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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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6th April 2018

Teaching The Seafarer

Teaching language change and development is one of my favorite units. The English language is constantly changing – MTV was fly in the 90s, today it’s the Inbetweeners is sic. What is the link between Generation X’s slang and teaching The Seafarer? Before I begin tackling this Anglo-Saxon poem – I spend some time with my classes looking at language change and the history of spoken language.

Language change

I ask students to research words recently added to official dictionaries, sometimes we do this in lessons; sometimes we flip it and this is a pre-unit homework. Always I share a few of my favourites – these were added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017

  • Bubblehead – an foolish, empty headed person
  • Listicle – an article that is formatted as a list
  • Ghost – to abruptly cut off communication with someone
  • Throw shade – to disrespect someone publically

After this, I like to ask students what words they would add to the dictionary, or even to teach the teach a few new words! This is how I learned: sideman, dench, moist (yuck), peak, and would you believe – roadman! Kids don’t get to use these words in my lessons – ever – so this is their one and only chance to sling some lingo.

Then, I ask students to tell me the oldest word they know. They generally come up with something like “thy” or “thou”, occasionally they might throw in something more groovy. Some clever sprite might try “forsooth”.

At this point I introduce Anglo-Saxon words that are still in use today, including Viking, berserk, gun, ransack, hell, troll, saga. Are you sensing a theme? There are some great ones: claw, clip, crawl, get, give, hit, race, run, stammer, and take. The Anglo-Saxons were people of action. Now my class understands that our language is both ancient and very modern.

And so we cycle round to The Seafarer. We begin by writing our own poetic lines based on some of the words in the poem.

We discuss man and nature, adventure and fame, and explore the language of the ancient world. We look at theme, character, and Anglo-Saxon beliefs. We research The Exeter Book and the history of the poem. We create our own poetry, writing, and display work.

If you’re interested in more details about how I teach The Seafarer please click here.

 

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23rd March 2018

Teaching Once by Morris Gleitzman

If you’ve never heard of the novel Once by Morris Gleitzman then I challenge you to go and read it now. I’ll make it easy – here are the Amazon links! For US readers click here and for UK readers click here (these are affiliate links). Once tells the story of a young Jewish boy named Felix, the year is 1942 and the Nazis have invaded Poland. Felix believes his parents are in danger and sets out across occupied Poland to save them.

We teach Once to our newly arrived secondary students – year 7s – they are aged 11 and 12 years old. It is a fabulous novel for the secondary classroom: short, pacey, with strong characters and unexpected twists. The story is grown-up enough that my newly-minted secondary students are shocked by some of the events. It captures them with a mixture of horror and fascination. We live Felix’s adventures: this young boy speaks our language, we make mistakes and discoveries with him.

For a teacher, Once is the perfect text – I get to dive deep into history and explore why and how the invasion and occupation of Poland became history’s most horrifying genocide. I get to talk about prejudice, racism, violence, and fear with a group of students are just beginning to see the world through growing-up eyes. I get to discuss bravery, courage, kindness, and friendship in the midst of horror, and show our kids that they can be heroes in their own lives.

I cry every time I teach Once. I read it aloud to my students and there are two points in the novel where I outright cry – every single time. I’ve got used to it now. I don’t try and cover it up. I use my reaction – as a mum to the death of a child – to talk about why this fiction-based-on-reality is so wonderful and hard. We talk about why history and truth are important, why stories should be told, and why books are the secret to understanding the world we live in.

Last year I taught Once to a particularly disillusioned group of students. I was hard for me to meet 11 year-olds who already had the cynicism of adults, who thought death was funny, and prejudice acceptable. I just hoped that Felix might reach them. There is a point towards the end of the novel when I show some YouTube clips of Auschwitz and we talk in detail about what happened in the death camps. The following conversation sits in my memory like it was yesterday.

Student: Hold on, miss, is this real?

Me: Real? As in – did this really happen? Is this true? Yes.

Student: What?! Really. This actually happened?

Me: Yes. Between 1939 – 1942 nearly six million people were killed in these camps, that’s about the population of London.

Student: Why didn’t anyone stop it?

Me: Well, it appears that not many people outside knew about these camps. They were discovered once the Nazis were defeated and the Allies were pushing into Germany and Poland.

Student: We really *bleeped* up history back them, didn’t we miss? We can’t let it happen again.

Eighteen months on, I still teach these kids and we often talk about “never again”. What are all the things that we would say “never again” to if we had the chance? Reading Once gave me this opportunity with these kids and I treasure that. Another secret joy for my English teacher self is that Once is the first of a trilogy and I can’t tell you how many of my students scramble to borrow my one precious copy of book two.

If you are looking for a new book to add to your curriculum then Once should definitely be one to consider.

 

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10 book gifts for Brit Lit loving teachers

Finding Christmas gifts for high school literature teachers can be tricky – after all, the world is full books – but which ones to choose?! If you are a parent, a colleague, or a family member and you want something special to show your appreciation for a British Literature loving teacher this Christmas, then this gift guide is for you. Below are 10 wonderful books that any Brit Lit loving teacher will adore. I own and have read each one, so these are my personal recommendations. This post does contain affiliate links (and I do receive a small commission from any purchases made using these links) – but I love and use these books myself!

10 book gifts for British Literature Loving Teachers

Shakespeare!

I love this book by Jonathan Bate. He has an easy style but as a Shakespeare scholar – he knows his stuff. This biography digs into the possible motivations for Shakespeare’s many works. It charts his life, education, and adult life – the influence of the politics of the day and how his success changed him.  A must-have for any Shakespeare teacher!

Click here to see this book on Amazon US.

Or click here to see this book on Amazon UK.

 

James Shapiro’s book ‘1606 The Year of Lear’ is actually his second account of Shakespeare’s history. This book focussing on 1606 is the sequel to the hugely popular 1599. 1606 was the year that King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony & Cleopatra were first performed – arguably three of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.

I was lucky enough to attend Shapiro’s book launch at the Globe Theatre last year and in about an hour he summarized a thousand minute histories that helped shaped Shakespeare in this year of power.  He explores the significance of the shift in politics and power. The gossip about Shakespeare’s family. The struggles in Europe and across the globe. I cannot recommend this account of the history of Shakespeare enough.

Find the US Amazon version here and the UK Amazon version here!

Rex Gibson’s book Teaching Shakespeare is a staple in English classrooms in the UK. It is on the reading list of nearly every teacher training institution for English teachers and this is no coincidence.

He has a wonderful way of explaining Shakespeare’s ideas and contexts, as well as giving 100s practical and ready-to-go classroom activities to get students involved in studying, enjoying, performing, and analyzing Shakespeare plays.

Find the Amazon US version and the Amazon UK version here!

 

The novelists!

This autobiography of Charles Dickens isn’t the only Claire Tomalin book I am recommending today. She is a wonderful researcher and a passionate lover of literature.

I first read this book about 5 years ago when I was teaching Great Expectations and I was trying to understand the shift in Dickens’ narrative style away from social commentary and onto relationships.

Tomalin answered every question I have ever asked about Dickens and many I have not. She sets out his traumatic childhood, his sensational public appearances and acclaim, and the affair that nearly destroyed him. Her writing is joyful and sympathetic and full of wonderful factual detail.

Click here to find the Amazon US edition and then find the Amazon UK edition here.

For me, the title: ;The Bronte’s Wild Genius on the Moors’ says it all. Juliet Barker’s book is a swiping text that fully details their tragically repressed home life and the story of each talented sister. Emily is truly wild, beautiful, strangely unrepressed. Romantic without being a true Romantic. Anne – rejected, alone, unrequited. Then Charlotte, a melancholic teacher, who dreamed of living in her imagined worlds.

If you are looking for a book that celebrates woman in world that could not and would not celebrate them, then The Brontes is for you.

Click here for the Amazon US version and here for the Amazon UK version!

My second choice from Claire Tomalin is her definitive history of Jane Austen. I always wanted to know why a woman who never married could write with such accuracy about relationships and marriage.

There are so many rumours about Austen (she was engaged for just one evening). Tomalin perfectly captures Austen’s wit, social criticisms, intelligence, and her insight.

I love this book! Find the Amazon US version hereClick here to see the Amazon UK version.

 

Last but not least is perhaps my favorite of all these Brit Lit novelist biographies – Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley.

Of course, the lives of Wollstonecraft and Shelley are great fodder for Charlotte Gordon, but her exploration of their truth, their realities, and their impact is extraordinary. The triumphs and heartbreaks of these two women are beautiful articulated – mother and daughter are completely united – in this struggle to find their place in the world.

See the US Amazon version here and the UK Amazon version here!

Theory and Reference!

I can’t seem to leave those Romantics alone! My first reference book is a cross-over history and literature text. Richard Holmes is an expert historian and biographer and in this book he digs into the Romantic era and finds the science, explorations, and inventions that shaped the Romantic imagination.

The full title is ‘The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science’ and it helps us to see the Romantic sublime experience of the technology of the day.

For any fan of the Romantics or even the Gothic this text is an exceptional grounding in history.

Find the US Amazon edition here and the UK Amazon edition here!

Jonathan Bate makes a reappearance with this amazing introduction to English Literature. If you haven’t seen these “Very Short Introduction” books, they are excellent: short, precise, clear. Enough but not too much!

If you are studying or teaching English Literature for the first time, then this book is for you. If you are a veteran, this this book will refresh and renew your love of all this Brit Lit.

Click here for the US Amazon version.

Click here for the UK Amazon version.

 

If like me you love gorgeous visuals and pithy summaries then The Literature Book is for you.  A beautiful chronological journey through literature (not just British!) this wonderful book gives a great overview of each literary era and then zooms in on seminal or canonic works.

This book has pride of place in my classroom it is my go-to resource to give historical context, detail, or greater reference to anything we are studying.

Check out this amazing book on Amazon US here and on Amazon UK here.

I hope you enjoyed my gift guide of books for British Literature loving teachers.  I would love to hear about any other books that you would recommend – just drop me a comment below.

Thanks for visiting!

Create a BANG this fireworks night in your ELA classroom

Pop Quiz! Which of these best fits you?

  1. My students love debating.
  2. I want to push my students to apply their learning to the real world.
  3. I think we can learn lessons from history.
  4. My students struggle to link literature to life.

If you answered “me, me!” to any of these 4 statements, then today’s blog post is dedicated to you. Here are 3 engaging classroom activities that: give your students a chance to debate; challenge students to stretch classroom knowledge to become real world knowledge; and help them link history and literature with their lives!

1. Research the man Guy Fawkes

It’s easy to forget that Guy Fawkes wasn’t the instigator of the Gunpowder Plot, the man and the money behind it was Robert Catesby. A wealthy farmer and Catholic, Catesby persuaded many of his friends that James I was a weak king and could be easily removed from power.

Guy Fawkes, however, was also not the bumbling fool often portrayed in cartoons. He fought in the Spanish wars against the Dutch Republic and was an experienced soldier.

If you and your students are interested in finding out more about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder plot – then check out my Guy Fawkes Hero or Villain resource on TpT.

After you have researched Guy Fawkes in detail, use these debate prompts (a sneak peek from above resource) to spark some deep discussion in your classroom.

2. Watch and discuss V for Vendetta

**Now a big disclaimer is needed here: V for Vendetta is rated a 15 here in the UK. The whole film is not suitable for classroom use.**

How do I use the film in my lessons to help discuss Guy Fawkes then?

Introduce the story: V for Vendetta (1998) is a graphic novel by Alan Moore. The story is set in a dystopian future where the United Kingdom is ruled over by a neo-facist regime. One night, 5th November, a freedom fighter attempts a revolution. He takes over the national media and makes a speech encouraging all citizens to join him the following year (on 5th November) again to start a rebellion.

Watch the clip:

Read the speech and discuss persuasion:

I have attached a file with V’s revolutionary speech here. We discuss rhetoric and persuasion here and compare it to other political speeches. Then we discuss V’s use of 5th November as a sign of positive revolution.

I pose the questions:

  • Is V rewriting history?  What is the evidence for your response?
  • Can we trust history? Can we trust historical evidence and facts?
  • What happens when history is altered or parts of history are forgotten?
  • How is history dangerous?

In his dystopian novel, 1984, Orwell writes, “who controls the past, control the future” – we discuss this and the truth of it in our world today.

If your students love V as much as mine do then I often let them watch these two extra clips: The 5th of November Overture and *spoiler* the finale scene (note this contains swears) and will also spoil the film for them – so beware!!

3. Write your own nursery rhyme

One of the best things about nursery rhymes is that they are all pretty gruesome in nature. If they aren’t warding off the plague, they are accusing you of being a witch.  The nursery rhyme written for the ‘celebration’ of failed Gunpowder Plot is just as brutal.  We study it for ‘historical accuracy’ and rhetorical techniques and then we create our own Gunpowder Plot nursery rhyme. Sometimes we cast Guy Fawkes as the hero. Sometimes a hapless fool deserted by his comrades. Sometimes we write about James and the Lords in Parliament. Occasionally we imagine the horror if it had succeeded. If all else fails – we create a visualization of the original rhyme with lots of gory detail.

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes, guy, t’was his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England’s overthrow.

By god’s mercy he was catch’d
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.

And what shall we do with him?
Burn him!

An extra sweet treat…

Check out this interactive Guy Fawkes game on the BBC History website.  Go to the Powder Plot Game here.

Ok friends

If you wanted to get your students debating; brief history and literature into the real world and challenge your students to really think, then this post was for you.

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15th September 2017

Friday funny!

I saw this today, it made me chuckle.

It is also so true for me, for the next couple of weeks anyway.

6th September 2017

Revision Jenga!

Revision is a tricky nut to crack, especially for literature students where the topics for revision are as wide ranging as quotations from the text to feminist readings to historical context.
Jenga Revision is just one of the ways I help student memorise everything they need to know.

Here’s how I do it:

1. Get hold of your Jenga blocks (you will need felt tips as well)
The cheapest Jenga blocks I have found are these mini Topple Towers from Poundland. Just £1 each.  The tower doesn’t stand much higher than 15cm. But that makes it perfect for small group work.
*Note – buy the cheapest ones you can – because these will be unfinished wood and easier to write on with felt tip!*

2. Decide what you are going to write on them.
When I started out using this activity, I was totally laid back about what went on the blocks. A few years on and I’m a little wiser.  Here’s what I learnt:
Colour code the categories – so red for direct evidence from the text, blue for historical context, green for key literary terms.
Get students to plan / find the information first – no writing on the blocks until you’ve written it on paper (this can help avoid lots of repetition too)
Brevity rules! The blocks can only take 1 or 2 words – so precision is needed.
Neatly does it – some of those boys need to earn the right to write. Prove to me you can be legible, gentleman!

 

3. Get working on making the blocks.  Depending on the number of texts to be revised, I will either allocate each group a different text or split the chapters or sections across a number of groups.

4. Get your game on. Here are the rules of the game.
# Choose who goes first (tallest, shortest – I don’t mind).
# Person number 1 pulls out a block and uses the information on it to ask a question of someone else in the group. For example – say the block has the name “Crooks” on it. The questioner could form any question that will give them the response Crooks. The harder the question, the better. Which character in Of Mice and Men has their own chapter? Who does Curley’s Wife threaten to string up? Which character in the novel reads a lot?
# If the response is correct, then the responder is given that block to start making their collection. They then take the next turn.
# If the response is incorrect, then the questioner keeps it (for their collection).  And they keep taking turns and keeping blocks until someone answers correctly.
# The winner is the one who has the most blocks when the tower is completely gone. This encourages them to make the questions as difficult as possible.

And that my friends is how we play revision Jenga!
Thanks for reading.

2nd September 2017

2 easy character activities for your ELA classroom

If you are looking for new and creative ways to embed ‘character’ into your curriculum, then this post is for you! In this video, I share 2 ways you can use character in your ELA classroom. Firstly, in creative writing and secondly, in your study of literature.

So enjoy!

And then checkout this >>>DOWNLOAD<<< to help you on your way!

*I send emails with teaching tips, tricks, and free resources to my subscribers regularly. I value your privacy and you can learn more about how I handle your data in our private policy. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Love British Literature?

Access this Austen free resource and a whole lot more!

If you are ready to bring a bit of Brit Lit spark to your classroom - then this Austen resource pack is for you!

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1 fab idea for back-to-school!

The first few hours or days back at school are hectic. Timetables to give out, courses to enrol, books to organise. Annndd in my case – uniforms to check, planners to sign, and inevitability parents to call about incorrect shoes, hair, make-up, skirt length, nail varnish. We are busy: sorting out seating plans, handing out new books, sorting out target sheets and stickers, homework schedules, IEPs and TA resources.

Yup – back to school is hectic.

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Back-to-school-freebie-We-Heart-School-Yes-We-Do-1970192?aref=x62abwh1

Added to this, most schools encourage a full-pelt return to hard learning. “What the learning question for your first lesson?”
Sometimes we just need a little bit of time.

For my new classes with older students – I like to gain 10 minutes or so with a few easy ‘get to know you’ activities.  

Espresso Yourself – does that just that. Buys me 10 minutes to calm, followed by quality chat with the kids I have only just met.  While I am muddling through the register and seating plan, they are telling me everything I need to know about them.

How do you love to get to know your HS students?
I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.
You can download my Espresso Yourself worksheet (and a few other goodies) here for FREE. Enjoy!


Love Creative Writing in your classroom!

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Love Creative Writing in your classroom!

Are you ready for dynamite descriptive writing in your classroom?Download your FREE 3-step guide now!

*I send emails with teaching tips, tricks, and free resources to my subscribers regularly. I value your privacy and you can learn more about how I handle your data in our private policy. You can unsubscribe at any time.