Let’s all #cutthegimmicks

Listening to the goodbye speeches at the end of summer term, I was particularly amused by the thoughts of a retiring colleague – a veteran of 29 years service (with a decade of teaching before that, at another school). His philosophy of teaching, and his mantra as the pupils lined up for his first lesson with him, was ‘Come in. Sit down. Shut up. Listen to me.’ He was half joking of course. He didn’t generally tell them to ‘shut up’, but you get the point. His lessons were devoid of gimmicks. He never used a single powerpoint slide in all his years of teaching. He was not to be messed with. Naturally, the kids all adored him. His results were consistently good. That’s not to say that he wanted us all to teach like that. This was his way and it worked for him. His message, more than anything else, was find your own style and don’t lower your standards.

But I love the idea of cutting out the gimmicks. Over my decade of teaching I’ve become increasingly tired of gimmickry and fancy ideas. I still knock out lessons that are designed purely to inspire and provoke thought but these are very much the exception. Pupils don’t complain that my lessons are dull. They seem to enjoy the challenge and clarity of purpose.

So I was much taken with @LHanson1711’s recent post about a single deceptively simple lesson that went well, with a quick breakdown of how it worked. I suggest English teachers could all benefit from the philosophy of  moving away from convoluted planning. I humbly propose the #cutthegimmicks hashtag as a clarion call for straightforward stuff that instills knowledge and skills.

Here’s my offering: a Year 10 Jekyll & Hyde lesson on Chapter 4 – The Carew Murder Case.

context-pyramid-structure-jh

context-pyramid-structure-jh

My lesson:

  1. Read Chapter 4
  2. Divide class into six groups and allocate each group a context element (you can differentiate by giving the easier section (etiquette) to certain groups and harder sections (Darwinism) to others (we’d already gone through an etiquette context sheet and the Gothic conventions in some detail in previous lessons)
  3. Get pupils to link quotes from the extract to context sources
  4. Get pupils to analyse these quotes in their section of the grid
  5. Pupils feedback their ideas to the group. Teacher clarifies, challenges, questions, deveops, deals with misconceptions. Listening pupils fill in the blank section, using impressive ideas/analysis from other groups
  6. At the end of the feedback all pupils have a very detailed guide to context with key quotes and bits of analysis from this key scene
  7. End of lesson

It worked. Others in my department have tried it and found it worked for them. It’s not groundbreaking. You couldn’t and wouldn’t want to do this for every lesson. But the pupils had revised old context and learnt new context and nailed a key passage in an hour.

If you use it or adapt it let me know how you get on. And please share your fad free stuff as well.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

‘Man is not truly one…’ How to create and analyse complex characters

Meet M-. He’s a northerner, born into a mining family, with his childhood defined by the miners’ strike of ’84-’85. He loves a game of darts and a pint of ale (with a proper head on it, thank you), finished off with a fish butty and a crispy, acidic pickled onion for the walk home from the pub. He’s a football fan and likes rugby too (league, please; none of that kicking and pile-on union stuff). He reads a newspaper regularly but always works his way backwards from the sport section; to be honest he thoroughly enjoys the peace and quiet of his own company.

Now meet M-. A resident of a picturesque south-west farming town. He’s fond of long walks in the idyllic countryside, with his wife and young children. He’s never happier than with his not insubstantial nose wedged in to the pages of a novel, preferably a classic of some sort. He’s partial to a glass of red (Douro or Malbec, if you’re wondering). Having neglected the game in his youth he’s now taken up cricket again and loves the camaraderie  offered by the opportunity to take part in team sports; in a confessional aside he’ll be willing to admit that he suffers from loneliness if he spends to long without companionship.

You might have guessed by now that M- is the same person. You might also have guessed, particularly if you’ve met me, that M- is… Mark. Me. I’m not trying to be egotistical here (okay, just a little bit) but rather to use my pretty humdrum existence as an example of the duality that lies within all of us. Unless we are incredibly, stultifyingly dull, then we will largely have different – often seemingly incompatible – parts to our background and personality. And characters are the same. Well, interesting, successfully drawn ones are.

download

Not that pupils always pick up on this, of course. Ask yourself, how many times have you had to challenge pupils to widen their perceptions of Curley’s wife? You don’t need me to tell you that some lazy/weak readers like to view her as a lascivious harlot who gets what she deserves while others prefer to offer a hagiographic depiction of her as a downtrodden innocent, absolved of any part in her downfall.

For (major) characters, the truth is usually more complex, full of opposing – often binary – qualities. In her essential guide to creative writing Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft Janet Burroway outlines the ideas of critic and creative writing tutor Cheryl Moskowitz in her essay ‘The Self as Source’. As explained in the extract below, this fiction technique relies specifically on identifying conflicting parts of characters through “character imaging” of themselves, referencing Jekyll & Hyde as a blatant model:

 

burroway

The implications of this technique for the teaching of creative writing are interesting and obvious. Inexperienced writers tend to stick to what they know and this offers a way of finding complexity among the often banal characters teenage writers invent. A simple contrast sheet might well allow the creation of a pair of opposites destined to collide, or even better, an internally conflicted individual, at odds with the world and themselves.

Yet, as I suggested earlier, this skill is also decidedly useful when analysing characters in the class texts that we study.

Consider how these incongruities influence our reading of archetypes for example (and how straightforward, easy to pigeonhole characters quickly become the stuff of stereotype and cliche). Archetypes are comforting and reassuring, yet, like lovers and friends, they can become tedious and annoying when they lack depth and intrigue. One of my favourite TV boxsets of recent years Friday Night Lights – a tale of a small Texan community’s obsession with its local high school football team – initially irritated me with its introduction of off the shelf archetypes: the jock, a handsome star quarterback who, predictably enough, is ‘going steady’ with the beautiful lead cheerleader. Before too long, however, these bland archetypes were utterly subverted (I won’t spoil it for anyone by revealing how) to portray the vulnerabilities of complex characters forced away from their stock depiction.

This approach provides plenty of opportunities to really get to grips with the duality of character. Here’s some of questions that might provoke deeper thought and analysis when discussing character:

  • What’s this character’s primary and secondary motivation?
  • What is the difference between what the writer shows us about the character and what they tell us?
  • Does this character ‘disclose all’ about themselves(Wayne Booth)?
  • What do we see on the surface and beneath the surface with this character?
  • With this character does the writer subvert or follow traditional archetypes?
  • What are the most cliched parts of this character’s persona?

Thanks for reading,

Mark (and Mark)

 

Boy Trouble: some questions to help close the gender gap in English

I’ve been asked a few times recently by Twitter colleagues for advice about improving their school’s outcomes for boys. Across the school generally, and English results specifically. Give us your pearls of wisdom, they politely ask. Let us know what really works.

The short answer is disappointing and predictable: it laregly comes down to high quality teaching and learning. Consistency throughout all key stages, developing a positive learning environment, challenge and support. You know all this. This is not news. There isn’t a quick panacea for ‘sorting out our boy problem’.

That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t strategic questions to reflect on if you’re in this situation – and many schools are: the overall GCSE gender gap stands at 9% and English 14%.

It isn’t easy. There are no quick fixes. We too are chipping away at the gap, knocking off 3% here and 4% there. It will take time and hard work and crucially, lots of evaluation to see if your plans and strategies are actually making any difference. Here’s some of the things I’ve looked at over the years (not all ideas are my own) that you might want to consider to help improve attainment and (that slippery term) ‘engagement’:

  1. Groupings
  • If pupils are setted, how are boys distributed across your groups?
  • What proportion of boys are in the top, or higher, sets?
  • Are you setting on current ability or potential ability? You need to be thorough and honest with this one: go back and look at the KS2 levels, not just what they got in a test at the end of Year 8. Is their current ‘ability’ reflecting their true ability or is it only indicative of their disaffection with the curriculum/set they’ve been dumped/attitude of the teacher? Is there an unintentional (I hope) bias against some boys which creates an atmosphere of low expectations and low challenge?

2. Data

  • Do you have a problem with all boys or (more likely) particular micro cohorts?
  • Have you really drilled down into the data? Level 3 or Level 4 on entry boys? SEND boys? White FSM boys? Look at sub levels as well – is it 4c and 3a or the 5a and 5b lads who are bombing?
  • Is your problem from last year the same issue as this year’s cohort? Don’t assume – check carefully. This will go some way towards telling you whether you have an endemic problem or a specific issue with the cohort.
  • How robust are your data collection and forecasting models? Do you moderate your forecasts by asking each other searching questions or are you sharing Timmy’s misplaced confidence that it’ll all be alright on the day, despite a string of missed questions on his last three mock exams? This matters for all pupils of course, but I think, given the work ethic and attitude to revision of many boys, that this can be a particularly acute concern for them.

3. Curriculum

  • Are you following a two or three year KS4? Have you considered the effect this has on male pupils in particular? Do they have the maturity level to deal with certain GCSE topics?
  • Does your long term plan build revision and memory skills into schemes? Boys generally revise less, so how are you compensating for this? Are you modelling study skills in addition to the knowledge they will require to succeed?
  • Are you doing anything radical/daft like early entry for GCSE literature? Have you got any evidence of the impact this will have on the outcomes of underperforming micro cohorts or is this just a hunch?
  • I’m not a fan of picking ‘boy-friendly’ texts generally but have you considered carefully the choices that you’ve made? Have you selected the Relationships poems because your department prefer them, while the lads will probably respond better to the Conflict section? Are reluctant readers put off from the start by having to plough through hundreds of pages of Great Expectations when Jekyll & Hyde will provide the same level of challenge and cultural capital for a much briefer read?

4. Feedback

  • You’ve moved away from WWW/EBI or two stars and a wish, right? If not, you’re wasting time and diluting the message of your feedback. How much are you writing in comparison to the output this provokes?
  • What is the most important target that Oliver needs to work on to improve his analytical paragraphs? If it’s identify word class, then just say so.
  • Avoid hedging language – ‘Next time, you might want to try to add the effect this word has on the reader, as this will probably help you move closer to Band 4’. Instead write ‘Go back and identify word class’.
  • You’re using DiRT as well? How do boys respond in improvement time compared to girls? Are there groups of boys who aren’t bothering to improve their work to the same standard as others? What are individual teachers doing about this?
  • Why not do the DiRT there and then? Does the week gap between doing work and improving it dilute the message and put up a barrier to removing those immediate misconceptions?
  • An obvious point, but do you go to the early finishers (probably boys) first? Is your seating plan arranged to allow you to get easy access to your underperforming pupils?
  • Are you giving away too many answers rather than offering prompts that allow them to work out the answer for themselves?

5. Extended writing

  • Are you modelling the process of successful extended writing (planning, drafting, proof-reading, editing, re-drafting) to remove the fear of the blank page and allow boys to understand that writing evolves over time.
  • Do you build up the stamina of reluctant writers gradually by chunking tasks into smaller amounts of time (while still getting through the same amount overall)?
  • Do you consistently allow pupils to see top quality (and not so good quality) exemplars and allow them to see what success looks like?
  • Do you provide scaffolds that allow pupils to get started but, importantly, doesn’t simplify the task so much that it signals lower expectations?
  • Do you remove scaffolds gradually over time to ensure that pupils don’t become overly reliant on them?
  • Are you still using ‘all/most/some’ objectives that give lazy pupils the green light to aim for a lower outcome?
  • Do you allow ‘busy work’ such as posters/wordsearches/drawing pictures of characters that ‘engages’ boys to little effect?
  • Do your teachers shoot themselves in the foot by making a big issue about whether pupils have a pen when the main thing is that they…get writing?

6. Intervention

  • Is removing small groups of boys from lessons really having the effect you had hoped for? Who is delivering these sessions? Do they have expert knowledge of the subject, and crucially the specification/exam questions? Are you wasting time that could be better spent with the class teacher, confusing pupils with different knowledge and strategies and sending out the wrong signals, despite your good intentions?
  • What about other efforts to motivate? A few years ago we touch a large group of disaffected male Year 11s on an away day that was meant to motivate and inspire them. We visited a local football league club, did teamwork and male bonding stuff and listened to gripping speeches from the professionals. They were absolutely buzzing by the time we got back on the coach. Did it work? Of course it did. For a bit. Then the reality of the hard work needed to pass GCSEs set in. Many of the boys went on to get good GCSEs. Many didn’t. The ones that worked hard passed. The ones that didn’t… didn’t. I can’t say for sure that the motivational day had  little effect but my feeling is that what went on in the classroom, and in the pupils’ homework time, made all the difference.
  • Are pupils who attend revision sessions and catch-up classes really benefiting from your efforts? I had a group of lads who used to turn up to my sessions last year purely to say to their parents that, yes, they had been revising at school and now didn’t need to do any more. While they were there they tried to avoid doing any actual writing. I sent them packing and only let them come back when they could prove to me that they were going to work hard.

7. Random stuff

This is not an exhaustive list. I’ve probably forgotten something really important but here are some other things that I think  make a difference with the attitudes of boys to English lessons and probably have an effect on their outcomes:

  • Do your teachers read with gusto and take risks when reading aloud (trying to do the accents of characters, for example)?
  • Have you checked to see whether your male pupils with awful handwriting have been marked unfairly, both internally and externally?
  • Do you ‘sell’ the importance of completing homework by showcasing the positive effects on the work of those that have done it, rather than lambasting those that haven’t? (although a bit of that is definitely required if this doesn’t work with some).
  • Do teachers regularly shout at male pupils?
  • Are teachers making as many positive phone calls home as negative?
  • Do male teachers act as role models, showing that it is possible to love football and poetry?
  • Finally, something you might not have thought much about.The ego of the teenage male is usually fragile, dealing with salvos of conflicting messages. For your boys, is the English classroom a place of sanctuary (a sanctuary that insists on hard-work and has high levels of challenge)?  Some time ago at my last school – an all boys inner city comprehensive – we conducted a survey that asked our pupils (who were massively overperforming in English compared to maths and science) about their attitudes to lessons in the core subjects compared. When discussing English we expected them to mention feedback, support, exciting lessons. The main word they mentioned was ‘safety’. They felt safe to make mistakes. Safe to ask questions. Safe to take risks in their writing. Safe to ask miss what they should read next. Do the boys in your school feel ‘safe’?

Thanks for reading,

Mark

Confessions of a ‘homosexual’ reader

I have a confession to make. It will prove unpopular. I may be shunned by friends, family and colleagues. Especially English teaching colleagues.

I nearly outed myself a while back but could tell from the initial responses that it wouldn’t end well. On that occasion I had to pretend I was joking. There were suspicious looks from then on when the topic came up again.

The man below shared my secret. Unlike me he was more forthright in airing his peccadilloes, allowing himself to be exposed to ostracism. But he lived in a different age, I suppose. When different, now unacceptable, opinions were the norm. Nonetheless he, and other brave voices, have encouraged me to reveal my true self, to hide my duplicitous nature no longer.

Nabokov

The man is the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. And Vladimir Nabokov was willing to confess in public that he was exclusively ‘homosexual’ in his literary tastes.

I can contain my silence no longer. I must take the inevitable flak.

Yes, I too am a ‘homosexual’ reader.

Let me give you an example. Last night (I was bored; there was nothing on telly; I’m a sad individual) I tweeted a list of my Top Ten Russian Writers:

  1. Gogol
  2. Dostoevsky
  3. Tolstoy
  4. Grossman
  5. Bulgakov
  6. Chekov
  7. Turgenev
  8. Solzhenitsyn
  9. Zamyatin
  10. Lermentov

I’d decided not to count Nabokov himself as his great works were written in English. Receiving a response querying the absence of a certain Akhmatova from the list, I decided to look him up, as I’d never heard of him. I was somewhat embarrassed to discover that he was actually a she – Anna Akhmatova – described on her Wikipedia page as ‘one of the most acclaimed writers in the Russian canon’. See, my list was entirely male (as well as being entirely concerned with novelists and short story writers).

By now, I imagine many of you have decided to unfollow/mute/block/report me to the police. Let me first offer some mitigation for my crime.

I’m not really an exclusively ‘homosexual’ reader. Off the top of my head, I love/like/admire the work of the following poets:

  • Sylvia Plath
  • Stevie Smith
  • Emily Dickinson
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  • Dorothy Parker
  • Denise Levertov
  • Ruth Fainlight
  • Jeni Couzyn

Indeed, I greatly enjoyed reading one of my A level lit texts The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets. Some of my best marks at uni came during a module I’d chosen to study on feminist poetry.

Some of my best friends… er, I mean… some of my favourite journalists/writers of non-fiction are female.

Caitlin Moran. Barbara Demick. Grace Dent. Lynn Barber. Marina Hyde. Victoria Coren-Mitchell There’ll be lots more I’ve forgotten.

So it seems that fiction is the problem. The root of where my confession truly lies…

But then I do, of course, love the work of some female novelists:

  • Margaret Atwood
  • The Brontës
  • Sylvia Plath (again – she should be impressed with me)
  • George Elliott
  • Jane Austen
  • Mary Shelly
  • Maggie Gee
  • Zoe Heller
  • Jane Smiley
  • Toni Morrison
  • Jeanette Winterson
  • Arundhati Roy

Yet a good amount of head-scratching, pen-tapping and shelf-studying was involved in the compilation of that list. It says a lot that it takes me, an obsessive reader of fiction, quite a while to come up with a dozen or so female authors from across the ages. (And some of those are based on just one book).

At this stage some of you will probably be outraged. Or feel sorry for me and my pathetically blinkered worldview. Before you report me to my headteacher, however, please let me make something very clear: I am NOT claiming that male writers are better than female writers. All I am saying, head above the fractious parapet of gender and literary criticism, is that I personally prefer reading novels written by men. That is it. There are probably many reasons for this and I don’t think any of them are in any way related to sexism or misogyny. I think it’s more linked to the way I relate to the authorial and narrative voice and the themes (such as, but not exclusively confined to, the masculine condition) contained therein.

And the big question I’m going to ask you all is… does this really matter? Should our primary, or even tertiary concern, when selecting books for our pupils to read – be it library books, Accelerated Reader suggestions, texts or extracts for study in class – ever be the gender of the person who wrote the book?

Chris Curtis has written more elegantly than I could on the irrelevance of representing society when choosing texts from the canon. I agree entirely that our main goal as teachers should be getting boys and girls reading lots of high quality texts, regardless of the gender of the author.

There is obviously an opposing argument to my contention. An argument that highlights the under-representation of female authors on awards lists and points to the patriarchal idiocy of the past that prevented the voices of excellent women writers being published. Perhaps I, in my reading habits, am part of this problem? Maybe I’ve been socialised, or have an innate yearning, to opt for the blokey book cover, in the same way my children – boys of three and five – grab the blue ball and shun the pink? Am I guilty of perpetuating this male domination of literature through the curriculum choices I make and the subconscious messages I give to my pupils when discussing the merit of literary texts.

I think not. If anything I tend to go down the other route, trying to guiltily force Austen on young lads who’d probably be much happier with a spot of Updike or Carver.

I’m sure you’ll let me know how wrong I am. You might even want to try to rehabilitate me. I’ll respond in time. Just let me finish my next chapter of the latest Andy McNabb.

Thanks for reading (if you made it this far),

Mark

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Need to Talk About Clichés (part 2)

As a novelist, essayist and journalist of exceptional clarity and imagination, it is unsurprising that George Orwell took a zero tolerance approach to cliché: ‘Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.’ He would have probably disliked my use of the over-employed ‘zero tolerance’.

Orwell’s writing embodies the war against cliché that I looked at in part 1 of this blog. His freshness and startling originality has gripped me for decades, ever since I picked up a tattered copy of 1984 for 50p in the now demolished Dave’s Books in Wakefield market. Orwell doesn’t really do cliché, I thought, as I set myself the challenge of trying to find a tired old phrase in the work of one of history’s finest exponents of prose. This morning, at random, I picked up a copy of the wonderful Coming up for Air from my bookshelves and began re-reading the opening pages for the first time in years:

coming-up-for-air.jpg

The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.

I remember the morning well. At about a quarter to eight I’d nipped out of bed and got into the bathroom just in time to shut the kids out. It was a beastly January morning, with a dirty yellowish-grey sky. Down below, out of the little square of bathroom window, I could see the ten yards by five of grass, with a privet hedge round it and a bare patch in the middle, that we call the back garden. There’s the same back garden, some privets, and same grass, behind every house in Ellesmere Road. Only difference — where there are no kids there’s no bare patch in the middle.

I was trying to shave with a bluntish razor-blade while the water ran into the bath. My face looked back at me out of the mirror, and underneath, in a tumbler of water on the little shelf over the washbasin, the teeth that belonged in the face. It was the temporary set that Warner, my dentist, had given me to wear while the new ones were being made. I haven’t such a bad face, really. It’s one of those bricky-red faces that go with butter-coloured hair and pale-blue eyes. I’ve never gone grey or bald, thank God, and when I’ve got my teeth in I probably don’t look my age, which is forty-five.

Making a mental note to buy razor-blades, I got into the bath and started soaping. I soaped my arms (I’ve got those kind of pudgy arms that are freckled up to the elbow) and then took the back- brush and soaped my shoulder-blades, which in the ordinary way I can’t reach. It’s a nuisance, but there are several parts of my body that I can’t reach nowadays. The truth is that I’m inclined to be a little bit on the fat side. I don’t mean that I’m like something in a sideshow at a fair. My weight isn’t much over fourteen stone, and last time I measured round my waist it was either forty-eight or forty-nine, I forget which. And I’m not what they call ‘disgustingly’ fat, I haven’t got one of those bellies that sag half-way down to the knees. It’s merely that I’m a little bit broad in the beam, with a tendency to be barrel-shaped. Do you know the active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party? I’m that type. ‘Fatty’ they mostly call me. Fatty Bowling. George Bowling is my real name.

Within seconds I found a bona fide cliché. I was willing to overlook ‘I remember the morning well’ as a bit of a clumsy introduction to analepsis (because it is quite tricky to use a flashback device without signalling it), I’d also given the benefit of doubt to the overused metaphor ‘making a mental note’. But I couldn’t, surely, ignore the neon glare of ‘the life and soul of the party’. This is the kind of hackneyed monstrosity that Harold Evans lists among his worst offenders. I had him. Bang to rights. In an exam, I could now proceed with a literary take down, picking up huge marks for an assassination of the opening to one of England’s finest novelists.

This, apparently, is what pupils are being asked to do in the new GCSE English Language exams. On AQA, Paper 1 Q4, pupils are asked to evaluate the quality of the writing of a celebrated (or at least famous) twentieth century writer. I’ve written before about a brave, high ability pupil whose exam I marked who attempted to critique Graham Greene’s use of the cliché ‘The clock struck eleven’ in an extract from Brighton Rock. The problem was – and this is the same problem I would encounter if I tried to slam Orwell’s ‘life and soul’-  the fact that the pupil had been explicitly taught to spot clichés. They were well-read enough to know that this apparently blighted an otherwise excellent piece of fiction. The issue was that they, as a modern reader, hadn’t been able, or shown how to, place the individual cliché in context.

Brighton Rock was published in 1938, a year before Orwell’s novel. This is why caution is required before taking apart a classic: the novels are nearly 80 years old. These fatigued to the point of death expression may well have been fresh and sparkly in the 1930s. (I say ‘may well’ as I am unable, despite a lengthy search, to find datings and origins for these phrases.Besides, even if these phrases were clichéd by the 1930s… Orwell is writing in the first person. Could the use of a worn out phrase be perhaps indicative of the dull and monotonous existence of the narrator protagonist?

For these reasons, I recommend exercising restraint when teaching pupils how to spot clichés in classic fiction.  By all means crack out some Dan Brown and have a bit of fun, but only to illustrate the difference between him and the greats.

Far better, I would argue, to focus on how great writers avoid or subvert clichés of expression and also clichés of the mind (plotting, characterisation etc.). Let’s apply a more positive analysis to parts of the opening of Orwell’s relatively neglected classic:

Archetypes

In fiction, the archetype is a typical, representative character. A stock character that we can recognise and identify with. Only when the archetype becomes repeated ad nauseam, without derivation or innovation, does he or she become tiresome and clichéd. In this case Bowling is the archetypal everyman, interesting to the reader because of his ordinariness. Our protagonist, with his concerns about his weight and his appearance, and the mundane Orwellian motif of ‘bluntish razor blades’ (concerns that will soon become irrelevant if our reader understands the context of the novel’s date of publication). What stops him becoming a clichéd character? I would argue his self-deprecation: ‘I don’t mean that I’m like something in a sideshow at a fair’.  This simile tells us much more about the character than the ‘life and soul’ idiom.

Name

‘Fatty’ or George Bowling is a name that allows plenty of opportunity to evaluate the writing. Does it suit him? Is it effective in allowing the reader to get beneath his (flabby) skin? Yes, due to the following connotations:

  • ‘Fatty’ – childlike pejorative…perhaps symbolic of his reluctance to age. Willingness as a narrator to do what Wayne Booth termed ‘disclose all’. Links to the peculiarly British trait of pointing out flaws before others can.
  • ‘Bowling’ – suggestive of that other great English obsession – cricket. The verb, or gerund, implies speed or flummoxing movement, linking to the changing nature of late 1930s society.
  • ‘George’ – the same name as the writer himself. Is this a signal that the novel is a roman a clef? That we should make contextual links between our hero and the writer’s own concerns and preoccupations. Orwell famously wrote: ‘it is an unusual novel that does not contain somewhere or other a portrait of the author, thinly disguised as hero, saint, or martyr.’ Of course, the irony is that George is not the writer’s real name. George Orwell is the facade behind which Eric Arthur Blair laboured…

I could go on. What I’ve started to do is apply sections of my GRANDDAD mnemonic to this piece, evaluating with an eye on cliché (be it structural and language choice) throughout. Teaching your pupils to do the same could bear fruit. Or at least produce good results.

Thanks for reading,

 

Mark

We Need to Talk About Clichés (part 1)

Cliché

NOUN

  1. A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought
  2. A very predictable or unoriginal thing or person
  3. PRINTING, chiefly British – A stereotype or electrotype

In the early nineteenth century the technical printing term cliché (from clicher – ‘to click’) was coined to describe the sound of a mould striking molten metal. The figurative meaning, to identify a hackneyed phrase or idea arrives much later in the 1880s. The etymology is instructive, I think, in helping us grasp the iniquity of the cliché and to consider why we need to teach our pupils to avoid them in their reading and writing. In printing, a mould or cast is vital. Making the same stamp, impression and type creates consistency and reliability. Nobody would want to read sentences comprised of different sized and shaped fonts. In writing, predictability is the enemy. Originality of expression and ideas are the magic ingredient all good writers seek.

In his excellent collection of essays and reviews The War Against Cliché, the novelist Martin Amis asserts:

‘all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting clichés. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice.’

So while the title may sound pretentious, I think that it gets to the heart of the teacher of English’s mission: keeping clichés in check.

Now, I know that perhaps some of you are thinking the opening of this blog is somewhat clichéd in itself:

  • The title. Yes, we get that it’s an intertextual reference to Lionel Shriver’s morbidly splendid novel We Need to Talk About Kevin but there’s since been hundreds of columns and articles starting with ‘We Need to Talk About…’. Once Alan Partridge got his hands on the title it was already a moribund allusion.
  • Starting a blog on a topic with dictionary definition of said topic. When did that become obligatory?
  • There’s some hackneyed phrases here: ‘gets to the heart of’, ‘keeping…in check’ Bloody hypocrite!

But, I know that some of you will have also noticed that I’ve done this deliberately to illustrate the point and create a nice little game of Spot the Cliché. See, because we are skilled writers and readers, we can, in our ironic, post-modern way, play around with words and offer knowing winks to our skilled readers through our lexical choices. Less confident readers and writers can’t do that. Like the virtuoso classical musician who plays discordant jazz, we can break the rules precisely because we’ve learnt them.

Having said that, there will inevitably be other clichés that slip through the net; my other blogs aren’t on this topic and I bet if you go back through them you’ll spot some stinkers within seconds. My defence is that I write my blogs quickly (I’m a busy man with young kids, and a wife who sometimes likes to see me). When I wrote journalism I would spend hours checking drafts to seek and destroy them with extreme prejudice. Yet, the larger point about the prevalence of the cliché still holds. There are so many of them that they are impossible to avoid. The legendary journalist and editor Harold Evans, whose classic book Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers contains a helpful list of particularly stale clichés states that all we can do is ‘ration them and tolerate only the best’.

I agree. The fight against cliché is unwinnable. Like creeping ivy, the best we can do is hack it back and only allow it to cover even uglier constructions.

Teaching pupils to avoid clichéd diction and thought must be done explicitly. Let’s begin by looking at teaching the avoidance of cliché in pupils’ writing. Here’s some of the things, off the top of my head, that I did last year:

  1. Set pupils a trap. Give them a list of unfinished similes and get them to fill in the gaps: As fast as _________, The ball went it to net like __________ etc. Watch as most pupils automatically opt for the lazy option (a cheetah, lightning, Usain Bolt; a rocket, a missile).
  2. Have a conversation about why these choices are too obvious. Discuss less obvious answers.
  3. Get pupils to compose fresh, original similes. Or subvert the cliché (‘John ran for the bus as fast as a cheetah. Unfortunately, the cheetah he ran like was arthritic and had three legs.) Or better still, look at alternative ways to express the thought.
  4. Get them to write a list of clichés on a given topic against the clock. ‘Time’ works well. So does ‘Love’.
  5. Expand this idea so they write the most trite and hackneyed love poem of all time.
  6. Give them something that you’ve written that is of a high quality but let down by a couple of clunkers. The best thing about this is when they continue to notice your clichéd offerings weeks after you’ve moved on to another topic.
  7. Talk about the difference and overlap between cliché, idiom and proverb.
  8. Give them a visual stimulus and, in pairs, get them to write two openings – one full of overused phrases and one that avoids them like the plague.

So far we’ve mainly focussed on the clichéd expression. What of the ‘clichés of the mind’? I often begin teaching pupils about the rejection of predictable plotting and lame endings through the use of films. We discuss our most disliked openings and endings to films, zooming in on certain generic conventions such as the necessity for the superhero to be virtually dead before he can finally vanquish his nemesis. This can be linked very nicely with Todorov’s narrative stages to help pupils jettison unnecessarily long and dull openings that favour explanation of the equilibrium rather than a more enigmatic in media res disruption. We discuss the horrors of the ‘and it was all just a dream’ ending and talk about how much information we really need to give the reader at the denouement. Cliché and structure go hand in hand.

Next time, I’ll be looking at how we can use our newfound knowledge of the war against cliché in our own writing to better prepare us for evaluation of a famous writer’s work when reading.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

 

 

 

 

 

On Origin of Context

We’ve gone big on context this year. You have to do. Long gone are the days when you could tick off the social, historical and cultural context bullet point of the mark scheme by vaguely mentioning that ‘the audience would have been shocked by Juliet’s defiance because there was a patriarchal society in the Elizabethan era’. There was a time (forgive the pun) when that would bank you a Band 3 ‘clear’ C grade annotation. Not any more. Not that that’s a bad thing of course. There are blindingly obvious reasons for the need to relate texts to the periods that they were written (or set) and my feeling has always been, if you’re going to ask GCSE pupils to do that (which you should), then you might as well do it properly. The much larger focus on context across pretty much all literature assessment criteria means that previous dabblings have now become necessity.

But how much context, in a pupil essay, is too much? What are some of the most common errors to overcome? And are all English teachers really ready for this new era/period/age of teaching context? When marking Yr10 mock papers on Romeo & Juliet and Jekyll & Hyde recently I tended to find the following issues:

  • Getting the texts mixed up (Jekyll became an eminent Elizabethan while Juliet became a virginal Victorian)
  • The dreaded film references (‘Tybalt tried to shoot him at the petrol station’)
  • Forgetting to include any context – although far less of this than in our first J&H assessment at the start of Year 10
  • Neglecting opportunities to see context in the wider sense of literary history (e.g. genre/themes)
  • Misusing terminology (‘The men fought duels in this time because it was a patriarchal society so they needed to defend their honour)
  • Vague references (‘at that time people would get really offended by this’)
  • “Bolt-on” context – often impressive micro history essays that were then not linked at all to themes or, especially, language
  • Overgeneralising and oversimplifying (‘everybody at this time believed in god’)
  • Big misconceptions

What kind of misconceptions? The biggest, multiple offender was in response to the extract I’d chosen from Jekyll – the maid’s description of the murder of Sir Danvers Carew. Things like this:

  • ‘Darwin created the idea that modern day humans evolved from apes’
  • ‘Darwin’s theory says we came from monkeys’

There are a few possible explanations for this, I think:

  • The pupils aren’t able enough to understand Darwin’s theory (very unlikely – there were some of these clangers among otherwise excellent essays)
  • They aren’t being taught Darwin properly in science lessons (extremely unlikely, unless they’ve had some rabid creationist for cover)
  • Their English teacher didn’t explain it very well (possible)
  • Their English teacher didn’t understand the theory in the first place (my team are a Tefal-headed bunch of boffins so I’d like to think this is unlikely…)
  • They’ve forgotten the theory, leading to misconceptions over time (most likely)

darwin

I banged out an email, along the lines of make sure you go back over Darwin and included a bit from a Guardian article about common Darwin myths, that we might want to show the pupils:

Darwin said we come from monkeys. Nope. He never said that. This common misconception belies a profound misunderstanding of evolution. Saying we come from monkeys is like saying you are the child of your cousin. Darwin said that monkeys, apes and humans must have a common ancestor because of our great similarities compared to other species. Even in his day it could be shown that we are more similar to apes than apes are to monkeys. 

One of my boffins @Tom_Briars replied with an excellent piece he’d been using with his class to try and elicit sophisticated responses from his class:

If the anthropomorphous apes be admitted to form a natural sub-group, then as man agrees with them, not only in all those characters which he possesses in common with the whole Catarrhine group, but in other peculiar characters, such as the absence of a tail and of callosities, and in general appearance, we may infer that some ancient member of the anthropomorphous sub-group gave birth to man. (‘The Descent of Man’)

Now this is the kind of homework that English teachers should, indeed need to, be doing if they are to really do context justice. Tom went on to point out that getting pupils to highlight the popular misconceptions (ones that would have been prevalent among many at the time of Stevenson’s writing) could prove fruitful: ‘is there anything incorrect about saying that Darwin’s research on natural selection helped to popularise the theory that humans evolved from apes (even if it was a mistaken belief)?’

There is, I think, much mileage in this. As long as it isn’t bolted on. Let’s go back to the original quote that provoked most of these errors in understanding: Mr Hyde’s ‘ape-like fury’. The key is, perhaps, in the simile ‘ape-like’ – following the Darwinian misreading, it can be taken as a direct simile (he’s acting like an ape) or, with a  nuanced acceptance of Victorian misconceptions of his theory, as a bit of a qualifier (he’s acting like something similar to an ape i.e. ‘our anthropomorphous sub-group’).

We don’t just owe getting this right to our science colleagues. Are we helping make meaningful links (rather than just knocking out general comments about suicide leading to hell) with RE as well? To do context well you’ve got to really do your homework. I’m lucky that I’m a big enough loser to occasionally enjoy watching documentaries of an evening, pen in hand, looking to pick up titbits about whatever text we’re studying. Just last night I watched the fascinating BBC4 doc ‘How the Devil got his Horns’ and noted down the source reference to Lucifer as the ‘fallen angel’ in Isiah:

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground…

I started to make further notes about how I could use this stuff in Jekyll and Hyde:

  • Jekyll as the supposed paragon of virtue that becomes the fallen Hyde.
  • Find a link between the fusion of alliteration and metaphor and the description of Hyde as having ‘Satan’s signature upon [his] face’.
  • The fact that the devil was known as ‘the little master’ linking nicely to the ‘dwarfish’ Hyde’
  • Must remember to introduce the term eschatology (not to be confused with scatology)
  • Satan until 6th century was presented in iconography as a blue angel – check for colour symbolism
  • Satan hardly featured in the bible – invented as an archetypal bogeyman in the same way as Stevenson invented Hyde?

Looking back, some of these scribblings have got lots of potential and others seem a bit half-boiled. But these nuggets of knowledge will come in handy at some point; I’ll bounce these ideas around with my colleagues, refining and adding to them before they come into my classroom.

So let’s continue to do this properly. Let’s make sure we make our pupils avoid the common errors and really bring these potentially dusty texts to life. Let’s switch ‘Love Island’ over and get the bic out for ‘Stamp Collecting in the time of the Georgians’. You know it makes sense…

Thanks for reading,

Mark