn’t is amazing?

Creating the perfect storm

I said above that I love The Tempest for its technical mastery and although this is very true (in terms of high rhetoric The Tempest is genius) I also love it because it is a story of real, honest, dirty, and glorious human experience.

The Tempest takes many of Shakespeare’s conceptual obsessions and transports them and us to Island where we are trapped, and then set free.  It is a story of family, of love, of power, of revenge, and of forgiveness.

And this is where our analysis of the play begins – with the big ideas:

If you take The Tempest out beyond its simple revenge narrative it is a tale of voyage and discovery, one in which some are subjugated and some are overlords.  One where those who have power, will fight to keep it. It is a narrative of colonialism and how the wilderness and its savage inhabitants need civilizing. 

Here The Tempest connects with the modern world.  And often this is where my students gain their greatest enjoyment of the text, as we consider:

  • How is the issue of race in The Tempest similar to the issue of race today?
  • Do women today experience greater or lesser freedom than Miranda’s character?
  • What people groups do we seek to ‘civilize’ in today’s world?
  • How is European or White culture portrayed? What is different in today’s world?
  • Do those in power adhere to the same rules as everyone else?
  • Is it ever ok to control the actions of another?

It’s funny, we never have to have the discussion about the ‘relevance of Shakespeare’  because with issues like this, there is no challenging that Shakespeare’s voice is timeless.

Writing up a Tempest

Our class discussions inevitability require some form of written response. When teens set the world to rights, their ideas need to be kept for prosperity.  Our focus in here London at the moment is analytical essay writing (and I’ll get onto that in a moment) but there is a strong argument for allowing students the opportunity to explore their thinking in a more creative mode of writing first.  We read like a writer, write like a reader, and then analyze like a reading writer.

Digging deep into the beauty of form

For me one of the utter joys of teaching Shakespeare is the confidence students gain in analyzing and interpreting his language.  Here in London, our students take public examinations on Shakespeare at the age of 16 and at 18.  In these exams they are required to write an essay where they dig deeply into Shakespeare’s language and form.  As much as I would like to, it isn’t enough to spend all our time talking ideas. We have to roll up our sleeves and get stuck into the words and rhythms on the page.

How do we begin?

Well, of course, I begin with the ideas in the play.  We start out looking for evidence of the key themes and concepts in Shakespeare’s writing.  Then we discuss their relevance at that moment, for that character.

We might create a detailed close analysis of this speech looking at:

  • How is femininity portrayed here?
  • What emotions are linked to gender here?
  • How is Miranda’s character using language that shows naivety or innocence?
  • What is Miranda’s view of her father’s power here?
  • What role does Miranda play here – what ideas is she a vehicle to express? 

By starting looking for these universal ideas, students are distracted from the complexity of the language and begin to create analyses and inferences without even realising it. So how do I take their analysis to another level?

Getting stuck into Literary Techniques

We use Shakespeare to teach a number of complex literary and rhetorical devices, he is well known for his use of rhetorical repetitions (anaphora, anadiplosis, epistrophe). Here students begin to unravel the effect that each of these has. We study alliterative repetitions, the effect of caesura and enjambment, antithesis, and any number of techniques. If you would like some help with teaching the Sounds of Shakespeare – then check my blog post here!

For us, it is essential that students can identify and explain the purpose of each of these. The example essay paragraph below shows the depth of understanding and engagement with ideas, character, language, and technique demonstrated by our students. It’s pretty awesome!

Hold on what’s all this about Elizabethan social mores?!

I know! I get it. That was a little bit too much. Do you ever have a phrase that you use with kids and for some reason they latch onto it and use it again, and again, and again? Well, “the social mores of Elizabethan England” became that phrase for me!

Here’s why, the final and almost the most important thing we do when studying Shakespeare is to place the text within its moment in history. And I don’t mean vaguely “people in Elizabethan times didn’t wash and that’s why Shakespeare makes jokes about people smelling”.

I mean with deep, detailed and in-depth knowledge of the era. The whos, the hows, the wheres and the whens. 

Again how can any kid argue that history is boring and irrelevant when my starter question says:

 

Welll, my friends, I’m glad you asked. Here’s one gem we cover, it quite a lot of awkward detail!

And it’s not just this – we study Elizabeth I and how she was both an awesome and unpredictable monarch. The unity and instability created by a unmarried woman on the throne catapults England into the gender dialogue of the day. James I unifies England and Scotland – or does he/ – returning the ‘small and brutish’ (Thomas Hobbes) nation to rule by absolute monarchy. Add to this the Gunpowder plot, the Age of Discovery, the Inquisitions and Jesuit Equivocators, the age of Shakespeare was rife with political intrigue and conspiracy.

Read, act, enjoy Shakespeare but don’t be afraid to study it. For us, going way beyond the ordinary is what makes us love him.

If you would love to teach The Tempest using the resources I have included above (plus over 200 pages of other goodies) then you can find them all at my TpT store here. You can also see all my Shakespeare resources here.  Annnd if you would like – sign up to my newsletter to catch more of my Shakey blogposts!

 

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5 super cool short films your ELA students will love

I love using short films in my classroom. I bet you already have a collection that you use again and again. Well, me too. I use short films for a bunch of different reasons: to introduce a new idea, or explain something we all found complicated. Sometimes to inspire discussion and debate, or to get stuck into some creative writing.  Short films are fabulous for both literature and writing.

So, here are my top 5 favorite films for high school ELA.  I’ve split them so you have: 2 for teaching literature, 2 for teaching writing, and 1 for debate. Enjoy!

The Tiger Who Came to Tea – introducing critical theory

I love using this short reading of the children’s classic for my older literature classes. The first question I ask is “what does this text tell us about society?”.

At this point, I introduce critical theory. Gender and feminist theory and also Marxist theory.  *Warning* – this discussion does result in some criticism of Kerr’s text. It’s great to consider the narratives that shape our understanding of the world as children, but it’s not always a comfortable discussion. What does this text show about men, about women, about children? What does this text show about work and social class? What is the relevance of the tiger arriving and eating all the food? Why a tiger? What groups in society might the tiger represent?

At this point, I might draw a comparison between this text and invading forces: the Nazis in Poland, Kerr has spoken of this, and others in history.  The discussion is often lively.

An interesting counterpoint to this story is the another children’s story – Where the Wild Things Are. Here we develop our discussion to include colonization.

Copy Shop – introducing concepts in literature (literature)

Copy Shop is an unusual silent film by Virgil Widrich, 2001. It received an Oscar nomination for a short action film.

The film is 12 minutes long and ‘tells’ the story of a man who accidentally photocopies himself until ‘he’ takes over his town.

I often begin this lesson by asking students to mind-map all of their thoughts on the topics of: identity, gender, relationships, reality, and society. After watching the film, sometimes twice, I ask students to add ideas to their mind-maps based on the film.  For identity and society – we discuss how we are shaped as people, how society shapes us into a particular mould. For gender and relationships – students often notice that the single female is replaced by the male, that the relationships show companionship, then threat. For reality – we discuss to what extent we can trust our senses, what we see.

The final step is to debate some of the big ideas in literature:

  • Our individual understanding of reality cannot be trusted
  • Masculinity and femininity are entirely constructed by society
  • Society is at its roots chaotic and disordered
  • Technology controls humanity
  • Capitalism and consumerism has made humanity self-destructive

I could go on!

Picture Perfect – the Jubilee Project (writing)

I use this short and sad story for a variety of different reasons with my classes: writing flashbacks, relationships, realistic dialogue, incidents, and memory writing.

It’s a poignant tale and dedicated to survivors of Leukaemia, a sensitive one to use with classes but often generates excellent sympathetic debate and great emotionally intelligent writing.

Lock Up – by BloodyCuts (Writing)

*Warning* – this short film is the epitome of suspense and then a moment of terror. Your class will scream. Please, please, please watch through till the very end before you decide to use it! Don’t look away at the end, otherwise you might miss ‘it’!

Ok, you survived!  Here’s how I use this film: to build tension, to create a character who has no idea what is about to happen next.  This short film is fantastic for writing a realistic moment of suspense – rather than one that is filled of creaky stairs and slamming doors. Write a character who has literally no idea what is about to happen to them!

You need to be speedy with the pause button here.  I watch with kids the bit up until the man collects his keys and write this as a narrative.  Then we pause / write until the very end.  As the students haven’t seen the whole thing – when you first see the figure – they are shocked, their character can be shocked.

It’s great for writing genuine expressions of a character’s experience of cluelessness to horror.

Fireflies – the Jubilee Project (debate)

Another one from the guys at the Jubilee Project, I do love them, and to be honest you could use any of their films effectively in the classroom.

But Fireflies is something special.

I pose a bunch of questions when using this film, sometimes before, sometimes after, sometimes both!

  • What is friendship?

  • What is normal?

  • How can we truly know one another?

  • Can we know ourselves?

  • Does everyone have to be the same?

  • Why are children more accepting?

  • Can society change?

  • Do we need to let children teach adults how to behave?

That’s it! My top-5 favorite short films to use in the classroom.  I really hope you have found something new or interesting to try out with your classes.

 


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23rd January 2017

Shakespeare love #1

It’s not hard to love The Bard. This week, in the midst of Antony & Cleopatra, we discussed the revolutionary view that Shakespeare seemed to have concerned foreigners. While popular reports by explorers and military heroes of Elizabethan Era portrayed foreigners as exotic savages, Shakespeare revealed their humanity by giving them a power than seems absent in the western interlopers.

Shakespeare reveals a different side to the foreigner

If you are interested in more insight into Shakespeare’s world have a look right here!

 

 

 

23rd January 2017

Love is in the air?

So February is just around the corner and for all my high schoolers that means Valentine’s. Now I don’t know about your students, but the kids I teach are not fans of the ubiquitous love hearts and flowers of romance. In fact Valentine’s horror would be much more up their street.

So this gives me a great opportunity to do some creative writing and them a chance to satisfy their natural desire for chaos.

Check out some ideas for Valentine’s disasters writing here.