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

 

 

How to be a Head of Faculty

Tomorrow, I will begin my last full week as a head of faculty. Or Head of Faculty, if I want to make myself sound important. Specifically, I’ve been a Head of English for four years, separated by a change of school. The school contexts are very different, as is the nature of the English teams. Through the highs and the inevitable lows, I’ve learnt a few things about how to be a reasonably successful HOF (or HOD, if you prefer). What follows is not a comprehensive guide through the stages of taking over the department – see the excellent advice of @fod3 for that. This is more my own eleven top tips and theories about what makes for a good middle leader.

  1. Don’t waste time worrying about whether you’re up to the job. Somebody more experienced than you has decided you are (even if this is done under emergency conditions, like the previous HOF has run away with one of the science NQTs) so ignore the ‘you are an imposter’ voices in you head and crack on with it. If you aren’t up to it, that will become apparent in the long run, but there’s little to be gained sabotaging yourself in the vital early stages
  2. Nobody wants a stressed boss. It’s your job to act as a shield, deflecting the manure dumped upon English teachers by the government, exam boards or, if you’re unlucky (I haven’t been) SLT. Your team want you to be calm and positive, even if inside you are panicking like mad. Serenity is contagious. The pupils in particular pick up on this. It really does matter more than all the initiatives and improvement plans.
  3. Be nice to people. Don’t shout, belittle, publicly admonish or undermine. Hold people to account for poor performance, but do it in a respectful and polite manner.
  4. Have a long memory. Don’t forget what your NQT year was like. You know the one where they gave you the demonic 8X5 period 5 on a Thursday and Friday afternoon. You needed a helpful, considerate and practical HOF. That’s what got you through your first year and help make you the teacher you are now. Never forget that. If you say you have an open door policy, mean it.
  5. Do your homework. You need to read a lot. Educational policy. Amendments to the specification that get hidden away on obscure pages of the exam board’s website. Educational research. The blogs of other HOFs. You may not agree but at least you’ll be reflective and understand the issues that others are worrying about.
  6. Life gets in the way. Sometimes you just have to put your Three Year Plan for world domination on hold. Your staff are real people and, if you want the best from them, you are going to have to be an empathetic and reasonable leader. I’ve led through periods of bereavement, marriage breakdown, serious illnesses, the aftermath of ill-advised drunken behaviour, disputes between staff, malpractice, childcare conundrums and bog-standard stress, anxiety and exhaustion. It’s hard. But you have to be able to manage these kinds of external pressures as a leader.
  7. Lead by example.  And I mean really lead by example, don’t just say you do. Take more than your fair share of difficult pupils/classes/tasks/duties etc. Being leader gives you the privilege of being able to cherry pick and make your own life easier. Don’t do it.
  8. Have ‘non-negotiables’. Some people don’t like this phrase. It apparently sounds confrontational and lacks connotations of democracy. I believe strongly in collaborative working and on many issues believe that a democratic consensus is the only way forward. But there have to be certain things that you absolutely insist upon, lines in the sand that have to be drawn and re-drawn regularly. Mine are high expectations and levels of challenge for all pupils. Other things can be discussed. These can’t.
  9. Don’t overdo meetings. Length and frequency. Are they essential? If not, don’t have them. Talk to people face-to-face instead. Make time for subject knowledge as well as admin stuff.
  10. Doing stuff is not enough. (I like the internal rhyme in this one, by the way). Some middle leaders seem to think that because they are constantly busy and have huge to-do lists that they are being effective. Before you congratulate yourself for your efforts think: are they having any effect on pupil progress/outcomes? Are they helping or adding to the workload of your team? Are you doing stuff because that’s how we’ve always done it? Of course you’ll need to work hard. But you have to work clever too. This is a key difference between a leader and a manager.
  11. Stick to your guns. As I’ve said previously, I’ve been lucky to have worked under three headteachers who have trusted my judgement and listened to my opinion on the way that English should be run. That’s certainly not to say I’ve always had it my own way – certain unpalatable edicts have had to be ‘sucked up’. But as a leader with principles you have to stand your ground, stick up for what you believe in (insert any other cliche here that involves not bowing to pressure from above) and not give way. I’ve heard horror tales of HOFs being ordered to enter pupils for this spec and that exam, of HOFs being told to forget Literature for this year, or to insist that they start GCSEs in Year 7 (okay that last one’s a tad hyperbolic but you get the point). You are the expert. On big issues, you need to be making the decisions. After all, like Candy, you’ll be the one getting ‘canned’ if you’re no longer deemed useful. I wouldn’t work under these circumstance. Easy to say I know when there’s kids and mortgages involved. But I would go elsewhere, and I’d be asking these kinds of questions and seeking these kinds of reassurances at interview.

I’ve loved being a Head of English. It’s one of the most demanding jobs out there but, done properly, is a wonderful job that can have a huge influence on the quality of a school and the lives of its pupils. Follow these pointers and I don’t think you’ll go far wrong. Oh, and tell me what you think I’ve missed off. In this job there’s always something important that you forget about.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

My Garden

Yesterday, I decided to take back control of my garden. The previous two lots of house owners had neglected it badly. What was once a beautiful, well-kept place had become an eyesore, an unpleasant environment. The invasive species, their progress left unchecked for nigh on a decade, had flourished. Brambles had invaded in great numbers and settled among the original inhabitants of the garden. Their roots were now deep and swift action was needed to keep their seedlings out, never mind tackling the thorny behemoths that stood intimidatingly in the hedging. Ivy had choked the life out of native trees, some of which had given up the fight and were only being help upright by the suffocating noose of the green hordes. Something drastic needed to be done. So I took control. I took back my garden.

brambles.jpg

To begin with I spent some time on the internet. My initial research led to pages of gardening advice. These experts explained how to deal with these unwelcome invaders. It would take time and hard work. If I didn’t individually root them out they would multiply and continue to spread. I soon got bored of reading the advice of these ‘experts’. It sounded like a really long, arduous process. I wanted immediate action. I was in no mood for patience. Time and inertia was to blame for the current mess. If only the previous occupants had taken decisive control earlier…

I changed track. I googled ‘industrial strength weedkiller’. I soon found what I was looking for. Glyphosate. This stuff would nuke the most resilient of uninvited guests. Of course, there were lots of other websites telling me not to use this chemical. Lots of boring research and facts about its toxicity and links to all kinds of horrible sounding side effects like brain cancer, leaky gut syndrome and birth defects. It read like scaremongering to me. Anyway, I’m not daft enough to be spraying it about while the kids and pets are outside. I’d obviously lock the door for a bit.

I got tooled up. Stuck on the blue marigolds. Cracked open the sachets (naturally I ignored the recommended levels and went for double dose to really blitz those buggers), strapped on the backpack and turned up the spray to full whack.

Then for the really satisfying part: taking out my anger on the weeds. Years of frustration unleashed in a single afternoon of herbal Armageddon. By the time I’d finished, there was no way they, or any of their kind, were coming back.

Sitting back in my deckchair yesterday evening with an ice cold beer in my hand I reflected on a job thoroughly well done. Why hadn’t the bone idle previous incumbents of the house – a great, once proud dwelling –  not taken this kind of swift, clearly necessary action earlier? Easing the pleasant throb of my aching forearm and wrist, I reached for another beer. It felt like time to celebrate.

I awoke this morning to an unpleasant scene. One of my children was standing, face glued to the patio window, quietly but persistently sobbing. A cat belonging to my next door neighbour – a lovely old Polish woman whose husband had died during the war –  was lying dead in the middle of my lawn. The lawn itself wasn’t looking too clever either: the once green areas surrounding those pesky dandelions that I’d fired into oblivion were now a vivid brown colour. In fact, on closer inspection, large swathes of the grassed area had taken on a moribund creosote hue. My wife, who’d spent the morning (while I was in bed, sleeping off the beginning of a metaphysical hangover) reading the back of the weedkiller label and those tedious fact-checker websites, was no longer speaking to me. The spray gets into the earth, she told me. It can take generations to break down. Whole villages in Argentina have been blighted, she went on, by the long-term consequences of using glyphosate. Nothing grows. The children are born with deformities. Large areas of the land have turned into mini-Chernobyls. What was I thinking of, she asked through furious tears?

My hangover grows, choking my brain cells and nerve endings with its tendrils of guilt. The neighbour came round for the cat’s body while I hid upstairs in the office. The kids aren’t allowed out in the garden. Worse still, I found out that there’s only a 50% chance that the weedkiller will actually work; some of the maker’s claims of efficacy are apparently exaggerated.

This isn’t a true story. This is an allegory. An unsubtle fable borne of anger and bewilderment. I did go out in the garden yesterday. I did start to deal with the brambles and ivy. I have the cuts on my arms and legs to prove it. I dug out the roots, ripped up the stems. One by one. It will take me ages. It’s not a pleasant job. But it’s the only way to do it and not permanently destroy my garden.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

 

Fathers and Sons

There are few absolute constants in life. My dad has been mine. Through the inevitable disputes, misunderstandings, relationship breakdowns, fits of pique and full-blown tragedies, he’s been there. Through the joy, elation and periods of tranquility, he’s been there. I don’t mean this in Oprah or Steve Wright Sunday Love Songs speak – “He’s my rock” – or anything like that. I mean that in the time that I’ve been on the planet, been to school, college, university (eventually – I took the scenic route), worked in crap jobs, worked in better jobs, got married, had kids of my own, he’s always been around. Not geographically – it often takes a good eight hours of travel to visit – but as a presence. That probably sounds like faint praise. Litotes in action. It’s not. As a teacher and a father of two young boys, I spend a lot of time reflecting on the father/son relationship. I’ve come to realise, as I approach what Turgenev (in his wonderful Fathers and Sons – not really a novel about fathers and sons, but never mind) calls ‘that troubled twilight time, a time of regrets that resemble hopes, of hopes that resemble regrets, when youth is past but old age has not yet come’, that having a father as a constant throughout your life is something not to take for granted.

As it happens, my dad has done more for me than just stay around. He (let’s drop the anonymity of the pronoun and name him as Jim) has proved to be an incredible force for good in my life. God, he can (like me) be bloody annoying at times! But I cannot help but feel very lucky to have had his benign influence in my life.

Increasingly, when teaching, Jim finds his way into my anecdotes about education. If there’s one thing, above all else, that I’m grateful for it’s the barbarous, regular yet deserved punishment he meted out: copying out of a book. When I tell this story to pupils they are genuinely incredulous: ‘What?! Your dad made you copy out, line by line, words from a book?’ Yes, I tell them, for hours, but not just your average Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. No, it was always either some obscure 1950s textbook (The History of Transportation Systems in Edwardian England or Rain: A Study into the Effects of Precipitation on the Landscape of Lincolnshire) or more frequently, the dictionary or an atlas of the world. The weird books were pure torture yet the dictionary – a tattered and mauled Concise Oxford English Dictionary – was secret bliss. To this day I’m an avid reader of dictionaries and other works of reference (please check out Chambers Dictionary of Slang). My pupils always laugh and shake their heads pityingly when I mention this but I can tell that they’re impressed by my vocabulary and my dad’s ingenious sanctions.

So this morning, as I open my father’s day card, I ponder that influence again.20160619_092452-1.jpg

The painting by my three-year-old son (it’s a flower by the way; I’m not sure why but it’s a pretty good one) makes me consider my influence on my sons. I’m an imperfect father. Like most teachers I spend far too much time with other people’s children and not enough with my own. But I’ll keep on trying to be a role model and a positive influence on them. I’ll play sport with them. I’ll give them hugs. I’ll try and find time and put the bloody phone down. I’ll definitely teach them knowledge both arcane and esoteric. Whether they like it or not.

As I type these words they are sat at my feet, the five-year-old reading aloud a story about ninja turtles to his younger brother. Will I inflict the same savage punishments on my children? Hell yes! The dictionaries are on a nearby shelf, begging to be transcribed…

 

Part 3: Some proper exemplars for the GCSE English Language Evaluation question

Hale

‘Roberts knew, before he had been in the exam board meeting fifteen minutes, that they meant to murder his soul.’

One of the problems with teaching a new (rushed through) specification is the lack of decent exam board example responses and sample assessment material. Indeed AQA, who I’ve otherwise been very happy with, have always been particularly poor, in my humble opinion, at providing useful benchmarks to share with staff and students. In their desperation to assure anxious English faculties that pupils will be able to cope with the demands of the new specs, all exam boards tend to produce “top level” examples that turn out to be anything but in the long run. I know this sounds very conspiratorial but I’ve had plenty of experience of seeing top marks given to error-riddled creative writing controlled assessments or high marks given to analytical essays that don’t, for example, actually analyse the writer’s use of language. When it comes round to the moderation/examination things revert to normality and the examiners/moderators only reward high marks to stuff that actually deserves it.

So, as per normal, I was a bit of a pain in the backside at a recent AQA session. This time, however, I wasn’t the only one. Sensible types who appeared usually less outspoken than me were going crazy about some of the examples that were being awarded top band marks for the English language evaluation. The issue, it seemed, was that these answers didn’t actually evaluate. Analyse yes, and often very well. But evaluate? Not really.

Having taught this section of the paper for the last seven weeks or so, and having just standardised a few papers with my team, I decided, as usual to bin the exam board exemplars and rely on our collective interpretation of the mark scheme along with  instinct/knowledge/experience/prejudices/pet hates/considerations of pupil motivation and anything else objective and subjective that goes into the awarding of a mark for an English response. It was a thoroughly enjoyable session (if you like that kind of thing – arguing whether something is relevant or judicious for example -and if not why are you an English teacher?) that greatly reassured us about our approach to teaching the evaluation element and also making very clear how far we’ve still to go before pupils nail it.

I was really interested to see how pupils did on Q3 (structure) but most intrigued to see how they handled Q4 (evaluation), which shall, from this point on, be known as “The Beast”.

Q3 was generally a pleasant surprise. Our approach is based on the structural features and strategies I’ve previously blogged about here and the pupils that have embraced Todorov and spatial shifts in particular did really well. I’ll return to this, looking at some examples, in another blog. But let’s focus on The Beast for now:

Pupil 1

Q4 pupil A.jpg

This response was typical of many Q4 efforts. Major timing issues led to a decent start being soon thwarted by the end of test scramble. There is only one quote and the pupil tends to analyse rather than evaluate. The focus on ‘they’ could have been interesting with more development but ultimately appears somewhat irrelevant in this response. We gave it a mark of 7 (Band 2) out of 20.

Pupil 2

Q4 pupil B 1Q4 pupil B 2

This pupil had scored full marks on Q1, Q2 and Q3 (which was particularly brilliant). Again though, timing problems led to a loss of marks for Q4 and had us pondering the strategy of working backwards through the paper like we did on the old spec. We still haven’t decided; it may be that we trial this approach at the next mock.

Whilst I would definitely quibble with the notion of Hale’s name having few connotations, the evaluation of Kolly Kibber is far more successful. The use of the archetype is off kilter, but there wasn’t anything in the extract itself to suggest his more advanced age. The pupil’s weighing up of the cliche is really astute and deeply perceptive when they evaluate the possible reasons for adopting a hackneyed expression. We’ve done a lot of work on cliches and it’s starting to pay off. This is one area where pupils can tentatively critique established writers, especially if they consider the possibility of it being a deliberate authorial ploy. Two points of caution. 1.This pupil goes too far in the final (rushed) statement. 2. Pupils have be to taught that idioms and metaphors that appear stale to a modern reader may actually have been inventive and fresh at the time of writing.

Anyway, due to the brevity of the response, we gave this 13 marks but were very impressed by the potential shown.

Pupil 3

Q4 pupil C 1.jpgQ4 pupil C 2.jpg

While this one also appears rushed in places it does manage to deal with more aspects of the text than the previous effort. The response clearly adopts elements of the GRANDDAD mnemonic which I’ve previously introduced. I will gradually wean this pupil off the ‘writing in the margin checklist’ approach but for now I’m delighted with the quality of the work produced under exam conditions (this was the first time any one them had seen the extract – one pupil in the year group said that he’d already read Brighton Rock). The evaluation tends to be implied rather than following the formulaic ‘this is effective because…’. However, a target will be to use the language of evaluation more overtly. There are some nice touches – linking the idea of reader involvement to the mystery/thriller genre for example, and noting the contrast with Hale’s demeanour and the Brighton crowds.

We also gave this one a mark of 13. The pupil was targeted a Grade 6 so I’m thrilled with this as a starting point.

Early conclusions

  • Timing is going to be key
  • The bullet points aren’t much help (other than as a starting point)
  • A mixture of evaluation and supporting analysis works best
  • GRANDDAD seems to help pupils of all abilities deal with unseen texts
  • You can criticise if you’re careful, well-read and respectful
  • This question is hard but not impossible – a crash course in the classics and the elements of the writer’s craft is the only short-term solution for non-readers

Thanks for reading,

Mark

Part 2: Teaching the GCSE English Language Evaluation question

Last time I introduced the mnemonic GRANDDAD as a way into evaluating the writer’s craft. We’ve been cracking on in class, producing practice paragraphs and full responses to Q4 (AQA) with mixed results. What’s become clear is that students who stick too closely with trying to engage with the statement get bogged down and resort to waffle, while those that use Genre, Reader response, Archetypes, Names, Description of character etc. generally say something more meaningful. It’s not always fully evaluative but it’s getting closer. A good job with the assessment coming tomorrow. How they’ll cope with the demands of all four questions in an hour is another matter.

Anyway, here’s the two model answers, on The Spy who Came in from the Cold, that I did to get the whole thing started:

Q4

Pupil A

The writers use of the setting of the checkpoint fits the conventions of the spy genre. In this genre we expect to see a mysterious protagonist who works on his own like Leamas does. The declarative ‘Leamas went to the window and waited’ is effective because spys always have to watch what others are doing and wait around for things to happen’

The name of ‘Control’ is also a good choice by Le Carre. It makes it seem as if he is in charge and gives him authority. It’s a strange and unusual name which fits the strange events in the spy genre.

The woman in the extract is presented as an archetypal femme fatale which means she is dangerous but attractive. This works because it makes the reader want to find out what happens to her and if she gets any of the men into trouble. The simile ‘blonde, tough as nails’ works well because ‘blondes’ are meant to be attractive to men. Also ‘tough’ suggests shes dangerous once she get her ‘nails’ into you.

The description of the wall istelf adds to the sense of excitement for the reader. The setting is described as ‘the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing…like the backdrop for a concentration camp’ which makes it seem as if there is going to be deaths happening. This is because the noun ‘concentration camps’ were used by Hitler to kill people.

And a sophisticated one to aspire to:

Pupil B

A real strength in Le Carre’s writing is that he is able to make his characters mysterious, which reflects the secretive nature of the spy genre.  The characterisation of ‘Control’ is particularly effective as his enigmatic name has connotations of power and authority.  Alternatively, we could interpret his name as a place of command – like a control centre – but importantly far removed from the real action out on the front line.  This is reinforced by the sarcastic comment about Control ‘implying that he had to go off and risk his life somewhere else’ with the verb ‘implying’ taken to indicate that he is actually doing the opposite and retreating to his safe desk job.

Less successful, in my opinion, is the writer’s portrayal of the female character, Elvira.  She is described as a ‘forty-year-old blonde, tough as nails’, which seems quite an obvious stereotypical image, as ‘blondes’ are an obvious choice as an archetypal femme fatale.  The simile ‘tough as nails’ appears somewhat clichéd to the modern reader, although this may still have been an interesting comparison back in the 1960s.  ‘Nails’ does have a suggestion of holding something together, so does perhaps work as an indication of how the relationship seems a bit forced.  At least as a more mature ‘forty-year old’ she isn’t an obvious male fantasy figure.

On first impression, the character description of Karl, using the simile ‘like a rabbit in the headlights of a car’ also seems clichéd. It does however, fit nicely with the image of Karl being startled by the unexpected spotlights.  So it isn’t being used to depict fear in general, but the actual act of being dazzled by light emerging from nowhere. The juxtaposition of ‘rabbit’ and ‘car’ is effective as this scenario usually ends in death, which is precisely the fate that Karl meets.  ‘Rabbits’ are also seen as animals possessing low intelligence with matches with Karl’s characterisation.  Crucially they are famed for their reproductive urges (“breeding like rabbits”), which amplifies the sense that Karl’s sexual feelings for the ‘blonde’ have led to his downfall.

The shooting scene is very effectively portrayed.  The alliteration of ‘cleary…clatter’ emphasises the harsh sound of the bike (and with it Karl) hitting the tarmac, while the personification of the bullets ‘the first shot seemed to thrust Karl forward, the second to pull him back’ has a strong effect on the reader as the verbs ‘thrust’ and ‘pull’ provoke the feeling that Karl is like a puppet on a string, which tallies neatly with his characterisation as a naïve and manipulated individual.

You’ll notice that in this one I’ve started to respectfully challenge elements of the writing, qualifying my criticisms wherever possible. This is clearly difficult for most pupils – especially the non-readers of which I have plenty. But I think teaching pupils about both definitions of cliche: the worn out, hackneyed phrase and the predictable plot point will generate thoughtful contributions in the long run (a classic cliche of my own).

Here’s some of the example bits of analysis and full responses that pupils have produced so far. They’re a real mix of ability (predicted – by the computer, not me – to be Grade 4-7):

 

Hope you find these useful. Next time I’ll include the efforts of some really high ability pupils from a colleague’s group looking at a different text and will break down some of the parts of GRANDDAD in more detail.

Thanks for now,

Mark